Carolyn Woo

On a recent trip to Madagascar, I visited a rather extensive vocational training center, Ankohonana Sahirana Arenina, run by the Franciscans. The center offers workshops in embroidery, basket-making, sewing, formal tailoring, textile weaving, plumbing, wood-carving and other subjects. Such skill development offers participants a chance to make a good living. For many, that means starting their own businesses.

Sixty participants of all ages who had completed their training gathered to greet us when we arrived. They brought their handiwork and irrepressible enthusiasm to showcase what success looked like.

One woman, Germaine, brought a boy’s long-sleeve shirt and a common household plastic bucket to illustrate her transformation. She began with a dream and a plan that was built on 25 cents per day. Her dream was to have a home for her family of four daughters rather than living with others and relying on their charity. Her plan, after attending the workshop, was to make school uniform shirts for boys.

Germaine needed capital so she set aside 25 cents a day from her food budget of about $1.50 until she saved up $25. One hundred days of sacrifice gave her the investment to buy 25 buckets at a “wholesale rate” of $1 each.

She resold them in her neighborhood for $1.50. The fledging bucket trade eventually generated enough capital to buy a sewing machine and materials that busy fingers, tireless efforts, and skills learned at the training center transformed into shirts for little boys. Germaine happily told us that her daughters are now also in the business and thinks she is on her way to owning a home.

I heard many similar stories of ingenuity, persistence and sacrifice. They reminded me that mothers and fathers everywhere want a better life for their families. They want to be able to send their children to school, to afford tuition and books, to provide sufficient food so that children do not go to bed hungry, and to have what for many is the ultimate luxury: a safe, secure home. In Madagascar, that means one made of concrete so that it does not blow away or collapse in a storm.

There was another workshop participant: a widow who is disabled and has three children. She had lost everything after a bad harvest. If she had not joined the program, her only option was to send her oldest child, a girl of 14, into prostitution. These are the kinds of choices the poor of the world face every day.

I grew up in Hong Kong where entrepreneurial spirits flourished. Many started small, but did not stay that way: the taxi driver who eventually bought his own taxi, the repairman who started his own supplies store, the vendors who sold newspapers, fruits, cheap toys, batteries and watches in retail spaces of 50 square feet in some apartment building stair landings, but saved until they could open a proper store. I saw many who parlayed humble beginnings into successful businesses.

Such ambition is not limited to Hong Kong or the United States. Throughout the poorest countries in Africa, I have met countless individuals who were assisted by training workshops like the one in Madagascar. They saved from meager earnings, maybe $1 to $3 a day, and invested in livestock, better seeds, more effective fertilizers to turn their farms into agribusinesses. Others bought water purifiers so they could open a roadside cafe or ovens so they could start a cookie business, materials and tools so they could create vegetable gardens.

These are the paths taken by so many smallholder farmers, by widows, by the poor and the vulnerable, so they can have more than just subsistence, so they can have something to call their own.

They can have independence and a sense of worth. They can experience achievement and know the excitement of an idea as it becomes reality. They can feel the anticipation for what is possible in the future. They can know that there is something to live for.

Is this what “thy kingdom come” means? Is this the “bounty of the Lord in the land of the living?”

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Woo is the president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.