When I met Magdalena Tambriz Cuc de Xolcaja, she was sitting on the dirt floor of her home with a backstrap loom strapped around her waist and rows of yarn anchored to a wall of her house. On her loom, a tableau of brilliant blue embroidery thread was beginning to emerge. The intricate weaving was to become a lion, composed of dozens of small squares. Even in a country renowned for the skills of its weavers, Magdalena's craftsmanship is a stand out.
So why does she really want to cook fried potatoes for a living?
As we listened to her for over an hour, and she patiently answered our questions, I began to understand what at first seemed so illogical to me. Magdalena lives in the small town of Nahuala in central west Guatemala. Magdalena has a disability and although she has a wheelchair, it is practically useless on the bumpy, hilly terrain around her home.
Magdalena lives in a condition of ultrapoverty, the subset of the $1.25-per-day extreme poor. 200-400 million people live in ultrapoverty globally. This is a condition characterized by chronic food insecurity and poor health, insufficient and irregular income, minimal productive assets with high vulnerability to shocks, and the need to prioritize consumption over investment. Historically excluded, the ultrapoor are disproportionately women, indigenous and people with disabilities.
For most of her 30 years, Magdalena has been completely dependent on her family. She is one of six children and, she says, was mostly kept indoors by her parents, who wanted to protect her from the stigma that goes with having a disability in her culture and also from a well-grounded fear that she would never be able to work or even play a role in her community. When Trickle Up began recruiting people with disabilities to join our program in this region of Guatemala, Magdalena was keen to seize the opportunity, but her family objected. Their fear was that she would be joining a microcredit program and that they would end up saddled with debt.
You would think that, given these odds, Magdalena would choose to give up and stay at home for the rest of her life. However, after visiting Magdalena and her family seven times before they believed that our seed capital grant was not a loan or had strings attached, it became clear that Magdalena was not only determined, she had a plan.
When we visited Magdalena five months ago, as she was about to begin the Trickle Up program, she planned to start a food business cooking fried potatoes and other snacks from her kitchen. She demonstrated how she could do the cooking and talked about setting up a cart outside her house to sell her food. But her plan hinged on help from one of her sisters, who then got a chance to go study in a distant town.
Challenged by our staff to brainstorm alternative ideas, she chose to weave skirts and traditional clothing, as well as table runners that would appeal to tourists in Panachachel, a 2-3 hour drive away. Her mother had taught her weaving, so she had the craft skills she needed.
Magdalena explained to us how her Trickle Up grant gave her the capital she needed to buy her own yarn and embroidery thread, which meant that she'd earn far more profit for her labor. The table runner with the lion design would take her about 15 long days to complete. Supplies cost her about 60 quetzales, or about $9, and then she could sell her finished product for about 200 quetzales, or about $30, to her aunt, who would take it to one of the tourist areas to sell for 300 quetzales, or about $45. Magdalena said she hoped to find a way to bring her products to market herself, so that all the profits of her labor would be hers. While part of what Trickle Up teaches are basics of business like purchasing and record-keeping, the essential subtext of our training is problem-solving and resourcefulness.
As Magdalena moved her fingers through the threads on her loom with the grace of a concert pianist, she talked again of her dream for a food business. One reason is that it would give her profits every day, instead of waiting for earnings that came only when she completed and sold her weaving. Another is that she thought she could do a brisk business selling food at a nearby soccer field, where there was a game every other day. While she didn't say it, I also suspect that she would relish the social activity that would come with vending at a busy sports field, instead of the solitude of spending long days weaving alone in her house, work that she said became physically painful as the hours of sitting at her loom mounted.
Magdalena is only about one-third of the way through the 18-month Trickle Up program in Guatemala. As she spoke confidently about her future, I had to remind myself that less than six months earlier she had been a virtual prisoner in her home, dependent on the support of her sisters. And I reminded myself that she was only now about to begin participation in a Trickle Up-organized savings group, where she and other participants would meet monthly to save money and then lend to each other for business expansion or to meet emergency needs. Her future training curriculum would include lessons on business diversification, so it was not hard to imagine that she might soon be doing both weaving and cooking.
For a woman, one who lives in the conditions of ultrapoverty, and one who was excluded most of her life, this turnaround speaks to Magdalena’s singular drive to better her circumstances, her clear focus on the goals she has set herself, and her overarching dream of independence.
Trickle Up empowers people living on less than $1.25 a day to take the first steps out of poverty, providing them with resources to build sustainable livelihoods for a better quality of life. In partnership with local agencies, we provide training and seed capital grants to launch or expand a microenterprise and savings support to build assets. We work in Central America, West Africa and India.
This blog is part of a series in recognition of the UN's International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, Oct. 17.