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Helping hands around the world

The Internet has made giving to those less fortunate easier than ever.

By Frederic Hunter / March 21, 2008

Scott Wallace - staff


Last spring, I lent 100 bucks to a woman named Helena Tawiah, whom I'd never met.

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Here's how it happened:

My wife and I were watching TV one night – it must have been PBS – when we heard about a project called Kiva. We've both lived overseas and were impressed that the founders had concocted a way to marry sophisticated Internet capabilities to the need for capital at the grass-roots level of developing countries. They do this by putting their technology at the service of foundations working with small-scale local businesspeople. These foundations develop loan requests from the entrepreneurs, upload them to Kiva, and then help make sure the loans get repaid.

We went to the website. There, we were invited to "Choose an entrepreneur" from a list of them in countries all over the world. What caught our eye was Helena's Plastic Products, run by Helena Tawiah of Nkurankan, Yilo Krobo District, Ghana. There was a photo of Helena standing before a large collection of plastic containers, a kind of Tupperware queen of Yilo Krobo. Why not advance her $100? We would start our own mini development-aid program.

Why Ghana? If you've been to Ghana, you have to love the place. Accra, the capital, has a wonderful West African vibrancy that you'd never expect when you see what the sea air does to the sides of buildings. The town looks – or at least it used to – as if the whole place is in an advanced state of decay. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We were in and out of Accra when I was doing business in West Africa 35 years ago. We usually stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. Late at night, as we'd be trying to get to sleep, the band on the bar terrace below our window would play, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." One of my favorite tunes. I lived in San Francisco before we married. I loved to hear the band swing into those familiar strains. The local crooner would sing: "where little cable cars / climb halfway to the sky..."

And I'd want to jump out of bed, thrust my head out the window, and yell: "Halfway to the stars! Stars! Stars!! It rhymes, my friend! 'Stars' rhymes with 'cars.' " I wanted to, but I never did. It was their country, after all, and I was a visitor.

Every morning, as we'd be lying in bed with the gray light of dawn just appearing in the sky, a well-dressed hotel executive would unlock the door, poke her head inside the room, and ask, "Are you leaving today?" Our personal alarm clock. We knew it was time to rise and conquer the world.

My contact in Accra was Cameron, a tall, well-dressed, well-spoken, good-looking African. He had published a novel, "The Gab Boys." I still have a copy of it on my shelves – and oh! did I wish I could say I had published one, too. When he took us to his home, his wife, Beryl, greeted us. She was attractive, formerly a dancer whose father had been a Briton in the colonial service. And there was a teenage boy, Cameron's son.

"The son is the child of one of Cam's up-country wives," a fellow I met told me. "He has two wives up country, taking care of his farms. Beryl's his city wife." Amazing!