By Rosemary McGee
We woke to a glorious sunny morning in Pana today and after a quick (but delicious) breakfast of fruit and banana bread headed off to visit with Friendship Bridge located around the corner on Calle Santander.
We were greeted warmly by Marta Ixtuc, Communications Coordinator and all around promoter of Friendship Bridge’s mission. She gave us a quick overview of the Microcredit Plus Loan Program, which received a DFW grant in 2007, and emphasized their dual mission of providing loans as well as education to Guatemalan women since 1998.
Beginning with 25 clients, they now have 18,000 clients all in the Western Highlands! Marta promised us a full day of learning more with a busy itinerary planned.
We divided up into two groups; one headed across the Lake to San Marcos and San Juan with a final stop in Santiago Atitilán with Roberto Ibarra the FB Educatin Manager.
The second group, which I was a part of, hopped once again into a van for the steep climb up the road towards Sololá. First on our itinerary was a visit to Chucalibal-Chichicastenango, a village in the highlands north of Sololá, to attend a monthly repayment meeting. This is where loan payments are collected by the women in the cooperatives and loan officers from Friendship Bridge oversee training sessions on topics around health, business, empowerment and life skills.
We joined the 18 women of the Flor de Maria Trust Bank cooperative as they were busily tallying up payments. Brenda, from the area and their loan officer, was preparing for a lesson and discussion on good nutrition with help from photo charts. We became part of the group, as the women made room for us and pulled us into their circle with smiles and giggling. They obviously enjoyed each other and were happy to be together! It was an honor to be there!
Then it was back to Salvador our awesome driver and the van. We were followed by a swarm of very curious, giggling schoolchildren who were out on the hillside for “recess” (photo op!), next we were to visit a second cooperative closer to Sololá where the Grupo de Mujeres Izaput Cooperative meets. Their dynamic leader started the co-op of artisans 25 years ago and partnered with Friendship Bridge 6 years ago This now allows them to have inventory on hand continuously and increases their sales and income.
We saw a foot loom weaving demo in their workroom where the women work together on 4 looms while laughing, talking and listening to music. It was another joyful group of women. Of course, we did some more shopping from their beautiful array of handiwork which also included beaded jewelry and wooden masks!
Lunch time found us back in Sololá at the lovely El Encanto de Atitilán. After a delicious meal with Marta, we walked (or more like hiked!) up the hill to the bustling Sololá market. Marta, who grew up in and still lives in Sololá, explained how the market operated as we walked through. It was amazing to observe the order hidden in all the noise and activity of a very large market.
Following the tour, it was all downhill as we walked (passing up a ride on a chicken bus !) to the Friendship Bridge Sololá office to observe a disbursement meeting with the wonderful ladies from San Jorge Trust Bank co-op. we were privileged to witness the process of new loans being issued to 8 Mayan women of varying ages, a few who have been receiving loans from FB for 11 years.
The women use loans from Friendship Bridge for businesses in textiles, grocery stores, natural medicines and beaded jewelry. They were obviously very close to and supportive of each other. It was truly a joyous occasion for them and us. I was once again amazed and inspired by the women we have met on this journey.
Later in the evening, we all gathered with some of the staff from Friendship Bridge at Hotel de Jardines del Lago, a short walk from our now familiar home at Utz Jay (no rain, yeah!), for dinner.
Marta and Roberto were joined by Sean, the HR Manager, and Nelson, their auditor. They answered our questions and explained the vision of Friendship Bridge to continue and expand their Micro-finance program by bringing more women into cooperatives and help them bring income, education and hope to their families.
They are doing much good work here and we were awed by the hard-working, strong women they serve.
Both groups learned much and enjoyed the day but we were ready for an early bedtime for sure!!