It was 1974. Muhammad Yunus (Ammad)was teaching Economics in a University in Bangladesh. At the time, the country was in the middle of a terrible famine. Though he taught the elegant principles of Economics to his students, the reality of people living in destitution outside the campus perturbed him. Ammad reasoned that he could apply what he knew to alleviate penury among the villagers. One day, he met a woman who made bamboo stools. While talking with her, Ammad learnt that despite her hard work, the woman only made two cents a day. She explained that because she didn’t have money to buy the bamboo to make the stools, she borrowed money from a trader on the condition that she must sell the finished product, her stool, to the trader alone and for a price the trader decided. So while the woman could sell the stool for between 20 to 25 cents, she got paid only two cents. She was enslaved to her lender trader. Prompted by his discovery, Ammad conducted more research and found about forty-two people in the village who were in similar dilemma as the woman. Ammad got the shock of his life when he summed up all the money the forty-two people needed and it came up to a mere twenty-seven dollars. He made the money available to them and told them it was a loan to be paid back anytime they could; that in the meantime they should use the money to buy the materials they needed and sell their products to whomever would pay them the most money. To his surprise, each of the artisans repaid him. He took the idea to the local banks and encouraged them to extend credit to poor people in the other villages. The banks obstinately declined; poor people have no collateral and thus are not creditworthy, they said. Ammad persisted and the bank only agreed to give out the loans when he personally guaranteed the debts. When he tired of fighting with the banks to get them to lend to more people, Ammad started a bank, Grameen bank. Today, Grameen Bank has a staff of more than 24,703 employees; 2,468 branches; more than 96% recovery rate despite the fact that it loans money without collateral to impoverished villagers, 96%of whom are women. The bank has also won a Nobel Peace Prize, and of the total equity of the bank, the borrowers own 94%, and the remaining 6% is owned by the Bangladesh government.
You are probably thinking, ‘That was 1974 in Bangladesh. Surely, I don’t know anyone who needs so little money to make a living’. But as I will illustrate with some examples, you will be amazed at how many people around us need as little as five thousand naira to literally change their lives.
It is a sad fact that the way the criminal justice system is structured disproportionately disadvantages the poor. Anyone who can afford a good attorney can often buy himself out of a legal problem. From my experience, more than 90% of people who end up in prison are poor. First, poverty drives them to commit certain crimes the affluent cannot even be tempted to commit. Second, when granted bail or fined, many of the poor cannot afford to pay the money required to gain their freedom. And most importantly, many indigent accused persons cannot afford to pay for the services of good attorneys.
So when I was doing my National Youth Service in Katsina State, there were many people behind bars because they couldn’t pay fines imposed by the court as punishment for their crimes. In some cases, the fines were as little as three thousand naira. I remember a particular inmate whose offense was stealing a goat. The then first lady of Katsina State, wife of Governor Shehu Shema, took the initiative to pay off the fines and have the poor detainees returned to their families. That was about five years ago. While writing this post, I read that last month, the FCT minister granted pardon to about twenty nine inmates in Nigeria who were unable to pay their fines. Again, some of the fines were as low as three thousand naira and the offenses were minor including fighting and hawking. Given that the inmates do not pose danger to the society, one cannot fault the gesture by the minister. There are many more of these people in different state and federal prisons in Nigeria as there are also many people detained in public hospitals because they are unable to pay their hospital bills. I have heard of philanthropic citizens who visit hospitals and request for and take care of bills of people they do not know.
A Widow Helped
Also, Someone ( I will call her Ngozi) once told me of her encounter with one of her distant relatives, Ekene, who lived in the same town as she did but who she rarely saw. By the time she was in her mid-twenties, Ngozi, privileged to have got a university education, already had a good paying job in Nigeria. On the other hand, Ekene barely got a senior secondary school certificate; had lost her husband and returned to her parents with the only child she had while married to her husband. Ekene had started a petty trade to support herself and her young daughter. One day, Ngozi ran into Ekene at the church. It is true that sometimes, it doesn’t rain but pours; Ekene informed Ngozi that she had been robbed and that she had lost all the money she used to run her business. Ngozi casually inquired how much was in question and was shocked to realize that it was only eight thousand naira. She sent the money to Ekene the following day. You can imagine all the difference that made to this poor widow. Similarly, I have another friend who once expressed her shock to me when she met a woman in her village who had four kids to support by herself but who had less than five hundred naira of her own.
Good Samaritans Abound
Everyday, I am amazed at how kind people are, how despite their own penury, many go out of their way to help others. I know a teenager who paid his struggling neighbor’s school fees from the pocket money his parents gave him. Once, I was touched when I casually saw a long list of people someone had written of people he would give money on a particular Christmas. The donations weren’t in the millions or even tens of thousands but given how many people people he remembered, I am sure it would mean a lot to some, if not all, of the people on the list.
I have been blessed to have several people in my life whose kindness have touched me in some ways – and I am eternally grateful to them – so I know firsthand how a kind but seeming small gesture can make all the difference in someone’s life. One particular gesture stands out for me especially because it was small yet so big. When I was living in boarding house during my Junior Secondary, JS3, my sister Grace, who was graduating from SS3, gave me forty naira. It meant the world to me because I was broke at the time. I didn’t tell her of my paucity; she probably thought I needed the money more than she did since she was going home. But something she did randomly left an impression on me.
Kindness Goes Beyond Material Gifts
Many of us struggle to make ends meet and so cannot afford to offer material gifts to others. With all his good intentions, the Good Samaritan in the bible couldn’t have done much if he had no money to take that wounded man to the hospital. Such people need not worry. God knows their good intentions and will bless them in due time because he knows they will use the resources well. I once read that kindness is the rent we pay for the space we occupy on earth. So in the meantime, even when we have no money, we can find other ways to be of service to others. For instance, we can all afford to be a source of encouragement and God’s voice to someone who is going through a hard time. Recently, I read about a man who after a failed business and failed marriage, decided to end his sorrow by taking his life. He wanted to break the cycle of poverty, drugs and alcohol addiction that ran in his family. He went to a bridge, ready to jump, hoping that the water below would drown his pain. As he stood on the bridge, police helicopters hovered in the air above him and TV cameras focused on him. The cops pleaded with him, courting him not to take his life. But none of what they said made any sense to him. His mind was made up. However, a few words by one of the cops eventually got through to him and caused him to retreat. The cop had said, ‘The Lord in not finished with your life yet’. A string of nine words spoken in kindness literally saved a life. And the cop was right. Years later, this man who would have taken his life without realizing his full potential went on to get a job that gave him an opportunity to mentor and work with at-risk youths in inner cities. You can imagine how much guidance he provided to these youths especially drawing from his own experience. He even took one of the youth home to foster him. The foster child and other people he mentored went on to become promising young men.
I believe that each one of you reading this have at one time or another performed some act of kindness nobody knows of. I know sometimes you wonder if it makes any difference. It does. Being charitable is like spraying seeds on a farm. Some may not make much impact. But there are some that change lives, some that will not only change a life but touch a beneficiary so much that they vow to pay it forward.
Your Life Can Be Changed Too
Though I have focused on how we can change lives by our kindness, it is also important to mention that sometimes, even when that isn’t the motivation, our lives can change too for a kindness we showed. It is safe to assume that Muhammad Yusun’s life didn’t remain the same after he decided to help others by setting up Grameen Bank. Also, there was the young girl who got her job through the help of someone she had helped while they were both students. And there was the kind woman who would later be resuscitated from a coma by a young woman she had given a stethoscope during the young woman’s graduation from medical school.
So dear friends, let’s take a closer look at the people around us and see what we have that may mean little to us but the world to them. We never know whose life could be changed.
Have you ever received a kindness that seemed small but meant a lot to you? Got a story to share? Please tell us in the comments sections. I love anecdotes and I value your contributions!