For four years, the savings group Belle Dame, or Beautiful Lady, has met every Thursday as a part of Mali Health’s women’s health financing program. Their story begins with Mme. Koné Djénèba Ballo, the group’s founder and treasurer:
Ever since I was a little girl, I have been active and taking the lead on every activity I was a part of – whether it was organizing groups or competitions between friends in our community. One day a friend invited me to her savings group on the other side of Sikoro, but it was too far from home. So I asked if a similar group could be set up for women in our area. The animateur agreed and asked me to invite my close friends for a meeting. After 3 meetings, our group was born and we named her Belle Dame.– Djénèba Koné
Djénèba invited other women to join the new group and soon the word spread until they grew to 25 members. Every week, they gather at their president’s home and contribute 250 FCFA (about $0.50) each – half goes to their health fund and half goes to their business fund.
Today, Belle Dame is in its fourth savings cycle, which due to COVID-19, is unlike anything they have experienced before:
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected Mali, especially us as poor women. Its arrival slowed down our activities, our children no longer go to school, our husbands are unemployed. As for our group, we could not hold our meetings. There were prohibitions related to gatherings that affected us, but because we did not have access to our small business activities, the members had trouble collecting their weekly contribution. We all sell goods and food we prepare either in the markets or on the streets, but none of that was possible for a while. In a nutshell “the country was on a answering machine” and nothing was going well.
Personally COVID-19 had a large impact on my business activity, too. Before, I could make up to 15 000 FCFA (about $30) per day. Today I find myself in the best case at 2 500 FCFA (about $6) per day.– Djénèba Koné
But after several months, their savings meetings resumed. Now, they have regulations for distancing and handwashing with soap and water, as their animateur instructs during the health sessions with the group. To help cope with the economic consequences of COVID-19, the group has granted loans to most members to help them strengthen their small business activities, or begin new ones that are safer during COVID-19.
Women are providing each other with the support and solidarity they need to stay healthy, not only during the pandemic, but long before it.
Djénèba and her husband live in Sikoro-Sourakabougou with their six children. Before her savings group, Djénèba was afraid when a health problem arose because she didn’t know where or how to get a loan to pay for healthcare. She would ask for loans from neighbors, but didn’t want to risk gossip or getting a bad name. On one occasion, she had to use all the funds she had for her small business, forcing her to close it and losing her only source of income. She describes the stability that her savings group offers her:
Thanks to my savings in the group, I can have money to solve my family’s health problems in peace and in the utmost confidentiality. I was able to strengthen my small business, in which I was prospering a lot. As a street vendor of cosmetic products, I was able to set up a small kiosk that serves as a store for my business. Now I can provide for my little needs and that of my children.– Djénèba Koné
In addition to having a source for loans and support for her business, her group also provides health information and help preventing illnesses:
At the end of each cycle, we buy preventive products such as soap and bleach, then we share the remaining money with all members of the group. It is a moment of joy most awaited by the members, and an opportunity for each of us to be able to achieve something like growing our businesses, take care of our children or even to have fun. There has never been a shortfall, and in our group, we are all friends. I am very happy to be part of Belle Dame and I do not intend to leave her with all the advantages that I enjoy.– Djénèba Koné
COVID-19 continues to disrupt life in Sikoro and across Bamako, but there are no relief programs to restore what Djénèba and women like her have lost. But the networks they built to help each other stay healthy and access resources before COVID-19 continue to serve them during the pandemic. We’re committed to making sure Belle Dame and hundreds of other groups keep going strong.