This question is at the heart of Jacqueline Novogratz’s inspirational book, The Blue Sweater. Her fascinating story of travel, work, and adventure is always driven by the goal of empowering people to lift themselves out of poverty. Her story weaves together many people and places from around the world, examining the individual issues and challenges they face. But for me, the book’s most powerful message is that we are all connected.
My own journey, while different on the surface, is remarkably similar in many ways. What I found most fascinating was Jacqueline’s transition from youthful hopefulness to an optimism more rooted in pragmatism. Jacqueline starts off as a young woman who was determined to save the people of Africa. Over time, she learns that “solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability, and market strength, not easy sentimentality.” I too am learning this lesson.
In the mid-1970s, my parents had the opportunity to travel to the United States to pursue their college degrees. It was during this time that I was born. Less than a year later, I returned with my parents to our home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was there, in the small, rural village of Musumba, that I spent my childhood. But when civil war broke out in the mid-1990s, my parents made a heart-wrenching decision. They sent me to the United States—alone, at the age of 17—so that I could stay safe and continue my education.
Ten years later, I had completed two master’s degrees and was looking out at the world wondering how I could make a difference. Reading the opening chapters of The Blue Sweater, I could see this version of myself so clearly. I shared young Jacqueline’s same passion and mission—to help the world’s poorest people meet their basic needs and live with dignity. But how? Where does one start?
My solution was to found a microfinance organization that puts women in a position to create their own destinies and achieve their full potential. I saw myself as a “transformative” force. I was returning to the Congo to change the lives of the women there. But as I look back over the last several years, I realize that, in fact, these women have changed my life.
It seems that oftentimes when people work in developing countries, they find that the work itself is a journey of self-discovery. I had returned to the DRC with the aim of “empowering” women, but I discovered that the women already had power within them. I had intended to transfer the knowledge that I had acquired through my formal education, but I discovered that the women were knowledgeable in their own ways. In fact, they became my teachers. They are experts in the conditions of their own lives.
Through my experience, I have learned three main lessons. First, never assume that all people are at the same place in terms of poverty. Second, never underestimate people’s enterprising spirit and the ingenuity to make something out of nothing. Third, people are smart—they know where they want to go, and all they ask of us is to help them remove the barriers that hold them back. The Blue Sweater serves as a beautiful reminder to this.
In 2006, Chingwell Mutombu founded First Step Initiative, a microfinance organization that provides small loans to women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, enabling them to start and grow their own businesses.
Chingwell is a currently working on her first book, “Voice of One, Song of Many,” a memoir that describes her journey from the Congo to the United States. For more information on this project, visit Chingwell.blogspot.com.