Palwasha Rafiqzada

In less than a year, vocational trainer Palwasha Rafiqzada has instructed 154 women in five different villages on skills as varied as poultry rearing and knitting. It’s a small contribution to the thousands of jobs created by Hand in Hand Afghanistan, but one that Palwasha finds hugely fulfilling all the same.

“I’m proud to work with poor women toward a change. These women have been stripped of everything by civil war and poverty.”

She isn’t exaggerating. After 35-plus years of near-continuous conflict, Afghanistan is the tenth poorest country in the world, with a child mortality rate of 99/1,000, the highest outside sub-Saharan Africa, and a maternal mortality rate of 460/100,000, the second highest outside sub-Saharan Africa. Despite a return to relative stability in recent years, the 2014 withdrawal of the US-led International Security Assistance Force means security is far from guaranteed.

Like so many others at Hand in Hand Afghanistan – from fellow vocational trainers to CEO Abdul Rahim Nasry – Palwasha knows first-hand just what that can mean. In the late-1990s, as the Taliban spread into north Afghanistan, the mother of six was forced to abandon a career in education and seek refuge in Pakistan. It was there, in a crowded immigration camp, that the graduate of Sayed Jamaluddin Afghan University learned how to sew, knit and rear poultry – skills she still teaches today.

Hand in Hand hires local field staff exclusively. Beyond suiting our ethos of self-reliance – and helping keep expenditures low – the practice means trainers are invested in their work.

Palwasha returned to Balkh Province after the Taliban fell in 2001. Her husband found work as a doctor’s assistant. She found work with several NGOs, including a stint as poultry team supervisor at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, before joining Hand in Hand more than a decade later in May 2013.

It’s work she has every intention of continuing.

“The women I work with face many problems – poverty, a lack of education, inadequate life skills – but by the time they graduate I find them strong and enabled. When they start to earn money they improve their position in the family and in society.”

Mary Katoni

Before Hand in Hand there was Barclays Bank Kenya, where Mary Katoni worked as a client manager. Before that, a degree at Nairobi University. But in all her life, says Mary, speaking during a rare break between Self-Help Group meetings, she’s never been as fulfilled as she is now. “I love working with people and something to change their lives.”

Mary is a Hand in Hand trainer in Tala, a town of 200,000 just an hour’s drive east of Nairobi. Deforestation has led to the gradual erosion of the area’s terrain, and dry, terraced fields cover the hills. Although subsistence farming is the biggest game in town, arid conditions means that crops often fail. Famine looms with every new season.

“Changing people’s habits is my biggest challenge,” says Mary, who supports about 650 Self-Help Group members. “People can very set in their ways. For example, if we try and encourage them to diversify their crops into more profitable ones, they might ask, ‘If my mother grew maize, and her mother grew maize, why should I grow another crop?’”

Poor education is another impediment. To help overcome widespread illiteracy in English, for example, Mary has adapted Hand in Hand’s training materials to teach simple record-keeping in Kikamba, the local language. But above else, says the 30-year-old, instilling a culture of saving is key. “The day you learn to put some money aside is the day you are ready to grow.”

Looking ahead, Mary hopes to boost her clients’ fortunes even further by introducing them to more advanced and innovative marketing techniques. “The modernity of Nairobi is something that is so near and yet so far for my clients,” she says. Thanks to all her hard work, it’s getting closer all the time.

Chris Mwaniki

Hand in Hand business trainer Chris Mwaniki works in Kawangware, a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi. Imagine the entire population of Boston living in a space the size of New York’s Central Park on less than US $1 a day, then add the triple-ills of AIDS, malaria and contaminated water and you’re just about there.

Still, Chris remains undaunted. “Working with the community is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he says.

Like many of his Hand in Hand colleagues Chris studied co-operative management. The former volunteer and Scout leader was keen to keep making a difference. Today, he is responsible for coaching some 400 Hand in Hand Self-Help Group members.

“I meet all kinds of people. Some are rude, some are good, some are kind,” says Chris. “I have some clients who haven’t even been to primary school. At first the only know about waking up and finding food for the day. That’s their life. It can be difficult to get through to them.”

Nonetheless, he says, almost all of his clients eventually learn the importance of saving and fiscal discipline. And many inspire him to continue working.

“I admire how they survive,” says Chris. “They taught that by being a hard worker you can do anything. They don’t have an education, they don’t have a job, yet they are very creative – they have ideas for a business and they believe they can make it.

“It’s all about determination: they know what they want. The moment I feel like giving up I think of them. If they’re trying, who am I to give up? It really motivates me.”