Posts filed under ‘Countries’
By: Abhishesh Adhikari
One of the Kiva partner MFIs that I am helping in Uganda is Micro Credit for Development and Transformation (MCDT.) It is based in Kampala and provides financial services primarily to low-income women who come to Kampala from remote areas of Uganda. Even though the average loan size for a borrower at MCDT is only about $200, it is amazing how impactful the loans have been in helping these women become financially independent.
by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic
The Dominican Republic may be a small island nation in the Caribbean, but it has a quickly growing economy based on a shift from exports of sugar, coffee and tobacco to services like telecommunications and tourism.
However, according to a study done by the OECD in 2012, this economic growth has been limited by deficits in human capital – more specifically, the education levels of workers are insufficient.
This problem stems from the low quality of primary and secondary educations – public schools are overcrowded, dangerous, and lacking supplies. Even students from lower-middle-class and poor families are attending private schools, which in the Dominican Republic can range from less than $50 a month to incredibly expensive.
By the time students manage to graduate high school, many families cannot afford to pay university fees, forcing the young people directly into whatever work they can find, often in the informal sector. If the Dominican Republic wants to continue to grow and bring a significant percentage of its population out of poverty, it needs to employ more workers in the formal sector – and to qualify for these formal sector jobs, workers need university or technical degrees.
On the more individual scale, it has been proven over and over that getting a tertiary degree increases lifetime earnings. If the Dominican Republic cannot find a way to help students from poor backgrounds obtain higher education degrees and have access to private universities, inequality (already a huge problem here in the DR) will only increase, and the economy will stagnate due to the lack of human capital.
ENTER KIVA AND FUNDAPEC
Kiva has been supporting entrepreneurs in the Dominican Republic since 2007 with Esperanza International, extending its reach in 2012 with a new partnership with ASPIRE. Up until now, all the loans Kiva has disbursed in the DR have gone towards small (often informal) businesses or personal expenses – stocking a corner store, buying supplies for a beauty salon, constructing a house.
Meanwhile, Kiva’s newest partner, FUNDAPEC, has been giving out student loans for 46 years, and is the Dominican Republic’s only student loan provider. In the past FUNDAPEC has maintained strict minimum salary requirements for loan guarantors – usually the parents of the students. These requirements are meant to make sure that students’ families will be able to repay the loan, and are important in maintaining FUNDAPEC’s long-term sustainability, but they also mean that many poor students are turned away and simply cannot continue their studies.
FUNDAPEC has long wanted to provide loans to students from poor backgrounds, and through Kiva has finally found a way.
FUNDAPEC’S NEW LOANS
With the help of Kiva, FUNDAPEC has developed a new loan product specially designed for students with limited resources.
The loans can be used for undergraduate studies or for a technical (2-year) degree. Instead of having a minimum salary requirement for their guarantors, these loans actually have a MAXIMUM salary requirement – the guarantors of the students can have incomes no higher than 3 minimum monthly salaries ($480 USD per month or $5,760 USD per year).
These loans have some of the lowest interest rates on Kiva – 8% per year – and the terms are very generous. Students don’t have to make capital repayments on their loans until after they finish studying, and even then have up to 7 years to pay back their loans, keeping the monthly quota payments low enough that a recent graduate in his or her first job can keep up.
FUNDAPEC’S FIRST LOAN
When I arrived at FUNDAPEC’s offices to start getting the first Kiva loans going, the management team already had someone in mind to be the first borrower. They had received a letter from a girl who had no idea about Kiva’s program, but in desperation had sent a letter asking for help in finishing her education.
Crisley is only 20 years old, but has already been through a lot. An excerpt from her letter reads:
“3 years ago, studying was a distant dream due to a circumstance which changed my life and that of my family. I was diagnosed in 2009 with a chronic health condition. After multiple admissions to the hospital and after spending 6 months hospitalized on-and-off, I went into surgery.”
Crisley, instead of being defeated by her illness, has used it to inspire her. She is currently finishing her first year of studies in medicine, participates in a dance group, volunteers with the Red Cross, and hopes to one day be a doctor herself, so that she can help other people with similar conditions.
Unfortunately, in the Dominican Republic, years of hospitalizations and surgeries can bring even a middle-class family to the brink of poverty. Crisley’s parents have invested so much in her health that they can no longer afford to pay her fees at INTEC, the school she has been enrolled at. She still has special needs due to her condition, and continues to need some medical care and supplies, so the fees are still coming. Desperate to continue her education, she wrote a letter to FUNDAPEC hoping that somehow, even though her parents are now too poor to qualify as guarantors for FUNDAPEC’s normal loans, they would be able to offer her something.
Her letter came just at the right time, and we have just posted her profile on Kiva as the first Kiva borrower from FUNDAPEC, and the first borrower on Kiva to seek a higher education loan in the Dominican Republic. She is hoping to raise $9,700 which will pay for the next four years of study she has left on her medical degree.
Crisley embodies the hope and strength that Kiva looks for in its borrowers. She wrote in her letter to FUNDAPEC,
“I truly believe that everything in life happens for a reason, and maybe all of this was just the push I needed to know that my place is where I can serve, help and turn my experience into something positive in the life of someone else.
“Finishing my degree successfully is the dream I most want to fulfill, and with the help of God and while there is still life in my body I will continue fighting until I see it reached.”
Though Crisley is ready to fight, I think she’s already had enough struggles. With Kiva’s help, Crisley will not have to worry about her university expenses, and will be able to pay back the loan slowly once she finishes her studies.
FUNDAPEC’s loans are not for everyone. Lenders will not begin to see repayments for many years – in Crisley’s case, for five years – and won’t get the full amount of their loan back for up to 12 years. However, I can guarantee that these loans will change someone’s life. Lend through FUNDAPEC and support a young person who simply wants to get an education.
After serving as a Kiva Fellow in the 19th class in Barranquilla, Colombia, Rose Larsen is continuing her tour of the Caribbean with a placement in the Dominican Republic, as part of the 20th class of Kiva Fellows. She has been working with ASPIRE and FUNDAPEC. Click here to lend to a Dominican borrower today. To find out more about the Kiva Fellows Program and to apply to be a Fellow, visit www.kiva.org/fellows.
Here in Mongolia, my top priority with XacBank has been to complete borrower verifications (BVs)—visits to 10 randomly selected Kiva clients to ensure that everything in the field checks out with the information reported to Kiva’s San Francisco headquarters. As it happened, the borrowers in my sample were scattered across the country. Here’s a summary of what my month of April looked like:
- 1 month spent
- 4,872 km covered
- 9 borrowers verified
- 5 aimags traveled to
- 7 branch offices visited
- 10 training sessions delivered
- 35 loan officers and other staff trained
- 13 top Kiva borrowers recognized
- 1 television interview completed
- 67 client waivers checked
- 2 runaway borrowers chased down
- 1 Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
- 2 beautiful lakes and other sights experienced
- 4 items delivered via Mongolian messenger service
- Many kilos of cheese curds (and other nice gifts!) received
I couldn’t help but feel lucky—I knew it would be an eye-opening experience to visit all these different parts of Mongolia. After all, I think most Kiva Fellows are in this as much for the professional experience as for the exposure to new countries and cultures. Why not mix business with pleasure if you can?
I’ve talked before about some of the work that Kiva Fellows do when we visit branch offices during our BVs, but what I didn’t explain was how, in order to successfully complete a BV, the Fellow must meet with every single borrower on the list. If for whatever reason, a borrower is unavaible or nowhere to be found (and that’s happened before!), the sample must be re-drawn and 10 new borrowers must be verified—no matter how close you were to finishing the first set of 10 (and irrespective of how far and long you had to travel to see them). So it’s safe to say that Kiva Fellows sweat it a little when these meetings don’t line up perfectly. And people are often on the move, which can raise some serious logistical challenges sometimes.
Take Aibek, for instance. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, booked us flights to go see him in Bayan-Olgiy, the western-most province of Mongolia (flying made sense given that Olgiy, the city centre, is a 3 day drive from UB). She also arranged our accommodations and made plans with the Director to deliver training sessions at the branch office. We were all set to leave on Monday morning, but late in the afternoon of the Friday before, she called me up sounding very serious: ‘Aibek is not in Bayan-Olgiy. He’s in UB right now. I just spoke to the loan officer.’
The trickiest part was that he was only planning to be in UB for a few days—which meant that by the time we came back from our branch visits in Bayan-Olgiy and Uvs provinces, he would have left already. We couldn’t change our flights, and flying to Bayan-Olgiy a second time was pretty much out of the question. So the best thing to do was to meet in UB during the weekend. We made plans to meet him on Saturday at 10 a.m. in his neighbourhood. We made our way to the east end of the city and waited… No Aibek.
Batzul called the loan officer in Bayan-Olgiy, who then called Aibek, but he wasn’t picking up his phone. We communicated through his wife, who was at home. We waited and waited. No Aibek. We gave up and agreed to try and reschedule.
Our opportunity came that afternoon. Aibek, the loan officer told us, would meet us by the Wrestling Palace at 1 p.m. When we got there we searched in vain for any passers-by who looked like the man in the borrower profile. An hour passed. No Aibek.
But the third time’s a charm, right? On Sunday afternoon I got a call from Batzul—Aibek had been located! We hopped in a taxi and made our way to the west end of the city. We were driven to a desolate, industrial area surrounded by auto body shops, where random vans were parked and people seemed to be waiting around for something. We waited in the safety of the taxi, but when no Aibek appeared, we cautiously stepped out and started asking strangers if they knew of our man. Eventually, one of them pointed us to a van, and lo and behold, Aibek was there!
Our first stop in our travels was Bayan-Olgiy. Bayan-Olgiy is a special part of Mongolia: This region is home to the country’s Kazakh minority, giving it a very distinct feel from the moment you arrive. The Kazakhs, who make up some 90% of the population of this province, adhere to Islam (rather than Buddhism, like much of the rest of Mongolia), and the predominant language is Kazakh, not Mongolian (though most people speak both). From my hotel window, I could hear the evening call to prayers.
The Kazakhs were first drawn to the high mountain pastures in the region in the mid-1800s, where they let their sheep graze during the summer months. Throughout most of the 20th century, they were an isolated, tight-knit community, and this region is considered even by people in Kazakhstan as the best-preserved example of Kazakh culture. One of the things it’s best known for is the Eagle Festival, which takes place every year in October.
I think my Kazakh colleagues were as curious about me as I was about them. I immediately started learning some words in their language. Instead of bayarlalaa for ‘thank you,’ they say rahmed. Amansasbaa is the common greeting, whereas in Mongolian it’s sain bain uu (or more casually, you can say salem in Kazakh). And learning to say tansganmaa huanshtaman (it’s nice to meet you) came in pretty handy several times later on!
Having finished our work at the branch quickly, our colleagues took us to see the main mosque in town, followed by a hike up a nearby peak to get a beautiful view of Olgiy, the Altai Mountains, and the river that flows from them. Later, the Branch Director and driver took us on a long and bumpy drive to Tolbo Nuur, a freshwater lake about 50km south of the city centre. Though it was still frozen, it was amazing to see a body of water (there aren’t many in Mongolia!).
Next stop: A visit to the Branch Director’s extended family living in the countryside! True to Kazakh/Mongolian hospitality, they welcomed us warmly and prepared a massive and delicious feast for us. It’s customary for people in Mongolia to welcome strangers—locals and foreigners alike—into their homes and feed them. It stems from their nomadic history, in which families would help other people who were passing through the area, or receive visitors from different parts of the country (for example, the capital) and exchange news with them. It’s a beautiful aspect of the culture here.
On our way back to Olgiy, we soaked in the peaceful landscapes of the countryside…
A picnic at Uvs Nuur
By midweek, we were bidding farewell to our new friends in Bayan-Olgiy and boarding another plane, this time bound for Uvs. We were welcomed at the airport by a small crew, and no sooner did we arrive at the branch than we got down to business. Client waivers, visits to borrowers, loan officer training—check, check, check! Then the branch staff treated us to a warm welcome dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant. We were starting to feel like royalty!
The following morning, we had certificates and tokens of appreciation to hand out to 5 Kiva borrowers who had repaid their loans on time (or early). It turned out that the Branch Director had invited the local television crew to film the small ceremony! They asked me to say a few words about Kiva, so I was happy to talk about the good work Kiva and XacBank are doing. It aired on the evening news that night. I guess that makes me famous in Mongolia!
Next on the agenda was a trip to Uvs Nuur, a saltwater lake that is the largest in Mongolia. Lucky us! We followed a road for part of the trek but veered off after a while to avoid muddy areas where our SUV could get stuck. We zigzagged across an open field and eventually made it to the water’s edge, where Mongolians love to come and take a dip in the summertime. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and we took in the warm rays as we sat idly by the water’s edge and enjoyed the picnic our colleagues had packed for us. We couldn’t have spent a nicer time in Uvs!
Business owners, an ancient monument and a stolen dinosaur
The following week, we hit the road for two more aimags, Arkhangai and Bayanhongor.
There, we had the opportunity to meet some borrowers who told us about their businesses. It’s always rewarding to make the connection between the borrower profiles on Kiva’s website and the people who are actually behind them. It’s also nice to see microcredit working effectively. These lovely ladies passed along their thank you’s to their Kiva lenders… Allow me to introduce them.
While visiting these aimags, we also learned about some of Mongolia’s rich natural history. Not far from Tsetserleg, Arkhangai’s city centre, is Taikhar Chuluu, a large rock formation that juts out in the middle of a wide plain. Legend has it that a snake emerged from the earth one day, many moons ago, and a hero named Bökebilig forced it back and sealed off its cave with this rock. The rock has been revered by various civilizations since ancient times, as evidenced by the Mongolian, Tibetan, and Turkic inscriptions which can be found on it (the latter which dates back to the 6th century AD, although sadly, most of the inscriptions have been overwritten by modern-day graffiti).
And did you know that it’s possible to smuggle a dinosaur out of a country? Luckily, the one that was taken from Mongolia is now on its way home. Bayanhongor, which is part of the Gobi Desert region, is home to some of the incredible dinosaur fossils that have been unearthed since the 1920s. These include many dinosaur eggs and several Velociraptors (which of course you’ll remember from Jurassic Park!). One of the most famous discoveries is of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops that were locked in battle and frozen in time 80 million years ago. You can also see exhibits such as a nest of newborn baby dinosaurs, and a mother protecting her young at the Natural History Museum in UB—that is, when they’re not out touring the world!
The Mongolian Messenger
I witnessed another curiosity during these BV travels. In a country where there are effectively no street names or real addresses, I’ve been intrigued by how mail gets delivered around here. You may know that the Mongolian Empire had a highly developed mail system at the height of its rule. People have assured me that when they receive mail—that is, anything that cannot be taped to their doors—they are given notices to go pick it up at the nearest postal outlet. Sounds reasonable, right?
But the truth is, Mongolians today have instituted an informal delivery system that would surely do Chinggis Khan proud. My edification began as Batzul and I waited in line at the check-in counter in the UB airport to fly to Bayan-Olgiy. A man was hovering nearby, and finally he approached Batzul. They exchanged a few words in Mongolian; he passed her an envelope, and she took down a phone number. I observed the whole interaction somewhat suspiciously.
‘What was that all about?’ I asked after the man had gone.
‘Oh, he just wants me to deliver something in Olgiy,’ she replied casually. And to my confused stare, she added, ‘It’s the Mongolian Messenger service.’
As if that explained everything! My jaw must have dropped. I started sputtering… What? How? Who?? I was full of questions!
These questions were somewhat cleared up when we arrived in Olgiy. As we stopped for lunch with our branch colleague, Batzul got on the phone and a short while later, a lady walked into the restaurant. Just a few words were exchanged before the envelope was handed over and the lady walked back out. I watched in fascination. ‘How did you know she was the right lady?’ I exclaimed.
‘Because I just talked to her on the phone,’ Batzul answered matter-of-factly.
‘But don’t you need to see her ID or something?’ I persisted.
‘No.’ We resumed eating.
This happened again and again until I finally started to believe in the system. Coming back to UB this time, we walked out of the baggage-claim area of the airport and Batzul delivered another envelope straight into the outstretched hands of a stranger. She knew him by the black shirt he was wearing, she assured me. On the way into the city, our driver stopped along the road from the airport, not once but twice, at seemingly random intersections where our little Messenger hopped out, delivered her goods to waiting recipients, and hopped back into the car. I was blown away.
The Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
Speaking of this Messenger, delivering envelopes isn’t Batzul’s only talent. For the past four months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her, and for good reason: She is a truly exemplary Kiva Coordinator. We’ve worked closely together, particularly during all of our branch visits for the BVs, and I must say we’ve made a great team. We get our work done quickly and efficiently, and even have time left to have some fun (as you now know).
But it’s not just that. Batzul is an impressive young professional all on her own. She is always on the ball with her Kiva work and manages several other projects on top of that. But the best part about her is that she takes immense pride in her job as a Kiva Coordinator, and also in the fact that her work is impacting the lives of many Mongolians. Whether we are running a training session together, or visiting a borrower, she’s been far more than just a translator. She elaborates by adding anecdotes and lessons from her own stock of experiences, including her interactions with branches, loan officers, and clients, thus adding colour and depth to the messages we deliver. She makes my job as a Kiva Fellow easy!
Just as I had thought, the opportunity to see so many different parts of Mongolia for my BVs was fun, rewarding, and incredibly enriching. And I have Batzul, the Kiva borrowers, XacBank, and all the incredible people at the branch offices we met to thank for that—so from the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for a truly amazing experience!
Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).
By: Abhishesh Adhikari
One of the best parts about my Kiva Fellowship has been the opportunity I get to meet and interact with entrepreneurs. During the 4 months that I spent in Kyrgyzstan, I helped Bai Tushum (Kiva’s partner MFI) launch a new Startup Loan Product and met a wide variety of entrepreneurs all across that country. After I got back from Kyrgyzstan in January, I have been working on a new Kiva project called Kiva Zip, trying to expand it here in Chicago.
Kiva Zip is a new initiative to make interest-free, small business loans to entrepreneurs in the United States. This new lending model is based on community relationships whereby entrepreneurs can request interest-free loans (up to $5000 for the first loan) based on endorsements from organizations or prominent individuals in their communities. Lenders can view the profiles of these entrepreneurs on Kiva Zip’s website, and lend $25 or more at a time.
Spring has arrived in Mongolia! That means warmer weather (afternoons creeping closer and closer to the double digits)… and, of course, baby animals!
by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic
One of my first tasks upon arriving in the Dominican Republic was to visit 10 borrowers, chosen at random from all of the borrowers with ASPIRE (Kiva’s partner MFI), to verify data and find out how they are doing on their loan. This was an exciting but challenging introduction to daily Dominican life, as I navigated Santo Domingo and the surrounding areas via shared taxis, public buses, motorcycles, the metro and my own feet. I traversed bustling neighborhoods in the center of Santo Domingo, small towns in the mountainous interior of the country and everywhere in between, seeking out 10 lucky individuals to interview for Kiva’s audit of ASPIRE.
As a recent arrival in the country, it was a great experience to learn more about the Dominican Republic and what it’s really like to live here. Though each visit was uniquely interesting in its own right, four experiences stood out as having taught me a lot about what life is like for Kiva borrowers in the DR.
1. Dominicans have a very strong connection to the United States
I have often been surprised by the number of Dominicans who speak to me in near perfect English. Everyone seems to have a cousin or an uncle or a sibling in the States (mostly in New York and New Jersey), and many Dominicans that I’ve met have spent years living in the US as well. According to the census, in 2010 there were 1.5 million people of Dominican origin living in the US.
But what really drove that home to me was when I met my first Kiva borrower, Ramon, the owner of an internet center in the town of La Vega. He heard my accent when I spoke to him over the phone to arrange our meeting, and asked me where I was from. When I said the US, he told me he had lived there, all over – in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.
As we began our interview in his little computer center, I was surprised to hear him answer my questions in perfect English! After months in Colombia of struggling to understand Kiva borrowers’ difficult Costeño Spanish accents (the ends of all words seem to be cut off), this interview was a breeze!
Like many other Dominicans, Ramón moved to the US in search of a better life, and spent 20 years there. Unfortunately his wife preferred the Dominican Republic and he had to move back. He said that here in the DR, it was much harder to make enough money to live on, because here, inflation is high but wages and income streams remain low.
2. Dominican food is delicious, and Kiva borrowers sure know how to cook
I arrived in Villa Altragracia in the early afternoon, and the branch manager immediately rushed me into the lunch room to eat the Dominican lunch they had ordered for me. It was a plate of rice, soupy beans that are called “habichuelas,” salad, and stewed beef – this is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is called “La Bandera Dominicana,” or “the Dominican Flag.” The bandera dominicana comes in many variations – sometimes the beans are red and sometimes they are black; the meat can be beef, chicken or pork; and it is often accompanied as well by plantains. The meal I was served in Villa Altragracia was simple but really tasty.
After eating a satisfying lunch I followed a loan officer down the street to a Kiva borrower’s restaurant. It was only after finishing the interview and leaving that I found out that the ASPIRE branch office had ordered my lunch from there! I only wished I could have thanked her for the delicious meal.
3. Riding on the back of a motorcycle on a highway is terrifying, but loan officers do it daily
The second borrower I was scheduled to visit in Villa Altragracia was apparently not walking distance from the branch office. Since Villa Altragracia is a fairly small town, I agreed to get on the back of a loan officer’s motorcycle, so we set out motoring down the main road in search of Nailan.
I was very surprised when, 10 minutes later, I found myself merging onto Autopista Duarte, one of the main cross-country highways in the Dominican Republic. I clutched the waist of the extremely young-looking loan officer sitting in front of me who suddenly held my life in his hands. We stayed mostly on the shoulder, zooming by people selling snacks by the side of the road, and my heart leaped every time an enormous truck went by, going twice as fast as us.
20 minutes later I shakily stepped off of the motorcycle, and Nicolás, the loan officer, seemed surprised by how much the journey had scared me.
“I make this trip every day,” he said. “I used to have a car to do it, but the motorcycle is cheaper.” Gas prices are astronomical in the Dominican Republic – prices are currently at $5.25 per gallon! I had a renewed awe for the hard work that loan officers do to reach borrowers, even ones who are not very conveniently located.
4. Kiva Borrowers Span Many Economic Levels
My visits around the country were a great opportunity to see how normal Dominicans live – I visited their homes and businesses, met their families, and even shared meals with them. I was struck by how different each borrower’s life is – the pair of borrowers that I visited in the Santo Domingo neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos were the perfect example of these contrasts.
One borrower who left an impression on me was Papio. We found him spending the day at his parents’ home, a few kilometers down a dirt road outside of Los Alcarrizos, a working class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. He took out his loans to fund two of his businesses – a car and motorcycle repair shop, and a “colmado,” or corner store. He was spending the day overseeing construction on his parents’ land, where they raise chickens, bees and will soon rent out the new buildings they are currently working on. This was a man with multiple lucrative businesses – though perhaps the home was modest by US standards, he was clearly not struggling and in fact seemed to be flourishing, especially with the help of his Kiva loan! Though these borrowers are not what one normally thinks of when imagining a Kiva borrower, the money they borrow can go very far – Papio has multiple employees at his various businesses, all of whom depend on him doing well.
I spent an hour exploring the extensive acreage owned by Papio’s parents, as he pointed out different types of trees and plants that they grow – besides bees and chickens, they also produced mangos and avocados. I even got to share a meal with them.
Another borrower lived nearby, in the same municipality as Papio. To get to Elisabel, we bumped along down a dirt road filled with potholes, passing rundown shacks that housed whole families. The only day Elisabel was available to meet was Saturday, as she works the rest of the week as a maid in someone’s home – she finished paying off her loan a few months ago and unfortunately is not currently running her own business anymore.
Her home was very basic – a small wooden construction with a tin roof, and a tiny yard out front where a few chickens scratched in the dirt. The difference between Papio’s parents’ acres of land and well-furnished home and Elisabel’s shack where she, her husband and their three children lived was huge – it was hard to believe they lived just a few miles from each other. The difference in the quality of their lives was even more obvious.
Elisabel and Papio, though different, can both be helped by microfinance and the loans that ASPIRE and Kiva provide – though at very different levels. Elisabel’s loan was for $5000 pesos while Papio took out a $40,000 peso loan. The Dominican Republic has a lot of poverty, but as you can imagine, this poverty doesn’t always look the same, and it’s important to remember that Kiva borrowers don’t fit just one profile – they are as diverse in background as Kiva lenders!
Rose Larsen served with the 19th class of Kiva Fellows in Colombia and is now serving her second fellowship with KF20 in the Dominican Republic, with Kiva partner ASPIRE. Lend to one of ASPIRE’s borrowers today, or apply to be a Kiva Fellow!
Last week I started visiting some of Kiva’s borrowers with Transcapital, one of Kiva’s field partners that I’m working with here in Mongolia. While it was really encouraging to see Transcapital’s enthusiasm for Kiva at the head office as well as its various branch offices around Ulaanbaatar (UB), the new insights I’ve gained on urban poverty—both from these visits as well as just day-to-day life here—have left me perplexed so far, with far more questions than answers.
A short term solution?
Our visits began with a stop at Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB where a number of Transcapital’s clients have retail outlets. At a first glance, Narantuul is a colourful and vibrant marketplace where vendors sell everything from food and candy, to winter coats, scarves, belts, jeans, baseball caps, cardboard, and more. It’s the place where Mongolians often go to find cheaper wares, which makes sense considering some of the staggering prices I’ve seen at Ikh Delguur, the State Department Store. We spoke to Bayasgalan, the proud owner of a shop selling winter coats and clothes, a long time client of Transcapital’s, and a Kiva borrower.
Other vendors watched us with curiosity as we chatted with her, and the mood at the market was lively despite the cold. But my translator friend, whose family had sold candy there, explained to me as we left that pretty much all the vendors there need continual loans to in order to sustain their businesses. Without loans, they can’t operate; but even with loans, they struggle to get ahead… which is anything but encouraging.
Harsh working conditions
The next day, we visited Kharkhorin market, UB’s second largest outdoor market, located on the other side of the city. The wares there were slightly different: I saw lots of shoes, but also an eclectic collection of hardware parts, sinks, ropes, tools, and other random second-hand items.
We had trouble locating one of the two borrowers we had to meet, so we wandered around for some time looking for her. In the meantime we met and chatted with Saranchimeg, who had used her loan to increase her supply of winter boots. We had been outside for about 45 minutes by the time we finished chatting with her, and I thought my fingers and toes might fall off. It must have been around -25oC that day with the sharp wind whipping through the stalls. But my thoughts were with the market’s vendors who stand out there all day long, day in and day out. My translator friend assured me that, just because they’ve lived in Mongolia their whole lives, it doesn’t make the cold is any easier for them to bear. I was humbled by how hard they work.
The reality for taxi drivers
We also visited with some taxi drivers. While a male taxi driver may not be one of the sexiest loans on Kiva’s website, you should know how hard these people work to support their families, just like anyone else. And for what? Being a taxi driver is a tough way to make a living in UB: A one-kilometre ride will earn a driver about 1,500 Tugriks (or 1.07 USD).
Moreover, the competition is stiff. Since cars have become ubiquitous in Mongolia’s capital, everyone has become a taxi driver. It’s an overhang from the early days of capitalism, when cars were not that common and the city’s residents would help each other out by giving rides. Now, you see people on the streets with their hand out all the time, and it usually only takes a few minutes for a car to pull over.
Another borrower we met lived in one of the outer ger districts, the slums of the city which lack basic services like running water and sanitation. He was middle-aged and had taken out a housing loan, but he told us that he had been a driver under the socialist regime. He explained that he had had much difficulty in finding employment in his profession. Recently, though, he has started applying for driver jobs again. It’s a mystery to me how he has managed to make ends meet over the years.
Survival of the fittest?
It’s easy to think that people don’t work because they’re too lazy, or because they simply refuse to accept lower-paying positions. This may be true in some cases. But there may also be more to the issue than meets the eye. Mongolia had its Revolution and transition to a market economy in the early 1990s and it seems the transition was difficult for those who were brought up and educated in the socialist era: Many of their skills and experiences have not translated well in the new economy. While a lot of the leadership I’ve seen in white collar jobs are shockingly young—in their late 20s or early 30s—street and market vendors tend to be in their 50s or older. And for many of them, their wares include no more than a couple handfuls of gum and candy, which can’t possibly bring in that much at the end of the day.
Maybe skills training is needed to support these people… or maybe it’s not that simple. Imagine being in your 40s or 50s and getting trained (or competing for jobs) alongside people who are a whole generation younger than you. And the longer you stay out of the workforce, the less confidence you generally have to return to it. One colleague of mine surmised that perhaps self-employment is the way to go for these people.
The fork in the road
Of course, this reflects only one facet of urban poverty here. Another, and perhaps larger, driver is the massive migration of traditional nomadic herders to the capital, as zuuds—extremely harsh winters—have killed off the millions of animals on which they depend for their livelihoods.
Mongolia has gone through some incredible changes over the past several years, thanks to the discovery of the largest unexploited reserve of copper, gold and silver in the world. Roads have appeared where they previously didn’t exist; herders have disappeared from the streets of UB; shiny new buildings have gone up; inflation has gone through the roof. It’s poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2013.
There is immense potential for large-scale economic development and poverty alleviation in Mongolia. Microfinance is helping to tie things over, but how the country handles big issues such as corruption will ultimately determine whether the spoils will be shared by many. So far, everything I’ve taken in only seems to have raised more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of grasping the complex economic factors at work in this country, much less understanding the solutions.
Quien lo goza, lo vive! He who lives it, enjoys it!
by Rose Larsen | KF19 Colombia | KF20 Dominican Republic
Barranquilla goes through something of a transformation in the months leading up to Carnaval.
Carnaval is the one period of the year when Barranquilla becomes a tourist destination. For four days each February or March, the city fills up with travelers eager to experience what is known as “the best Carnaval outside of Brazil.”
Pre-carnaval season officially starts a few weeks before Carnaval with an event in the central stadium, where the Carnaval king and queen are crowned, and the only rule of Carnaval is announced: party, dance and have fun until your body can’t take any more.
However, you can feel a subtle change come across the city long before this, as even in December the residents of Barranquilla begin to gear up for Carnaval season.
In every public plaza, groups of youngsters can be found practicing their dances and preparing for the parades that they will perform in. Seamstresses are busy sewing costumes, stands sprout up around the city selling colorful Carnaval gear, and restaurants prepare for the crowds to flow in.
Not surprisingly, this is a busy time for Kiva’s local partner FMSD and other microloan providers – many clients take out loans to prepare and stock up for this busy season.
Carnaval itself consists of four days of music, dancing, drinking and general debauchery, as locals and tourists alike don wild costumes and release their inhibitions. It starts on the Saturday before Ash Wednesday with a 6-hour parade featuring giant floats and hundreds of “comparsas”, or traditional groups of dancers. The “Batalla de Flores” is the most popular Carnaval event and tickets are upwards of $200 for the best seats. Other parades on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday feature fewer floats but more groups of dancers.
Each night, revelers have endless parties to choose from. Both planned and spontaneous block parties are found throughout the city, nightly events are programmed in the main stadium, and the bars and discotecas are filled. Traditional Carnaval music fills the air and you can’t walk one block without seeing someone in a marimonda mask or a negrita costume – the whole city, from small children to old ladies, gets in on the fun.
The Characters of Barranquilla’s Carnaval
As I started perusing the Carnaval gear sold all around the city, I noticed that certain characters and costumes were prevalent. Colombian friends began to explain to me the different characters I would encounter throughout Carnaval, each with a different history and a different type of dance. To give you an idea of how diverse and unusual Barranquilla’s Carnaval is, I thought I’d introduce you to a few of them!
La Reina de Carnaval y el Rey Momo – The Queen and King of Carnaval
Each year a king and queen are chosen to preside over Carnaval. The Rey Momo, based on the Greek god Momus, god of satire, and the Reina of Carnaval attend each parade decked out in fabulous costumes. A Children’s King and Queen are also chosen, as well as queens for each neighborhood of Barranquilla, and even a Reina Gay. The Carnaval queen, the most important figure, is generally picked from the city’s elite class – this year’s queen was the daughter of a senator.
Marimondas are the clowns of Carnaval. The costume originated with poorer Barranquilleros as a way to make fun of the fancy, expensive costumes that members of high society tend to wear. Marimondas wear sacks over their heads, have giant flapping elephant ears, phallic noses, pants worn backwards, colorful vests and ties. The marimonda is one of the few Carnaval characters with origins entirely from Barranquilla - with his silly, unchoreographed dance, he represents the joking, rowdy typical Barranquillero.
Cumbia, a popular type of music and dance, mixes the Spanish, indigenous and African cultures that collide in northern Colombia. The music features African drums and indigenous flutes, and a live band usually accompanies every comparsa.
The women wear long, full skirts and the men wear traditional striped costeño hats. The dance is a flirtatious one, as pairs of men and women dance back and forth, the women moving only their feet and hips, keeping their upper bodies still – some even dance with bottles of alcohol balanced on their heads! A popular Carnaval activity is a “rueda de cumbia,” where revelers join a chaotic group of dancers circling a cumbia band.
The Dance of the Garabato is a dance representing the battle between life and death, and originated in Spain. A garabato is the traditional stick used by the Costeño farmer. For this costume, men wear black pants, a yellow shirt, and a red cape adorned with colorful sequins and designs, and have their faces painted white and red. They use the garabato to do battle with Death, usually represented by someone dressed as a skeleton. Women wear beautiful black dresses with red, yellow and green features, the colors of Barranquilla. Though this costume was close to disappearing at one point, a group of locals brought it back and each year, one of the first pre-Carnaval events is the Parade of the Garabato, which takes place on a Friday evening a few weeks before Carnaval.
El Son de Negro
The Son de Negro costume and dance derives from the African influence in the Caribbean coast. Africans were first brought to Colombia as slaves – the nearby colonial city of Cartagena was a center of the slave trade. This dance has its origins in the region near Cartagena on the banks of the Canal del Dique, a canal that connects Cartagena Bay with Barranquilla’s Magdalena River, where there are many Afro-Colombian communities. For this costume, boys paint their entire bodies and faces black, with their lips and tongues painted a bright red. They wear colorful flower hats and use their bright red mouths to make funny faces, imitating and making fun of the way slaves used to act towards their masters. Though my politically-correct San Francisco upbringing made me slightly uncomfortable around these costumes, ultimately I always had to laugh at the ridiculous faces that they pulled.
The Congo is one of the oldest of the Barranquilla Carnaval characters. This warlike dance was first performed in Cartagena by slaves with origins from, as its name suggests, the African Congo, and soon became a part of Carnaval as well. The men wear bright satin clothes including colorful capes, but the most noticeable component of the costume is the tall headdress covered in fake flowers of every color. A long train trails down from the back of the headdress nearly to the ground. They also wear sunglasses and carry wooden machetes that they use during the dance.
This costume has one of the funniest origins – it first became popular in the 1960s after an advertisement for a Venezuelan brand of detergent called Puloy featured these coquettish women. They wear curly black wigs and cute red dresses with white polka dots, along with matching headbands. The headbands and other accessories are big favorites among the women who watch the parades.
Joselito de Carnaval & his widows
On the last day of Carnaval, a few new characters emerge. Joselito is a representation of Carnaval, and on the final day, Tuesday, he is found dead from too much drinking and partying! Open coffins with a dead Joselito lying inside are featured in the parades on Tuesday, though Joselito often rises from the dead to salute the crowd. Apparently this character is based on a true story of a man who disappeared during Carnaval and was found unconscious on the street. His family organized a funeral for him, but during the funeral procession he woke up and sat up in the coffin!
Joselito’s counterparts are his viudas, or widows, men and women alike who don fancy black dresses, lace and high heels (and fake breasts in the case of the men!), and sob wildly, mourning his death, stopping only to pose for pictures! With the death of Joselito comes the death of Carnaval…at least until next year! See you all at Carnaval 2014?
It’s been just over two weeks since I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and there’s been much to take in. I’ve never been anywhere quite so foreign to me, where nothing about the culture, the food, the people, or the language is familiar. Chances are, these things aren’t familiar for many of this blog’s readers either. So for my first post from Mongolia, I’ve decided to take you through my new world through the senses, so you can get an idea of what it’s been like walking around in my shoes (or rather, my heavy winter boots).
I’ve been walking to work to my three microfinance partners in Ulaanbaatar (UB). Once in a while when I glance up, I’ll catch a glimpse of the beautiful mountains looming just beyond the borders of the city. UB, a sprawling city of 1.2 million, is nestled in the Khan Khentii mountain range. The mountains are covered in snow, although snowfalls are occasional and light throughout the country’s long and chilly winter. Despite the cold, one of the things I’ve loved so far here is how sunny it’s been: Mongolia averages 260 days of sun every year.
UB is a place where old meets new. For example, the Choijin Lama monastery (now museum), built at the turn of the last century, is just a stone’s throw away from the modern Blue Sky Tower. On a visit to the Gandan Monastery one day, one monk interrupted his prayers to answer a call on his cell phone. Throughout the city, old Soviet-style buildings are increasingly becoming flanked by new houses, condominiums, offices, and hotels. Some buildings can be deceiving, though: One apartment I saw had been built only a few short months ago, but resembled a dusty relic from the Cold War era.
In Mongolia, or at least its capital, status matters. Walking across Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the city, I see multiple women sporting their Luis Vuitton bags. A glance to the east of the Square will reveal an Emporio Armani and a Burberry store. As I cross the street, I try to avoid colliding with a Hummer or a Lexus SUV.
But perhaps the most striking image for foreigners arriving in the city is the ger districts. Gers are felt-lined tents traditionally inhabited by Mongolian herders in the countryside, but today they are a common sight in the city as well. While gers may have a surprising amount of furniture and modern appliances inside, they also lack basic infrastructure such as running water and sanitation.
The coal stoves used to heat gers are one of the main contributing factors to UB’s notoriety as one of the world’s most polluted cities. The coal power plants that fuel the city are also a culprit. As I walk through the city, I’m reminded of the scent of campfire, and a whiff of it usually follows me indoors as well. The air is the heaviest in the mornings, although by midday it generally clears up.
The smokiness has also come from cigarettes, although that’s set to change now. Until March 1st, smoking was permitted in public places, including restaurants and bars. It’s something I wasn’t accustomed to, so it was a bit of an adjustment. Starting this month, however, a new smoking law took effect. Smoking is now banned in all public places, including outdoors, with private homes or specially designated ‘smoking centres’ being the only acceptable places to light up. It will be interesting to see how people respond to being made to stop their habit cold turkey—or whether the law will be enforced.
Speaking of smells, the scent of cooking mutton is one that has quickly become familiar in restaurants and apartment buildings alike. There are an estimated 14 million sheep in Mongolia. It’s an impressive sheep-to-human ratio, given the country’s population of about 2.8 million.
Needless to say, mutton is a staple in the Mongolian diet, and a meal without meat is generally unthinkable here. At most restaurants, veggies are an afterthought—they often come in the form of a small carrot or cabbage salad. But produce is available in supermarkets, and thank goodness I’ve discovered Merkuri market. It not only features a separate section where veggies are piled high, it is also known for its wide variety of imported foreign foods.
As tasty as buuz and khuushuur have been, the culinary experience hasn’t been limited to local foods. In particular, Korean and Japanese restaurants are quite popular, and I’ve even sampled good Sri Lankan cuisine since I’ve been here.
So, what does one hear when walking around UB? It turns out that Mongolian drivers are just as communicative as their counterparts in Costa Rica, if not more so. (I’m listening to a chorus of angry beeeeps as I write.) Apparently there’s a law against using car horns in residential areas, but good luck with that! Mongolia’s capital is very much alive; the traffic is heavy, and the drivers impatient.
Traffic is a little crazy in UB. Cars and pedestrians alike behave like water: They follow the path of least resistance. Lanes don’t matter; cars squeeze into whatever space they can fill. Double turning lanes form spontaneously as cars race to get ahead of each other. At intersections, the traffic is like a leaky faucet, continuing to flow long after the light has changed. In response, pedestrians cross where and when they can. I refused to at first, and found myself standing alone at the red light with a little girl. (OK, so I’m a wimp.)
The other striking sound to me is the Mongolian language. I’ve been picking up a few phrases here and there, but so far I’ve been largely immune to the conversations around me. And saying mit ku (I don’t know) to someone who tries to speak to me only adds to the confusion, since most people here mistake me for being a local. As for signs, the majority of them are written in Cyrillic, which I can’t yet decipher. Luckily, there are just enough people who speak English here to make life a little easier, and there’s no shortage of friendly and helpful people.
Mongolians tend to take an active interest in foreigners, which has helped me feel really welcome here. Many Mongolians speak a second or a third language, even if it’s not English (Russian is common). And the people that I’ve met so far have been wonderful. Ladies I barely know will take me by the arm and help me cross the street—and I’m pretty sure they’re not just using me as a shield against those massive Hummers.
That sweet numb feeling
So finally, how does one feel physically when arriving in UB in the middle of February? Not much, I can tell you, because I’ve gone numb from head to toe.
It’s not actually that bad. OK, so it was in the beginning. My first full day here, the temperature was -35oC and that wasn’t easy. Weather forecasts generally describe the days as ‘Cold. Frigid.’ which I think is a very fair description. But you get used to it, and with the right combination of thermal underwear and layering, you can conquer the cold.
UB has the dubious honour of being the coldest capital in the world, and average temperatures stay below freezing for a good six months of the year. But that’s funny, because I lived in Ottawa, Canada before starting my fellowships with Kiva and I could have sworn that IT was the coldest capital in the world. Some days are not that different here from what they are back home.
But timing has something to do with it as well. It seems I may have caught the tail end of winter this year. Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s Lunar New Year, was celebrated on February 11th and marks the beginning of spring. And although spring weather is known to be highly variable, it’s hard not to feel uplifted when the sun is shining and the temperature is soaring all the way up to -1oC. Sometimes cold weather can be immiserating, but my experiences in Mongolia so far couldn’t be further from that.
There is no shortage of articles documenting Africa’s position on the cusp of global development, with Kenya as a particular harbinger of those expectations. The Economist has reneged on writing off Africa as a “Hopeless Continent” several times since it featured the headline a decade ago. In 2011 it published “Africa Rising,” in which it identified 6 of the fastest growing countries in the world as African, with GDP growth surpassing East Asia. Last August, it dubbed Kenya Africa’s “Silicon Savannah,” bringing an onslaught of attention to the burgeoning technology scene here. Its March 2nd issue includes the article “Aspiring Africa,” that describes the continent as the fastest growing in the world.
The fan fare around African growth is not limited to sporadic shout outs from The Economist. Recently, Johnathon Kalan of the Huffington Post published an article that describes the fusion of “Potential, Poverty, Politics and Parties” that draws American college graduates to social enterprise start-ups in Nairobi. More important, however, is the current generation of young, educated Kenyans who are tired of the status quo. They feel entitled to jobs and livelihoods that are fulfilling and afford them some degree of social mobility. They are joined by Kenyans abroad, some of whom have been away for a decade at least, pursuing degrees and jobs, who are now choosing to return to Kenya for opportunities that did not exist when they emigrated. Together, these young professionals understand the role Kenya can play in spearheading growth for the entire continent. They are prepared to role back their sleeves and play a role.
As much chatter as there is surrounding Kenya’s burgeoning technology scene, most articles stop short of explaining why it’s happening in Kenya and why it’s happening now. This week, I’m digging a little deeper into the context behind the phenomenon.
Until rapid urbanization began after independence, Kenya’s population was predominantly rural. In 1963, only 8% of the population lived in ‘towns’ or cities. Nairobi’s population was 267,000 and Mombasa’s was 180,000. Of those ‘townspeople,’ most were Arab, Indians and Europeans; not Africans, who typically worked in town for short or long periods, then returned to their rural homesteads where their families remained. Today, Nairobi’s population has grown to approximately 3 million people.
Although people are flocking to cities, their ties to the countryside are still strong. Often, one or a few family members migrate to cities and the rest of the family stays behind. A taxi driver I’ve used frequently is from the Naivasha area in Rift Valley. His wife and children remain in the country side, where he farms fruits and vegetables to sell at Nairobi bound markets. During the week, he leaves his family behind and comes to Nairobi to drive a taxi. This is a common arrangement in Kenya; city work during the week and village life on the weekends.
The movement from rural to urban by one or a few family members created the need for domestic remittance transfers. Family members are making money in the cities and need a way to send it back home. In other countries, like Mexico, where many family members work abroad, the opposite is true, the demand for external remittance flows are greater. Hence, Kenya’s unique rural-urban dichotomy set the stage for the internal funds transfer explosion that we’re amidst now. Once cheap mobile phones flooded the market, Safaricom filled the need with its SMS based money transfer platform, M-PESA, making Kenya the global leader in mobile banking technology. All of the subsequent innovations here have been inspired and made possible by the widespread use of cell phones and M-PESA.
Government and Infrastructure
The government is promoting the use of mobile money and technology development in Kenya. Bitenge Ndemo, who became minister of Information and Communication in 2005, is credited for spearheading the initiative. He bypassed ceaseless discussions between 23 African countries about launching a joint fiber optic cable, by linking right into a cable from the United Arab Emirates instead. It’s been his priority to lay down additional cables ever since. “When the cable was switched on in 2009, Ndemo made sure universities got unlimited internet capacity.” said Robin Dixon of the Los Angeles Times.
Bitenge Ndemo’s push for Kenya to become a regional technology hub does not end there. Most recently, he’s spearheaded the Konza Technology
City project, which broke ground on January 23rd. Fifteen kilometers outside of Nairobi, the $10 billion investment will be a public-private venture that includes a business district, science and technology parks, a university, conference facilities and residential areas. The government of Kenya anticipates that the project could yield 200,000 jobs in 20 years, along with sizeable investments in other sectors like health, education, manufacturing, financial services etc. Executives behind the project have already received 250 applications from local and international firms who would like to invest in Konza. Some of the multinational corporations seeking a piece of the pie include Samsung, Google and China’s Huawei Technologies.
Critics of the project have serious reservations about the government’s ability to bring such a large-scale project into fruition, when it has not yet managed to gain hold of municipal issues in the capital like traffic, electricity, water and drainage that fester under expansion. Nonetheless, the proposition and ground breaking of Konza represents a clear vision that policy makers and business executives have for Kenya as an ICT hub in the region.
Research Labs and Business Incubation
M: Lab East Africa at the University of Nairobi: Key to Kenya’s growing role in IT and mobile application development are its research labs and business incubation centers, where techies and entrepreneurs gather to collaborate, network and implement projects. In 2011, the University of Nairobi established M:Lab East Africa with the help of iHub, a local technology center. First funded by the World Bank InfoDev grant, the lab was founded to facilitate the innovation of low-cost, high value mobile applications.
iLab Africa at Strathmore University: Just on the other side of town, Strathmore University, Kenya’s premier private institution for business education, has its own research and incubation center called iLab Africa. At iLab, faculty and students have teamed up to develop mobile applications that overcome development challenges in health and education. ILab boasts a few high profile partnerships. For example, Strathmore and Safaricom offer a masters degree in mobile application development. Samsung has established an innovation lab there and Google funds IT education for girls in rural schools, in addition to sponsoring mobile application boot camps at Strathmore and elsewhere in the region.
With support from the Clinton Foundation and Ministry of Health, iLab has generated an application that tracks pre and post natal care of mothers and their babies in rural areas. They’ve also created one that sends the HIV status of newborns to doctors and clinics for treatment. On the education front, they’re mobile application development is centered around digital rights management and the provision of learning materials.
Climate Innovation Center (CIC) at Strathmore University: In addition to ilab Africa, Stathmore University hosts Kenya’s Climate Innovation Center, a climate technology innovation hub, established with the World Bank’s infoDev program. The center is poised to accelerate growth and innovation in renewable energy, agriculture and clean water by providing entrepreneurs with the funding, mentorship and facilities needed to innovate.
iHub: iHub is a physical nexus for the tech community in Nairobi. Established in 2010, it is an open facility for young entrepreneurs, programmers, designers and researchers. Free membership is offered to anyone with a demonstrated involvement in technology. Ihub provides access to facilities, networks for funding and opportunities to collaborate. You can become a member of its online community remotely, have physical access to the work space or pay a monthly fee for a semi-permanent desk.
Ihub’s very own research team is engaged in projects like their collaboration with Refugees United, an organization that helps refugees track missing family members. The team has upgraded the organization’s paper based sign up form to a WAP enabled sign up on mobile phones. They’ve generated easy to consume info-graphics about trends in East Africa and launched Spider M-Governance in 2011 to identify gaps in water governance transparency in Kenya.
Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania
I’m on a quest to follow a Kiva loan from lender to borrower! How often have I dreamed of this whilst browsing my loans on a frosty winter weekend in Canada? Now I have an ideal opportunity to do so as the Kiva Fellow in Tanzania, so I’ll take you along for the ride!
My directions are set when a friend emails from Calgary: “I donated to the Jaguar Group. They’re asking for a loan in support of their beauty salon. I chose that one in honor of you – I figure you might want a haircut or a color given you are there for months!” Too true; I’ve been in Tanzania since September and this Kiva fellowship has been rich and rewarding, but also tough, so I’m looking a little ragged… And salons here offer beautifully intricate braids – why not give them a try?
I love the idea of making the personal connection between a Kiva lender in my hometown of Calgary, and a Kiva borrower here in Dar es Salaam! I had the dubious distinction in KF19 Fellows’ class of traveling furthest to my placement, so this will be an opportunity to reel in some of that distance. And what fun to report back to my friend on how his loan is working out here on the ground! I immediately start making arrangements to meet Juliet, the featured borrower of Jaguar Group…
Lender’s city; borrower’s city
You may already be familiar with Calgary – prosperous modern city buoyed by oil wealth; 5th largest metropolitan center in Canada; enviable location at the foot of the Rocky Mountains; renowned for its volunteer spirit; host city of the ’88 Winter Olympics (remember The Jamaican Bobsleigh Team?); 9th largest lender city on Kiva in 2011 (way to go Calgary)! In short: it’s a privileged city with a lot of heart!
What can I tell you about Dar es Salaam? The name conjures up exotic images of centuries old sea-trade, sultry summer evenings, and short ferry rides to magical Zanzibar island!
But the reality of daily life is far from tropical paradise for most of Dar’s 3 – 4 million inhabitants; believe me, this is one grindingly hard city in which to eke out a living… Still, people keep coming, lured by hopes of a better economic future than they face in their hometowns or villages. Dar is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It’s a statistic with unenviable consequences: Dar’s infrastructure is clearly not keeping pace with the burgeoning population. Unrelenting heat and humidity are exacerbated by almost daily power cuts that mean no fans or air conditioning (in the words of my office-mate: “We are practicing for the fires of heaven!”), and no reliable refrigeration for foodstuff (where do maggots come from anyway?)
The dala-dala (bus) system is extensive and was genuinely well designed at inception – but now it’s inadequate and the overcrowding is epic! Likewise, unremitting traffic on overwhelmed roadways morphs the “5 p.m. rush hour” into the “2 – 8 p.m. standstill”. (Can traffic officers judge precisely when 64 passengers crammed in a sweltering dala with seating for 32 will finally reach breaking point? Only then do they signal us through the intersection!) Admittedly construction is underway to address transportation issues, but I regret the almost imperceptible progress in the 5 months I’ve been here.
Yet, in the face of wretched infrastructure challenges and the fact that formal employment is not keeping pace with population pressures either, the people of Dar find ways to get by – they have to. So the informal economy is bustling and every hot and dusty road is lined with shops and stalls; every opportune space is claimed. (Note to self: “That’s why Kiva loans to entrepreneurs are so relevant in Dar!”)
And if half of all Tanzanians are getting by on $2 per day per Kiva’s country statistics, it’s surely not from want of trying: it’s common to work long hours here in Dar.
No two ways about it – it’s a hardscrabble life here. But there’s a side to this city that defies all expectations: people in Dar (as in all Tanzania, in fact) are extraordinarily friendly, and helpful, and tolerant! I know it sounds cliched, but this is truly friendliness, and willingness to help, and tolerance, on a scale I’ve seldom encountered in my travels on any continent. It occurs to me this is the real key to living in Dar!
The expedition across town
Of course you realize Kiva borrowers don’t work in downtown office towers, but still you might be surprised by the widespread locations of their businesses (such as Juliet’s salon). Greater Dar es Salaam area is extensive, and many Kiva borrowers live and work on the outer fringes – perhaps 50 km away from my base at the main branch of Kiva’s partner MFI, Tujijenge Tanzania.
I had no concept of the stamina it would require before I started visiting borrowers last September! My mind boggles when I consider that loan officers from Tujijenge routinely travel across Dar to attend borrower group meetings every week… (The numerous challenges MFIs such as Tujijenge face in delivering services here in Dar are daunting. That’s why I admire MFIs for working here - where the need for microfinance is great, where it can make a significant impact on the lives of borrowers, but where it is not easy.) The loan officers are all busy as bees so I enlist Rita, the star Kiva Coordinator at Tujijenge, to join me on this visit to Juliet. We set off together, as always.
I use my favorite strategy: Start early in the morning. Take a series of “city-bus” dalas to the furthest point at which bajajis (auto rickshaws, named for the pricipal company that makes them) are available. Cover the final stretch to the borrower by bajaji, because the alternative of switching first to a “mini-bus” dala then risking life and limb on a piki-piki (motorbike taxi) is no fun at all. Persuade the bajaji driver to wait whilst we visit the borrower. Then do the trip in reverse. And hope to get home before dark…
(Rita scolds me for excessive expenditure on bajajis, but I can’t help it: I love everything about them! Bajaji drivers are fearless; they are consummate alternate-route-finders in the face of traffic jams; they are willing to tackle any road. Bajajis can negotiate all terrains successfully, or at least are light enough for this Kiva Fellow to push out of the sand when stuck… The open-air design provides sweet relief from the heat (even if the air I’m breathing is laden with diesel fumes, and bugs impale themselves on my camera lens), and I can choose how many of us are on board. I bet you’d take a bajaji too, if you had the chance!)
On today’s trip to see Juliet, a second bajaji driver dashes up just as we finish negotiating our fare with the first. “Mama,” he calls to Rita, “you gave me my loan at Tujijenge!” It means he has a Kiva loan! “Oh, I wish we could go with you then,” Rita responds. “It’s alright, you can go with him – he’s my friend,” says the Kiva guy, with characteristic Tanzanian friendliness. (What a great coincidence! I told you I love bajajis!)
Meeting the borrower
Turns out my meeting with Juliet is not happening after all… Instead of Juliet, Prisca is waiting for me at the roadside. Prisca is Chairman of Jaguar Group, and she tells me Juliet has bowed out today. Of course I’m disappointed, but I try to imagine myself in Juliet’s position as a borrower. Is she simply too shy? Battling a family or business crisis she’d rather not discuss? Scared because she’s behind on a repayment (even though she’s paid off 5 previous Tujijenge loans successfully)? Unwilling to have nosy neighbors learn from my obvious presence that she has a loan (out of financial privacy concerns, or because they may press for a share of the cash)? Unwilling to have her husband learn she has a loan (and thus jeopardize her personal financial stability)? Or is it something else entirely? I don’t know, but I’d far rather Juliet refuses than indulges me at her own expense – my visit is purely whimsical and not business related. It’s an apt reminder that a borrower’s loan is a significant business contract that is not undertaken lightly; it must be managed and paid back in the context of real-life complexities.
Meeting the borrower (Take 2)
Prisca saves the day by inviting me back to her store. I’m very happy to accept because, after all, the Kiva loan covers Jaguar Group, not Juliet alone. (Group loans are a mainstay of microfinance. You can read about their many benefits in Dar in my earlier Kiva post: Group Loans – Filling a Particular Niche.) Prisca hops aboard our bajaji and we’re off on a roller-coaster ride!
Prisca owns an impressively well-maintained store selling sodas (pop) and beer. There’s a shady seating area too, so Rita, the Bajaji driver, Prisca, and I settle down to enjoy a cold soda (bonus – Prisca has a fridge!) and a chat. I show Prisca her Jaguar Group’s loan on Kiva, and she breaks into a wide smile as she sees herself in the photo! She quickly points out Juliet, as well as Judith who was featured in Jaguar’s previous Kiva loan. She’s somewhat incredulous when I point out my friend from Calgary in the Lender section…
I ask Prisca about herself. She’s married, has a young son and daughter, and has always lived in this area of Dar. Her store used to stock a wide variety of goods but in 2011 thieves broke in and stole pretty much everything, including the scale for weighing goods like rice and dried beans. It was a cruel setback. That’s when Prisca joined Jaguar Group and started taking loans from Tujijenge to try to get back on her feet. Yes, the series of loans have helped restore her business – injections of cash every few months are invaluable in buying bulk stock at cheaper prices, and purchasing items like the fridge to draw customers. Some of the extra profit that is generated helps with household expenses (think school fees) too. But there’s still a way to go… That’s why Prisca has stayed with Jaguar Group, and recently become group Chairman.
Closing the circle
I’ve done what I’ve always dreamed of doing: followed a Kiva loan from lender to borrower! Now I know the people on both sides of the contract, and I’m totally delighted.
I report back to Calgary: “The bajaji ride was one of the best yet! The rest of things didn’t quite go to plan, but still they ended well. I met Prisca, not Juliet. I got a soda, not braids… Prisca was amazed to see you! Her business is coming along, and she says the loan is helping. Here’s the postcard I made you – it was a brilliant day, thank you! M.”
Click here to lend to a Kiva borrower in Dar es Salaam. (Please check back at the start of next month if all Tujijenge Tanzanian loans are currently funded!)
See more of the daily sights I’ve enjoyed in and around Dar in The Illustrated Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner! (Tanzania Edition). Or see the complete antithesis in On the Road Less Travelled: Kagera Region in Tanzania.
Keith Baillie | KF19 | Philippines
Part I: Construction of a New Community
Following the Sendong typhoon, many Cagayan de Oro residents were displaced. I visited one of the resettlement villages, Xavier Ecoville. Flood victims are still currently living in temporary wooden accommodation built by agencies like Habitat for Humanity.
Among the first facilities constructed are a church and a community hall. There are also a health and family planning center, day care and preschool facilities, and covered basketball and volleyball court. Housing is in low-rise terraces, enabling neighbors to mingle in the street.
Part II: Factors Driving Community Spirit
If I mention that I am visiting or eating somewhere, they always ask “Who’s with you, sir?” I ask myself “What are the factors that drive the strong Filipino sense of community?” Here are some factors that occur to me:
- Strong family bonds. Filipinos typically have large families. Working children are responsible for helping support parents and younger siblings (including their education). Children will frequently work abroad to accomplish this. Such family obligations imprint a model for shared responsibility in the broader community.
Note: However, nowadays many Filipino couples separate and many children are born outside of marriage. Nevertheless, parents or grandparents always take care of the children if the mother cannot.
- Living accommodation. Single Filipinos typically live with their family until they marry and establish their own family home. Young Filipinos studying or working away from home typically live with colleagues in boarding houses, which provides a community atmosphere in place of the family home. Few Filipinos live completely alone, even when elderly.
- Shared religion. (I have worked in Christian areas but suspect the same holds true in Muslim and indigenous areas.) Almost all Filipinos I have met have a strong, active Christian faith. Although most are Catholic, other denominations are integrated in non-sectarian events, like religious festivals/fiestas and office devotionals. One of the first questions Filipinos ask me is “What is your religion?”
- Avoidance of conflict. Filipinos rarely get angry or raise their voices. If I say something critical, a Filipino will ask “Are you mad at me, Sir?” leading me to soften my response. I do not see angry rows or fights even in drinking establishments. When I berated a young girl for pushing in front of me in a grocery line, she just remained silent. And when my motorcycle taxi nearly collided with a motorcyclist who had pulled in front of him, there were no expletives. They both just smiled and chuckled.
- Community service. I met a large group of students who were studying a college course in cleaning neighborhoods and planting mangroves. When they graduate, they will be unpaid volunteers. In the cooperatives I have visited, serving the community (especially the poor) is always stressed in the devotionals and board members provide their time for free.
- Performances and shows. Church, school, college and office events bring people together to practice for dance performances, beauty contests, sports contests, etc.
- Fiestas. Each municipality has an annual fiesta when community members who live away return home. There are family reunions, school reunions, church services, public entertainments, and the roaming meals where people visit a succession of homes to eat.
- Texting. Throughout the day, Filipinos text small talk like “Good morning!” and “Have you had your breakfast?” This is an extension of normal social interaction.
- Maintenance of local bonds while away. Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) maintain social connections with others from their city or region – for example maids in Hong Kong or workers in the Middle East congregate on particular streets or intersections designated for their home location.
Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that Filipinos have a strong sense of community – both with other Filipinos and (happily) in welcoming visitors from other cultures.
Afterthought: This may explain why Filipinos so readily ask foreigners for money. When they see financial inequality, it seems only right to share it. However, they don’t seem to resent the rich-poor divide within their own country enough to change it.
After an easy trip. I arrive to Accra, Ghana. The first feeling you have when you step out of the plane is an intense hot an humidity, and this in when you miss the snow at home.
It is 8 PM and the Ghanian national football team is playing the semifinals of the African Cup against Burkina Faso. The whole country is mobilized. I can hear the screams all along the airport. For the moment they are drawing, but with good opportunites. Maybe it is because of the macth that taxi drivers are behaving in a foolish way. I asked one of them about a hostel I knew, and he answers me he takes me there without any problem. I jumped on the taxi with all my stuff, we move forward few meters and he starts asking everyone where the hostel is. I ask him if he truly knows where it is, and he answers me no.
I make the same process with another taxi and it happens completely the same, till a kind woman called Evelyn, offers me her help. She told me she knew a hostel not far from her home. I relied on her and her little son John.
After a few minutes drive we arrive to the hostel. It was not as cheap as I expected, but it is 10 am, I am exhausted and the last thing I want to do is wandering in an African city of 3,5 million habitants. I go straight to bed.
The day after everything is the first time for me.
My first bedroom
Mi first sight of Accra
My first bathroom
My first coconut
My first meal
My first defeat.
I realize Ghana lost in penalties. It is in that moment when I remind they almost are the first African country in reaching Worldcup semifinals. An Uruguayan player´s hand and the latter missed penalty of a Ghanian player impeded it.
Bad luck in football continues for me. In El Salvador I attended with Fundación Campo Microfinance the qualifying game between Costa Rica and El Salvador. Of course, they lost.
But this event do not remove the smiles from them. They know what is suffering in the field and out of it. This is why they give thanks for reaching so far and they will try again harder than ever next year.
The day after the defeat, some supporter demonstraiting their devotion for the national team.
By Rose Larsen, KF19 Colombia, with excerpts provided by Wesley Schrock, KF19 Honduras, and Luan Nio, KF18 Nicaragua/KF19 United States
Loan officers are the hidden heroes behind the Kiva model.
Lenders, borrowers, Kiva staff and Kiva fellows all show their beautiful faces somewhere on Kiva.org, and while Kiva’s field partners have profiles of their own, there is little explanation or clarity behind who actually, physically, goes to the clients’ businesses, evaluates their requests, delivers loans and picks up repayments (hint: it’s loan officers!). Likewise, loan officers have varying degrees of knowledge about (or interest in) what Kiva is – some are enthusiastic supporters, while others are just doing their job, the photos and borrower profile information just one extra step as they navigate the hundreds of borrowers that they work with.
Yet in my experience, no matter what their attitude is towards Kiva, these loan officers care deeply about their clients, are well known in their sector or neighborhood, and work long hours to ensure that anyone who wants a loan has the chance to apply for one.
I got to know quite a few while here in Colombia, as I accompanied a different loan officer on each trip to the field. Loan officers are often a Kiva Fellow’s best friend in the field, so I asked a few other fellows what their experiences with loan officers was like.
Unsurprisingly, just as all of our field partners vary immensely, the jobs and lives of the loan officers vary across different regions. To give you a better idea of what a somewhat hidden yet key part of the Kiva process looks like, we’ll travel around the world visiting three different microfinance institutions and getting to know three different loan officers, learning about why they do the work that they do, and seeing a little bit of their daily routine.
Loan Officer #1: Jarling, Loan Officer with COMIXMUL, Honduras
Kiva Fellow: Wesley Schrock, KF19 Honduras
MFI Background: COMIXMUL is a savings and loan cooperative exclusively for women in Honduras. They are a new Kiva field partner and have yet to post a loan to the site (although they might have a few up by the time this blog is posted). COMIXMUL hopes to fund three specific products on Kiva: agriculture loans, youth entrepreneurship loans and solar panel loans – all products for which traditional funding is limited.
Personal Background: Jarling, who has worked as COMIXMUL loan officer for 3 years, is 30 years old, married, and has 2 children. Previously, he worked as a sales representative for a drinking water company. This sales and customer service experience made him an ideal candidate for COMIXMUL’s loan officer training program. After successfully completing 2 months of training, Jarling was a full-fledged loan officer, responsible for building and maintaining his own loan portfolio. Unlike his previous employer, COMIXMUL offers a competitive salary, a benefits package, and the opportunity for career advancement.
In the Office: Loan officers work Monday through Friday from 8AM – 5PM and Saturday from 8AM – 12PM. The day begins and ends in the office, which Jarling walks to and from. Administrative duties, like making sure a client’s loan application materials are in order, require an hour or two at the start and end of each day. Jarling works out of a shared office, but has his own small desk with a desktop computer. While clients do not use email, all clients have mobile phones. Hence, all client communication is done in person or over the phone.
In the Field: The majority of the day is spent riding around on a COMIXMUL-owned motorcycle visiting existing clients or promoting the cooperative in an effort to gain new members. Jarling might visit an existing client simply as a courtesy, but more likely because the client is delinquent, or wants to refinance an existing loan, or is seeking a new loan. He manages a portfolio of 110 clients whose businesses include convenience stores, food stands or restaurants, new and used clothing stores, bakeries, and pastry shops. The day’s schedule permitting, lunch is taken at home; however, he often has to lunch in restaurants or food stands.
*In the video, Jarling is meeting with a client, Maria, who runs two clothing stores. COMIXMUL has helped her to expand her business; when she started with the cooperative 3 years ago, she had only 1 store. Jarling paid Maria a visit because she was over a week late in making her December loan payment. Given Maria’s excellent repayment history, the tone of the visit was friendly; Jarling just wanted to find out the reason for the delinquency. Maria explained that she had extra holiday expenses, but promised to make the repayment the following week. Taking her for her word, Jarling amicably departed.
Implementing Kiva: Jarling has moved up the ladder at COMIXMUL: as a veteran loan officer he now serves an exclusively urban clientele. His initial territory was a rural area, in which agricultural loans predominate. From a loan officer perspective, an urban clientele is more desirable because urban areas are easier to serve – distances are shorter, mobile phone reception is better, and the routes are safer. Given his territory, Jarling will only be working with one Kiva product, youth entrepreneurship loans. COMIXMUL’s established processes mimic the Kiva model: loan officers are accustomed to taking client photos, writing client biographies, and tracking client progress. Hence, he doesn’t anticipate that implementing Kiva will pose significant challenges.
Loan Officer #2: Mario, Loan Officer with Fundación Mario Santo Domingo, Colombia
Kiva Fellow: Rose Larsen, KF19 Colombia
MFI Background: Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD) has been with Kiva for over three years, and has been working in the microfinance sector for more than 30 years. They work primarily with borrowers on the Caribbean coast, in the cities of Barranquilla and Cartagena. Most of their loans are for traditional urban businesses like beauty salons, corner stores and fruit stands. They also have many other social projects, including trainings for entrepreneurs, affordable housing projects, and even an ecological high school for poor children on Isla Baru.
Personal Background: Mario has been a loan officer for FMSD for almost 21 years. He studied accounting and financial administration at a local university, and says that he never imagined working as a loan officer. However, one of his professors was also a director at FMSD and encouraged him to take the exam to become a loan officer. Mario lives in a northern neighborhood in Barranquilla with his wife and two children, and has been assigned a variety of neighborhoods in the southern sectors to work in. FMSD helped him buy a car through loans, so now he is easily able to cover the wide swath of city he has been assigned. Though it is challenging to deal with so many clients, and to often have to sort through difficult situations, Mario loves that his job allows him to work with people, and seeing people improve their lives through microloans makes it all worth it to him.
In the Office: Mario generally spends mornings in the office, working from 8 to 12:30 processing paperwork, organizing clients’ loan applications, and calling clients. His phone is constantly ringing with calls from both current and potential clients. He also attends weekly credit committee meetings with other loan officers and his boss, to discuss new clients and determine whether or not they will receive loans.
In the Field: Mario’s afternoons are spent in the field, visiting clients all over Barranquilla. After stopping home for lunch, he heads out in his car to visit new clients, check in on current clients and follow up with clients who have finished their loans. Mario currently manages 260 clients, visiting 4 or 5 per day when he needs new information from them, or up to 9 when he’s just checking in to see how they are doing. Another important part of an FMSD loan officer’s job is promotions, or attracting new clients – Mario is constantly looking around for new businesses near his current clients to offer loans to.
On the day I spent with Mario, we spent time with 3 clients and stopped in to say hello to 2 more. One visit was with a seamstress who was asking for a non-Kiva loan (any loan over $1500 is provided with FMSD’s other funding source, although it has a higher interest rate), another visit was with a new Kiva client, a woman selling lotions and perfumes out of her home, and the final visit was to check in on a client who wanted a new loan but couldn’t find a co-signer to back the loan.
Implementing Kiva: Mario is a great believer in Kiva, even though taking photos of clients and filling out Kiva forms adds some extra time to his work. Though there are many other banks and NGOs providing loans in Barranquilla, Mario says that working with Kiva distinguishes FMSD from the rest.
Making a difference: There is no doubt that the loan officer job is very difficult. Mario struggles to maintain positive relationships even with clients who are constantly late with repayments. But he knows that he is making a difference not only in the lives of individual clients, but in Colombia as a whole. When FMSD first started giving out loans in 1984, it was the only player in the field. Now, many commercial banks and other organizations are giving out loans too, and Colombia is becoming more developed. He notes that by offering his clients, many of whom are very poor, access to financial services, he is giving them more confidence in themselves. They see that someone trusts them to take out a loan and this encourages them to follow their dreams and work hard to improve their lives.
But don’t take my word for it, check out what Mario has to say about whether a loan officer’s job is fulfilling or not:
Loan Officer #3: Nick, Loan Officer with ACCION San Diego, USA
Kiva Fellow: Luan Nio, KF19 United States
MFI Background: ACCION San Diego is one branch of a microfinance institution that operates all across the US as well as internationally. They are new to Kiva, with just four months on Kiva’s site and 23 loans so far. They help small business owners and entrepreneurs in the San Diego area get funding, which can be complicated for new businesses in the US, and also offer business training and workshops on important subjects like marketing, finance, and legal issues.
Differences between US partners and international partners: Luan is unique in that she worked with a partner in Nicaragua as a member of KF18, and now is serving in the US in KF19. She offers some perspective on the differences in loan officers’ roles in the US versus a less developed country:
Based on my experience between Nicaragua and the US, the main differences I can see are as follows:
- More use of technology here, especially when communicating with clients. Loan officers here are more often in the office than in the field because they use e-mail and phone more, and they have fast cars and highways so site visits don’t require much time. Everyone here has internet and some people (including loan officer Nick) have 2 computer screens.
- Both clients and loan officers here fully grasp the idea of Kiva and are able to exploit it to the fullest. ACCION SD, for example, aims to do mostly videos for both new borrower profiles as well as for journals. Kiva clients here may use their Kiva profile for marketing, though we haven’t seen this yet since ACCION SD is just getting started with Kiva.
- Here, Kiva lenders and Kiva borrowers often live in the same country, so the borrower-lender connection might be stronger. You can actually visit the business you lent to in person here. It is therefore easier for loan officers to “sell” Kiva to clients.
As the three profiles show, while the main functions of loan officers’ jobs around the world are the same, their lives can vary immensely.
Their jobs are divided between time in the office and time in the field, but the amount of time spent in each depends on a variety of conditions:
- Where their borrowers are located – loan officers with borrowers who are more spread out or in rural areas with bad roads spend more time in the field. All three loan officers profiled spend less time in the field than some of their counterparts, because they work mainly in urban areas.
- Levels of technological development in the country – in Honduras and Colombia, mobile phones are widespread, cutting down on some visits as loan officers can call most of their clients for quick questions, and are also able to schedule appointments in advance. In less developed areas with little access to phones, loan officers must visit clients every time they have a question, and may arrive at the client’s house when the client isn’t home. In the US, even fewer visits are required as many items of business can be taken care of via phone and email, which most borrowers have access to. Also, roads are better so trips to the field don’t take as long.
- Microfinance Institution (MFI) policies – Because FMSD clients repay their loans by going to a bank and transferring the money to FMSD, loan officers don’t have to visit clients for repayments. ACCION San Diego clients also mail checks into the MFI. This means much less time in the field than organizations that require loan officers to pick up repayments (even when it’s just a few dollars a week).
Still, in the end, these loan officers in North, Central and South America do have a lot in common – they are all dedicated to their clients, which means that even if following Kiva’s extra rules and procedures (filling out extra paperwork and taking photos of their clients) adds some time to their day, they are each happy to put in the extra work so that clients who normally wouldn’t get a loan finally have access to credit. There are hundreds or perhaps thousands of loan officers around the world who work with Kiva clients, and from what I’ve heard from other fellows, it’s safe to say that Jarling, Mario and Nick are not atypical in their commitment to their clients.
So the next time you read a detailed borrower profile, spot an especially well-framed photo or receive an interesting journal update, think about all the work put in behind the scenes by a hardworking loan officer!
Special thanks to Jarling Ramírez, Mario Moreno and Nick Miluso for agreeing to let a Kiva Fellow follow them around all day, even though they are all incredibly busy!
Support these loan officers and the organizations they work for by making a loan to a borrower from COMIXMUL, FMSD or ACCION San Diego. Want to meet some loan officers in person? Read more about the Kiva Fellows Program, and then apply to be a Fellow!
By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World
With January 2013 coming to an end, KF19 fellows are either continuing on with KF20 or returning home to various responsibilities and careers. Regardless of the next adventure or destination, one thing is common among all: KF19 fellows have been permanently changed by their placements.
What began as a joint blog post about any person, place, or event during the course of the fellowship that affected our lives, of itself turned into simply the one person who left the most impact. Afterall, Kiva’s mission is to alleviate poverty through connecting people. The fellows of KF19 have witnessed this connection over the course of the last three to four months, and nothing could have prepared us for meeting the people who would touch our lives in various ways.
KF19 presents to you Kiva One, a small collection of stories about human connections, hope, and inspiration.
Why should you fund a Kick Trading loan?
Kick trading, Kisumu Innovation Centre Kenya, was one of our favourite groups because the borrowers were enthusiastic and their workspace was bright. We entered to see some artisans painting, others selling items in the colourful stalls, as we ducked under hundreds of mini wire bicycles and Santa Clauses in the outdoor workspace.
Kick trading provides training opportunities to young artisans and allows them to earn a fair wage. They are encouraged to be creative by hand making products using hyacinth and papyrus from Lake Victoria.
Log on to Kiva Zip today https://zip.kiva.org/
By Rachel Davis | KF19 | Denver, Colorado
For the past four months, I have been serving as a Kiva Zip Fellow in Denver, Colorado. As a fellow in the US I was required to work independently without the comfort of a home office or co-workers. The Zip fellowship is in and of itself, very entrepreneurial. First came research, then networking, then meetings, then events, then more networking. I’ve met so many fascinating people and have come to know so many amazing organizations doing crucial work in my own backyard.
The work of one organization in particular has really resonated with me, that of Mi Casa Resource Center. Mi Casa was founded in 1976 and has been providing support to ensure the economic success of Latino families in the Denver Metro area. Mi Casa provides after school programs, business classes, as well as other resources. The program that Kiva Zip has been working with is an entrepreneurial training program taught in both English and Spanish. Students are required to graduate from the program, they then become eligible for a Zip loan.
We have lent to three borrowers endorsed by Mi Casa, all of which are starting their own businesses. One is starting a catering and food cart business, one is opening her own hair studio, and one has launched his own construction company. These borrowers are self-employed entrepreneurs with skills that provide new opportunity for minorities. With the help of Mi Casa and Kiva Zip they have created readily available jobs to people in their communities. Instead of a top down approach to job creation, these borrowers are creating jobs from the bottom up. Jobs with dignity that require specialized skills, jobs that they can be proud of.
A few months ago I had the pleasure of attending one of the classes at Mi Casa. The classes are held in the evening and every week one of the students provides refreshments for everyone. I can’t describe how humbling it was to sit in that room. Every student was attentive and asking questions, participating, eagerly scribbling notes as if the information was about to just slip away and be lost forever. It was quite the departure from what I experienced at my traditional four-year public university. For these people, it was real – at the end of the program they will launch their businesses and it’s sink or swim.
Job creation is such a hot button issue these days and there is no universal solution. But seeing the Zip borrowers in person, seeing their drive and their passion to aim higher is encouraging if nothing else. With the right resources and bit of direction, creating a job for yourself and those around you is within reach. I can say confidently that Kiva Zip is giving entrepreneurs in the United States a chance to follow their dreams and it’s giving people an opportunity to find dignity and acceptance among our lenders. I’m passionate about this work and I am excited to see what the future holds for Kiva Zip and Mi Casa Resource Center.
You can visit Mi Casa’s trustee page at: https://zip.kiva.org/trustees/136
Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia
After traveling for almost a month over Christmas holidays, I was struggling to figure out why I was so happy to be back “home” in Barranquilla, the hot, humid, chaotic city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia that I’ve been living in for the past 4 months. I had just visited places of incredible beauty like:
Montezuma, Costa Rica
Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua
and Medellin, Colombia.
But as much fun as I had, none of these places measured up.
Then I read the news and everything made sense.
According to the Global Barometer of Hope and Happiness, Colombia is the happiest country on earth and Barranquilla is the happiest region in this happiest of countries.
Though a study of just 54 countries defining an entire population by one overly simplified emotion should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, this is good news for a country that is still overwhelmingly known for kidnappings, guerillas and Pablo Escobar. The most common reaction when I tell people I’m living in Colombia is, “Isn’t it dangerous?!” – and this from people who have traveled through Honduras and El Salvador, countries #1 and #2 on the list of homicide rates by firearm.
But while stereotypes about Colombia are exaggerated, the country is far from perfect, and its notorious history will never be completely erased.
So that leaves me wondering, why is a country with 37% living below the poverty line, between 3.9 and 5.5 million internally displaced people, and the world’s leading coca cultivator (source) so happy?
Most Colombians remember when they couldn’t leave their town or city because so much of the country was controlled by guerillas or paramilitary forces. There are still parts of the country out of government control. And I’ve seen for myself that many live in makeshift homes, slums and even on the streets.
Still, right from the start, I noticed how cheerful and happy Colombians tend to be. Life here, particularly on the coast, is colorful and warm. Happy, upbeat music like the local vallenato or more regionally popular salsa blares from parked cars, shops and homes; traffic is a mess but there is very little road rage; and the people dress mainly in bright colors.
Colombians are huge partiers – every weekend of the year you can find at least one city or region celebrating some kind of festival. Particularly famous is the Feria de las Flores in Medellin, the annual national beauty contest in Cartagena and of course, Barranquilla’s Carnaval!
Most significant has been how warmly I’ve been welcomed into this culture. I never worry about getting lost or not knowing when to get off the bus – the moment I ask for help people scramble over each other to give me advice and make sure I get where I’m going. Neighbors, colleagues and new friends have been so welcoming, and the Kiva borrowers I’ve met have been smiling and friendly, happily posing for the pictures and videos I’ve taken and sharing stories about their lives and businesses.
I have no answers as to why Colombia is so happy, but I have some hypotheses.
One is that Colombians have been through A LOT in the past 50 years, dealing with the FARC, drug cartels, paramilitary forces and the seemingly uncountable murders and kidnappings that accompanied them. Colombians had to stay positive to get through such tough years, and now as violence is decreasing, the economy is growing and tourism is booming, there is a lot to be happy about. Unlike Americans, Europeans, and residents of many other parts of the world currently experiencing economic downturns, Colombia’s future looks bright!
Another possible reason for such high levels of happiness is the strong culture of family that is prevalent across all of Latin America. That could also explain why Latin America has the highest level of happiness of all regions of the world, almost twice as high as the runner up. Colombians are very family centric, celebrating holidays with huge family gatherings and depending on their families to help them out in rough times.
Then, of course, there is the natural beauty that surrounds Colombians at all times. Colombia is home to mountain ranges, Amazon rainforest, tropical Caribbean beaches, and fertile valleys. The cities are vibrant and varied, with an increasing level of culture as Colombia’s economy and international investment grows. From the farms of the coffee region to the clubs of hip Medellin to the beaches of Parque Tayrona, Colombia is filled with breathtaking spots.
Or maybe it’s more simple than all of that – Colombia’s soccer team was in fifth place in the World Cup rankings for 2012!
Whatever the reason may be, living in Colombia has taught me to relax, see the bright side of things, and be more friendly and open. I think all of us in less happy nations such as the United States (#31 out of 54), Italy (#45) or the United Kingdom (#38) have a lot to learn from Colombians.
Here is a peek into my daily routine as a Kiva Fellow in Sololá, Guatemala. My schedule usually goes something like this…
8:00AM – Wake-Up
8:15AM – Emails, Updates and Writing for my travel blog
8:45AM – Arrive at ADICLA Office in Sololá, Guatemala
9:00AM – Plan our day of borrower visits, Kiva training and other tasks
10:00AM – Leave office
10:20AM – Morning snack at the central market in Sololá
10:40AM – Begin motorcycle ride into the countryside to visit borrowers
11:30AM – Arrive at first borrower’s home to gather information, take photos and get a participation signature (in this video we filmed a Kiva”Thank You” piece)
12:15PM – Arrive at second borrower’s home (in this video the borrower didn’t arrive, which is a regular occurrence when there are crops to be harvested)
1:30PM – Lunch at one of my favorite spots just outside the town of San Andres. Churrasco, chorizo, black beans, tomato sauce, cheese and a Coca Cola!
2:30PM – Wait at the San Andres ADICLA Office for a borrower group to arrive. Juan Carlos and I exchanged language lessons (Kakchiquel and English).
3:00PM – Group Borrower Meeting
3:45PM – Ride back to Sololá
5:10PM – Upload new borrower profiles
7:00PM – Leave office for the night, change and snack
7:30PM – Get it right. Get it tight.
8:15PM – Grocery shopping
8:45PM – Shower and Dinner
9:30PM – Catch up on emails, writing, Kiva Fellow tasks and travel blog work
That’s my day as a Kiva Fellow!
When I hear the words “Christmas” and “end of the year” my mind quickly thinksabout Christmas trees, baby Jesus, cold, family, presents, snow and many more. When I ask the people from Centroamerica whatcomes to their mind with these same words they mostly answer the same, the only thing they change is they don´t say cold neither snow, and they normally include beach or river instead of them.
1st January in Rivas, Nicaragua
After tough 3 months of work in El Salvador with Fundación Campo, Padecomsm and Integral I have just taken deserved holidays. Destination: South of Nicaragua. The reason for choosing it is because of its amazing beaches full of waves, its economic price, its cultural wealth and its proximity. And one more reason. Because it is close to the border with Costa Rica. My 3 months visa expired on 1st January. After seeing the endless points required by the Salvadorean government I decided to leave the C4 (EL Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala) in order to extend my days in El Salvador without being fined.
It was not an easy trip to destination. I waited for 5 hours to thebus that took me from El Salvador to Costa Rica (the engine broke before picking me up), 15 hours trip, 4 borders crossed (El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica) with payments in all of them and an unforgettable night with 1000 ants in a room in the border of Peñas Blancas. Without doubts, the worst room I have ever slept in. I highly recommend not to sleep in a border, it is not a good atmosphere to sleep in.
But, ¿How important is it when the image you see when you wake up is this?
From Nicaragua I wish you a happy new year and a lot of Kiva love to all of you!
Salvadorean people are strict Christians and their most important date in their calendar is Christmas Eve. They celebrate the Birth of baby Jesus. They live this day quite similar to American people: meeting the whole family and sharing together.
This is how 24th December was:
Wake up! Don´t ask me why we get up so early, I don´t understand it yet.
We killed 2 hens, we plucked them and quartered them, with all the preparation they need.
Go to the bank to withdraw the present our brothers & sisters that live in USA has made us in form of remittances. Long queue and slow employees. We wait for an hour.
Go to the market with mami Valentina to buy the last things me need to prepare the dinner. It is crazy how busy was the market!
Come back home alone because I lost my mami in the market. We continue preparing the hens.
We eat eggs with frijoles.
My sister Marcia prepares Honduran Torrejas and sanwiches.
Everything is ready. Lets prepare and stay with friends and family around the area.
Papa Chente, mami Valentina, hermana Marcia and me have dinner together. The menu is roast chicken with thin corn Salvadorean pancakes and pineapple juice.
Family members begin to arrive. We talk, dance, laugh, chat, hug…altogether!
We go to buy fireworks and start exploding them.
We hug every single relative and friend, we wish them merry Christmas and continue exploding fireworks!
We go to bed after good dances of Cumbia, bachata (my favourite one) merengue, salsa…I get lost with dance names and I don´t distinguish them very well.
Merry Christmas and happy 2013!
By Kiva Fellows | KF19 | All Over the World
A Happy Holidays to the Kiva family everywhere! May your celebrations be filled with foods and flavor, smiling faces, natural beauty, light and memories… here are some gifts from around the world courtesy of the Kiva Fellows 19th class:
On the Twelve Days of Christmas my Kiva Fellow gave to me…
Watching Green Turtles hatch on a beach near Mafia Island in Tanzania was magical, and heartbreaking, because they looked so vulnerable. They’re tiny little things – no bigger than the palm of my hand – so the 15m of beach is an epic journey but they scramble forward determinedly despite the obstacles. I was thrilled to see this little guy heading out into the world!
Day 2: Two Washington War Memorials
Christina Reif | Kiva Zip (Washington D.C.) | United States
The Korean War Memorial (left): Nestled between juniper bushes which represent the rugged terrain of Korea, 7ft tall statues of soldiers – wary of a suspected ambush – give the visitor a haunting feel of the a soldier’s reality.
The Vietnam Memorial (right): As I stood taking the picture I overheard the veteran say: there were 18 of us and only 9 came back. It was said matter of factly, a story told many times before, a piece of history that never loses its emotional impact.
Day 3: Three Colorado Microbrews
Rachel Davis | Kiva Zip (Denver) | United States
Here are three beers from three Colorado breweries, enjoy!
Day 4: Four Kuki Carolers
Eileen Flannigan | WSDS-Initiate | India
What are these Kuki’s most excited about this holiday? “The caroling bus!” This tradition only happens every two years because of the cost of renting the buses, which each family in the village (200+) contributes to all year. On Christmas Eve the buses tour all the neighboring villages as a symbol of peace, unity and good old fashion fun! At midnight, the elders go home and the youths visit each house in the village to “offer them a song”, which include tribal songs, classic Christmas songs and even Justin Bieber’s “Mistletoe”.
When I asked them what they would like to say to Kiva lenders around the world, they joyfully said they wanted to “offer a song of thanksgiving”. Through giggles and jolly spirits, these Kiva borrowers sing “Joy to the World”, dressed in their holiday best, which is all weaved from their own hands. They graciously wrap me in these special threads and awake my heart with the “Christmas spirit”.
Day 5: Five Gorgeous Costa Rican Birds
Jane Imai | EDESA and FUNDECOCA | Costa Rica
What speaks of Costa Rica more than a bunch of beautiful, tropical birds? Costa Rica boasts a huge biodiversity when it comes to wildlife, including almost 900 species of birds. Here are some of ones I was able to see while I was here:
- Blue macaw (wild, La Fortuna)
- Scarlet macaws (wild, en route to Monteverde)
- Violet sabrewing (wildlife refuge, La Paz Waterfall Gardens)
- Yellow-naped parrots (free roaming pets known as Lola and Paco, San Jose)
- Keel-billed toucan (wildlife refuge, La Paz Waterfall Gardens)
Day 6: Six Delicious Dishes from Kyrgyzstan
Abhishesh Adhikari | Bai Tushum & Partners | Kyrgyzstan
- Lagman: Noodle dish with beef and pepper
- Mante: Dumplings filled with ground beef and onions
- Turkish Kebab
- Russian style roast duck with apples
- Plov: Fried rice mixed with meat and carrots
- Traditional Kyrgyz soup with meat and potatoes
Day 7: Seven Candles for Día de las Velitas
Rose Larsen | Fundación Mario Santo Domingo (FMSD) | Colombia
Día de las Velitas (Day of the Little Candles) is a holiday in Colombia honoring the Immaculate Conception. Every year, on the 8th of December, at 3AM, Colombians light candles and put them in colorful lanterns outside their homes. This day is also the (unofficial) launch of the Christmas season.
Day 8: Eight Filipino Christmas Lights and Festive Faces
Keith Baillie | Roaming Mindanao | Philippines
Christmas preparations start early in the Philippines. Since November, carols are played on the radio and offices and homes have put up Christmas decorations. Groups of children roam around singing carols, hoping for a handout. Here are some pics of Dipolog’s tree lighting festival – with monsters for kids, sculpted and living angels, fireworks and popular bands.
Maayong Pasco! (Bisayan for Merry Christmas!)
Day 9: Nine Jordanian Herbs
Taline Khansa | Tamweelcom | Jordan
One of the most exciting and lively areas in Jordan is the downtown Amman “Balad” region. The streets are filled with a multitude of elements that stimulate the senses from perfumeries making custom concoctions to falafel hole-in-the-wall restaurants. My favorite places are the small shops selling bulk herbs and spices (for super cheap!), some of which I recognize and others I’ve never heard of. The merchants will often allow you to smell or taste the products and may offer some advice on use and preparation techniques.
The nine bulk herbs in this picture are: Two kinds of sage, Melissa, Rosemary, Artemisia, Rose, Guava Leaves, Marjoram, and Hibiscus… Happy Holidays from the Middle East!
Day 10: Ten Bags-a-Brimming With Honduran Coffee
Wesley Schrock | Roaming Fellow | Honduras
Kiva borrower Miguel, a coffee farmer from Trojes in Honduras, stands in front of a wet processing station. In the lower left-hand corner note his ten bags of pulped, fermented, and dried coffee beans ready for roasting.
Having spent close to three months in India, I must say I have not had one bad meal. The food is always flavorful and delicious. While working at Mahashakti, I have been fortunate to have lunch with the staff every day, prepared by the office caretaker, Radha Kanta, or just Rahda for short. Since many of the staff travel from branch to branch at a regular basis, they stay at the office overnight. Radha prepares meals for the traveling staff and me.
One day I learned to make a traditional Odisha dish – Simba Rai – from the following ingredients (pictured from left to right): Garlic, Turmeric, Radha in action, Ginger, Masala paste and powder, Green Chili, Potatoes, Green beans (Simba), Chili powder, Mustard seeds, Tomatoes, Shallots, and we’re ready to eat!
The smiling faces of twelve bright futures for the children of Kiva borrowers in Togo and Benin!
FROM THE KIVA FELLOWS!
By Holly Sarkissian, KF 19, Benin & Togo
In Benin, New Year’s Eve is a BIG HOLIDAY. I recently spoke with two Kiva borrowers about their plans to celebrate. Meet Flaure:
Flaure is currently saving money to celebrate the New Year. She plans to buy pagne (or colorful fabric) to make a new outfit for each member of the family. She will also celebrate by cooking a special meal and dancing with her friends and family.
Meet Romance of the Dieu Est Grand Group (God is Big Group):
Romance is looking forward to celebrating Christmas and the New Year. She plans to sell pre-made New Year’s outfits for children in order to earn additional income. During the festivities each member of her family will wear a new outfit made of pagne or colorful local fabric. They will also celebrate by eating and dancing together. Romance’s favorite dance is Zouk which originates from the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique and has gained popularity in francophone Africa .
In addition to Zouk, there are several other dances popular in the region. Many of the kiva borrowers in Ghana, Togo, and Benin will be celebrating the holidays with the following dances:
1. Cool Catché is a dance with origins in Togo that is very popular throughout West Africa. This dance is done by lifting one’s hand or foot in front of the body and alternating right and left to the beat of the music. There is also a version of this dance called Cool Catche Mama which involves moving the head and neck back and forth to the beat of the music. You can see both versions in this popular Togolese music video LA GRIPPE CC.
2. Azonto originates from Ghana and Nigeria and is also very popular throughout the region. It involves knee bending, hip movements, and alternating pulses of ones hand in front of the body between the legs and then up to the sky. It is said that Azonto is the dance of the spirits so in many popular versions of the dance, the dancers will wear masks to enhance the dance’s cryptic element. You can see it in this two popular songs:
3. Cutata originates from Togo and Cote d’Ivoire . This is the dance for booty dancing lovers everywhere. It involves shaking ones behind up and down very quickly. You can see some starting at minute 1:52 in this popular Togolese music video, Fo Mapelé.
4. Agbadja is a traditional rhythm originating from the Mina and Ewe ethnic groups. It comes from the southern region of Togo and the southwest region of Benin. You can see Agbadja in this video.
5. Simpa comes from the central region of Togo, originating from the Kotokoli ethnic group. You can see a performance of Simpa in this video taken in Sokodé, Togo.
6. Kamou comes from the North of Togo, originating from the Kabiyè ethinic group. You can see an example of this dance performed by the group The Seeds in their music video Lidaw.
Now you too can celebrate the New Year by dancing like a West African Kiva Borrower.
Rose Larsen | KF19 | Colombia
San Jacinto de Bolivar, San Juan Nepomuceno and El Carmen de Bolivar are three tiny towns located in the same department of Colombia as Cartagena, though they are almost entirely ignored by the hordes of tourists who descend upon the “jewel of the Caribbean” each year.
Characterized by unpaved roads, lovely churches and way too many “motos,” these towns are also home to some of the most interesting Kiva borrowers I’ve had the chance to meet. Most of FMSD’s clients are city-dwellers who make their living selling catalog products to friends and neighbors, running beauty salons, or manning small general stores, and while these livings are just as viable and important to fund, my trip to the Bolivar district allowed me to meet many fascinating women who specialize in the production of handicrafts or handmade items, depending on their own artistry and hands to make their living. Their deftness with their craft impressed me, so I thought I’d share what I saw with all of you!
Mochilas y bolsos (the Purse-maker of San Jacinto)
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How to Make a Hammock: Two Visits in San Jacinto
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A Couple of Shoemakers from San Juan Nepomuceno
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Though each business was very different, I saw some similarities across all three.
- All were run by women, though husbands would sometimes help out with part of the business.
- Each woman depended on her own hands to work her product, and had learned technical skills in her craft. Most of these skills are passed down from mother to daughter.
- All three women emphasized that the rest of their town was helped by the injection of capital that came from the Kiva loan. While the loan helped each woman directly by allowing her to grow her business, it went even further. In Nellys’ case, she was able to buy more fabrics from her aunt, who ran a weaving business, and also supplied more products to her husband and other vendors to resell. Rosiris talked about saving up enough to pay an assistant, since weaving hammocks is time consuming work. And Fanny already employed a few assistants as well as 12 resellers who would hawk her shoes in town.
In fact, after hearing all these stories and seeing FMSD’s local loan officers greet passersby, it was clear that these towns were as tightly knit as the weave in Rosiris’ hammock!
Rose Larsen is a member of the 19th class of Kiva Fellows, serving in Barranquilla, Colombia with Fundación Mario Santo Domingo. Become a member of FMSD’s lending team, lend to one of their borrowers today, or apply to be a Fellow!
Living in the heart of the Mayan Empire has given me the opportunity to get to the bottom of all the “End of the World” rumors that I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now.
It has been said that the Mayans predicted the world’s demise to be scheduled for December 21, 2012, and just like any international apocalypse talk, marketing schemes and business ploys followed soon after.
I wanted to see if I should start maxing out the credit cards or not, so I went to the Mayan Ruins of Tikal in Peten, Guatemala to ask an expert.
We had a great tour guide at the ruins named Donnie “Speedy” Gonzales, and he broke down the truth behind all the “End of the World” hype.
Here’s what he said…
He said that the Mayans did not predict the end of the world, just the end of an era. This era is a period of 400 years on the Mayan Calendar called a Baktun, and we are completing the 13th Baktun (Not the 14th as it says in the video) this December 21, 2012.
He also said the Mayans predicted a worldly transformation on this date, where the earth and its inhabitants may undergo a positive physical or spiritual transformation, and will “be more conscious of their neighborhood.” In other words, a focus on the greater good!
I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for this magnetic shift! Hopefully that means a great influx of lenders to Kiva!
It never ceases to amaze me how you can connect with people who are completely different from you. Maybe you don’t speak the same first language. Maybe you grew up on opposite sides of the world, or you were born in different decades. But somehow, despite all your differences—and perhaps against all odds—you find commonalities. And what’s more, sometimes you realize that below the surface, maybe you’re not actually all that different after all.
Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending. That happens every day through its online lending platform, http://www.kiva.org. But as Kiva Fellows, we have the opportunity to carry out this mission in the field. Sometimes we get to meet with borrowers, but all of us get to connect with the local people where we work and live. We learn about who they are and how they live, and we share a little bit about ourselves as well. And when you find yourself having a good laugh with them, it’s a pretty amazing thing.
So, the three months of my fellowship are drawing to a close. It’s hard not to get sentimental when I think about leaving behind this beautiful country and the warm, generous people who welcomed me into their homes, their families, and their lives. Some took the time to get to know me, others took the time to share their stories, and others still simply made me feel at home, wherever I was. Many went out of their way to make sure I had a fantastic experience here. Pictured in this blog entry are just some of the wonderful Ticos that I met in Costa Rica.
My time here has been full of adventures, sightseeing, and some notable firsts. Among those have been:
First time seeing toucans. They are too cute for words!
First time riding on a moto, or motorbike, ever. (I think I’ve gained some street cred in Uganda).
First time seeing dressage. One weekend, I chanced upon a big street party that was complete with cowboys and horses getting their horse ballet on. I thought that was pretty fortuitous, since I had recently learned what this sport was all about (courtesy of Stephen Colbert).
First time eating rice and beans for 90 days straight. I’m talking about the famous typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto, which is pretty much what everyone here eats every day for breakfast—and sometimes lunch and dinner, too. OK, so maybe I didn’t eat it for all 90 days, but I tell you it was pretty darn close. It’s a good thing I like rice and beans!
First time trying sopilote (vulture meat). Ooops, wait! That was chicken and a couple of colleagues trying to trick me.
First time watching the entire Twilight saga. Oh yes I did! (It made for a fun bonding experience, OK?)
But in any new experience, it’s always the people you meet who make all the difference. While I love to travel and see new places, I also love the very different experience of living abroad, because that’s when you really get to know the locals.
People asked me why I wanted to come to Costa Rica for my fellowship. In fact, it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time. I have always been intrigued by this country that constitutionally abolished its army in 1949, thus diverting resources towards health and education for the general population. I was curious about the nation with a long history of ecotourism that today remains one of the world’s leaders in environmental protection. I wanted to meet the people who lived in the country that was ranked #1 in the 2012 Happy Planet Index.
So here are some things I’ve learned:
Ticos are proud of their country and have a strong sense of national identity. The expression Pura Vida (Pure Life) says it all. It’s something of a national motto here, but it’s more than just words; it’s a way of life. It’s used here in greetings, as an expression of gratitude or satisfaction, and also to describe something or someone who’s generally pretty awesome.
Ticos love to toot their horn. I’m not talking about national pride anymore. I’m talking about the constant beep-beep you will hear as you walk along any road or highway. The pitos (horns) are how Tico drivers communicate, and the beeps can mean very different things. Here’s a little guide to help you decipher the various meanings, should you be traveling to Costa Rica anytime soon:
Beep! Hellooooo there, baby.
Beep! Coming through!
Beep beep! You go first!
Beep! Thanks dude!
Beeeeeeeep! I’m stuck in traffic and mildly annoyed.
Beep! I’m bored and tooting my horn is fun!
Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!……………….
Ticos love their coffee. As they rightly should: Costa Rican coffee is really good! Even for someone who’s more of a tea-aholic, two coffee breaks a day will get you hooked in no time. If you search long and hard, though, you will find some tea aficionados, and you might even chance upon a tea store if you’re lucky.
Ticos are incredibly tolerant of rain. I’ve never seen so much rain in my life! It’s true I’ve been here during the rainy season, but I never thought this kind of rain was possible—where a heavy downpour can last 5 hours, or sometimes even two days. But nobody complains. (The cold is another thing, but it’s totally fair game to complain when it’s 12oC and windy, given that buildings are not insulated here.)
Costa Rica is largely rural. Like the diminutive Tico suggests, things here are small-scale. Even the bigger city centres are more like large towns. Many Ticos live in rural areas or have some connection to rural life. For example, quite a few people who work in the city commute some distance from a more rural area, or their family might own a finca (a property in the countryside).
And many Ticos and tourists alike are averse to San José, whose metropolitan area has some 2.3 million people. While it may not be the world’s most attractive city, the Ticos’ dislike for it stems more from the fact that it is a city. I am going to make a bold statement: I like San José. That may be attributed to the great people I met while I was living here, though.
Ticos are quite devout. Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and its population is made up of 70% Catholics and 14% Evangelical Christians. It was interesting trying to explain that my family’s roots are Buddhist, since Buddhism, like many other religions, has had limited exposure in Costa Rica.
It was also interesting being introduced as Canadian to new Ticos. Their eyes always said the same thing: You can’t fool me. A further explanation of my parents’ Japanese origins brought a sort of relief to their faces and often facilitated the conversation that ensued. I was, without a doubt, something of an anomaly to them, although that humoured me more than anything.
The word china means many things in Costa Rica, as it does in other Spanish speaking countries. Hmm… seems like not a lot of thought has gone into the nuances of its meanings. For example:
- China = the country
- china = the language
- china = a Chinese person
- china = any other Asian-looking person
In addition, there is a type of flower called china and porcelain plates are also called china. To add some variety, I tried to make up my own word, chinesa, to describe the language, but I was corrected. Por favor. It’s china.
That being said, China (the country) has become Costa Rica’s most important ally after the US, as evidenced by the generous gift they sent last year. (A symbol of its former relationship with Taiwan can also be found firmly planted in northern Costa Rica.) So maybe it’s good that, as long as they’re going to use one generic word to capture all these meanings, that the word be china.
Ticos work hard to get ahead, but that’s not always easy. They could use a break. That’s why lending through Kiva’s partners like EDESA and FUNDECOCA can go a long way. (Stay tuned for FUNDECOCA on www.kiva.org—they’re a new partner so their partner page is forthcoming!)
These MFIs are doing a great job of providing opportunities to people in rural areas, where the poverty is often striking, but urban poverty is rampant as well, and sometimes microfinance can overlook this. One of my colleagues pointed out that a person is probably better off being poor in a rural area of Costa Rica, because at least then they can still produce their own food. In the city, on the other hand, if you don’t have money you can’t survive.
Recently, I had the opportunity to get to know a lady here in a similar situation. While she had a job in the city that gave her enough income to support her family, she was in a position where she could not access credit from the regular banks. As such, her daughters would never have the chance to pursue a better education so that they might someday be able to get ahead. As we chatted, I realized that rarely had I met someone so wise and open-minded. She had a lively curiosity, and she had come to grips with her situation in life with laughter and a positive attitude. She left me with a feeling of admiration mixed with heartache.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the fortune to live and work in 7 different countries, and travel to countless others. Throughout those experiences, I’ve met friends who come from over 70 countries, and I’ve come to understand so much about the world thanks to them. Ticos, I’ve learned, are totally pura vida. And hopefully, they’ve learned something about me, too, so that the next time they meet someone really different from them, the differences won’t be as striking as the similarities are.