Some poor families struggle to pull themselves out of poverty in part because they cannot borrow money. It may seem like a small issue, but the success of almost any business is heavily dependent on borrowing. For example, a farmer may want to purchase a water pump so that he can better irrigate his fields. This will yield a better crop which will allow him to pay for the pump. He cannot save enough money to purchase the pump outright because his current yield provides such small savings that it could take a lifetime or more to accumulate the cash up front. When a whole village is impoverished, there is no one to go to for help. Nor would any bank accept such risky loans to farmers with no assets and no credit history.

At some point, aid groups became aware of this problem and started lending small amounts of money to families. There was an expectation that some of these loans would default and that outside funding would continue to play a key role in the programs. Part of the reason for the defaults is that outside organizations cannot fully vet the people who they are loaning to—they do not know how dependable they are and whether their ventures will succeed. This micro lending model seems to work well in some situations, however there is always a risk of dependency and disruption when sending outside money into a community.

Catholic Relief Services participated in the micro lending programs for many years, but has since developed a system that not only helps break the cycle of poverty, but allows the families to do so with exactly zero outside funding. The model is called a Savings and Internal Lending Community (SILC). The way it works is CRS invests initially in training finance managers called Private Service Providers (PSPs). The PSPs then establish small groups of about 30 people—who all know one another—to participate. Once established, every member of the group must pay a small fee into a common pot each month. Any member of the group can then apply for a loan out of this common pot. This way, the people who know the applicant best are also the people who determine whether the loan request will be granted. Once granted, the loan must be repaid with interest. That interest ever more quickly increases the collective savings of the group allowing members to attempt larger and larger ventures.

Several rules are established to safeguard the process. For example, the PSP maintains the money box, but not the key. There are actually three keys, each given to different members of the group who are not related to one another. But to make the PSP’s position maintainable, a small amount of the monthly savings goes to pay the PSP. Another piece of the savings goes to a “social fund” which can be used to help any member at the group’s discretion should they run into an unexpected medial issue or crop damage for instance.

Since its implementation by CRS, over 274,000 people in Burkina Faso have joined SILC and started pulling themselves out of poverty.

Normally these SILC communities meet independently once a month. In preparation for our visit, the PSPs coordinated about 40 of the groups to come together on one day. Having no idea what we were walking into, our team pulled into the town meeting area in Kaya and were blown away to see over a thousand people waiting for us. As we go out of the cars, the crowd formed a path to its center and began singing and clapping. They seated us with the chief, governor, and community elders. We all introduced ourselves and the community leaders spoke to CRS in appreciation of their work in the community. It was encouraging to hear the profound thanks coming from Christians, Animists, and Muslims alike. The event was a beautiful witness to the CRS model: We are all made in the image of God, therefore serve all of humanity as though we are serving God himself.


Center For Young Girls


The long road from Ougadougou to Kaya is asphalted and drops away quickly at the edges, some spots narrow to less than two lanes as erosion plays its part. The cars slowed down every few miles to pass over speed bumps. Some must serve to slow down traffic near town centers or intersections. Others are inexplicably placed in long stretches of otherwise open road. Motor bikes buzz alongside of us as we pass field after field with laborers working their land, entrepreneurs selling wares, and the pastoralists watching quietly over their flocks of goats and cows. I groggily look out at the passing landscape until sleep overtakes me. I jerk back awake again as the driver honks and passes around a disabled lorry.

Kaya, like other towns in Burkina is bustling with activity. People walk up and down the dirt streets going about their daily activities. Our destination is the Center for Young Girls run by five Sisters of the Immaculate Conception.

As we unload and walk into the compound, the girls run out and form a path for us, all of them chanting a song of welcome. The center was established by the Sisters in 1952 to provide a safe haven for young girls fleeing forced marriages that they do not want. The girls then remain at the facility until there are married or can provide for themselves. They subsist by raising sheep and goats and weaving cloth to sell at market. Catholic Relief Services provides money twice a year to buy supplemental food for the girls and to help broadcast the location of the center over the radio. Many girls in rural villages would otherwise never know that the center exists.



Ouedraogo Marceline is one of the girls at the center. She wears a bright yellow skirt and pink shirt with flip flops and a turquoise head wrap. She was only sixteen when she arrived at the gates and was taken in by the Sisters. She recounts her family promising her to an old man with four existing wives. When she resisted, her father told her that if she did not marry him, he would kill her. Having learned of the Center for Young Girls, she woke early one morning while the rest of her family was still asleep and walked the 45 km from her village into Kaya and into a safe haven.

All of the 60 girls at the center can recount a similar story. Some were tricked by their families and abandoned with a man who was to be their husband. Others were pressured toward marriages by threats or force. All of them somehow mustered up the courage to give up everything that they knew and to search out the Sisters that they had heard about on the radio or from another villager.

I might have expected looks of fear or sorrow on the girls’ faces, but far from it. They looked shyly at us as we came in, but by the time we were leaving, they were laughing and giggling like young girls that you could find at any high school in the world. Their smiles and that twinkle of hope in their eyes will stay with me now. It’s one of those things that once encountered, your heart cannot easily forget.

Mrs. Sinmiga

7/21/2017 Part II

I want to introduce you to Mrs. Sinmiga. She is about 5’7” and maybe 45 years old with skin long baked in the sun. She wears a colorful skirt and pink blouse, flip flops, and a blue and white checkered head wrap. We meet under a thatched shade supported by branches and adjacent to a mud hut. This one is for her son who also lives in the compound. Her own house sits about 20 feet away and is identical except it lacks the shaded cover which makes sitting outside on a sunny day more bearable. In total, there are 4 such mud huts in this little compound, the whole grouping surrounded by a 6’ mud wall.

As we sit under the shade, Jacques explains that hers is one of the families participating in the Market Garden collective. She smiles and adds that she is able to raise more food now for her family. In the rainy seasons, she grows mostly maize to eat and a few other vegetables such as okra. During the dry season, she grows onions to sell at market. These are much more profitable but do not grow well when it is too wet. Before she became a part of the collective, she was able to grow only one crop per year and this with minimal yield. She now produces about 450 kg of onions and about the same in maize each year. This is enough for her family to eat and a little extra to help her kids to go to school.

We asked about her husband and a sad expression crossed her face. She explained that she and her husband had a disagreement and they were no longer living together. We asked more questions and she agreed to tell her story.

Mrs. Sinmiga has five children. An arrangement was made for one of the daughters to marry a man from another village. Arrangements like this are common in Burkina Faso and are often carried out to build ties with the family of a friend or families otherwise desirable. In this case, the father sent the girl to the village to marry a man much older than her who the daughter did not want to marry. The mother sided with the daughter and brought her back. The father was mad and made an ultimatum: either she will give up the girl or he will give up her. She chose the latter.

Her son helped her build a new hut for her and the kids. This was a couple years ago and she is now well settled into this new life. She brushed a tear away from her eye and asked, “Have I done right?”

It has struck me in my travels and in meeting Mrs. Sinmiga just how similar we all are. We live in different cultures in different places in the world; we have vastly different socioeconomic status, education, and opportunities; yet, we all have a common maker and we all have wants and hopes and fears and joys.

We asked Mrs. Singma if she was angry at what had happened. She said, yes, she was angry, but not anymore.  She was angry initially because she knew that without the support of her husband, she might not be able to feed her children. But when she joined the farming collective, she was able to provide for them. Since then, she feels sadness, but no longer feels anger. Her daughter has found a man who she wants to marry and the process is under way to marry them. Now she just wants to raise her children and make sure that they have every opportunity she can afford them.

Market Garden Project


We awoke early this morning in the Pacific Hotel, a stone clad structure of about 50 rooms off the main road running through Kaya. It’s hard to know what the hotel looked like in its prime—no doubt a much anticipated destination for travelers on the long road from Ouagadougou to somewhere more remote. It boasts a large pool that, judging from the brown color of the water, hasn’t seen much TLC in recent years. Still, it doesn’t keep the kids from splashing around in it and cooling off. Opposite the pool is a veranda where meals are taken, fans circling overhead to make the moist air a little more comfortable those of us less enthused about the pool. Inside the lobby are several meeting tables and chairs and an AC unit in the corner pumping cool air into the room. The rooms are well worn, but afford comfort for the Spartan traveler. The bed is firm with a little bit of life. The chair is a little beat up, but the plastic cover keeps it clean. The open shower sits next the toilet in the bathroom and lets out a faint stream of water, inexplicably hot at times and cold at others. It’s nothing like the comforts you might find in a major urban center, but when you’ve been out in the villages, the Pacific Hotel is an oasis.

We breakfasted on bread and egg, loaded up and set out for Tougouri, a 70km drive outside Kaya. The village sits adjacent a Caritas facility which is used as an operating base for development work in the region. Caritas is a collaboration of Catholic relief agencies around the world, all working together on a common mission and sharing resources accordingly. Catholic Relief Services based out of the U.S. is the primary user of the compound now and runs their Market Garden programming out of it. The project targets some of the poorest people in Burkina who rely primarily upon farming as a means of sustenance, some selling wares in town as a second source of income.

When they came to the project site some years ago, CRS staff helped the farmers to organize and acquire a sizable piece of land from the local governance. Land ownership is less rigid in this part of the world, so when consensus was achieved, the land was allocated to the 124 families making up this collective. One of the challenges for rural farmers is in establishing the more efficient collectives that make further infrastructure development practical. This community now has an electric pump that draws water from the nearby lake and brings it to the fields. Because these plots are tightly clustered, an irrigation system was developed to pass water from field to field. This greatly improves crop yield and family income. Extra income means that the kids may be able to attend school. Some families are also able to purchase a motorbike to get in and out of town where they can participate more easily in the market.

The farming collective is self managed by a council of 12 people drawn from the member families and, once established, is 100% sustainable. Early on, agricultural experts work with the farmers to determine which crops grow best in the area and how to get the most out of their land. After that, the farmers manage the land and deal with issues as they arise. Still, many opportunities remain. The next big step for this community is to establish cooperative selling so that prices can be negotiated and more steady profit streams established. Here, CRS plays an important role. It can use its extensive network and experience to build these relationships and facilitate the cooperative model.

So, where do the resources come from to run this program? Wrap-around funds from the U.S. based Helping Hands program. If you haven’t been a part of it, this is the event that Saint Monica’s has been contributing to for the last three years. Volunteers pack meals of fortified rice in the parish then ship them en masse to Burkina Faso. With the food, we send money. The food is used to provide emergency relief when necessary and to provide for children who are not yet able to provide fully for themselves. The money supports community programs like this one which target the root of poverty.

Warehouse + Centre Delwende

I woke up early to run in the hotel gym and watched the sun rise for the first time over Africa. The streets in this area are dirt and not very busy. A few motos drove past and the occasional car. Despite being in the center of the city, there is less of the hustle and bustle that I was expecting. We ate a hearty buffet breakfast (including my first cow tongue—gross), and piled into the convoy of 4 Toyotas.

The first stop was at the Catholic Relief Services country headquarters in Ouagadougou. It is a well built campus with meeting rooms and offices in the heart of the city.  We met with several of the program staff and listened to a list of local CRS programming from one of their program managers. CRS—known as Cathwel in Burkina—works with OCADES, CARITAS, USAID, the Burkina Faso government, and other NGOs in the region. Whenever a good relationship can be established, it is. CRS happens to be the first NGO to operate in Burkina since independence was declared in 1960. Initially, the organization provided general relief. In 1962, that expanded to include education. In 1974, Emergency Services were included. In 1980 a focus was added for agricultural development in an effort to make the people more sustainable. In 1982, nutritional programming was added. In 1984, microfinance programs developed by CRS were established so that communities could save together, invest together, and pull themselves out of poverty. CRS continues to operate all these programs and many more specialized programs today. The program staff were fascinating to listen to and evidently passionate about their mission. Most staff are local to Burkina. Others come from all over the world, often having worked in their own countries first before expanding their mission and experience base to other areas.

The second stop was at the main CRS warehouse in Ouagadagou. Food comes into this warehouse from the port in Côte d’Ivoire by truck after making the longer boat ride from its source in the U.S. This is the touch point for all Helping Hands food packaged by parishes in the U.S. It is also a hub for distributing USAID provided food. The warehouse itself is divided into two sections for security. One section contains the food donated through USAID which includes Bulgar Wheat fortified with Soy, Vegetable Oil, and sometimes Rice. The other section contains the pre-packed Helping Hands meals, school supplies, agricultural supplies, and sanitation supplies.

Food products are cycled on a yearly basis, many providing a source of nutrition for students during the school year. Strategic programs ensure that female students are sent home with more food than they can eat. This allows a portion to be shared with the family and provides an incentive for those families to keep the girls in school. Without this incentive, women would continue to be under-schooled by a large margin in some areas.

We looked for food packed by Saint Monica’s in the warehouse, but it had all been distributed already to regional program centers. Helping Hands food is distributed to 41 regional centers in Burkina Faso and 15 diocese. In total, about 15,900 people benefited from this food last year, many of whom would not have had another source of food otherwise. CRS is ever focused on sustainability. One of the current strategic objectives is to cut food donation to orphanages so that in the formative time of their life, children do not learn dependency. These programs are ever evolving to first provide emergency aid then replace that support aid with sustainability training. Whenever possible, the recipients of food are also working in some capacity for the program and helping to maintain it.

After the warehouse and a brief lunch stop, we continued on to Centre Delwende, a home for Mossi women who have been accused by their villages of witchcraft and banished. It is difficult to even grasp what horrors these women have faced, some of which have been without any contact from their families for 50 years.

We drove a long muddy path through mud huts as far as the eye could see until eventually we ended up in a compound surrounded by mud-brick walls. Inside, the scene changed to one of order and productivity. The women, some 230 of them in all (and 4 men with some mental illness), live in this compound and mostly provide for themselves with a variety of textile and food making industries. When we pulled in, most of them were squatted in a covered meeting area in the center of the compound waiting for our visit. They wore a variety of colors and looked on without any visible emotion as we got out of the cars and took seats in front of them.

Our encounter was mediated by an interpreter and both sides had the opportunity to speak and share our thoughts with one another. As our conversations proceeded, the barriers between us came down and the women laughed and danced with us.

We left sadly and continued on to Kaya, an overnight stop on the way to Toudouri. We passed beautiful country side with donkey drawn carts and colorfully dressed women carrying heavy loads on their heads. Occasionally we would reach a checkpoint and the young kids would approach our windows hoping to sell their bag of bread or mangos. We would shake our heads no and dash their hopes of making a few Burkina Francs for their families. Then the most amazing thing would happen: they’d smile at us.

The Burkinabe are known for their excellent hospitality and kindness and I see it everywhere I go. I can’t help but smile back. There is no amount of poverty that can hurt these peoples’ dignity. And, I think, there is no amount of money that can help us to smile and laugh like the poorest of the poor—that is a gift that only the hand of God can really provide.

At the hotel, we ran into a USAID research group and learned a lot about their symbiotic work in the area. USAID is a key supporter of CRS and reiterated the strength of the connection and value that CRS does in the region. We talked late into the night about agriculture, development initiatives, and microfinance programs. There are already so many stories to share, but I need to catch a few hours of sleep before we pull out in the morning. Please pray for these beautiful people in Burkina Faso, especially the refugees fleeing into the country right now from violence in Mali.

Arrived in Ouagadougou

Arrived in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso after a long two leg flight through Paris. CRS staff met us at the airport and convoyed us to the hotel. Ate a quick late meal of chicken, rice, and mustard, cleaned up a bit, and are heading to bed. We’ll start again early tomorrow morning and head to Center Delwinde, a safe haven for women who have been accussed of witchcraft and banished from their village. But more to come on that tomorrow!