An interview with Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Zach Connolly, on his service abroad
Why did you join peace corps?
I joined to live in another part of the world and experience another culture. I also wanted to get some unique work experience while having goals and objectives that I believed in.
Where specifically were you located? (include geographical region)
Mokolo, Far North, Cameroon Central Africa
What are the people like and the gender roles?
Cameroon is primarily a Muslim population. At first, my community was curious and suspicious towards me, but quickly became warm and welcoming. I was definitely better friends with men than women, though I was able to create relationships with a lot of people throughout my village. It’s difficult to explain the role of women vs. men as this extends across all of aspects of life and is strictly followed – from different household tasks, to what each gender eats. In general, I found women were more close to the home while men were free to work and eat as they please.
What was your main project or what project did you feel most connected to?
The project I felt most connected to was a “daily savings” program which allowed individuals to open savings accounts at the microfinance bank (MFI) I worked at for roughly $1. The program was organized so that an agent of the bank would walk around the market, and neighborhoods, to collect savings deposits from members 6 days a week.
How did you go about identifying, drafting, getting buy-in, and implementing your project?
I was lucky enough to come into a roughly sketched out project plan that was prepared by my predecessor. Though, I saw that there were some accounting practices, associated with the savings account, that needed to be clarified. The savings amounts were small so they were kept in a global account by the bank accountant. A second register with the account balances of each member was kept by the agent of the program. I helped both the bank accountant and the program agent create processes before the savings program started, to ensure accounts were reconciled at the end of each month. I took on the bulk of the implementation work, training different members of the bank to execute the necessary tasks. Over time I was able to pass supervision of the project over to the head accountant of the bank.
What kind of challenges did you come across?
I came up against an array of challenges most of which had to do with working in a developing country. There was a lack of understanding about banks, accounting methods, procedures, and general mistrust of banks from individuals and lack of trust of my ideas from bank employees. These challenges were for the most part overcome with steady reinforcement of the same procedures that had been implemented from the beginning with, of course, a few minor tweaks.
How did you measure success?
First and foremost, I measured success through rise in members and savings of the program. When I left PC in August 2012, there were roughly 300 members in the program who had a total savings of around $3,000. Secondly, I measured success through the buy-in of the bank and in particular the bank manager who eventually hired a full time employee to oversee the project. Furthermore, the project was recognized by the accounting body who audited the bank and suggested it as a model for other banks.
What has been a positive response to the project?
Their response as described above was very positive from both members and bank employees.
What has been a critical/negative response to the project?
At first there was concern on the fee charged to savings members. The fee is 4% of savings for the month. So if someone saves $100 they will be charged $4. However, the challenge was overcome when it became apparent members were not concerned with the fee, but considered the program very useful.
How and why is/isn’t this project sustainable?
Given that they bank has hired a dedicated agent (a local agent who works directly for the MFI and is from Mokolo) for the program I think that it will be sustainable. Of course this will ride on whether the bank officials continue to view the program as beneficial. The margins on the program are rather thin, so if there isn’t a push for more members, it will be difficult to make a good profit. If the mission shifts towards a strong bottom line then there could be more pressure on the project.
What variables could make it better?
I believe that if the project were pushed to more outlying markets and neighborhoods who have little access to financial services, it could open up the membership even further. It really wouldn’t be very complicated to implement, but will require the buy-in of the bank administrators to finance the initial outreach. I believe
that if they expanded, their client base would pay for the rise in costs.
In spite of it, how do you see the effect this has had on one person let alone multiple?
I think that the access to a bank and a savings program truly changed the way that people looked at themselves and their earnings. I believe that when they saw what they saved at the end of a month it changed how they spent their money and allowed them to budget in a more meaningful manner.
What were your expectations going into the peace corps?
I truly did not have any concrete expectations for my service.
What is your perspective now that you’ve returned?
Africa is not much different than the USA. Its just been ripped apart and abused. I hope that someday people in Africa will not think of themselves as disadvantaged, but rather intelligent and with the power to change the world. I hope that day comes soon.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from living in the particular community you were in for two years?
Community is something you cannot find overnight. You must earn your place in a community and as difficult as that may be, you will never lose that either.