Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.
After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.
And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.
One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”
Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”
Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”
This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.
“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”
The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”
We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.
She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.
No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.