Not just facts and figures: Accounting is empowerment

by Melanie Lidman

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The sisters are deep in concentration over their accounting tables, heads bent toward the paper and veils brushing the edge of the empty spreadsheets. They furrow their brows and chew on the end of their pencils. The assignment: balance the books of a fictional health clinic called Mercy Health. The sisters must enter 29 different transactions, from international donations to returning expired medicine to buying an ambulance and paying their staff, to determine if the health clinic is financially stable at the end of the month.

The instructor notices their hesitation. “That’s why you’ve been given an eraser on the top of your pencil, so you can make a mistake,” Petersen Marira tells the students.

As American and European donations to Catholic organizations decline, congregations in Africa are trying to come up with creative ways to maintain the programs that provide essential services in rural areas, often beyond the reach of the government services. One innovative approach is securing education so that sisters can take charge of their finances, to help congregations become financially self-sufficient.

“We have existing projects already, we have hotels, we have schools, we have hospitals, we have so many other projects,” said Sr. Sara Chandirau, a Missionary Sister of Mary Mother of the Church from Lira, Uganda. “But we don’t make profits with these projects. What we’re going to do with my skills is we’re going to improve on the services we render, and also manage the little resources we have, so we can provide the best services possible.”

The accounting course is part of the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) organized by African Sisters Education Collaborative. The sisters, from Uganda, South Sudan, and Kenya, are spending a month in an intensive financial basics course in Kampala at the campus of the Association of Religious in Uganda. Then they’ll return to their jobs, where many of them are responsible for their congregations’ finances in addition to their work as teachers, nurses, and administrators.

Next October, the women come back for another month-long course, and then receive a certificate in finance from Marywood University, a Catholic liberal arts school founded by the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary congregation in Scranton, Pa.

A more extensive academic program is underway at Kisubi Brothers University College, a pastoral campus located on the main highway from Entebbe to Kampala. Sisters make up a large portion of the student body on campus, which was founded by the Brothers of Christian Instruction in 2004. But most of the sisters get degrees in the social sciences, as psychologists, nurses, teachers, or social workers.

At the beginning of the 2014 school year, students and lecturers were surprised by the presence of eight sisters in the business administration program. The business administration degree rarely attracted women. And sisters? This was something new.

“Many people are querying why we have come to do business administration in particular,” said Sr. Grace Adikini, from the Little Sisters of St Francis of Assisi in Uganda, who is studying business administration. “They wonder, are we going to go out in the world and run business institutions? I give them a simple answer: due to the need of our time, we cannot sit back. This knowledge we are acquiring doesn’t mean we are going to run the biggest businesses, like in Uganda, the all-powerful supermarket. It doesn’t mean we are going there. But we need this information in order to manage the little resources that we have.”

The college program, called HESA (Higher Education for Sisters in Africa),  has both an online and on-site degree program and also is operated by ASEC, which works in nine countries across Africa. In Uganda, there are 118 students in the SLDI programs – 59 in the finance course and 59 in the administration course. In addition to the eight HESA students at Kisubi University, six sisters are getting a bachelor's degree in education through an online degree program, which allows them more flexibility.

The hope is that sisters will begin to start thinking of their congregations as a business. The for-profit sector pays attention to small details and expenses, reports to stakeholders, and identifies unsuccessful projects that are draining funds, and sisters should do the same, ASEC believes. The difference is that when congregations are making a profit, they don’t award bonuses to CEOs. They reinvest the money into projects to serve their community.

“We have aging and sick sisters in our congregation,” said Sr. Rose Kyomugisha, a Sister of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Mbarara, Uganda, who is studying business administration. “If we can make money from our projects, then we can meet the needs of our congregation.”

“It’s not that we don’t have money or resources, we have them,” explained Sr. Teddy Kihembo, of the Congregation of Daughters of Our Lady of Fatima of Kabala, Uganda, who is participating in the SLDI finance course.

“But we need to learn resource utilization, and how to spend money that is going to help the congregation. We don’t have the knowledge about how to manage our resources in terms of money and intangible assets, so we feel like we are poor.”

Many sisters learn the very basics of finance while in formation before their final vows, simple things like how to keep track of their own expenses. But as congregations stretch themselves across the country in order to provide as many services as possible, few sisters are left to serve in administrative roles. Often sisters with no training are thrust into jobs where they oversee the entire congregation's finances.

This can lead to mismanagement of funds, like SLDI participant Sr. Stella Rachel Drariu’s congregation, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Juba, Sudan. A well-meaning fundraising initiative, where sisters set aside a small amount every week to build another dormitory at their orphanage, got mismanaged and the building was only half-finished. The roofless building is a daily discouragement to the sisters, who are now wary of putting away money for savings and investment.

ASEC hopes that education will help sisters turn their finances around. “These sisters are supposed to be in the limelight of changing their community and society,” said Sr. Jane Wakahiu, executive director and a Little Sister of St Francis. “We are providing them with a degree and critical thinking so that they can compete in a global society.” ASEC also has scholarship programs to help sisters get high school degrees before continuing on to higher education.

SLDI and HESA are flagship programs for the education collaborative, which is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. (Global Sisters Report also receives funding from the foundation.) Since the SLDI program started in 2007, 2,100 sisters have participated in courses in Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and South Sudan. HESA started in 2012, and currently, 148 sisters are enrolled in eleven colleges and universities in the United States and Africa. Within four years, it will graduate 238 sisters with degrees and 48 with two-year college diplomas.

Drariu knows first-hand the importance of a financial education. When she handles the books, she often feels like the accountant sees her veil and dismisses her as ignorant. “The world is going so fast and it’s kind of leaving us behind,” she said. “We have to work with the world and people who have higher educations. People are on one level up here, and they look down on sisters, they think we have low standards. We need to upgrade our knowledge.”

Many sisters both in the business administration program and the finance course expressed the same frustration. Outside accountants are expensive, costing at least 2 million Ugandan shillings (U.S. $750), money the sisters could instead invest in their programs. If sisters don’t understand an accountant’s recommendations, they could be making poor financial decisions. And in some cases, accountants have taken advantage of sisters’ trust or ignorance and siphoned funds into their own pockets.

There’s also the understanding that international donors want to see neat bookkeeping, to know where their money is being spent. “They teach us that the main factor, the point where the donor goes to sign the check, is our budget and our reporting,” said Sr. Mary Lucy Mbugua, a Little Sister of St Francis of Assisi who is originally from Kenya but works in Uganda. “If we don’t understand what a budget is, and how to manage finances, that’s why we’re losing [donor money].”

But sisters are dealing with more than their own lack of skills. They must overcome the public’s association with financial positions as men’s work, especially in conservative African culture. “Most of us were told that you can only be a social worker, or that teaching is a job for women and cooking is a job for women,” said Wakahiu, who works with ASEC in Pennsylvania but is originally from Kenya. “These disciplines have been male-dominated, but it’s high time we start helping the sisters.”

“Many [sisters] fear accounting, that’s the issue,” said Mbugua. "They think, ‘now that I’m involved with money, what happens if it gets lost?’ But when you have the concept of financial management, you lose this fear. Personally, I was really afraid before I came to this course.”

“Now there are many women who are doing accounting and are so savvy in this,” added Drariu. “If they can empower us with finance we’ll be able to work more efficiently so we can use less donors and improve our own incomes.”

Sr. Germina Keneema of the Missionary Sisters of Mary Mother of the Church is the Uganda coordinator for ASEC. A journalist by training who completed the SLDI finance course in 2012, she is encouraged by the optimism of the students, and believes that financial education is the path for sisters to empower themselves. “The skills they get are so important and so practical,” she said. “We teach them hands-on, so they can go and use it immediately.”

The emphasis on finance and independence has ruffled a few feathers in the church, especially among the diocesan leadership. “Some bishops are worried, because as our sisters continue to get liberated and get their own money, they’ll get more involved in their own projects, and they won’t go to work in the parish [for the diocese] where they won’t be paid,” said Keneema.

Both the sisters and the program leaders know that the path to financial independence will be long and difficult, but gaining these basic skills is a step in the right direction.

“My passion is watching sisters liberate themselves,” Keneema said. “When our projects are self-sustaining, we don’t have to beg.”

[Melanie Lidman is Global Sisters Report correspondent for Africa and the Middle East.]