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2012-09-01 issue:

A life of opportunities

Joyce Bontrager Lehman's journey takes her from Kalona to Kabul to the Gates Foundation and beyond.

by Anna Groff

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How does an Amish girl from rural Iowa grow up to serve on a New England city council, move to Afghanistan and eventually work at the esteemed Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation?

For Joyce Bontrager Lehman, a question like that takes her back to her childhood, when—not wanting to miss out on an opportunity—she begged to join her father on his buggy trips into the town of Kalona. Fernandis Bontrager responded, “You can go. But you have to keep up.”

Joyce Bontrager Lehman in Mali in April 2008 during a trip for a potential project with Oxfam America, which the Gates Foundation did fund.  Photo by Jeff Ashe of Oxfam America.

Fernandis walked briskly from the bank to the feed mill, the hardware store and the grocery store. Joyce trotted along behind, working hard to keep up.

“What was it like for me to be at the foundation? I was trying to keep up,” she says.

Joyce’s life is slower since she left the Gates Foundation in April and moved back to Keene, N.H., where she is doing consulting work and hopes to continue writing a book.

She served on Keene’s city council in the mid-’90s, helping lead the city of about 25,000 people. She also returns to the Mennonite Congregation of Boston, where she has been a member for more than 30 years.

Joyce left Keene 15 years ago for a job as a business professor at Goshen (Ind.) College, then to work for Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), which took her to Afghanistan. Lehman stayed on in Afghanistan three more years with organizations other than MEDA. In January 2008—having left Kabul less than a month earlier—she took the job with the Gates Foundation in Seattle. This also allowed her to be near her two adult children living in the Northwest—an added bonus.

Working as program officer of financial services for the poor offered a constant intellectual challenge, as the Gates Foundation demands results for every project funded.

Joyce Bontrager Lehman (right) with the Kamal family in the Wardak Province in Afghanistan. Photo provided.

“I realized how hard it is to give money in a way that has the highest potential for impact,” she says. “If you don’t have impact, then what is the use?”

Despite the challenges, Joyce says she strongly resonates with the mission and objective of the foundation:  “All lives have equal value” and, “Every person should have the opportunity to live a healthy and productive life.”

“Opportunity” is now Joyce’s favorite word.

“In all the work I’ve done overseas, I’ve realized that we all want the same thing—a chance,” she says.

Often when interacting with poor individuals we feel guilty and turn our gaze, or we patronize them, thinking we have the solution, she says. Instead, Joyce points to Warren Buffett’s statement that he “won the ovarian lottery.”

“Opportunity is the only difference between us and the developing world,” she says. “We’re not better or smarter. We are just lucky.”

She believes her Mennonite background coupled with her work and travel experiences enabled her to think more holistically about development—being aware of unintended consequences and aiming for a more demand-driven approach rather than a supply-driven one.

“We need to take the time to talk to the people we want to help and ask them what they need,” she says, giving as an example the huge bundles of clothing sent to Africa from the United States. This action essentially destroys the tailoring industry in many countries.

MEDA, Gates Foundation and others work to avoid such negative outcomes. In the past 30 years, microfinance has focused on providing access to microcredit, and this remains part of the solution, Joyce says. However, her work at the Gates Foundation looked at a range of formal financial services—savings, insurance, payment systems, money transfers—needed by poor individuals all over the world.

Joyce points to an example in Kenya. At least 15 million Kenyans not only have cell phones but have a special application that functions as an electronic wallet. This allows them to store monetary value in their phones and transfer that value to another person who has the same application.

Safaricom—the mobile network operator—offered this service but did not predict its evolution as users figured out how to use the service in all sorts of creative ways. Safaricom responded by placing agents all over the country to serve as cash in-cash out points where people could exchange their hard currency for electronic money.  

“Our research shows that the millions of poor people in Kenya with M-PESA are better able to withstand the shocks that will inevitably come their way,” says Joyce.

M is for “mobile” and Pesa means “money” in Swahili. Mobile technology also has the potential to facilitate financial inclusion by connecting the billions of unbanked poor to the formal financial system.

Joyce’s journey began as an Amish girl in Iowa with her maternal grandparents, John Miller and Barbara Yoder.

Joyce Bontrager Lehman’s parents, Fernandis and Susan Bontrager. Photo provided.

“I have never stopped thinking of myself as a little Amish farm girl from Iowa and have been truly astonished by the opportunities I’ve had and the places I’ve been,” Lehman says.

She credits her family as planting the seeds for her adventurous spirit.

“There is something about me or my DNA or my family, but I have a fairly high tolerance for what other people would call risk,” she says, which explains her willingness to seize the opportunity and live in Afghanistan with MEDA.

Her grandfather was one of 12 children. But he was the only one who took the initiative to walk 20 miles along the railroad tracks to Iowa City and attend the University of Iowa long enough to get a teaching certificate. He was a public school teacher in the Kalona area for five years prior to getting married and settling into the more traditional farm life. But he never lost his love of books or curiosity about the world around him.

Her uncle Thomas Miller stepped in to fill the void left when her grandfather died. As a young Amish man, he had sold his horse and bought passage to Europe to attend the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, seeing in person the race made famous in the movie Chariots of Fire. He came to the farm and took Joyce with him on day trips. He influenced Joyce with his stories, puzzles and sense of adventure.

Her mother, Susan, did not have the same opportunities as her brother Thomas. Joyce believes her mother would have made a wonderful schoolteacher, but that was not an option for a girl.

“She never spoke of it to us, but I know she wanted more for her two daughters,” Joyce says.

The night before Joyce hoped to begin high school, she eavesdropped as her mother urged her father to allow her to attend. By this time, her parents had joined a church in the Conservative Mennonite Conference. But that did not fundamentally change the fact that her father did not value higher education. He relented, but the conversation continued to some extent nearly every year until Joyce earned a college degree.

“That gift from my mother is of such magnitude that I can hardly talk about it,” says Joyce.

Despite his views on education, her father—like others in her family—loved to travel and explore. After the end of World War II, Fernandis volunteered to work on a cattle boat to Italy, the first of many international trips. In Trieste, they unloaded the cattle that had been donated by Amish, Mennonite and Brethren farmers. The boat stopped in Venice for a few days of sightseeing before returning home.

Joyce’s immediate family took many trips, going as far south as Mexico City, north to Canada and spending winters in Florida. They traveled by train or hired a driver in the years before they owned a car.

“It’s no surprise that my first career was as a teacher and that my first overseas trip included visits to Paris and Venice,” she says.

Later, in the mid-’90s, Joyce felt restless working as a CPA in her private practice.

Before this she and her husband had divorced. Joyce describes the divorce as a “great loss” that brought about two realizations: life as she knew it was completely different, and the loss created new  opportunities, and doors opened.

For example, one door opened in 1997, when Len Geiser, chair of the Goshen (Ind.) College business department, called and offered her a job.

“To be honest, before I hung up the phone, I knew I would go,” she says. She promptly told her partner at her firm that she needed a change for a year.

After one year, however, she decided to sell her practice and stay at the college for another year. During this time she also joined the board of MEDA, which asked her to join the staff as a microfinance consultant after she finished teaching.

“I was at the point of my life where I was able to take advantage of opportunities,” she says.


Joyce first went to Afghanistan in 2003, when MEDA was asked to send a consultant to prepare a business plan to start up a microcredit program. She stayed on in Afghanistan three more years with organizations other than MEDA.

“I won’t pretend that the year in Kabul was easy,” she says. “It was the most challenging year of my professional life, but personally it was the most rewarding.”

Joyce says she is amused when people ask her if she had to cover her head in Afghanistan.

“Growing up Amish, I had to cover my head and wear unusual clothes for much of my young life. So it really wasn’t a big stretch to wear modest clothing and a headscarf when walking outside,” she says.

There were other similarities, as well. Afghan society is patriarchal. Men and women are separated in the houses of worship, and women are not permitted to speak in the mosque.

“There was even an eerie if somewhat comforting similarity between the call to prayer from the mosque and the sound of the Vorsinger who leads the singing at all Amish church services,” she says.     

She also worked with a woman who reminded her of her younger self.

“She, too, was dependent on her father’s permission to work outside the home,” Joyce says.

Other commonalities include the centrality of family, respect and care for the elders, children who immediately become part of the rhythm of the family life and remain so even after they marry.

“There is a sense of place, a family home, a deep connection to the land, a unique mother tongue, an oral history, a village, a community and, yes, a tribe,” she says.

Similar to Amish culture, at the foundation of the Afghan cultural traditions is a faith that is more often lived than verbalized.

“In both cases it is equally difficult to distinguish between the two. Is it theology or is it tradition?” she says. “If we are careful to listen and observe, we soon understand that we are more alike than we are different.”

Joyce experienced this realization throughout her life—that she was not so different from the women in Afghanistan and that poor people are not so different from wealthy people.

Grateful for her own opportunities throughout her life, Joyce continues to work to help others—striving so that people all over the world are offered at least “a chance.”

Anna Groff is associate editor of
The Mennonite. This article is based on Lehman’s 2011 MEDA convention speech and on interviews with her.

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