Geraldine Gilsenan of Drogheda Credit Union working alongside Bakary Bojang, Manager, Sofora Credit Union during her recent visit to Gambia.
The chairperson of Drogheda Credit Union, Geraldine Gilsenan, spent eight days in the Gambia in West Africa recently to help the Credit Union movement in what is one of the World’s poorest countries to help their members in the battle against poverty.
People like Geraldine Gilsenan, well known locally as the Chair of the Drogheda Credit Union, is one of those people who, as soon as you meet them, you immediately recognise as a person who cares about others.
Not one to blow her own trumpet, Geraldine - she's a volunteer by the way, not staff - is ideally suited to her position in the Credit Union movement which is all about caring for people and communities and helping them to help themselves.
The Irish credit union movement was founded in Dublin in the 1950’s in response to the grinding poverty brought about by a combination of very high unemployment levels and very low social welfare benefits. Sickness, malnutrition, hunger, poor clothing and poor housing were rampant and money lending was one of the few growth areas.
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Thankfully conditions have improved hugely for the majority of the Irish population although the homelessness in our country and the disturbing levels of suicide are stark reminders of just how fragile our physical and mental well-being are.
Geraldine, along with six other volunteers from credit unions around Ireland, recently spent eight days in the Gambia, a small country in West Africa, where she visited several small credit unions which are being supported by the Irish League of Credit Unions (ILCU) to find ways that they can help their members overcome poverty.
The people of the Gambia are at a stage in their development similar to that of Ireland in the fifties. Like Ireland, their history is one of suffering at the hands of others. Today the population is in the region of two million, but as many as three million are thought to have been taken as slaves during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade flourished.
The Gambia is still a very impoverished country though, the UN puts it at 174th out of 189 countries worldwide on its Human Development Index and average life expectancy is just 61 years. Things are improving slowly though and the Credit Union movement has a big role to play in that improvement.
The purpose of the visit was to allow Geraldine and the other volunteers to share their credit union knowledge and experience with their counterparts in the Gambian credit union movement which receives assistance from the Irish League of Credit Unions Development Foundation, a registered charity that, with matching funding from Irish Aid and other donor organisations, works to strengthen the role of credit unions and savings and credit cooperatives in impoverished developing countries.
Geraldine didn’t know quite what to expect when she arrived in the Gambian capital Banjul on what was her first visit to Africa. Her first impressions were of the intense heat and the torrential rain, the group had landed right in the middle of the rainy season.
But they weren’t there to talk about the weather, and pretty soon they were being driven in a minibus out into the countryside to meet people involved in running credit unions in rural communities and workplaces.
One of the credit unions the group visited was Foni Berefet District Credit Union which is some two hours’ drive or more from the capital.
This credit union is small with only 500 members and the typical savings of its members is small also. Most of them can only afford to save the equivalent of 90 cents a month.
Because the members live in rural villages which are 8 or 9 kilometres from the credit union office they deposit their savings in a metal savings box which is kept by the woman of the house and the Credit Union Manager will travel to each of the 13 villages on his motorbike to collect the boxes.
Geraldine told Drogheda Life that as they drove down the red earth tracks to the villages she couldn’t get over how friendly everyone was towards them. “There were smiling faces everywhere” she said, “and excited children everywhere too!”
Most of the credit union members are rural farmers who borrow small amounts of money to buy seeds or to start micro businesses. A big thing with the people of rural Gambia is to get their children educated.
Like parents the world over they want to the best they can for their children and they see education as the ticket out of poverty and so they are very keen to get their children into school and will struggle hard to get them everything they need.
Another thing that struck Geraldine was that nothing is wasted. One of the local managers asked her if he could have her plastic water bottle when she was finished with it. He was going to give it to one of his children to bring water to school.
Geraldine was also struck by the small successes achieved by some of the local people. “A woman in one of the villages, a widow in her 50’s, saved a small amount each week until she could borrow enough for a freezer with which she set up business. She came to the notice of a local guest house and they ended up offering her a job.
Some of the village people are so poor however that they are unable even to save the 90 cents a month and these are catered for by a system called graduation microfinance which involves five or six people pooling their resources so that one by one they can eventually qualify for a small loan with which to try and better their circumstances.
Geraldine said that she was very moved by the plight of many of the people she met but also very inspired to have been among people who have so little but are still happy and remain ambitious for the future.
She spent quite a bit of time with the volunteers running the local credit unions advising them on how best to proceed. They obviously work at different levels than the Irish Credit Unions and face different sets of problems.
“A bad harvest would have a serious impact on some of the rural Credit unions” she said. “It was amazing though, to see volunteers who had so little but they knew so much about what was going on in the community and, for me, that is what the Credit Union is all about - People helping People.”
For more information on Irish League of Credit Unions Development Foundation see https://ilcufoundation.ie/
This article was written by Andy Spearman