What does it take to transform a life? Begin with the foundation

“When you build a house,” I found myself saying, “do you start with the roof?” The members of Osera village laughed and shook their heads. “You start with the foundation!” they cried. We were in the midst of an impassioned discussion with our business owners about the kinds of transformations they experience as a result of our program.

When I started my fellowship in July, my first few field visits were with participants who had just entered our program. They all seemed to tell the same story. The context — a life marked by lack, hopelessness, and insecurity. The change — our graduation program. The result — the ability to ‘fulfill their basic needs.’ This phrase was relayed to me over and over. I would prod and probe for more, but for the people with whom I was meeting, this was the end of their story. For now.

Then I went to Ajeluk Village (which I wrote about last week). The women I met there, who were program participants in 2013, told stories of empowerment, improved marriages, friendship, and community. Their narratives of transformation were remarkably less tangible and seemingly more significant than those of the business owners newer to the program.

As I’ve mulled this over, it began to make sense. It is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Our need for love and esteem materializes only when our need for safety and physiological satisfaction are fulfilled. Fulfilling one’s basic needs is foundational for a healthy and productive life. New business owners have not yet reached a point where they can appreciate the new social capital and empowerment that they are accruing  because they are simply glad to be able to sleep at night knowing that their children will be fed and clothed. It is not that they aren’t able to see the transformation of their life beyond the fulfillment of their basic needs — they haven’t experienced it yet.

In light of this realization, I wanted to use my conversation in Osera to explore the connection between fulfilling basic needs and realizing the intangible outcomes of our program. I wanted to show that the fulfillment of basic needs is what allows for a sense of empowerment, self-esteem, and community. The impact of things as simple as purchasing finger nail clippers or having the ability to eat a balanced diet is exponential. Without this foundation, the other layers of transformation will never arise. So while in Osera, I asked the people with whom I met to think about what that foundation had been for them–which basic needs had they been empowered to fulfill and why was each one important? These were their responses.

“Now that I can wear good shoes, I am feeling so proud when I walk in the community.” -Akareut Lucy

“Before the Village Enterprise program, if someone in our family fell ill it was so difficult to get medical treatment. Then June of this year, my daughter was in an accident and was operated on twice. If Village Enterprise was not there I would have been able to take care of her, she would have died. Being able to access good medical care is so important.”

-Abwooli Sarah

“I became a widow at a very tender age. I had lost hope for life. I would feel like life is just useless. I didn’t even have saucepans to cook with or even a cup to take water. But after joining Village Enterprise I was able to buy those things and now I have hope for the future.” -Kongai Jessica

“Before my kids were very sick because they lacked nutrition and hygiene. I could not afford soap to bathe them or wash the clothes. Because of lack of hygiene my children would fall sick maybe once a week. But now that I can afford soap, they are looking and feeling so healthy.” -Agoe Madelena

“In those days before Village Enterprise I could not even afford a razor to cut my fingernails so I used to have very long nails. So now I can trim my fingernails so that I don’t suffer from any diseases that are transferred through the fingernails.” -Akareut Lucy

“Before when we could not afford soap to wash our clothes, I used to fear what other people in the community thought of us. I knew that when we passed by they were laughing at us for our appearance. But now, our clothes are clean and we have the friendship of others in the village because we can walk proudly.” -Adeke Regina (left)

“As someone who is HIV positive, I need to take my medications with food. Before, I didn’t have any money to buy food to take with my medicine. But now I have the money to buy proper foods to take my medication with so now I am feeling so strong.” -Ingolet Anna

“I used to sleep on a bamboo mat and I only had one set of bed sheets which I shared with all of my children. But now I have been able to afford a mattress for each child and one for myself. Now I can sleep peacefully at night and wake up knowing that I can also afford to change our diet and consume healthy foods. Now we are feeling and looking so strong and healthy because we can consume good foods and sleep peacefully.” -Apoplot Marta

I am in awe of how these simple things, that seem so rudimentary and so insignficant, are the literal building blocks of a future. You can’t start with the roof, you must begin with the foundation.

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