Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Generous Vegetable Seller

After the morning hustle and bustle, the atmosphere at Tai-tung county’s Central Market quietens as every stall shuts for the day and their owners return to the comfort of their homes. A lone lamp shines on a vegetable stall. With head bowed, Chen Shu-Chu silently sorts out the vegetable leaves as she waits for the occasional afternoon customer. Decades of hard work have caused the fingers on the right hand to curl and joints to swell; her feet have deformed slightly.
Chen leads her life with a daily routine – waking up at three in the morning, she makes her way to the vegetable wholesaler and sets up her stall, which she tends till seven or eight in the evening. Being the first to arrive and last to leave, the other stall owners have fondly given her the title of ‘market manager’.
In the dark and damp market, Chen, nearing her sixties, holds the stall her father left her dearly. Yuan-Jin Vegetables is her everything. With her vegetables selling at “a bundle for 30 dollars, three bundles for 50”, Chen earns only marginal profits. Yet, her frugality has allowed her to donate about NT$10 million ($321,550) towards various charitable causes, including helping schools, orphanages and poor children.
The selfless generosity of a woman with such humble income has placed her under the international spotlight. In March, Forbes magazine named her one of 48 outstanding philanthropists from the Asia-Pacific region. A month later, TIME magazine selected the year’s top 100 influential people and Chen emerged under the ‘Heroes of Philanthrophy’ category. Fellow Taiwanese and Oscar-winning director Lee Ang wrote her entry personally. “Money is only worthy if given to those in need,” he quoted Chen. He also wrote, “Amazing, but of all she has given away, her greatest gift is leading by example.”
Despite the honour of receiving the TIME award in New York, gaining global recognition, and a personal meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou, all Chen really cares about is her vegetable stall. If not for President Ma and the foreign minister personally convincing her to go, she would not have agreed to visit New York as she felt “this is not a competition and I did not win anything”. Amid the frenzy of applying for a passport and preparing for the visit, Chen’s main concern was that her regular customers would not get their vegetables.
Chen has become a celebrity in Taitung county. Local authorities decorated her stall with congratulatory posters and banners hailing her as the ‘Pride of Taitung’ and the ‘Model of Philanthropy’. There are fans who turn up at the stall with a vegetable basket and a camera, hoping for a picture with Chen. Despite all the attention, Chen remains humble. “I have done nothing extraordinary and everyone who wants to can do it. There are many other charitable people; we just don’t know about them.” Chen, who is unmarried, adds, “I do not place great importance on money. When I donate to help others, I feel at peace and happy, and I can sleep well at night.” She also feels for the poor having experienced hardship in her younger days.
Born in 1950, Chen lost her mother after completing her primary school education. Her mother was admitted to hospital due to difficulties in labour and the family had to pay an insurance of NT$5000 ($160) before medical attention could be granted. Chen saw her father asking their neighbours for money but it was too late to save her mother. The eldest daughter in the family, Chen had to grow up overnight. She gave up her studies and dedicated her life to helping at the vegetable stall.
When she was 18, her younger brother fell sick and the illness dragged on for over a year, gradually depleting the family’s savings. Doctors suggested the family send her brother to Taiwan National University Hospital, but how could they afford the fees? Huang Shun-zhong, a teacher at Ren-ai Primary School, started a donation drive. Unfortunately, her brother could not be saved.
After experiencing the kindness bestowed upon her family, Chen made up her mind to help the poor once she was able. When her father passed away 17 years ago, Chen, a devoted Buddhist, generously donated NT$1 million ($32,140) to Fo Guang Shan Monastery. In 2000, she donated NT$1 million to her alma mater, Ren-ai Primary School, to set up an “Emergency Relief Fund” to help poor children obtain financial help.
Assisting in the setting up and maintenance of the fund is Li Guorong, who teaches Chen’s nephew. In 2001, Li had a plan to build a library for the school and estimated the cost to be between NT$4 million and NT$5 million. When he approached Chen, in the hope that she might contribute NT$50,000, Li was shocked when Chen said she would fund the entire project. While the school was sceptical, Chen was determined. In May 2005, the two-storey library was completed and named “Chen Shu-Chu Library” in honour of the ‘Vegetable Market heroine’ alumnus. She had donated NT$4.5 million.
Chen’s ability to donate such large sums of money has led many to ask, How can a mere vegetable seller earn so much?
“Spend only what you need, and you’ll be able to save up a lot of money!” says Chen. Since 1996, she has been donating NT$36,000 ($1150) to help three children in the Kids-alive International organisation. To achieve this, Chen explains that she empties her loose change into three little cardboard boxes at home every night. “This is a simple act that can be done by anyone, isn’t it?” says Chen.
Chen leads a very simple life without any luxuries. Neither does she have any desire for material gains nor any form of enjoyment. Work, she says, is her enjoyment. “I love my work. If I didn’t, would I be able to work 16 hours a day?” All she needs is food and a place to sleep. Everything else is a luxury. 
Has business improved after winning the award? “Business is as usual,” Chen says. “I still need to sell my vegetables, not much has changed.” Advertisers have approached her to film commercials, financial managers have offered to manage her finances and other well-wishers have offered to donate money. Chen rejects these advances politely. “It is easy to return borrowed money, but difficult to return a favour,” she says.
“My philosophy in life is simple: If doing something makes you worried, then it must be a wrong thing. If it makes you happy, then you must have done the right thing. What others say is not important,” says Chen. She is content with what she has and feels that as long as she “lives a life she wishes for and does the things she wants, that is good enough
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WHEN JEAN-MARIE MICHEL’S business collapsed seven years ago, the Frenchman’s life unravelled. After a prosperous decade in Latin America, the former professional cyclist and Tour de France competitor had set up two shops selling bicycles in his native Bordeaux. But the enterprise went bust in 2000. His Colombian-born wife left him and moved to Bogotá with their two children. At 45, he was bankrupt and unemployed. As a young man, he’d had a passion for bees. Maybe bee-keeping would provide a livelihood, he thought. He asked his bank for a loan to buy bees, beehives and a pick-up truck. The bank turned him down. Social services directed him to a non-governmental organisation called the Association for the Right to Economic Initiative (ADIE). It listened to his idea and loaned him 6500 euros ($10,000). Michel was back in business. In 2003, his beehives yielded 100 kilograms of organic honey. Today he has a million bees producing a ton of honey per year. His produce – Les Ruchers de Sarah – is so popular that he aims to double production. “I have found my place,” smiles Michel. “Without ADIE I would not be where I am today.” The woman who made this possible is Maria Nowak, ADIE’s founder and president. Polish by birth and brought up in France, she has enabled thousands of individuals to regain self-respect and take control of their lives. For her pioneering work, she is Reader’s Digest’s European of the Year. FIRING SQUADS As a small child in wartime Lvov, Poland (now L’viv, Ukraine), Maria Nowak watched from her garden as the Nazis executed local intellectuals, including family friends. Later, German soldiers burst into her house. Her mother, a doctor, was kicked and beaten, her elder sister and brother were imprisoned and tortured, and her father, a lawyer, deputy mayor and resistance activist, was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Two of her cousins were killed. Ever since, she says, “I feel the need to justify my survival. Why them and not me?” After the war, the family left Poland. Ten-year-old Maria and her younger brother were sent to Switzerland. After a year lodged with strangers and in an orphanage, she got word to join their father in Paris. Lacking entry visas, Maria smuggled herself and her brother into France hidden in a train lavatory. It was another year before they were reunited with their parents. Their life as refugees was a constant struggle. Maria’s mother worked as a domestic helper and assembled plastic flowers on the kitchen table, while her father found employment at the Free University in Strasbourg. When she won admission to Paris’s elite Institute of Political Studies, her scholarship helped to support the family. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “But I was a refugee, not French, so I could not. I thought, ‘Become an economist and heal societies instead.’” For her MA at the London School of Economics, she spent a year in Africa. After graduating, she returned to Africa to work for the French Development Agency. The continent became her primary focus for almost three decades. CAFE MEETING In 1986 she was sitting in a cafe in Bobo-Dioulasso, the second city of Burkina Faso, when she met a young man called Moussa. He offered to polish her shoes. She asked how much he earned per day. Less than a dollar, Moussa said. He kept half the money to buy rice; the rest went to the man who owned the brushes. Nowak was appalled. She recalled a meeting the previous year with Nobel prizewinner Muhammad Yunus, whose Grameen Bank in Bangladesh pioneered microcredit – small loans for entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for bank loans. If Moussa was loaned the money to buy his own equipment, he would be able to double his income. Inspired by Yunus and Moussa, Nowak began projects in Burkina Faso and Guinea. Micro-finance became the primary credit system in rural areas. Seconded to the World Bank, Nowak replicated Grameen Bank methods in post-communist Albania with credit unions that enabled farmers to buy animals or tools. “Entrepreneurship never dies,” she says, “even in Albania, where every initiative was forbidden.” In Bosnia, she kick-started microcredit by laying 500 Deutschmarks ($350) on a table at a shelter for survivors of the Srebrenica massacre and offering to lend it to anyone with a business project. One woman stepped forward with an idea for a market stall. Nowak handed her the cash. In the following weeks, she made loans to a teenage goldfish breeder, a woman who planned to make goat’s milk cheese and another who proposed manufacturing sugar lumps from grain sugar. All prospered and repaid their loans, as did other novice entrepreneurs whom she bankrolled. CHANGING FRANCE Microcredit was popular in the developing world. Yet few thought of using it in the developed world, such as her adopted country France. “In France, we lend only to the rich,” Nowak scoffs. She took her idea to several non-governmental organisations but none was interested. By this time, Nowak had a full-time job and three children. But she thought: “If no-one else wants to do it, I must.” She founded ADIE and set about raising money for loans. First, she won funding from a number of foundations including the European Union’s anti-poverty programme. Later, big banks saw that involvement with ADIE could be good for their public image. Nowak saw that ADIE had to make loans to those applicants with the energy to create a business. As ADIE’s reach and visibility grew, thanks in part to her daughter Anne, a TV journalist, she would encounter plenty. MOP AND BUCKET Aziz Senni grew up in a rundown area near Paris. Transport was bad, taxis were scarce. Senni saw a market for cheap “collective” taxis, shared by passengers and common in his parents’ native Morocco. In 2000, an ADIE loan helped him to buy his first vehicle. Now Senni’s business operates 130 taxis, employs 150 people, made $8.2 million in 2006 and is franchising the model in other regions. “Maria Nowak gave me the chance,” he says. Separated, jobless and with three children to support, Marie-Antoinette Benda, thought she could make a living with a market stall selling inexpensive jewellery. She outlined her idea to ADIE and borrowed $1100 to buy stock and rent a space at Grigny, 32 kilometres south of Paris. She repaid the loan with interest over two years as business grew. Then she borrowed more to expand. Today, Benda and her stall, now four times as big, are popular fixtures. “I often tell the unemployed: ‘Don’t stay at home sleeping! Do something!’” she says. Entering its 20th year, ADIE now has more than 100 outposts throughout France, mostly in areas with high unemployment and poverty levels. Just as important, Nowak has recruited 1000 bénévoles, unpaid volunteers who help aspiring entrepreneurs through unfamiliar territory such as bookkeeping and dealing with officialdom. Inevitably, not every enterprise succeeds but just over half are still going five years after they launch. At the same time, three out of four ADIE alumni are still in work, either in jobs or self-employed. “They are more likely to be hired if they can say: ‘I have done this and this and this,’” explains Fabrice Talandier, ADIE’s regional director for Nord Pas de Calais and Picardy. Throughout, Nowak has worked to make the regulatory environment more welcoming to small entrepreneurs. Her microcredit crusade, originally dismissed as unworkable in France, is now supported by European institutions, government departments, chambers of commerce, corporations and banks. The European Microcredit Network, of which Nowak is the president, estimates that small and micro enterprises represent 91.5 percent of the 2.5 million start-ups that are created in the EU every year. “Microcredit does not solve the problem of poverty but it makes a real contribution,” she says. At 72 and working 70 hours a week, Nowak is thinking less about relaxing with her grandchildren than about the challenges ahead. “At some stage, I will stop,” she says. “But I don’t see that I will retire. I will stand down as president and become a volunteer.” - See more at:

Passing on the Kindness

My friends and I had just finished lunch at a hotel when it started to pour heavily. When it became lighter, I decided to brave the drizzle to get my car, which was parked at my office three streets away.

My friends argued that I shouldn’t go, mainly because I was seven months pregnant then. I assured them that I’d be very careful. One of them wanted to come with me but I insisted that she stayed with another friend who needed help with her baby.

I walked out of the hotel and started making my way to the car. At the traffic junction, a van stopped and the passenger alighted with an umbrella. Before I knew what was happening, he walked right beside me and told me he’d escort me to my destination. I was very embarrassed and declined, but he was very persistent.

During our walk, he kept telling me to walk slower, as the ground was wet. When we got to the car-park, I thanked him and we parted ways. I did not get his name and may not even recognise him now. Did he purposely stop for me? I’ll never know.

So how did I pay it forward? I was at home when I noticed two Indian construction workers walking in the heavy rain. They were probably on their way to the construction site near my estate, which was a long walk in. I went out and passed them an umbrella. They were taken aback by my gesture, and I told them they should take the umbrella and keep it. They were very grateful and like me, probably wondered why a stranger was offering such kindness. -

My Unexpected Teacher Sometimes the best thing a doctor can do for a patient is to listen

DURING MY FIRST seven semesters as a medical student at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, I spent most of my time studying and in classrooms. I rarely spoke with real patients in a hospital setting. Then last year I started visiting the neurology ward at Dr. Sardjito Hospital.
I was gathering data for my thesis, an assessment of the oral contraceptive pill as a risk factor for ischemic strokes. This type of stroke is the most common and it occurs as a result of an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. At the hospital I would review the medical records of newly admitted stroke patients, then interview them to find out if they were taking the pill. It was a slow process.
One cold, rainy evening last October, I was in the neurology ward desperately “hunting” for the final three patients I needed to complete my study. The records showed that there was a 43-year-old stroke patient, whom I will call Ms A, in the ward.
Holding a patient questionnaire, I walked towards her room. I didn’t see any doctors or nurses; the ward was quiet. Ms A’s dimly lit room had eight beds. I could see dark clouds and heavy raindrops through the window. The familiar “hospital odour” hung in the chill air.
Ms A was lying on bed 4B, clearly still weak as she was still recovering from her recent stroke. There were no relatives or friends with her. Even the bed beside her was empty. I sat down on a chair next to her bed, and in a low voice I introduced myself and asked how she was doing. She softly replied that she was getting better but the left side of her body was still weak. When I told her that I wanted to gather some additional information from her, she agreed.
The questionnaire consisted of three simple yes-or-no questions. After I finished, I prepared to leave so I could go through more medical records. Before I could stand up, Ms A spoke up in her weak voice. “I haven’t seen you here before, doc. Are you new?”
“Not really, Ma’am. It’s just that I don’t come here every day,” I replied. She started making conversation, asking where I was from and why I was working so late in the evening. I was surprised someone in her condition would want to talk.
“Doc, do you think I can get back my normal life?” Ms A asked at one point.
Deep in my heart, I thought, God, I wish I was your doctor so I could answer you properly.
I replied that while I didn’t know much about her case, I could tell her what I had learned about the recovery of stroke patients. Depending on the severity of the stroke, quite a number respond well to rehabilitation. I was reluctant to go into too much detail as I was only a medical student.
Ms A started talking about herself. She told me that she had three children in primary school, who were staying with a neighbour. “My husband died a year ago and I’m the sole breadwinner of my family. We are not rich and my pay as a cleaner is exactly enough for me and my kids.”
I didn’t know what to say. Looking into her eyes, I desperately tried to remember the lessons from a communication skills class I had taken a few years earlier, but my mind was blank. I cursed myself for not paying more attention.
Without realising it, I had begun holding Ms A’s hand. Since I didn’t have anything to say, I just sat quietly while she talked. That’s when it occurred to me that she was not expecting any reply from me. She just wanted me to listen.
The conversation went on like this for about 20 minutes. She shared her difficulties and sufferings, talked about her husband, who was killed in a car accident, and her struggles to earn money. She also expressed her fear about what would become of her children if something bad happened to her. All I did was nod my head as a way of showing my sympathy.
Finally, Ms A stopped talking. “I’m very sorry for keeping you here to listen to my problems, but I feel relieved now. I had no-one to pour out my problems to.”
A single tear fell from the corner of her eye. I stroked her hair and continued to hold her hand. Finally, I knew what to say. “It’s OK, Ma’am. It’s part of my duty.”
“Thank you, doc, thank you so much.”
She let go of my hand. I stood up, covered her with a blanket, waved goodbye and left her alone in her bed. A few days later, when I returned to the ward, I discovered that Ms A had been discharged as her condition had improved, though she would still need rehabilitation.
Ms A taught me one of the most important lessons a doctor can learn. Sometimes patients do not need expensive medicine or state-of-the-art technology. They just need someone with the patience and willingness to lend an ear and spare a little of their time. For me, that is one of the best things a doctor can do for a patient.
MUHAMMAD FAIRUZ BIN ABDULLAH, a 24-year-old Malaysian, has now entered his clinical studies at the Gadjah Mada University Faculty of Medicine. He will complete his medical degree next year.
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