Posts tagged ‘kiva.org’

The Women of MCDT

By: Abhishesh Adhikari

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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.

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8 July 2013 at 16:42

A Kiva Zip Entrepreneur in Chicago

By: Abhishesh Adhikari

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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.

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17 April 2013 at 03:24

A Glimpse of Microfinance and Urban Poverty in Ulaanbaatar

Kiva loans being promoted at Transcapital

Munkhbayar, the Kiva Coordinator, promoting Kiva loans at Transcapital

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?

Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB

Narantuul, the largest outdoor market in UB (above), and what you’ll find there (below)

vendors at Narantuul market

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.

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

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

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

vendors at Kharkhorin market

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.

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

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

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

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).

I need a ride, someone... Anyone?

I need a ride, someone… Anyone?

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?

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

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.

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

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.

28 March 2013 at 09:00

Following a Kiva loan from Calgary to Dar es Salaam!

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

Marion_1

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!

Container ship and fishing boats juxtaposed at the mouth of Dar es Salaam’s famous harbor.

Container ship and fishing boats juxtaposed at the mouth of Dar es Salaam’s famous harbor.

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?)

It's fitting that the Flame Trees are in bloom!

It’s fitting that the Flame Trees are in bloom!

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.

Dala-dala: Never thought I’d be the one riding precariously on the bottom step, clinging tightly to the handrail because the door can’t close…

Dala-dala: Never thought I’d be the one riding precariously on the bottom step, clinging tightly to the handrail because the door can’t close…

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!”)

Ali, who brightens my walk to work each day with his greetings!

Ali, who brightens my walk to work each day with his greetings!

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

Dresses for the two-dimensional!

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.

The road I walk to the office, just outside the downtown core.  Main roads are paved; most others not.

The road I walk to the office, just outside the downtown core. Main roads are paved; most others not.

Off to see a Kiva borrower’s business on the outskirts of greater Dar…

Off to see a Kiva borrower’s business on the outskirts of greater Dar…

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.

Rita: Kiva Coordinator, and my invaluable helpmate and friend for the last 4 months.  I couldn’t have made it in Dar without her!

Rita: Kiva Coordinator, and my invaluable helpmate and friend for the last 4 months. I couldn’t have made it in Dar without her!

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…

Trio of blue bajajis - the fiery decal more indicative of spirit than speed!

Trio of blue bajajis – the fiery decal more indicative of spirit than speed!

(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 in her store.

Prisca in her store.

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.”

Marion12

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.

24 February 2013 at 07:00 2 comments

Microfinance and Fertility Rates: My Quest for a Correlation

Squished amid the forcibly vertical crowd of 45 some odd people in a Senegalese bus made for “15 maximum!”  (or so the sign read…), arms glued to my sides and modeling a facial expression of utter discomfort, I overheard a jarring statistic shared in conversation between my neighbors:  25% of Senegal’s population is living in .3% of the land in Dakar.

Tried to find empty space -- I dare you.

Try to find empty space — I dare you.

The mind visual these numbers provoked made me pause.

At first my heart sank a bit; “the chaos here in Dakar all makes a bit more sense…” I thought to myself.  My perplexity and distress swiftly morphed into feelings of fear when the busy bus came to a halt.  As I frantically managed to wiggle my way through the dozens of people who stood between me and bus’s doors, I began thinking concernedly about the reality of a population which isn’t growing smaller, and resources which aren’t becoming any more abundant.

Six neighbor boys sharing a 6” sandwich for lunch.

Six neighbor boys sharing a 6” sandwich for lunch.

Poverty wracks the city of Dakar, and the gap between the rich and the poor is as stark as ever.

Using as my lodestar an experiment Jeffrey Sachs shared in The End of Poverty, I began my own personal journey to explore – through an admittedly small sample size — if there may be any relationship between fertility rate/population growth, and microfinance.   Over a two week period in Dakar, I met with three groups of women (groups ranging in size from five to 11).

At one of many informal, outdoor discussion groups.

At one of many informal, outdoor discussion groups.

My conversation and the respective client responses were as follows:

  • How many of you have more than five children?

60%

Some of the kids.

Some of the kids.

  • Before you began having children, did you have an ideal number in mind? 

“Two” – shouted the first anxious participant, followed by many nods of agreement (concur?)

“One” – shouted another.

“Four” — shared one woman, rather timidly.

Many others sat silent, reflecting upon my question, trying hard to recall though to no avail.

  • Why in the end did you have so many? 

The general consensus was as follows:

  1. Hedging their bets out of fear of losing several children to sickness.  (This unexpected response was an especially bitter pill for me to swallow.)
  2. Lack of access to contraceptives.
  3. “Why would I not have?” one woman chimed in with, appearing confused and skeptical.

The quizzical woman above received her first loan four months ago.  I perhaps probed her with too many questions, however enough to reveal some thought-provoking findings for me.

With her own loan, and consequently her own personal income, she demonstrated a limpid sense of newfound empowerment and independence.  At her age of 30 – 45 (I estimated), I imagine she is still in a period of child rearing potential.  Be that as it may, she now uses contraceptives and instead of more children wants to have fewer in hopes of giving each an opportunity at a prosperous, healthy life.

I can’t claim to conclude any findings through this informal, again small scale study, but my hope is that for you – as the findings have been for me – this can be food for thought.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

28 December 2012 at 17:02 1 comment

The Ticos Who Touched My Heart

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

just some of the lovely Ticos I met during my fellowship

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.

the FUNDECOCA crew

the FUNDECOCA crew

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.

the folks at EDESA

the folks at EDESA

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?)

Alejandra and Bryan (and their wonderful families in Pital)

Alejandra and Bryan (and their families in Pital)

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.

Don Manuel and his full house

home sweet home – Manuel and his full house

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! Hello!

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.

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

traipsing the country with Carlos and his family

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.

Romano and Hannia

Romano and Hannia

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.

Rosi and her family

Rosi and her family

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.

13 December 2012 at 21:04

On the road less traveled: Kagera region in Tanzania.

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

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If you prefer the road less traveled, then I have just the place for you: the Kagera region of Tanzania!

You may not have heard of Kagera – even though it’s exceptionally beautiful, and the people here are especially friendly – as it’s not part of the Tanzanian tourist circuit.  And that’s precisely what makes it ideal for those of us who prefer to explore places off the beaten track!  Kagera is tucked away on the western side of Lake Victoria.  The region is bordered by Uganda to the north, and Rwanda and Burundi to the west, and it takes a 20+ hour bus ride (or two flights) to get here from Dar es Salaam.  I’ve come here in my capacity as a Fellow to visit Kiva borrower Gration and his project partner Daeni in the town of Muleba, as well as Andy in the town of Ngara.  They both obtained Kiva loans earlier this year to purchase solar power products from Kiva’s partner, Barefoot Power. The time I’ve spent with them and their Wata na Nuru (Light for the People) teams, resellers, and solar clients has been truly remarkable.   You see, I am here to work!
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I’ve long been fascinated by solar power, so I’m thrilled by the opportunity this Kiva fellowship has afforded to see firsthand the impacts and challenges of providing solar lighting in rural Tanzania.   And I’m looking forward to sharing these Barefoot Power updates with you when I get back to an area with sufficient internet speed to upload the blogs…  Meanwhile, here’s a photo journal of my favorite (non-work) experiences in Kagera over the past two weeks:

1. The dawn chorus of songbirds in a beautiful garden in Bukoba. The birdlife is prolific here; the garden in this video reminds me of the home where I grew up in Zimbabwe; and Bukoba (Tanzania’s second-largest port on Lake Victoria) is a breath of fresh air after my last nine hot and sweaty weeks in Dar es Salaam.  What an uplifting way to start the day!
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2.  Expansive views of Lake Victoria.  It’s called Lweru (The Big White) by the Haya people of this area, and as soon as I saw the lake I knew why.  This is an area of vast panoramas and glorious open skies!  The shoreline of the lake is dotted with granite outcrops, and the surrounding landscape is lush with green grass (good grazing for the heavy-horned cattle in this video!) and trees, thanks to plentiful rainfall and the rich red soil.
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3.  A frenzy of activity as 450 donated bikes – recently arrived in a container from Switzerland – are reassembled and prepped for sale. Daeni is involved at this bicycle center in remote Nshamba, where youngsters learn the skills of a bicycle fundi (expert).  I’m delighted to see the Tanzanian side of this project, because I’m familiar with the donor side of a similar project in my hometown in Canada.
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4. Kagera isn’t called the banana capital of Tanzania for nothing…   Banana plants grow everywhere!  Matoke (plantains, or cooking bananas) are the staple food here, usually eaten with maharage (beans).  The bananas we eat start growing from tiny yellow flowers – initially the size of your thumb nail – hidden under the dark reddish bracts of a large inflorescence known as the banana heart.
Banana collage5

5.  My hilarious bus ride from Muleba to Ngara!  It rains.  The bus leaks.  I am drenched from head to foot!  I balance my little daypack on my knee as water pours down upon me for several hours, relieved that my laptop and camera – the tools of my trade these days – are sealed in a waterproof bag.  I’m sorry when the kid sitting snugly next to me gets off at his stop; I was grateful for his warmth…  And just for the record: I’m beginning to think a ticket agents’ assessment that “it will take 3 hours” is an optimistic way of saying “a long time, maybe even 6 hours”!
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6.  Wandering for hours along a ridge at Murgwanza that overlooks the Tanzanian border with Rwanda.  I’m drawn onward by the tantalizing views from the next rocky outcrop, and the possibility of finding another flame lily swaying in the breeze.  The sounds of distant voices, wood chopping, and the occasional cock-crow drift up to me from the valley below, and mingle with the low buzz of insects and melodious bursts of birdsong.  The African bush is so alive!  Goat herders on the next hillside call mzungu! (the friendly Kiswahili term for foreigner) to catch my attention, and wave.  Could I be any happier?
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7.  The harmonious singing voices of a church congregation in Murgwanza stop me in my tracks as I’m passing by.  (The picture quality in this video is poor, so just close your eyes and listen, and you’ll hear birds trilling joyfully too!)

8.  A vibrant market operates under cover of huge white UNHCR tents that have been repurposed in downtown Ngara.  The tents are remnants of the refugee crisis in Kagera that was caused by the Rwanda genocide in 1994.  It’s impossible for me to reconcile the idea of such horror with the normal daily life and tranquility I see around me now.
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9.  My 9-hour bus ride through Karagwe region.  Since there are no direct buses for the next 3 days, I’m advised to take a bus from Ngara to Karagwe (it’ll take 3 hours!), from where I can get onward transport to Bukoba.  I arrive at the bus stand before dawn to get a window seat.  The bus fills rapidly (and I do mean fills…), and we set off close to schedule but lose time as we inch our way through the mist and up the steep hills.  The man wedged in next to me buys water at our first stop and downs more pills than I’ve ever seen in one dose; I wonder sadly if he’s one of the many people here infected with HIV/AIDS.  (I’ve visited a sewing class at one organization that cares for 1800 orphans, and met a worker from another that cares for 3700.  The numbers overwhelm me.)

Then the bus halts at a barrier and a man with an automatic rifle, (I recognize it as an AK47; I grew up during the war in Zimbabwe), climbs in next to the driver.  My neighbor explains this is our escort, but I’m a bit disconcerted and text a message to Andy in Ngara in case this all ends badly…  He replies that an armed escort on this route is normal…  I’m still feeling pensive when suddenly there’s great excitement on the bus: Twiga, twiga!  Someone’s seen giraffe, and we all scan the bush eagerly for a glimpse!  I snap a couple of photos, and pass my camera around.  My fellow passengers laugh happily at our good fortune, and my mood lightens!  I can face the rest of this 9-hour bus journey with equanimity now.
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10.  Young girls are delighted by their new dresses for Christmas!  I think the dressmaker is equally pleased.   Entrepreneurship is visible everywhere I go – this woman set up shop in front of her house, in the midst of a banana plantation.   And she’s doing a roaring trade as the festive season approaches!
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And finally: The unlikely Kiva connection. Yesterday I chatted with a charming woman at Bukoba airport as we waited in vain for our flight – the runway too muddy for the incoming plane to land. We met again today, and I showed my new friend the Tanzanian content on Kiva website. Imagine my surprise and delight when we scrolled through the last Update I posted about Tanzania, and she exclaimed “I know her! That woman is an excellent baker!” Who’d have thought there would be a connection way out here in Kagera? It’s a small world, thanks to Kiva!

Barefoot Power loans in Tanzania also went to Martin in Dodoma, and Clive in Moshi. That’s were my travels as a Kiva Fellow take me next! No Barefoot Power loans in Tanzania are currently fundraising on Kiva, but each month you can find loans posted by Tujijenge Tanzania.

9 December 2012 at 12:00 2 comments

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