When Women Chip In

Twenty years ago, after a first-of-its-kind women’s center was inaugurated in the little town of Lastoursville in the middle of the rainforest of Gabon, Central Africa, where I was serving as a Peace Corps health volunteer, I taught a series of weekly classes at that center in cooking, sewing, and crafts.

Every week an average of about twenty African women arrived punctually for my four o’clock classes. They came prepared to take notes, with slim notebooks and Bic pens. Some brought their school-age daughters, instructing them to “sit very still and listen.” Little boys gathered outside, looking in wonder and longing into the classroom at the open windows. Exercising our newly claimed female power gleefully, we didn’t let them in.

As I related in my Peace Corps memoir-with-recipes, How to Cook a Crocodile: “For those who did attend, I tried to create some incentives to maintain interest and sustain attendance. I instituted a ‘tontine,’ a system familiar to these women. Each one who chose to, could, before the class began, put a 100 CFA coin into one bowl and her name on a folded slip of paper in another bowl. At the end of the class one of the attendees, chosen at random, pulled a name out of the bowl to decide who won the ‘pot.’ So, with an initial investment of roughly 25 cents, a lucky woman could, theoretically, go home with the equivalent of about $5, which would be for her a bonanza” (p. 353).

I was reminded of this “tontine” experience last Monday, July 17, when I attended for the first time one of the quarterly annual meetings of the impressive and inspiring group, “100 Women Who Care,” here in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, held in the ballroom of the world-class Rosewood Hotel.

The 100 Women sign at the Rosewood

Of course, I’m using the term “tontine” broadly here. Named for the Neapolitan banker Lorenzo de Toni in the 17th century, a tontine is actually an investment plan for raising capital, a scheme that became widespread in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In French-speaking cultures, particularly in developing countries, the meaning of the term “tontine” has grown to encompass a wide range of semi-formal group savings and microcredit schemes. As I learned first-hand in Gabon, in parts of Africa, tontines — often consisting mainly of women — are an example of economic, social and cultural solidarity.

Here and now in San Miguel de Allende, this remarkable women’s group, 100 Women Who Care, demonstrates the power of caring women who decide to band together to chip in to make others’ lives better.

Created in February 2013 by five enterprising friends (one of whom has since also started a 100 Women Who Care group in Santa Fe, New Mexico), this SMA group has, to date, given out $1,335,890 pesos (about $75,000 USD) to worthy local, nonprofit, nongovernmental organizations. For each of the 100 members (individuals, or teams of two or four women), the organization requires only four hours of members’ time per year, with a donation of $1,000 pesos (two “Fridas” – or roughly $50 USD) each time.

Frida Kahlo is featured on Mexico’s 500 peso note

According to Susan Page, one of the original organizers, “Raising all this money could not be simpler. Here is how it works: We meet four times a year for one hour each time. At each meeting, several nonprofit organizations are nominated. Three are drawn out of a hat. We hear a short presentation on each of the three, and then we vote.

“For a year now, 100 Women has consistently raised more than $100,000 pesos at each meeting, and our new policy is to award the first $100,000 pesos to the organization that wins the vote and to split the remaining pesos between the other two that were drawn from the hat. Everyone wins!”

(For more specifics on the group’s policies and procedures, please visit their website: www.100WomenWhoCareSMA.com.)

At the meeting I attended last Monday, the three nominees chosen at random were Casa Hogar Orphanage (home to a few dozen little boys), Camino de la Paz (instrumental in the installation of the Peace Pole in Parque Juarez, which I wrote about in my previous WOW post), and SOME (So Others May Eat), a weekly meal program for the elderly poor. SOME won the vote and therefore the grand prize of $100,000 pesos. Because the “pot” came to a total of $118,250 pesos this time, the two runners-up each got $9,125 pesos. Everyone won.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Rosewood Hotel generously donated the space for this worthwhile meeting. And, I’m happy to add, there was a sprinkling of obviously caring men in this grand ballroom filled with well over 100 women. Yes, unlike the boys in Lastoursville, these good men were allowed in.  🙂

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