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MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – Growing a credit union is hard work anywhere. If you need bodyguards, translators, no one has heard of credit unions, literacy is low-level, and live in a war-zone, it is even harder. Despite daily hardships Edgar Comeros managed to open two credit unions in war-torn Afghanistan in 2004 and is hoping to open three more against tremendous odds. Comeros is working on a five-year project under the auspices of the World Council of Credit Unions and funded by MISFA (Microfinance Investment and Support Facility) and USAID. Originally from the Philippines where he organized farmers in the middle of another war-zone, his first chore was to find housing. He located a two-story house with a courtyard (common in Afghanistan) that has flowers and a grapevine. The basement was a bomb shelter. People bought furniture for him, but after a year they showed up to remove it, claiming it as theirs. The house was badly insulated. During the winter it was heated with a portable gas heater that he carried from room to room. Outside, the snow in Kabul was knee-deep making travel to Kabul from Mazar-e-Sharif a day-long trip instead of eight hours. One night he, his driver and bodyguards were forced to sleep in the car because the Salang Pass was blocked. Summer brought little relief in terms of comfort. Temperatures soaring to 127 made Comeros wish for air-conditioning or at least a fan. The solution for the suffocating nights was to sleep on the porch with a mosquito net, which because of the dust quickly became an interesting shade of brown. When asked what the view was from his window, he said that Afghan culture prohibits looking out the window. His neighbor complained when he did, during a sweltering day, and the landlord stepped in to handle the dispute. He was not able to intermingle with neighbors. Meals were not that different from home, partially because he cooked with local ingredients using his own recipes. Breakfast was prepared by the cook who gave him “fresh mud-oven baked bread, egg and coffee.” Lunch was with the credit union staff with the officer cleaner doubling as cook. Overall, he said that he lost three holes on his belt. His family encouraged him to take lots of chocolate food supplement with him to help him regain the lost weight. To travel around the countryside he rented a four-wheel drive and paid bodyguards $40 a day. He followed the UN-recommended practice of having two cars for any trip with the second car serving as backup in case of breakdown or attack. He said about the guards: “As we were not familiar with the people, we were advised not to hire guards with guns. Honestly, there were times when I had doubts on the capability and dedication of our guards. I had to use all my human relation techniques to win the protection of the people that I did not personally know.” At one point, $1,600 and the guard on duty disappeared. Lost In Translation Because he was meeting with everyone from government officials to potential members, he needed a good translator. Anyone who spoke English is considered qualified, but that means most have the equivalent of a high school education or less. Although he did find some good translators who spoke Dari and Farsi, he had to fire his first translator. “He gave me seemingly neat work. Later when I showed it to another staff member, I was told that it was nothing but garbage.” “During the time I was going around the community, giving orientation meetings and seminars to introduce the idea of credit unions, I had to depend on my drawing skills and visual illustration skills using charts and pens to deliver my ideas. I was pretty sure that the translator could only convey around 20% to 30% of my ideas.” He used standard credit union organizing methods and a business plan, but the on-the-ground situation made “variations and adjustments the order of the day, as we are operating in a very difficult environment,” he said. Besides living conditions being discouraging, most people Comeros met with told him the idea of credit unions were impossible. Not one to give up, he held a meeting with farmers. Comeros spoke with all the passion he could muster. At the end of the meeting farmers were pulling money out of their pockets to join up. Two credit unions got up and running in 2004: Balkh Savings and Credit Union in Marar-e-Sharif, located 248 miles north of the capital Kabul, and the Jawjah Savings and Credit Union located 74 miles west of Mazar-e-Sharif. Members represent a variety of professions from carpet weavers to doctors. Comeros has both men and women employees. His woman manager does not wear a burka, although some women employees do. Technical problems such as limited electricity are a constant. Everything needs to be done by hand. Although banks started accepting deposits in January, moneys could only be withdrawn after a month. Large safes have been purchased to keep member deposits safe. Mazar-e-Sharif does have an Internet caf that the credit union staffers use, but it is a slow dial-up with many power interruptions. “Rebooting, including bringing generators back up, takes 15-20 minutes,” Comeros said. “While Internet connections are not reliable, it is a `prized commodity’ that we cannot do without.” There are no land-line telephone connections and he relies on mobile phones. They are expensive and “our indispensable possession.” Comeros often feels he is in danger, but uses his faith to handle it. “Prayer has been my secret weapon. Many times when my phone rings sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I sometimes shiver. In a place where you don’t know anybody, where kidnappings and killings are lurking, you can only turn to your God for protection. I am consoled every time I talked to my three-year old granddaughter when she whispers a prayer for me: Lord Jesus, please protect Papa Bals in Afghanistan.” A sanity factor for him is seven days out of the country every two months. Although the budget limits trips to neighboring countries, he often pays the difference to go home to the Philippines. He is there now on an extended vacation while waiting for government approval for phase two of the operation that would see another three credit unions opened. There is some feeling within the government that these projects should be done by locals rather than foreigners. When asked why he was doing such dangerous work, he said, “If you have a blessing, you have a mission.” -

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