CHRISTMASA A CAROL
IT’S THAT MOST WON-derful time of the year again. Christmas carols are playing, sparkling lights and colorful ornaments decorate stores, houses and streets and there is that distinctive nip in the air. For the Scrooges among us though, bah humbug – what’s the fuss? Work continues.
Over in Macabebe, Pampanga, work indeed continues for Lea and her husband, who craft figurines of the Holy Family, Santo Niño and the Virgin Mary by hand. The “ber” months until the Holy Week is their busiest time.
In Christmases past, Lea’s husband was a full-time fisherman while she sold whatever fish he would catch in the market. On a normal day they earned 100 to P300, certainly not enough for a couple with three girls to bring up and school.
Their Christmas present is certainly brighter. Working with a microfinance institution (MFI) which loaned Lea a significant portion of her capital, they built their business from scratch, and customers from as far away as Bataan, Laguna and Zamboanga buy their religious figurines. With their savings, they remodeled their house, raising the floor to reduce flooding and building a second story. Lea also bought their very own blue banca (canoe) for use during severe typhoons when the water level in their neighborhood reaches waist-high. During such disasters, they can count on their partner MFI to immediately come and distribute relief goods.
Meanwhile in Gubat, Sorsogon, Nora tends to her small shop filled with shell products she created – chandeliers, wind chimes, parols, key chains, bracelets and decor items. The shop is located in Rizal Beach facing the Pacific Ocean where one can spot surfers riding the waves.
The shop used to be a tiny nipa hut with just a few products for sale. Thanks to a loan from an MFI, Nora was able to expand her product range. Business boomed and she saved enough to make improvements to her house. She built an extra bedroom which she rents out to passing travelers.
She dreams of someday being able to buy her own small lot, far away from the sea. She and her neighbours presently squat on land right beside the sea, putting them in a precarious situation every time a typhoon whips up waves from the Pacific Ocean. Last December, close to Christmas Day, Typhoon Nona’s waves completely swallowed her shop. Bowed but not beaten, Nora decided to rebuild her shop with the help of a P25,000 loan from an MFI.
In Daraga, Albay, Jesusa is busy sketching and making patterns for her various abaca Christmas decorations. At an age when many women are retired, Jesusa keeps on going. Together with her eldest son, she produces unique and high quality abaca decorations – Christmas wreaths, garlands, big Christmas balls, Santa in his sleigh pulled by reindeer and Christmas tree shaped wall hangings.
After the Christmas season, she will focus on making birthday (teddy bears) and wedding (hearts, swans, bride & groom) abaca products. It’s hard to believe that such elegant abaca products are created in such a simple, dark and somewhat cluttered room populated by a rooster bent on chasing me!
All of Jesusa’s hard work in this room has paid off. She has put her five children through school and is the proud mother of one teacher and one soon-to-be teacher. She
bought a tricycle for the family. She can afford to buy her maintenance medicine. Her nipa hut has been replaced by a sturdier cement and wooden structure. She is now saving for her next project – to raise the floor of her workroom as it gets flooded during typhoons.
Over in Dapitan street in Quezon City, four women sell Christmas products in a makeshift booth. Reenalyn, Sherielyn, Marilou and Cecille proudly display their bahay ng belen (nativity house) which they construct on-thespot. They also sell Christmas wreaths, garlands, nativity characters, papier mache Santa Clauses and fiber figurines such as angels, ballerinas, dwarves, snowmen and santas. They can customize garlands and belen houses based on clients’ requests.
Outside of the Christmas season, the four sell other stuff such as frozen food, fruits, clothes and whatever else they can think of. The Christmas season though is critical for them. They earn most of their income for the year during this season, with savings to tide them over the slack months. Everything from their daily living expenses to their kids’ school expenses are riding on this season.
In San Fernando, Pampanga, Elizabeth and her husband are busy designing and making
parols. Traditional parols along with their new best-selling LED parols line the walls of their shop. When all the lanterns are lit, it is a sight to behold.
The business was started by Elizabeth’s husband 26 years ago, when he was still a bachelor. Not having had the capital to fund their business, they borrowed from loan sharks. The excessively high interest rate charged by these informal lenders meant that at the end of the day, they had very little left.
Several years ago, Elizabeth discovered the existence of MFIs which offered more reasonable lending rates. They steadily grew their business and are now able to save more of their earnings, which has helped put their three kids through school. During one rainy season when their house got flooded, Elizabeth had the savings to meet this emergency. She is now working with one particular MFI to get a loan at even more favourable terms to build a toilet.
Separated by geography, these women nevertheless share a common background: Fate dealt them a hard life. But unlike others content to rely on and demand government dole outs, these women took the initiative, harnessed their talents and worked hard to lift themselves out of poverty. They are all micro entrepreneurs and clients of ASA Philippines Foundation, a non-profit institution specializing in microfinance. Microfi refers to an array of financial services, including uncollateralized loans, savings and insurance, which target the enterprising poor whose financial needs are not served by traditional banks due to the higher risks involved. Self-employment is generated amongst the poor, family income is increased and quality of life is improved. Microfinance is not simply about providing financial services – it encompasses a broader perspective of social development and poverty alleviation.ASA Philippines Foundation, the country’s largest microfinance institution in terms of borrowers and assets, was founded by industry veteran Kamrul Tarafder and former ambassador to the Vatican Howard Dee 12 years ago.
The Filipino and Bengali word “asa” means hope and the foundation stays true to its name by bringing hope to and uplifting the lives of the very poor. With a loan portfolio of 7.9 billion and close to 6,000 employees spread over 850 branches nationwide, it serves nearly 1.3 million underprivileged clients. Today, it is the largest MFI not just in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Last August, it was honored as the Philippines’ most outstanding microfinance institution.
This Christmas, should you encounter a Jesusa, a Reenalyn, a Lea, an Elizabeth or a Nora in your neighborhood, remember that you can make a difference. You can help these hardworking and admirable people journey into a blessed Christmas future.
Photos by MICHAEL FAUSTO and ENGIMAR ESTOCHE Reenalyn and her garlands and wreaths (top left); Nora in her shop of shell decor items (top right); Elizabeth with parols all aglow (above).
Lea with a parade of religious figurines (left); Jesusa shows off her abaca decorations (right).