Eric coaching a young girl
Whack, Whack, Whack. That’s the sound of table tennis balls being returned in the meeting hall at Women’s Microfinance Initiative’s headquarters in rural Buyobo, Uganda. We’ll admit it, it’s hard at first to see any connection between a women’s microfinance program and table tennis. The first is a serious endeavor at leveling the economic playing field by providing loans and training to poor, rural women. The second is a game, also known as ping pong, primarily played by children.
Not so in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa, where table tennis is a serious competitive sport. Students compete intensely for all-expense paid scholarships to secondary school and university, graduating to become competitive Olympic hopefuls. Table tennis is another step in the economic ladder for poor, under-served, rural Ugandans.
Back in 2013, WMI encouraged the development of a weekly after-school Girls Entrepreneurship program for 12–15-year-old girls within Buyobo, our first loan hub. The program used participatory games and activities to introduce concepts about leadership, self-image, social entrepreneurship, and business development. The aim was to develop the next generation – a cadre of empowered young girls with the skills, confidence, and audacity to look critically at issues facing their families and communities. Along with participating in lessons on healthy behaviors and responsible life skills (especially related to teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS, the girls raised and sold pigs, turkeys, chickens, and cattle. The profits they made were theirs to use as the group decided. The program was (and remains) so successful, we soon expanded to include a Boy’s group, taught by an engaging male role model. Eight years later many of these children are now the first in their families to attend university. They have also become working partners with their mothers in their businesses.
Last year, we expanded our initiatives to provide a positive path for Buyobo youth through table tennis. It was the brainchild of Kevin Mafabi a top table tennis player and certified Level 1 International table Tennis Federation coach, with roots in the village. He and his cousin, WMI Board Member, June Kyakobye, received university scholarships in the sport. Kevin is now one of the best Ugandan professional table tennis players, and though officially retired from the sport, June’s skills took her to the 1996 Olympics and the 2001 U.S. Open.
Kevin, wanting to pay back his advantages to the community, volunteered to coach our Buyobo youth, along with his cousin Denise, who is now attending university in Kampala on a table tennis scholarship. WMI funded the purchase of the tennis table and equipment. Although the cities have more access to facilities and coaches to prepare for the tournaments that are the gateway to scholarships, the main determinants of success are natural talent and personal determination. That is something we have plenty of in Buyobo!
After an initial training during a school break attended by 76 young students, the most outstanding were selected to manage ongoing training after school while the coaches are back in Kampala during the week. The children have been working hard for the past year at developing their skills, learning the feel of the ball, and gaining the fine motor control necessary for advanced stroke techniques. Kevin and Denise report that several students have natural talent and determination. The children are hopeful that with a lot of practice they, too, will have opportunities for scholarships. We are certain that even though everyone won’t receive university scholarships, all the children participating will gain skills that will make them productive adults – focus, dedication, working as a team – as well as the concentration and motor skills that may serve them well in a profession.
This is just one example of the small projects we support that, while not directly falling into our lending and training focus, provide the spark or catalyst necessary to fulfill our larger mission. We call these special projects Nyongeza, a Swahili word for a booster, or something that is complementary. These additional small investments we can make through your donations have a huge payback in terms of improved village life. And just think, you may be helping a future Olympian!
We hope you will continue to support WMI as we expand our outreach across East Africa.
Wishing you happy and safe times ahead!
The Board of Directors
Women’s Microfinance Initiative
Learning the Proper Grip