Born and Raised Poor amidst Wealth

(The Story of Bernadette A. Ngoh)

Things were tough in the best of times. By all standards, my family was very poor. My mother could have been elected the best candidate for the position of Secretary of State of the Poor, if such an election were ever organized. Yes! She like the majority of heads of households in our community, the North-West Region of Cameroon, toiled daily applying survival skills to make livelihood for her family. It involved making decisions that have far reaching consequences including what basic needs had to be sacrificed. Clothing and shelter greatly suffered in favor of education and food. In those days having my belly full was all that mattered and not the quality of food.


Meat was eaten generously only on Christmas and New Year’s Day in our home. Left over of the meat received during the festive season was smoked and preserved. Repeatedly my mother would cook a small piece to give flavor but will quickly remove the meat and dry again and again for another flavor desired cooking. The only time these pieces of left-over meat would be eaten was when an important visitor came home or food was being taken to someone, or as a reward for good performance or as a delicacy and source of comfort when any of us were sick.


To prevent flood in the house during the rainy season, broken calabashes and the only two iron (drinking & washing) buckets were placed on our beds and floor of the room to collect water from the dripping roof year after year. When there was no good spot in the size of the bed my elder brother will cover us with plastic bags to prevent rain falling on us (“stop rain entering our ear” as my mother usually put it) as we lie down on our bamboo floor bed.


Attending school and having a pass grade was the single thing that made my mother most happy. She ensured that I had a class reader, arithmetic text, exercise and note books and pencil.  That tuition was paid even if it meant foregoing the buying of the most awaited Christmas dress. It was my duty to safe-guard my books and economize my notepads. I borrowed majority of text books to be able to do homework. I trekked about 10miles to and from school. She will light a small bundle of splinted sticks when there was no kerosene to light up the paraffin lamp that enabled me do homework. Not doing any of the daily routine chores in order to take advantage of daylight to do homework during the week was not an option.


We had one nice out-fit called “Sunday dress”. On Sundays my mother wore this lone family female outfit to attend church service at 6.00am. She then returned, undressed and handed it over. My elder sister and I waited our turns week after week to attend church service. Although we were different in height and shape our dress was the same size. Long blouse and two loose pieces of 2×1 meter fabric (commonly known as “rapa”). We wore our school uniforms on days that there was only one service e.g. Easter Sunday or at functions that we all had to attend at the same time. I had one bra and one pant/underwear. At night, during week days, I washed them, hung them on a chair and placed near the three stone fire place. If for some reason I forgot washing them or they did not get dry over the night, I will place them in the middle of my towel, fold and squeeze. We had to wear clean inner wears every day to school or other functions. It was one of the unwritten rules that was meticulously followed at home and enforced at school by daily hygiene inspection practice; so too was the offering of something to eat to anybody who passed through our house and attending classes.


My mother like many other women in Bamenda, Cameroon had great potentials including the ability to plan, organize, control and make decisions on economic ventures. However she had no access to the can-opener, investment resources partially provided by financial intermediaries, to open the potentials hidden in this unfortunate category of the population, the poor. Determined to give her children education she had to seek help from informal money lenders to carry out income-generating activities.

In school I learned about the functions of financial intermediaries. I went home jubilating that I had found a solution to my mother’s problem of lack of funds for investment. Unable to convince me that the banks had rejected her request in the past, she reluctantly took me to one of them. I listened to her explain her story and business plan to this man who was professionally dressed. He was in a three piece suit. Probably he was the receptionist. Looking at my mother distastefully he said, “Banks do not give loans to people like you”. I quickly interrupted by asking him “People like her who have done what?”  And he said “who are not business people”. Then I quietly said, “My mother wants to do business”. When he insisted that my mother is not qualified, I asked to see the manager who equally sent us away empty handed on the grounds that she, my mother, hadn’t collateral security equal to or above the amount requested. I quickly removed my notes which I jealously preserved as having identified a solution to the community problem of lack of investment capital and read them to him. I remember as if it happened just yesterday the manager telling me, “you wouldn’t understand – the practice is different…” I further questioned in vain why the human-resource component she has could not be considered as collateral security. I went home heartbroken, but most importantly I could understand the frustrations and feelings of people like my mother who have been denied their human right of accessing credit. I suddenly realized that their entrepreneurship needed to include counseling services and not just investment resources.

Given that experience, I went back to school the next semester determined to read widely and to continue researching for solutions to the community problems of inaccessibility to investment resources. When my teachers reassured me that it is the theory learned in class that is put in practice in real life I was very angry with the discriminatory practices of the banks. This is probably what has influenced my educational career – Law in college, Women’s Law Postgraduate Diploma, Counseling at Masters and a Sixth Year certificate in Human Resource Development.


Looking at the number of lives lost and economic opportunities forgone, I decided to join in the fight against poverty. After spending two weeks in a Grameen Dialogue in Bangladesh and learning more about Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank it became apparent that a system change was necessary. Inspired by the Grameen Bank approach I refrained from vigorously pursuing the cracked traditional microfinance system wherein poverty alleviation is limited to small credits and savings at the time in the community. I conceived a package that was grounded on the Grameen bank approach and integrated other basic empowerment components echoed by the poor themselves in this community to meet the diverse needs of the underprivileged. I called it empowerment credit formula commonly and fondly referred to today as EC in communities where the program is being executed. Friends appreciated the conceived package, but none supported financially, echoing fears that the poor might not repay their loans. Worst still, my target clientele on the field, the poor, also rejected me stating that the proposed system, the EC package, was too good to be true. No amount of discouragement was strong enough to stop me. One meal a day, trekking to cut down on transportation cost, adhering to bare basics were among other strategies I adopted to raise seed capital. I began and registered a non-governmental organization to provide among other tools the traditional services of financial intermediaries to that category of the population, like my mother, the poor whom traditional financial intermediaries like commercial banks were not serving for one reason or the other. I put my life savings down and perhaps mortgaged a part of me for this program.

After completing the initial training course which embodied the program rules, credit, leadership, management skills, conflict resolution and healthy practices with 105 participants, the Anna Ngums who agreed to experiment with the empowerment credit formula, Grounded and Holistic Approach for Peoples’ Empowerment (GHAPE) was launched on October 27, 1998.  Five hundred and fifty eight thousand (558,000) francs CFA was disbursed as small loans to over 35 people. The highest loan that day was 15,000 Francs; an equivalent of about US $35. Today loan of $1,250 have been earned. Today thousands have received loans. The repayment rate is 100% since inception some 15 years ago.


The impact of the Empowerment Credit formula is visible even to short stay and distant visitors.  School age children are attending schools and apprenticeship trainings. Households are accessing basic medical care. Families are acquiring weather adapted clothes. Participating communities have eliminated extreme hunger and program participants are increasingly consuming balance diets. There is increase female participation in civil activities and decision making. Most of the achievement is attributed to increase self-esteem and economic power.  A strong social net and informal insurance has taken roots. When the “Anna Ngums”, the poor your donations are helping extend help to others in need and are addressed notes of appreciation like this one below, it communicates the multiplier effects of our actions in a global village.

Dear GHAPE Borrowers,

Thank you for reaching out to children in need through Compassion

International. We have received your gift and will send you a contribution

statement. Statements are mailed after the 20th of each month and can serve

as your receipt. Please remember that your donation is tax deductible.

*Total Contribution**$115.00*

You made your contribution on: 2/2/2010 3:03:21 PM

On behalf of all of the children served by Compassion, thank you again for

this most generous gift.


Mark Hanlon

Senior Vice President, USA


The program has remained relatively small with little visibility at international level despite its impact and numerical outreach. In conversations and reading when I come across myths like “you need to know someone big to make you visible” , “influential people don’t mingle with non-power equals”, “Rich people have nothing in common with the poor”, “women are only to be seen”, “…those born poor are destined to die poor”, “women can never do anything worth supporting” … I cannot resist pondering if there is any hope for those, like me, born poor by poor parents or single mothers in poor communities. I was born by an illiterate single mother who was shun and discriminated against by her siblings because her marriage didn’t work. A marriage she got into because her step-brother owed someone money and gave her as settlement for a debt he owed. The pain and shame she recounted but determined to give her children education, the only way out she perceived will break the chains of poverty and discrimination.

Worried and concerned about the future of this fairly new organization but inwardly confident that I have planted a sustainable seed, I took another project, marriage which I had relegated to the background for a longtime. In 2004 I got married and moved to start a new family in Connecticut, against back-talk that the entire structure will collapse within 12 months of my departure. GHAPE has continued to grow and is taking great advantage of some of its partnership like with kiva and Whole Planet Foundation.

Poverty can seldom be mistaken.  Poverty is real and manifest itself in several different ways. Its symptoms can be seen, felt, touched, smelt or heard in lives, homes and communities around the world. Poverty in many communities has become resistant to some poverty alleviation tools, perhaps because of the sometimes isolated and symptomatic administration of poverty alleviation tools to a problem that is either a cause or consequence. Providing resources that will unlock the world’s poor full potentials is Two Way Out Inc.’s focus.


With my experience as a victim, survivor and a development agent in my own right I elected to continue in the fight against poverty and encourage the establishment of Two Way Out. Two Way Out, Inc. is a U.S based 501 (c) 3 tax exempt organization.  Its mission is to make accessible innovative strategies and resources that will unlock the world’s poor full potentials. Steered by lessons learned from poverty alleviation programs and greatly inspired by the work of GHAPE and Professor Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen  Bank in Bangladesh approaches of building on the strengths of those living  in poverty, Two Way Out will be undertaking an Action Research, to test CRESS capital, a poverty alleviation tool. This innovation in the fight against poverty will address their multiple needs and enable them to become successful entrepreneurs within calendar dates, especially poor women and young people in geographically hard to reach communities and procedurally discriminated upon. While inspired by these institutions, Two Way Out and these institutions are independent organizations.