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Al Amana: Microfinance in Morocco


By Elizabeth Keach

A blind man walks towards me as he whispers prayers through broken teeth and parched lips. His kaftan skirts the dust before him, sweeping rhythmically left to right through the seething Medina market, undisturbed. Heaped spices tumble next to chopped and feathered fowl, and leafy mint bundles are tossed into vats of boiling sweet tea water.

“Amerikya” I say, with a diffident smile as some teenage boys start to follow me, joyfully shouting out nationalities.

I pass the turtle stall where three different sizes of turtle can be purchased, then the jellyfish and carpet shop to my right, the pajama stall, the date, nut and raisin man with the moustache, the olive vendor… For several moments, time is irrelevant and I witness what hundreds of years in this ancient city of Rabat have barely changed. One dusty, veiled woman squats before her pottery. Three skinny boys chase fruit flies with palm fronds through the maze of a thousand white stucco façades that stretch skyward, encasing mosaic windows and hidden riad interiors.

Here I am in Morocco. For three months, I’ll be working for Al Amana, the largest microfinance institution (MFI) in the country. Despite Morocco’s status as a middle-income country ($3,800 GDP per capita), its poverty rate is a shocking 19% due to the expansive rural zones where 65% of the population live on less that $2 a day. Due to the dire conditions, local NGOs began to take interest in development via microfinance the 1990s, following the lead of successful implementation of other microfinance ventures such as the Grammeen Bank in Bangladesh that pioneered microfinance in the 1970s. Answering the call for a Moroccan-based microcredit system, Al Amana was founded in 1997 with help from a hefty grant from USAID. Today, it serves nearly half a million active clients offering loans ranging from 1,000 Dirhams, ($125.00) to 50,000 Dirhams, ($6,200) with the goal of improving working and living conditions throughout the country, facilitating social and economic development for the poor of Morocco. Roughly half of Al Amana’s clients are women.

The Author (right) with Aicha, a Seamstress

The Author (right) with Aicha, a Seamstress

I’ve spent the day visiting the “antennes” or branches of Al Amana, which are scattered around the city limits of Rabat. These are the forgotten slums of the city, where diseased cats feast on strewn waste, and poverty is as apparent as the Arabic graffiti that’s scribbled across the destroyed façades of colonial villas. Each Al Amana branch has five employees and serves up to 400 clients, offering services such as prêts solidaires (group loans), prêts individuals (individual loans), and prêts de logement (housing loans). Aicha Oufel is one of four women who have taken on a group loan, each guaranteeing one another, each pursuing different micro-businesses. A seamstress, Aicha has come to pay a third month’s installment on the 7,000 Dirham loan she has taken out to purchase more material. She tells me that she hopes to get a housing loan next but that it may be difficult since she has no residence papers. When I ask her how her family responded when she took out a microloan, her wrinkled face turns serious. Glancing at me hesitantly for a moment, she admits in a whisper, “my husband doesn’t know.”

It may seem strange that a microfinance institution would provide housing loans as one of their main services, but the reality is that most Moroccan women at this level of society are not encouraged to venture out of their homes to find jobs. Thus women tend to take up work that can be easily done at home, and if her house is not properly built and secure against theft or the elements, a woman could lose both her home and her business.

This is also why Al Amana, like many other microfinance institutions, wishes to expand its services: it wants to adapt to its clients’ needs. By 2011 Al Amana hopes to obtain full status as a bank in order to provide its client base with services such as deposits, savings accounts, money transfers and electronic accounting while at the same time keeping its non-profit tax benefits. Regardless of Al Amana’s profitability and wish to transition to bank status, its directors feel that its particular social mission should still exempt it from taxation as a for-profit bank. In Morocco, as in other countries, there has been considerable grey area in categorizing MFIs as for-profit or not-for-profit institutions. Al Amana is categorized as a non-profit organization with a social mission yet it has, over the past decade, turned into a self-sufficient multi-million dollar institution, issuing bonds to banks it borrows from and facilitating for-profit transactions.

Al Amana is also in direct competition with the 11 other microfinance institutions in Morocco. However, yesterday, I came across a term on Al Amana’s Web site that captures what it claims to strive for: “co-opetition.” To achieve its goal of alleviating poverty in Morocco, the organization plans to increase transparency and relay information across the Moroccan microcredit sector so that all institutions can learn from one another. The more the merrier, Al Amana’s CEOs seem to be saying. And yet, Al Amana is still eager to be the first to reach the estimated 5 million impoverished Moroccans who have yet to take out a microloan.

Whereas some Moroccan institutions charge interest rates that are as high as 80%, Al Amana has kept its rates low. While some say these predatory rates are necessary to cover high transaction costs and build the organization so that it reaches the maximum number of clients, I wonder if these institutions have lost sight of microfinance’s original purpose. Meanwhile, major investment banks such as Citigroup and Deutsche Bank are starting microfinance programs, which makes me wonder what their true motivation is. As I see it, any form of exploitation on their part would erode the social mission of microfinance, and would only serve to undermine positive outcomes in the long term.

In the afternoon, I go with Muhammad, a former banker from Montreal, to the ancient town of Salé to shadow him as he visits the studio of a carpenter who crafts intricately carved pieces of furniture with traditional Moroccan designs. Mohammad introduces me to Omar the carpenter, who tells me in broken French that his other job is “actor” and that he hopes I will take him to Hollywood one day because he loves America. We sit down, and I watch as Muhammad go through his list of questions in Arabic and takes inventory of saws, chisels, hammers and nails lying about his work space. Omar passes us some photographs of a recent project: a carved cedar bed frame that he has just sold to a shop in the medina.

Several days later, I find myself alone in Rabat’s Kasbah at sunset. I stumble upon a ruined cemetery and make my way into its midst to watch the fading colors play over miles of tombstones stretching into the sea. After another busy day of meeting with clients, I am once again able to have my own thoughts, to feel my own two feet on the warm Moroccan earth. A bone-thin man crouches near by, smoking. To my relief he gives me a brotherly, toothless smile as if to say, “this is my cemetery and you are welcome here, you strangely unaccompanied, western woman.” I smile a silent “thank you” and seat myself on the warm granite stairs leading down the cliff. The sea air blows lightly across my face. And at this very moment of hushed splendor, a thunderous boom splits the air around me—the cannon from the Royal Palace signaling f’toor, the breaking of the Ramadan fast at sundown. Over the ancient PDA system comes the now familiar chant, “Allahhhhhhhhhu akbar! Allahhhhhhhu akbar!” God is great!

Though three months in this country is hardly enough time to make even the smallest dent of a difference, my appetite has been whetted, my curiosity ignited, and I am thrilled to be part of this emerging and cutting-edge sector. Microfinance may or may not halve poverty by 2015 as the UN Millennium goals have called for, but I do believe that within this smart sector of banking lies the answer to much of what global aid programs have been trying in vain for decades to achieve. In the words of Muhammad Yunus, “Poverty is caused by the failure at the conceptual level, rather than any lack of capability on the part of people.” If we can continue in this direction, evolving our concepts of banking to the needs of the world’s poorest people, our potential for eradicating poverty is unprecedented, enormous and very exciting.

Elizabeth Keach is a Seattle native and a recent graduate of Mount Holyoke College, where she earned her degree in International Relations.

Nurturing Minds in Tanzania



“My name is Prisca Kalinga. I am fifteen years old. I come from Iringa. I am the first born in my family. Since I was six years old I’ve been living with my aunt because my mother took me there, as there was a school near her place. I reached grade six and I was chased from school due to pregnancy. I stayed at home and gave birth two months premature. My child was sick several times, and after two months my child died. I was staying at home selling buns and I thought my dreams have been shattered.  I was very happy to be selected to join SEGA. My dream is to be a doctor.”

Prisca Kalinga’s story of her life in Tanzania is one of several I read or watched videos of, when I was first asked to host an awareness party for Nurturing Minds. I was amazed at the courage and joy these girls displayed given the circumstances of their lives and I’m grateful that she’s had the opportunity to enroll in the secondary school program run by SEGA (Secondary Education for Girls’ Advancement) in partnership with Nurturing Minds, a U.S. nonprofit. The first class of students all share similar backgrounds to Prisca Kalinga. For each of these girls SEGA is an unexpected opportunity.  I’m proud to raise awareness of these girls’ situations and offer my friends a very concrete way to help more girls succeed.

Why Focus on Secondary Education for Girls?

Tanzania is a country rich in resources yet 36% of its population lives in extreme poverty.  The government began funding primary education in 2002 but secondary education remains fee-based. As a result, only 20% of students attend secondary school – one of the lowest rates in Africa.  Girls are particularly disadvantaged, with only one girl for every two boys graduating from high school.  Between the ages of 12 and 15, girls become most vulnerable to dropping out due to early marriage and pregnancy, or becoming involved in prostitution or child labor to help support their families. Protecting a daughter from sexual exploitation and the risk of HIV infection also become factors in keeping a daughter at home.

Conversely, diverse research has shown that girls who earn a high school diploma will earn nearly four times more than a girl with only a primary education directly impacting the lives of their family and community.  They marry later, have nearly half as many children and are better equipped to nurture their own offspring. In the big picture, these improvements dramatically affect Tanzania’s ability to compete for business against other Eastern African countries; encourage foreign investment and break the cycle of poverty.

Self-sustaining Model for School & Girls

What particularly drew me to Nurturing Minds and SEGA was their commitment to developing the self-esteem of girls as part of their education.  Fostering their leadership and entrepreneurial skills is an investment with a powerful payback.  As a supporter, I’m also impressed at the manner in which they’ve planned to integrate the curriculum to include training in small-scale business operations.  These same businesses can generate income for the operation of the school itself. As the school is located on 30 acres of farmland, one of the businesses will be involved in the sale of produce and dairy products.

What it Means for Me

I’m excited to be involved with a grassroots organization that allows me to share my resources on a personal level.  Their style of fundraising is much different than the typical gala or silent auction I’ve usually attended.  I’ve heard artists refer to the concept of 1000 True Fans to describe the base of support they need to fund a project or sustain a career.  It works equally for a program like SEGA where each girl needs only a small measure of support to make wonderful changes in their lives and the lives of their community.

To learn more about Nurturing Minds and the Sega Girls’ School visit their Web site or contact Tracey Dolan at 610-639-1213. Nurturing Minds, Inc. P.O. Box 144, Valley Forge, PA  19481.

—by Patricia Smith

China’s Finest Export: the Holga



Digital may have conquered mainstream photography, but the low-tech Chinese Holga rules the underground. A toy film camera that retails for $28 in the U.S. and sports a cheap plastic lens, the Holga is the darling of creative photographers worldwide.

First envisioned as an affordable camera for the Chinese masses in the early 1980’s, the Holga morphed into a successful export that reached sales of well over 1 million worldwide by 2007. Part of its attraction lies in its simplicity and retro cool look. Solid black, lacking in accoutrements, the Holga looks and performs like a budget camera from the mid-twentieth century.

Shooting with a Holga is a bit like driving a vintage car, without the associated costs. If your Holga breaks, you can easily buy a new one. If your Holga is stolen, the greatest loss will be any film inside.

Moreover, using the Holga is a delight. The plastic lens produces soft, dreamy images that melt into vignettes at the borders. The ability to take multiple exposures on one frame allows for unusual creativity. And the camera’s medium format film yields square negatives more than three times the size of 35mm.

Since the Holga lacks an adjustable aperture or shutter speed, you either have to work in bright sunlight or bring along a tripod. Yet these limitations compel photographers to think carefully about composition and light.

The Holga’s favoring of sunny conditions makes sense given its name. “Holga” is a westernized pronunciation of the Cantonese “Ho Gwong,”meaning “very bright.”

It was no coincidence that Holga production began in 1982, four years into Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. Possessing a camera might have landed one in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, but once China had joined the global economy, it was time to start manufacturing consumer goods in earnest.

The inventor of the Holga, T.M. Lee, designed it for 120mm film because that was the most widely available format in China at the time. When 35mm film hit the Chinese market, giving Chinese consumers up to 36 pictures per roll instead of 12, the Holga’s popularity plunged.

According to Holga expert and professional photographer Michelle Bates, the camera was reinvented as an export to the United States in the mid-1980s, when it served as a cheap educational tool for students at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport.

In 2005, the Holga Manufacturing Company of China announced LA-based Freestyle Photo as its exclusive distributor in the United States. While Freestyle offers Holgas in a number of colors, the three main models are the 120N (basic) FN (with flash) and CFN (with color flash).

Despite being marketed as an affordable camera for working class Chinese during China’s nascent economic reform, the Holga has become a tool for fine art in the West. Ironically, all Holgas today are produced for export—mainly to North America, Western Europe and South America. To get one in China, you have to order it from a foreign distributor like Freestyle.

Lo-tech obstacles = beauty
The Holga’s limitations reflect its virtues. Light leaks resulting from questionable engineering cause the camera’s signature black-cornered images. And because light seeps into the camera body in different places, the shape and size of the vignettes are never the same. This kind of unpredictability is what makes the Holga so enjoyable.

Late in the afternoon on a clear day, the sun bathes Midtown Manhattan’s stone skyscrapers in a lemon hue. Through the Holga’s eye, the lemon glows golden on vivid transparency film. A royal blue sky stretches to the four corners of the image, where black streaks trail off. The shadows are void of detail. The picture feels like a dream fading as you wake.

Melanie Flood, a freelance photographer in New York City, likes the Holga for the naturally surreal images it can produce.

“The Holga is an inspirational tool in a way, because people make abstractions now in Photoshop,” she says. “It can produce a lot of these results on its own.”

Keith Samnath, a 25-year veteran of the photo industry, knows the Holga’s idiosyncrasies well. Now a co-owner of The Color House lab in Manhattan’s Soho, Keith has developed hundreds of rolls of Holga film.

“A lot of young people buy it to experiment with because it only costs 25 bucks and they can really get creative with it,” he says.

Ben Denne, Publisher of Focal Press, a media technology publisher in the U.K., sees the Holga as a way for enthusiasts of film photography to distinguish themselves in a digital era.

He says that while digital has enjoyed great success in recent years, it has spawned a certain overreliance on technology among some photographers.

“The fundamentals of cameras haven’t changed,” he says. “The Holga’s a great tool for teaching photography precisely because it leaves little room for error.”

Legions of Devotees
The easiest place to buy a Holga is online—from Freestyle Photographic, Amazon, eBay, or Lomography.com. All of these sellers also offer accessories to enhance the Holga’s effects, such as color filters.

If you want to adjust your Holga’s aperture function, you can send your camera to the folks at U.S.-based Holgamods.com, who will alter it to your specifications. The site, developed by Holga fan Randy Smith, is dedicated to modifying Holgas for optimal performance.

But one of the most detailed Holga sites belongs to Ms. Bates, who has been using the camera since 1991. The portfolios on Ms. Bates’ Web site feature stark black-and-white depictions of nature, both in the wilderness and as “urban oases” in large cities. Ms. Bates, the author of the book Plastic Cameras, Toying With Creativity, also teaches regular how-to workshops on toy cameras.

She believes the Holga has certain traits beyond its primitive technology and dreamy images that make it appealing.

“You can remove the back of a Holga and see how it works, which makes it more accessible than say, a digital SLR which is dependent on internal computer chips,” she says.

Bates enjoys framing her black-and-white compositions with vignettes, which allows a vivid contrast to emerge between the black borders and her white and gray-toned subjects. In the future, Ms. Bates hopes to teach Holga workshops in China.

Matthew Fulco is a 2nd year graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, specializing in International Media and Communications. Prior to this, he spent 3 years in Taipei working as a marketing communications analyst for a high-tech firm and studying Mandarin Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. His passion for analog photography’s virtues inspired this article for JANERA.com.

On the Train from Lisbon to Madrid



It was on a train in the middle of the night from Lisbon to Madrid that I started to read The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, Joan Didion said that one characteristic of successful people is that they believe anything can be resolved with a phone call, or a letter or a visit to the right person. They do not take “no” for an answer. It’s not stubborn or arrogant; it’s that “no” just doesn’t happen to them that often, so when it does, they don’t take it seriously.

I too believed that there was always a way to get exactly what I wanted. That “no” was always revocable. That I could control everything.

But on that train to Madrid, I had never felt so out of control. I had orchestrated everything down to the three vegetarian meals on three separate legs of this trip and the carry-on with the fresh change of clothes so I’d look like I hadn’t traveled more than a mile when I got off the plane – I had even tried to control my monthly cycles for this trip! – but this midnight train was not part of my plan.

I had left my passport on the plane between Heathrow and Lisbon causing me to miss my flight from Lisbon to Seville, and there was not a single seat available on any flights until Sunday—three days away.

But I didn’t believe the lady at the Iberia ticket counter in Lisbon when she told me “no.” I said, in the perfectly fluent Portuguese I had learned living in Brazil, “What if I go through Madrid?”

“Domingo,” she said.

“Well, how ‘bout if I go through Barcelona?”

“Domingo,” she said.

It was incomprehensible to me that leaving my passport in the seat pocket could set into motion this irreversible string of events. How could there not be a seat on any plane to any major city in Spain? How could the Iberia staff not come up with a solution? I decided this Portuguese woman was discriminating against me because of my Brazilian syntax, so I rephrased the question and asked her again.

“Domingo,” she said.

So I asked in English. “Sunday,” came her reply.

I decided to look for my suitcase and then take a train to Seville. I was directed to the so-called “Baggage Complaints & Inquiries” window. Behind a mass of people all pushing and screaming at once, I made out a scratched panel of Plexiglas completely covered with white masking tape save for a rectangle large enough to see the eyes of the attendant—if he or she ever appeared. Over the window was a sign—stenciled onto poster paper like in a 5th grade science project—that read inquirições e reclamações de bagagem. There was no line, so I just fell in behind the crowd. I only became more insecure to see that the attendant, who finally emerged after more than 20 minutes, was a teenager in street clothes.

A group of Spanish-speakers muttered amongst themselves, “She takes one question and then she disappears for half an hour!” An American joined us, and asked in English to anyone who might understand, “Where’s the line?” An Angolese couple asked me to hold their place. A nervous Portuguese teenager asked if I had a plane to catch right away. “Not anymore,” I shrugged. “Would you mind if I got in front of you then?” “Not at all,” I said, glad that I could lighten her load, thankful that I understood the languages being spoken around me.

When my turn finally came, the adolescent attendant assured me my bag had gone to Seville and would be waiting for me at the airport when I arrived. She spoke about my bag as if she had just put it on the plane herself. She reassured me without asking my name or flight number, without looking at my luggage barcode, and without touching a computer—as there was not one to touch.

“Can you confirm that for me?”

“If you checked your bag to Seville, your bag is going to Seville,” she replied dogmatically. (In fact that was not true; because I had not cleared customs for the international flight, the bag had not either, and anyone who works for an airline could have told me that.) Uneasily, I left the airport and my suitcase and caught a taxi to the Lisbon train station.

On the train, I brooded. I brooded about the suitcase that I was sure was still in Lisbon or worse—strewn all about some landing strip in Belgrade. I brooded about how my already lengthy and out-of-the-way route to Seville had been stretched from 12 hours to over 24 and would now include not one but two sleepless, bathless nights. I brooded about how this perfectly orchestrated change of clothes that was miraculously still in my possession was going to wilt like week-old lettuce when I put it on my grimy body.

I read The Year of Magical Thinking to get my mind off the present. When I came to the passage about successful people, I identified with it immediately. I had thought that getting a flight to Spain was a question of the way I asked. I had even thought that I could control a cycle of nature as old as womankind by simply popping a pill.

I read until I was restless and then I started to write in my journal. The entry was going to be an official declaration of all my complaints. In writing. The first line was this:

I am on a train in the middle of the night somewhere between Lisbon and Madrid.

And that was where I stopped. I couldn’t write another line for the sheer absurdity of the situation. I repeated the line to myself to make sure I’d heard it right.

I am on a train. In the middle of the night. Somewhere between Lisbon and Madrid.

I asked myself, as I tend to talk to myself when I’m feeling bad, Sonya, where would you rather be than on a train in the middle of the night between Lisbon and Madrid?

When I was a girl, I used to play that I lived in a foreign country. Any foreign country, I didn’t care. And here I was, leaving one and crossing the border into yet another—the 4th I’d seen in 24 hours. Or I pretended that I myself was foreign. Growing up in North Carolina, I was fascinated with the few foreigners I’d had the chance to meet. And I thought that the coolest super power, more awe-inspiring than flying or becoming invisible, was to speak a foreign language. Today I had managed to get my passport off that plane, beg for another flight to Spain, and get myself to the train station and halfway to Spain, all in foreign tongues. Throughout the day, I had met Spanish, Portuguese, and Angolese travelers. And now I was riding through the night, surrounded by sleeping nomads, who were snoring in Portuguese, Spanish and French.

Being on this night train to Madrid was what I had always wanted to do. Right here, in this moment that I was trying so hard to forget, was where I had always wanted to be.

For the moment at least, I relaxed. I put down my book, put away my journal and my worries about the suitcase. I couldn’t sleep, and I didn’t want to. I smelled tobacco and cologne on my seatmate. I listened to the multi-lingual murmurings all around me. And I rested my head against the window, trying to make out an amorphous shape that I might never have the chance to see again in the dark foreign land this train was carrying me through. I wasn’t going to miss a thing.

Sonya Collins is a writer, translator and teacher. She has just returned to the States after living a year in Florianópolis, an island off the southern coast of Brazil, where she wrote a collection of travel essays (www.another-island.blogspot.com). She currently teaches writing at the University of Georgia.

Spanish Water in Curacao

Pippa on the boat

Pippa on the boat

The end of summer is nearing, and it is time for me to go back to New York. On one of my last days in Curaçao, on the boat with my best friend, Randolph, I realized that being home is really wonderful. Being able to relax on a beautiful Caribbean island with its white beaches and warm weather, that happens to be my home, is such a treat! » Read more «

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