Born Leaders

By Rhonda Zapatka
VP, Development and Communications

A winding road snakes through the lush mountains of Tamahú, a community of 1,000 residents in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, the geographic center of the country. The road’s twists and turns, and the striking beauty of the valley it traverses, are metaphors for the journeys the women in Tamahú’s Trickle Up savings groups embark upon – in our programs and in their lives. Women like Hermelinda Macz, the unforgettable president of the new Tamahú Savings Network.

67% of Guatemala’s indigenous population live in extreme poverty. Many are survivors of the country’s brutal 36-year civil war, during which 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans were slaughtered by their own government. Alta Verapaz has one of the largest indigenous populations in Guatemala. This is why Trickle Up formed our first Guatemalan savings groups in Tamahú in 2009: 4 groups of women and people with disabilities ranging in size from ten to twenty members each.

Today, there are 38 savings groups comprising 500 members from 28 different communities across Tamahú. Ten of these groups were formed in the past year.

In 2015, Trickle Up was awarded a small grant from the COMO Foundation to better support these savings groups’ leadership and information sharing. The goal: improving understanding of food security for families in extreme poverty; women’s health and sexual and reproductive rights; and effective ways for incorporating teenagers, men, and more people with disabilities into their memberships. The network brings structure to what were once only informal gatherings and sharing of information anecdotally.

Hermelinda Macz is the president of the Tamahú Savings Network. Her enthusiasm for savings groups as agents of change is contagious. She was also one of the first Trickle Up savings group participants in Tamahú when she joined Las Azucenas savings group in 2009.

Hermelinda accompanied me on my first trip to Tamahú on March 1, 2017. That day, through a savings group known as the Rax Chees, I witnessed first-hand why Hermelinda’s peers – and municipal officials from across the country – recognize her as a born leader, a natural advocate for the needs and potential of people in extreme poverty. Her neighbors say they hope she will one day run for Mayor.

Hermelinda explained that my trip to Tamahú fell on an important celebratory milestone for the 18 members of the “Grupo Alac Rax Chee Tamahú” savings group, of which she is a member and leader. It was the day each group member would receive her personal share of the group’s cumulative savings that had been amassed over twelve months – its first official cycle of operation.

For one year, the Rax Chee women had attended biweekly meetings. They sat in a semi-circle in each other’s homes and learned the discipline and art of saving money even while living on just $1 a day. On the days in between the group’s regular meetings, they built and worked away at their business activities. They operate small stores, grow gardens and crops near their tiny homes, rear chickens and small animals, and weave garments to sell at local markets.

As the group’s savings pool grew, the women’s individual business activities also began yielding more income. Increasingly, women were able to take out more frequent, larger loans from the savings group’s pool (with interest), reinvesting the loan money into their businesses. As the weeks and months progressed, each woman was required to incrementally pay back her loans with interest as she was able, expanding the pool of savings capital the group had amassed. Payday of the value of each woman’s accumulated savings and investments in year one, however, couldn’t happen until every woman in the group had paid back her loans in full.

The day I visited Tamahu was payday for the Rax Chees.

The anticipation, pride, and joy in the air was palpable. Tamahú’s new Mayor even made a brief appearance at the meeting to congratulate the women and applaud their success.

100% of the women (and their one male savings group member) had paid back their loans. With Hermelinda’s and the other savings group leaders’ help facilitating, each woman’s shares were easily calculated and handed out, one by one, to a cascade of applause, laughter, and inside jokes. Individual payouts to each member ranged from hundreds of quetzales to the highest payout of 4,405 quetzales, brought home by Zoila Jalal, whose businesses were thriving. The group had saved 30,653 quetzales, or $4,154, in one year’s time.

After the meeting, Hermelinda and I enjoyed large bowls of spicy soup with turkey and cured beef, a local delicacy reserved for holidays and special occasions. Hermelinda and Iván, Trickle Up’s program officer in the region, explained why municipal government officials are finally paying attention to the valuable role Trickle Up savings groups are playing combating extreme poverty in the region. First, the groups’ results are measurable and speak for themselves. Second, municipal policy and funding streams geared toward the poorest and most vulnerable in Guatemala are beginning to change.

In the years after the civil war ended, municipalities were solely interested in providing basic services and infrastructure: water, power, and ensuring basic security. Today, there are new laws and funding streams focused on reaching women and people with disabilities, groups long ignored or left behind in the country’s public policy climate. Government officials are also increasingly eager to be part of the solution. In general, there is more pressure from people to hold the local government accountable for better addressing extreme poverty.

Trickle Up’s track record working with people living at the deepest level of poverty gives us credibility with officials who are interested in learning the most effective ways of working with the most vulnerable populations.

I experienced this first-hand two days later, when Trickle Up convened a March 3 meeting of 11 municipal officials, representatives of local councils and Mayors’ offices from Cobán, Cahabon, Chahal, Ixcán, and Izabal. They told us they were eager to form an alliance that would help them share best practices and advocate even more effectively for public policies that would reach the poorest and most excluded.

Hermelinda attended this meeting as the Tamahú Savings Group Network’s official representative. She talked about the responsibility of government officials to address the needs of the people, as well as a key element of savings groups’ success and sustainability: involving the entire household at the outset and throughout the program during participants’ journeys with Trickle Up.

“Involving husbands is important. They have to support the women’s involvement in the groups. Their initial involvement is what made them even more supportive throughout. Addressing early pregnancy [among young teens in families] is another area we want to better address in the future. We want to show [them] that through school and work, there can be another way.”

Today Hermelinda is an experienced savings group member, leader, and role model in her community. The Network is thriving as well, a great credit to Hermelinda’s leadership and proof that savings groups work. They are both examples of the potential and promise of the people of Tamahú and how Trickle Up has been a catalyst there helping people transform their own lives.