I arrived in this picturesque country of South Africa in early February and to the township of Zandspruit, about 30 minutes from Johannesburg. Currently, Project HOPE's Country director, Stefan Lawson, is running a wonderful program at the HOPE Centre focusing on diabetes and hypertension. The staff here are incredibly hard workers and it is evident they are proud to be Hopies. Our Project HOPE t-shirts are the envy of the community! The office here is part of Emthonjeni Community Centre which consists of: our HOPE office, a community bakery, a crèche (nursery school), and of course the clinic. The middle ground has beautiful trees-some that explode with exquisite pink flowers- and lots of green grass. The best part is: in the afternoon the lawn fills with giggles and songs from the little ones just out of crèche. Even though we sit in a poverty-stricken community where most structures are tin shacks, the HOPE Centre offers an atmosphere of beauty and fittingly …hope.
My reason for coming here is to introduce a new program to the HOPE Centre: VSL, which stands for Village Savings and Loans. VSL is an economic strengthening methodology that helps people save money, make profit on their savings, and take loans. Groups of 8-15 people are formed and HOPE trains them on the methodology throughout a cycle (about 1 year). Each group also elects a Health Activist which we train on applicable health matters (ex: diabetes, nutrition, diarrhea, HIV, etc). They, in return, provide this health education to their group. At the end of the cycle, the group’s money is shared out proportionally based on how much each person saved, and they then have the opportunity to continue with a new cycle in which they operate independently. In a place where people often do not have money stored away for a rainy day, VSL offers a form of insurance. We hope the program will complement our existing ambitions of improving people’s health and access to health care.
My first full week here I spent my days working in the office 8-5, eating a quick dinner, and working from home into the night. There is quite a bit of planning and preparation that goes into launching a successful VSL program. I had fun creating colorful flyers to hang around the community and hand-outs to promote our public interest meeting. A slew of other documents were important in the preparation phase. We interviewed several people for the job of Field Officer (the person that will train the groups and supervise after I leave). We hired a spunky young woman named Tsholofelo Mathebula. She laughs often, works hard, and is proving to be an excellent promoter of VSL. This week, I am spending my days in the field (yay!)- trekking around the slums with Tsholofelo and talking to community members about VSL. Although my arms look like lobsters from sunburn, I am loving every second. Responses have been quite positive- people are very interested in making the most of their money. I often receive stares, because it’s weird for a white person to be walking around the township, but I have only been met with welcoming arms.
The “next big thing” is the public community meeting which we are holding this Thursday. In addition to Tsholofelo and I promoting on foot, I also trained the group of community screeners who are attempting to screen 1,000 people for diabetes and hypertension this week. Now, they have a basic understanding of VSL and a handful of hand-outs to give out to their recipients. We hope a nice gathering of people will show up to learn more about VSL and form groups. After that, I will head home and leave the groups in the capable hands of Tsholofelo and Carol Diplock (another spectacular HOPE employee here).
I have been involved at headquarters for over three years and am impassioned every time I learn something new about a field program. I feel so privileged to play a role in one of these special programs. It is a glorious confirmation of HOPE’s outreach and impact. I am grateful for this opportunity and so thankful to every person who made it possible for me to be here. Here’s to hoping the VSL program will see great success!
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