There’s a rule of thumb in microfinance that says a small working-capital loan to an entrepreneur typically benefits not just him or her, but as many as five people – a spouse, a child, an employee, or maybe a student. This morning I saw that benefit multiplied exponentially.

Loan officers at Akiba Commercial Bank manage approximately 200 clients each month. At the Temeke branch in Dar es Salaam, Dimota Mkuchu is one of nearly 40 loan officers who support solidarity-group clients like Honoratha Sudy, a single woman who opened the doors of Vetenary Nursery School 13 years ago. Named for the local neighborhood in which it sits, the school proudly proclaims – in a hand-painted epigraph on the courtyard wall – that “Education Is the Key of Our Future Life.”

Honoratha and neighborhood parents pursue that goal vigorously. Today, 400 children attend this school until age seven, after which they move on to elementary school. Like a henhouse full of chicks, the courtyard of Vetenary Nursery School echoes with the chirps of bright and eager voices from three classrooms: Baby Class, Middle Class and Pre-Unit Class. Parents pay tuition of 10,000 Tanzanian shillings ($6.25) per month plus another 1,500 shillings ($1.00) for meals.

Akiba Commercial Bank has been Honoratha’s close partner throughout the journey, lending to her four times in amounts ranging from 3 million to 14 million shillings ($1,800–$8,600). The first loan enabled her to pave the classrooms’ dirt floors, the second to buy desks and the third to build an office and a kitchen. She used her fourth loan to buy desks and improve the facilities at a satellite branch attended by 150 students whom the main school can no longer accommodate.

“Why open Vetenary?” I ask her, as Dimota translates for us. “What motivated you?”

“I was an orphan, from Iringa,” she begins. She speaks of growing up without parents, of being taken in by others. As a student, she says, she promised to herself that given the chance, she would return the generosity that had been shown her. And this, I infer, she knew she’d have to do on her own. That is because few men would take a second look at Honoratha. Today her worn face belies her young 39 years, reflecting the challenge of growing up poor in Africa. She is disabled and uses a long, smooth pole as a crutch to support a withered leg.

To realize her dream, she worked for years as a barmaid and saved her money. She started the nursery school in her home, but its success spurred demand for more student places and prompted an expansion. Enter Akiba.

I also ask her, “Are any of these children yours?” She smiles and gives me a long answer. Dimota smiles in turn, and translates: “Forty-five.” No fewer than 45 of Vetenary’s students are orphans. Honoratha supports them all. They are all hers.

As she explains this, I cradle one of the inquisitive children in my arms, a tiny three-year-old girl with a shy smile. She’s the daughter of an American who was living in Dar with his Tanzanian wife. Recently, after he passed away, his wife had a breakdown, unable to cope. Honoratha took in their three children, too.

A “continent the shape of the human heart,” wrote Graham Greene of Africa – an analogy that comes to me, unbidden, as I hug the little girl.

“No – a heart the size of a continent,” I amend quietly to myself, awed by the reach of this woman’s spirit.

Written for Accion’s September 2013 direct-mail appeal.

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