Microfinance, Africa, and Paintball Guns4 min read

 We did a new project this year in my World History/ELA class. 

And it was glorious. 

But first a little background.

In 1856, the country of Germany began invading a very small kingdom in East Africa called Burundi. They started a century of pillaging the land, harsh violence, political upheaval, and outright stealing of Burundi’s natural resources. They took over this land with overwhelming force, and caused enemy tribes who had very clear boundaries with each other to share space. 

It’s called imperialism, and it’s in my state standards for high school World History.

When Europeans finally left this once rich and beautiful kingdom, it looked very much as it does today: locked in civil war and in a constant state of poverty. A direct result of imperialism.

This happened all over Africa, and it is a contributing factor as to why many African nations are impoverished. And when nations like the United States sends money, food, and unpurchased clothing from thrift stores- a small Band Aid is applied to a large gash. 

As a teacher in a project based learning school, I wanted to find a way for my students to learn this history content in a way that is more real and authentic than me telling this story or having them read it on Wikipedia. 


I had a woman named Trace, who spent the past several years working in Burundi, come and speak to my class about what she did there. She worked for a bank called Turami that gives micro loans to citizens of Burundi. Groups of up to 30 people come together asking for a loan, say 15,000 dollars, and the money is divided equally among the group, each person receiving 500 dollars a piece. But the kicker is, they pay back the loan together rather than individually. If someone is short one month, the rest of the group pitches in and helps with the payment.

Communal lending.

This money is used to start small businesses: goat farming, brick making, clothing companies, etc..  And 90 percent of the loans are paid back in full. This is not a band aid for the poverty in Burundi, this could be what heals the wound caused by imperialism.

And when my students heard Trace’s story, they wanted to be a part of it. And so when Trace left that morning, the class did some brainstorming. And my principal ended up loaning me 300 dollars. My students got into groups of four, and I loaned each group 10 dollars. Their goal was to multiply that money into as much money as possible. And at the end of the unit, they would pay the loan back, and we would take the profits and invest it in an actual group of villagers in Burundi applying for a micro loan through this really cool website called KIVA.ORG.

After signing and notarizing loan agreements (by an actual notary public), the students formed companies, and began holding bake sales, selling soda and lattes in the hallway, making bracelets, knitting scarves, buying chocolate and selling it on the weekends at local bowling alleys, and they spent a portion of their earnings on more supplies to generate more income.

I had one group that took their 10 dollars and bought a bag of paintballs. This group went door to door in their neighborhoods telling neighbors that they could shoot them with the paintball gun for every 5 dollars they donated.

They made 70 bucks! You can’t make this stuff up!

At the end of the unit, the whole group (the class) paid back the loan in full, and we had a profit of over 700 dollars.

700 dollars made by 14 year old freshmen. Now this is some history class.

And using KIVA, we loaned that money to a group in Burundi. And when it gets paid back, we are going to loan it to another group of people. 

My students are thinking outside themselves. They weren’t sacrificing their break times in between classes, or their evenings and weekends so they could earn a grade. I actually didn’t grade this at all. They worked hard because they wanted to be a part of Burundi. They had a deeper understanding of imperialism than most textbooks can give, and they wanted to do something with this knowledge. This project gave them an opportunity to empathize and act. 

That is part of the beauty of project based learning. The subject content is still there, but it is absorbed rather than reflected. It’s felt rather than just heard. 

Oh, and it’s a lot of fun. 


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Trevor Muir

I believe every student has the potential for greatness. And I believe every educator can be equipped to unlock that potential.