Chingwell Mutombu was born 31 years ago into a network of friendship and philanthropy between the Midwest and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her parents, both Congolese citizens, were students at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa, when Chingwell, their third child, was born. The family had come to the small town through a sponsorship program with the local United Methodist Church. An elder in the church was named baby Chingwell’s godmother, formalizing the bond between the African family and the Iowa community.
After their studies were completed, the Mutombus resettled their family in the village of Musumba, in the southern part of the Congo. Mutombu recalled a childhood spent “always running around, just enjoying the waterfalls and the trees. There are incredible natural resources [in the region.]” There was also widespread poverty and a remote countryside with few schools. But Mutombu’s parents were dedicated to changing both.
“I cannot change the world, but I can start with one person, knowing that it will grow. The ripple effects can be huge.”
– Chingwell Mutombu
Mutombu’s father, with the financial assistance of his friends in the Iowa church, traveled throughout the region, building new schools. In a rural village, a child might have to walk as far as 10 kilometers (over six miles) to attend school. “You have to meet people where they are,” Mutombu remembered her father stressing. She recalled traveling with him and watching entire communities gather to work on a building project. “I saw them digging holes, making bricks, baking the bricks, and putting the school together,” she said. Even the school’s future students were pitching in. Mutombu saw that it takes an entire village to accomplish a goal. She spent two years studying in one of his schools: “It was an honor,” she said, “to be a part of something that he built.”
While Mutombu’s father was building schools, her mother was building networks. The women of their region needed support from one another to weather an uncertain economy. Her mother helped organize women into co-ops to sell goods and services.
In pursuit of education
The hard work her parents did wasn’t limited to the community; her parents “pushed” Chingwell and her six siblings, Mutombu said. “They saw the skills in all of us. They worked hard to help us achieve our full potential.” In pursuit of a quality education, Mutombu left her village for high school, first in Lubumbashi, the regional capital, and then in the United States, where connections between the Mutombu family and their Iowa friends remained strong despite time and distance. Mutombu lived with the former pastors of the church that had sponsored her parents in the ’70s, and completed high school in Iowa. She refers to those friends as her American family.
After completing a bachelor’s degree at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Mutombu moved to New Jersey, where at Seton Hall University she earned two master’s degrees, in nonprofit management and international relations, and met her future husband. She began to envision how she could give back to her Congolese community, as her parents had.
After completing her studies, Mutombu followed her new husband to Minnesota, where she worked in local foundations before opening High Impact Consulting, her own philanthropic consultancy service. She needed the autonomy of being her own boss to achieve her dream of giving back. She wanted to use her education, skills, and Congolese contacts to start a nonprofit microfinance organization.
Microfinancing consists of very small business loans, typically less than $100, given to individuals who could not qualify for a conventional bank loan.
She knew from the beginning that she wanted to focus on helping women. In a region where large families were the norm, she said, “One woman’s success affects seven or eight people.” In addition, she said, “We have to remember that the children these women are raising are the future. They are the leaders we will need, the doctors we will need in the future.” The project, First Step Initiative, began in 2002 with a loan of $50 from her own pocket to a woman her mother knew in the Congo. She incorporated First Step Initiative as a Minnesota charitable organization in December 2005.
One step at a time
She is quick to recognize the support of the communities she was born into. “I am proof that it takes a village to raise a child,” she said. “A lot of people came my way at different stages, people who believed in me, who came together to get me where I am today.” She remembers watchful neighbors in Musumba who made sure the Mutombu children behaved while their parents were working across the region. Her American godmother created a trust fund that ensured she could attend college. A businesswoman here in Minnesota provided much of the funding needed to get First Step Initiative started.
“So many people have made this possible,” she said, “and most of them are women, in the Congo and in Minnesota. No one achieves anything alone,” she said.
The Congolese women in First Step Initiative programs learn this first hand. After a business plan is approved, the participant attends training sessions that stress practical business techniques as well as the importance of repaying the initial loan. The women understand that the money isn’t theirs; it is everyone’s, part of a pool that needs to be available for the next woman to use. Consequently, the repayment rate is upwards of 90 percent. “And these women achieve their dignity,” she added. “It gives them pride to give the money back to the community.”
“One step at a time,” is Mutombu’s personal philosophy. She recognizes that worldwide poverty can seem like an intractable problem. “Like raising children, it is not something that anyone can do alone,” she said.
Mutombu’s ambitions for First Step Initiative include not only expanding its reach in the Congo, but applying its model to other impoverished nations. As for her personal life, she sees herself starting a family one day, though she laughs that she’ll likely not have the seven kids her parents did. And it’s also possible that one day Mutombu could play host and mentor to another Congolese girl like she was, a young person looking to become part of the Midwest-Africa connection.
“I would love to do that,” she said.