I spent the week in Nicaragua last week, visiting partners and participating in a cooperative workshop. It’s a process that has become familiar to me over the past dozen years, but it is never the same. Every cooperative, every member, has a story to tell, and each is very different from the other. Some stories are sad. Some are uplifting. Some are absolutely energizing in the sheer power of their message. Such is the case of COMUSAN, the women’s communal bank cooperative in the remote village of Santa Ana.
The route to Santa Ana and our meeting is slow and difficult, even for a 4-wheel drive vehicle; the trail is little more than a wide path. The surroundings are breathtaking, with the mountains and valleys contrasting each other. At one plateau sits a tiny pre-school house, wherein the women of COMUSAN await our arrival.
They have come from all over the territory to attend this meeting of exposition, pride and gratitude. The cooperative has been guided into existence through the patience and determination of the women and ANIDES, the Nicaraguan Association for Sustainable Development. Two members of ANIDES are present, but the show belongs to the women.
What is remarkable about this gathering is not just that the women have come together for a common purpose (the communal bank), but that they have done so against such enormous odds and with such striking success. Many of the members have migrated to this region from other parts of the country, whether uprooted from past conflicts, ravages of nature or lack of economic opportunity. Their ages cover generations. None possess previous experience with banking, even as borrowers. Most have little education, many with none beyond primary grades. The men in their lives must understand that the stake in the cooperative bank belongs to the members, a sometimes difficult lesson. And yet the financials of this fledgling communal bank are positive
and growing, as the members take small and certain steps to ensure the strengthening of their bank- and the cooperative which now envelops it- for the future.
The women are understandably shy about speaking up; they don’t have many visitors here and perhaps they are overly-modest about what they have accomplished and how they feel about it. Asking for support is a humbling experience all by itself. But the presence of the 27 women, many of whom have walked a great distance to attend the meeting, is a testament to both their pride and determination to make this entity succeed, for themselves and their families.
There is a determination here, a sense that the women of COMUSAN will make this initiative work, regardless of the obstacles they may face. They are deliberate. They seek to understand the processes of their cooperative. Members of both the coop and ANIDES plan to attend the cooperative workshop to be held later in the week. A visitor can feel both the inexperience and the intensity of a collaborative effort to succeed. Indeed, one “dream” expressed during the visit is that this cooperative not only succeed unto itself, but that it might become known internationally.
Ambitious visions for a rural women’s cooperative? Perhaps. But then, all great success stories start with an unlikely dream….