At dusk, women dressed in brightly colored wrappers and headscarves streamed down the long dirt road on bicycles and on foot. Cheerfully, they greeted each other and their teacher at the door of the primary school classroom, then entered. All stood together and sang a song of gratitude before easing into a prayer of hope that they would understand and learn from today’s lesson. Each then found her place at a wooden bench and desk built for two small children and took out of her bag the plastic sheath that held her pencil, eraser, and workbook. As if leafing through a cherished manuscript, the women carefully turned each page of their workbook until they arrived at their homework. They watched eagerly as the teacher wrote the answers on the black chalkboard built into the cinderblock wall. Then silently they began to correct their work while the teacher moved from student to student explaining where they went wrong and providing encouragement for doing better. The women had come from the fields and the market stalls where they had labored for 10 hours, yet not a single face showed signs of weariness. They glowed from the experience of learning.

The women had entered this classroom two nights a week for the past 7 weeks and had 5 more weeks to go before completing the Simple Bookkeeping and Business Management course. Tonight’s class was on Pricing and Costing. On the chalkboard, the teacher had drawn a table showing numbers and pictures of onions, cassava, shoes, cooking pots, houses, fabric, a sewing machine, and circles with happy and unhappy faces. The only words written were “Pricing and Costing” and “Customer.” In the local language, the teacher spoke of understanding what price customers are willing to pay, what price other vendors are selling the same goods for, and how much profit the seller wants to make.

The teacher asked, “If I buy a pair of shoes at 200 Naira, including all my expenses, how much would you want to sell the shoes for?”

“300 Naira,” volunteered an elderly woman who shared her bench with another woman, as well as a young boy who was sandwiched between them and took copious notes.

“300 Naira,” repeated the teacher. “So you would make a profit of ….?” “100 Naira,” shouted back the class in unison.

Pointing to a younger woman sitting alone, the teacher asked,” How much would you sell the shoes for?”

“700 Naira,” she answered, and the room burst into laughter.

“I think I would buy my shoes from mama instead,” the teacher joked. And the laughter and learning continued for the next hour.

Providing these largely illiterate, hard-working women with simple bookkeeping and business management skills helps to overcome one of the challenges to their financial security. When they set their prices before, they had not considered all the costs that went into the production, purchase or transport of the goods. They had not kept records of customers who purchased on credit or calculated how much their own credit purchases would eventually cost them. In a larger gathering of women from 20 communities, they spoke of the many other livelihood challenges they shared in common:

  1. We all grow and sell the same thing in our local market. Too much of the same thing drives the price down.
  2. Although we could give our goods to one of our women to sell for all of us at a more distant market, we do not trust each other with our goods or money.
  3. When a harvest is bad or fishing is bad, we do not have an alternative livelihood.
  4. There is no safe place to keep our money. Even our husbands and children steal from us.
  5. We do not have access to credit.

In the rural and riverine communities of the Niger Delta, all the livelihood challenges are woven together, along with cultural issues, such as female circumcision and poor education of girls, and social issues, such as an alarming increase in teenage pregnancies. In this classroom tonight, however, optimism reigns, as the women pull hard on the first thread of that complex weave called poverty.

BACKGROUND NOTE: Two to three teachers from ten communities were trained in Simple Bookkeeping and Business Management. They in turn teach 30 adult learners over a 12-week period. 660 farmers and traders from 10 rural communities received the training from August through October 2010. The training is part of a larger project on governance and livelihoods sponsored by Oxfam Novib and implemented by Niger Delta Professionals for Development (NIDPRODEV).