Posts tagged ‘Tanzania’

On the road less traveled: Kagera region in Tanzania.

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania


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!

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!
Flower collage4

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.
Lake Vic collage11

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.
Bike collage3

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”!
BusMuleba collage10

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?
Ngara view collage7

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.
Market collage6

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.
Giraffe collage9

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!
Dresses collage8

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

The Illustrated Guide to Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner! (Tanzania Edition)

Marion Walls | KF19 | Tanzania

I’d like to celebrate Thanksgiving with you, the Kiva community!  I’d love to cook dinner for us to share but this is the thing: I’m in Tanzania right now.  (I’m a Kiva Fellow, serving with Tujijenge and Barefoot Power.)  So I’m enlisting your help with getting the food to the table.  It’ll be easy!  I’ve chosen a familiar Thanksgiving menu:

Turkey with Pan Gravy

Nut Loaf (*vegetarian option)

Mashed Potatoes

Roasted Corn

Seasonable Vegetables


Coffee or Tea

And just to be certain we end up with the same meal as each other, I’ve provided step-by-step instructions (with full-color illustrations from Tanzania!) for you to follow.  You can’t go wrong…  So let’s get cooking!

1.  Set the oven temperature to “moderate” heat, i.e. be sure to let the charcoal burn down!

2.  Cook the Bird till the juices run clear, and the skin is nicely browned.  (Turkeys proved elusive – here’s rooster from Bagamoyo instead…)

3.  Pick, peel, and roast nuts for the nut loaf.  Cashews are abundant here, but feel free to use any nuts growing locally near you.

Oh! I almost forgot to decorate the table!

4.  Peel the potatoes – don’t be shy with the quantities!   (My neighborhood chip-vendor goes through 3 of these 250 lb sacks every day!)

5.  Roast the corn to perfection, then spice it up with peri-peri (chilli) and lime juice.

6.  Finely chop a selection of greens, and saute each individually.

7.  Fix the desert of your choice.  We’re not big on pie here, and the electricity quit (again) so the ice-cream has melted…  but cake is a winner at all celebrations!

8.  Brew coffee or tea – we grow them both here!  Our coffee is world-famous for quality and flavor, but we export most beans to you.  We usually use instant powder ourselves, or more often drink tea.

I hope you’ve cooked up a feast!

Happy Thanksgiving from Tanzania!

Marion has written many pages of operating instructions for polymer manufacturing facilities… You too can apply to be a Kiva Fellow for a totally different experience!

22 November 2012 at 19:00 1 comment

Group Loans: Filling a Particular Niche

By Marion Walls, KF19, Tanzania

There’s a buzz about Group Loans here in Dar Es Salaam!  And now that I see them in action every day, I’m sold too!  I’m volunteering as a Kiva Fellow at Tujijenge Tanzania where all Kiva loans are Group loans, so I’ve learned considerably more about them in the last six weeks.  It’s become clear why Group Loans are a mainstay of microcredit: they fill a particular niche for borrowers.

Let me show you what I’ve learned…

Borrower groups at Tujijenge are made up of around fourteen members who know each other, though there may be as many as twenty or as few as eight.  Groups choose their own names – and names run the gamut from the practical “Mt Rungwe”, to the motivational “Breakthrough”, and confident “Top Class”.  Their names are just the first indication that each group is unique…  It’s been immediately apparent when I’ve met them that each group has it’s own personality: some are shy and quiet, others cheerful and full of energy!

Group members don’t necessarily operate the same type of business as each other.  One may have a fruit stall in a market;

another may own a general store;

while a third raises (inquisitive) ducks!

Group members don’t all borrow the same amount as one another either – each member’s loan amount is dictated by both the amount they requested and their personal loan history at Tujijenge.

I’ve participated in a number of Group loan disbursements at Tujijenge’s main branch.  I’ve been delighted to meet members on their tenth loan cycle, borrowing Tsh 1,800,000 (about US$ 1125), because it confirms for me that the loans provide genuine benefit.  I’ve been equally happy to meet members who’ve only recently joined a group and are on their first loan cycle, borrowing Tsh 80,000 (about US$ 50).  Wait a minute…. surely that can’t be right?  $ 50!   I’ve never seen an Individual loan for $ 50 on Kiva.  And this is precisely the point: Group Loans are special.  They enable borrowers to start borrowing.

This thrills me – I’m here, seeing borrowers stepping onto the first rung of a ladder that could lead upward out of poverty!  New group members are borrowing $ 50 to boost their fledgling business, or to make a lump sum payment on an item such as school fees.  The main reason these borrowers join a Group is that members guarantee each others’ repayments, so small loan amounts are accessible to those who don’t yet have physical collateral.  (Tied to this fact, too, is that members don’t need spousal approval for participation in a Group loan – an important consideration in a culture where gender equality has not been the traditional norm.)

Group loans also provide a good environment for nurturing new borrowers.  Established group members can help new borrowers learn the skills and discipline associated with repaying a loan, all within the safety-net of the group guarantee.  And, I was fascinated to learn, a Group is a self-regulating mechanism against the scourge of over-indebtedness.  Group members actively discourage each other from taking out simultaneous loans from multiple organizations because they know they’ll personally be on the hook for paying back the Group loan if a fellow member cannot.

Then there are the intangible benefits to a Group loan that I’ve discovered while attending Group meetings!

Groups meet on a weekly or bi-weekly basis in a location convenient to them (but that entails several hours’ journey on a hot and supremely overcrowded dalla dalla for the Tujijenge loan officer and Kiva Fellow…), to register repayments with their loan officer.  At one meeting, I ask the Group Chairman if hers is a tough job and she sighs: “Yes, following up with members who haven’t repaid is the hardest part.”  I ask her why she’s persevered in the role for five years, and she answers without hesitation: “Leadership!”  She’s referring to leadership within her group, as well as within her community.  It’s her very practical way of bettering the community in which she lives.

Likewise, the young Treasurer is demonstrating her accounting skills and acting as a role model to new borrowers within the group, whilst also developing her status outside it.

And another group member, (an irrepressible character who offered me a two-week home stay to get my Swahili vocabulary up to scratch!), has the opportunity for the group interaction she so obviously thrives on.  It’s a big part of the reason she was a founding member of the group five years ago…

But it’s not just idle chit chat at a Group meeting; the support members gain from one another is so highly valued that many well-established borrowers choose to stay in a Group long after they are eligible for “graduation” to an Individual loan.  In this case – and in a nice paradox – the Group loan enables borrowers to access some of the largest loan amounts on offer.  So chalk up one more winning attribute: Group loans empower the borrowers that started with them to keep moving upward!

If you’d like to loan to Tujijenge’s Group borrowers, you can do so here.

As we say in Tanzania: Karibu sana!  You are very welcome!

10 November 2012 at 18:00 2 comments

Same Continent, Different Worlds: Part 1

By Kiva Fellows in Africa, KF16
Compiled by Tejal Desai

Where might you find muzungu hunting? Where do Kenya’s elite runners hail from? And what do most borrowers in Burkina Faso use their business profits for? Kiva Fellows from KF16 bring you a unique perspective from the diverse and vast continent of Africa! We patched together an overview of each of our placement countries that includes: basic socioeconomic stats, common stereotypes (and to what extent they are true or false), greatest challenges, most common loan products at our respective field partners, and the borrowers’ most common use of their profits. This first post of a two-part series focuses on Kenya, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso. We hope our summaries give you a new perspective on the continent and its distinct countries that we’ve been fortunate to explore during the Kiva fellowship!

Continue Reading 31 December 2011 at 13:00

Stuff Kiva Fellows Like #10-17

Compiled by Jim Burke, KF16, Nicaragua

We are Kiva Fellows. This is the stuff we like. Here is an insider (often critical, or satirical but always true!) view of what it means to be a Kiva Fellow and promote access to financial services around the world. From party crashing to bazaars to street food, these are the things we like and thrive on. Check out Stuff Kiva Fellows Like (SKFL) #1-9!

#10 Street Food

Mariela Cedeño, KF16, Cochabamba, Bolivia

I’m not really sure why, but there is something inherently appealing to a Kiva Fellow’s being about food that is prepared, cooked, and sold on the streets. Perhaps it’s the dubiously hygienic food preparation, the alternative cooking apparatus used to bring food to fire, or it’s ready availability and our relative laziness…wait, no, it’s actually our need to literally ‘taste’ the local culture. In our fits of street food deliriousness we are open and ready to taste all that our surroundings have to offer, however, we often find that the local fare may not quietly find a home in our stomachs. Thankfully, before leaving to our local assignments, our travel nurses reminded us that in times of intestinal woe, Cipro and other like antibiotics will be our best friend. They sometimes are, but because we are well versed in the dangers of overusing antibiotics and are haunted by nightmares of creating giant super bacteria that start kidnapping local women and children, we use them sparingly and wisely. (more…)

25 November 2011 at 16:00 6 comments

Kiva Lending from a Kiva Fellow’s Point of View

Rebecca Corey, KF9 and KF10 Tanzania

I’ve now been in the field as a Kiva Fellow for almost four months! It’s hard to believe all that has happened in this short time. I’ve battled malaria, ridden the local daladalas ‘til I know their paths like a local, developed a healthy taste for “chipsi mayai” (an egg and french fry omelette–the most popular Tanzanian street food), learned every Kiswahili greeting around (and there seem to be hundreds!), and settled into life with my beautiful homestay family. I’ve also conducted a borrower verification of SELFINA (a Kiva partner in Dar), and spent hours interviewing, photographing, and writing for borrower profiles and journal updates  for Kiva clients at my host MFI, Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd. I’ve collaborated with RockhopperTV and the BBC World News on a short documentary series that will feature Kiva as one of the world’s most innovative social businesses, and created templates and training materials for Tujijenge as well. Last but not least, I’ve enrolled in the Masters in Development Studies program at the University of Dar es Salaam, which has allowed me to explore the theoretical background and debates surrounding the development practices I’m witnessing on the ground. Most of my days are spent at in the field with clients, at local branch offices, and on Partner Administration (or PA2 as the Kiva Fellows call it), the website that allows Kiva’s partner microfinance institutions to post business descriptions, upload borrower profile pictures and journal updates, keep track of repayments and account details, and otherwise manage their interactions with Kiva headquarters. (more…)

30 June 2010 at 09:18 1 comment

You Know You are in Tanzania When…. (Volume V)

Five months after boarding a plane to San Francisco, it’s time to wrap up my Kiva Fellowship. For my final post, I’d like to honour a tradition set by past Tanzanian Kiva Fellows and share a few of my observations from this crazy and charming country. Hope you enjoy!

You know you are in Tanzania when…

Continue Reading 25 June 2010 at 04:32 2 comments

Sugar Daddy Syndrome

Yesterday I spent about 12 hours on hot, crowded and bumpy buses in Dar Es Salaam. At least half of that time was spent idling in traffic jams, an inevitable experience whenever one travels to the far-flung corners of this sprawling city. I was trying to reach a couple of Tujijenge Tanzania clients and interview them as part of Kiva’s borrower verification process. I found one of the two clients I was hoping to meet, so the day was partially successful. By the time I got home it was close to 9pm, and after cleaning up and a quick meal (rice and beans in coconut sauce – delightful!), I was ready to relax. Allowing myself a short reprieve from noisy, dusty Dar, a movie was in order. Figuring a British film set in 1960s London should do the trick, I settled on the film An Education; however, as the story of a schoolgirl’s doomed relationship with an older man unfolded, I couldn’t help but recognize that the movie holds significant parallels with modern Tanzania.

Continue Reading 4 June 2010 at 05:12 4 comments

Sweet Memories at Home and Abroad

The Rideau Canal in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada is the world’s largest skating rink. Each winter, the canal freezes into a winter wonderland, and I love skating along its 7.8 kilometres of ice. No skate would be complete without a taste of beavertail at the end. Despite what it’s name might imply, beavertails are actually a delightfully deep-fried pastry, covered in cinnamon and sugar. They are available at huts along the ice, and in my mind, beavertails are as much part of winter as skating, cold feet and hot chocolate.

That’s why it took me a moment to place the distinct beavertail scent while wandering the hot, congested and sandy streets of Dar Es Salaam…

Continue Reading 26 May 2010 at 23:34 5 comments

You Know You Are In Tanzania When… (Vol IV)

By Jennifer Gong, KF9 Tanzania

As my fellowship draws to a close, I would like to contribute my last post to a tradition set by past Tanzanian Kiva Fellows.  There is something unique about the country that fellows have been compelled to share.  Alec Lovett (a KF4 and my interviewer!) first started the series “You know you are in Tanzania when…” back in 2008 and later added a Vol 2.  Jara Small (KF5) brilliantly added her observations and wrote Vol 3.   In my 90 days here, I’ve been privy to witness some of the unique characteristics of Tanzania and its inhabitants. So here goes Vol 4… Enjoy! (more…)

30 December 2009 at 21:46 8 comments

Holiday Greetings – KF9 on Christmas

By KF9, All Over The World

Merry Christmas! This holiday season Kiva Fellows are celebrating Christmas all over the world, in all sorts of different ways. Whether it be traveling, feasting, or working hard to bring you some additional Kiva magic over the holidays, it’s safe to say we’re all thankful to be serving as Kiva Fellows and glad to have found a wonderful community in Kiva.

We wanted to share what Christmas is like for KF9ers out in the field and around the world. So enjoy – and happy holidays!

In no particular order:

Nicki Goh, KF9 Senegal
This coming weekend, the Senegalese have a 4 day weekend with both Christian and Islamic holidays straddling the weekend. I will make the most of the time off work to visit the Sine-Saloum Delta on the Atlantic coast of Senegal – an area where my MFI SEM’s work is extremely important to ecovillagers. The delta is an area of immense natural beauty which is sadly at risk of desertification and where there is a high level of unemployment. This time I will be on vacation but I hope to return there at a later date to meet some of the borrowers for myself. Happy holidays to you all – whatever your religion!


25 December 2009 at 02:36 5 comments

My Blue Sweater Moment and Yours

by Jennifer Gong, KF9 Tanzania

The Blue Sweater is a book that recounts the experiences of Jacqueline Novogratz, social venturer and founder of the Acumen Fund. The book contains a string of stories, but the most poignant is the tale behind the title of the book. When she was young, her uncle gave her a blue sweater, which she eventually outgrew and donated away. It would turn out that the journeys of Novogratz and the blue sweater would eventually cross paths a decade later in Rwanda – She, jogging along the dusty roads of Rwanda and it, covering the small frame of an African boy.

A few weeks ago, I had my own “blue sweater” moment. (more…)

24 December 2009 at 21:28 19 comments

The Local Local Lifestyle

Rebecca Corey, KF9 Tanzania

The first time I got shoved DSC04778out of the way in a mad rush to the dala-dala bus, my friend Victor said to me, “This is the local local lifestyle, pole sana–I’m very sorry.” The next time he said it was when the electricity went out and I was reading in the living room. “This is the local local, pole dada–sorry sister.” Then again when I had Malaria: “The Tanzania local local, pole sana, pole sana.” In the streets, when Tanzanians are shouting to me, “Mchina, mchina!” Chinese person, chinese person! : “They are local local, they cannot tell you are Korean. Pole.” And every time, he smiles his big smile, apologetic, almost wistful, partly amused, always sincere.

I have also started to think to myself, “local local,” several times each day. We haven’t had water for the past eight days because of a broken water pump, so we fetch bucketfuls from next door. Tanzania is suffering from a major power crisis, so electricity is rationed. Ours goes out for a full day once every three days. I get up at five every morning to catch the dala-dala before the major traffic jams so I can get to work by eight. I see one bus that says on the back, “Don’t Hide, Just Pay,” another claims “Jesus is Power,” and a third “Blootooth On.” “Local local,” I think. (more…)

14 November 2009 at 03:57 12 comments

Dreaming of Dar

By Jennifer Gong, KF9 Tanzania

My name is Jen Gong and I will be spending a few months at YOSEFO, a Kiva field partner in Tanzania.  I arrived in Dar Es Salaam about 2 weeks ago and here is my first entry…



There is something enchanting about Tanzania.  Most travelers would say the charm is in landscape.  And without a doubt there is much to behold here.  I have not yet wadded in the turquoise waters of Zanzibar, climbed to the top of Kilimanjaro or spotted the exotic creatures of the Serengeti, but flying into Dar Es Salaam itself was a treat.  I wish I took a photo of how the tin roofs sparkled like stars against the blue Indian Ocean. 

But for those who have spent a little more time here and immersed themselves in the local culture, they will claim the charm is in the people.   Tanzanians are colorful, diverse and warm.  When my coworkers held a meeting to discuss about the upcoming marriage celebration of one of the credit officers, I was asked to be involved because they said “<I am> now a part of the YOSEFO family”.  My host family of three sisters, treat me like their own dada (sister in Swahili), and have been generously teaching me Swahili and Tanzanian cooking.


21 October 2009 at 10:34 11 comments

A Rough Start

By Rebecca Corey, KF9 Tanzania

Somewhere between Arusah and Dar; vendors; from bus window.

After my first day interacting with Kiva borrowers I was exhausted but exhilarated. It was slow work, waiting while the money for the loans was counted out and matched with each client’s loan record booklet, paperwork was filled out, treasurer and secretary books were gathered. Outside the Tujijenge branch office in the heart of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, members of loan groups languished in the sun, clothes bright against the dusty ground. I glanced out of the window from time to time to watch them and try to guess what each group had named itself.

At Tujijenge Tanzania, most of the loans are given to groups. Each group consists of 15-40 members, who are split into sub-groups of 5-7, whose members act as guarantors of each others loans. For many poor borrowers, the group’s guarantee is the only collateral they can offer. The social pressure from the group is a major deterrent to delinquency and default, along with the hope for future loans. After a group is approved by Tujijenge, they have one month of business and microfinance training by loan officers. At this time, their information and photos are collected, they elect group leaders, a secretary, and treasurer, and they get to choose a name. Many of them convey a sense of national pride (like “Kilimanjaro” or “Mungu Ibariki Tanzania”–God bless Tanzania), but as you can imagine, these names go fast. So there are also groups like “red rose,” “lion,” and “peace.” Soon, even names like these are gone. So groups pop up named “flag” or “Bob Marley” or “Ferarri”. One of my favorite groups was called “Parachichi,” which means “avocado” in Kiswahili. I loved this little bit of trivia so much that I included it in the business profile for the group on The other group we worked with that day called itself “Sigara.” I didn’t have time to ask what this meant, but leaving work that day I asked a friend. “Ah, yes, sigara! It means ‘cigarette.’” I recalled my interview with the elected leader of Sigara group, a tall and slender woman with large eyes who held her child in the lap of her green dress as she told me about her shop, her monthly profits, her hours, and saving for her children’s education. I wondered if it was her idea to name the group ‘Cigarette.’


20 October 2009 at 21:48 8 comments

Tanzania bound

By Rebecca Corey, KF9 Tanzania

I’m sitting in terminal three at Emirates AirDubai’s International Airport. The moving sidewalk beside me sounds like horses trotting on a packed dirt road. Since my 14-hour layover began a several hours ago, I’ve heard the Islamic call-to-prayer twice over the airport intercom system, followed soon after with enticing invitations to browse the duty-free shops that run down the center of the terminal. I should be sleeping, re-setting my internal clock, but the fluorescent lights and ribbons of Arabic that stream from the ceiling won’t let me rest.

Hi, my name is Rebecca Elizabeth Yeong Ae Corey, and I am a member of the Kiva Fellows Program’s 9th class. I trained for a week in San Francisco, had two days to pack up my bags and say my goodbyes in my hometown of Athens, Georgia, and now I am headed for Tanzania. Once I get to Dar es Salaam, I will settle into a homestay and begin work at Tujijenge Tanzania, Ltd., one of Kiva’s field partner MFI’s. I’m en route. I am Tanzania bound.  (more…)

1 October 2009 at 13:06 7 comments

BRAC – like Risk, but without the risk

The concept of risk has been discussed by many, and often, over the past year, as citizens around the world voice their concerns about the global recession. Mortgage risk, loan risk, credit risk, bailout risk, risk assessment, risk of spending too much, risk of spending too little, and on and on. A lot of risky business (and not the underwear dance kind) has been going on and we are paying for it now in all too literal a way.

There is another kind of risk though; one that I think some of you may be familiar with. That’s right, it’s Risk, as in epic board game, world domination style Risk.

I have been thinking about this particular kind of Risk lately due to the fact that while working with the Kiva field partner BRAC, I cannot escape how much the organization makes me think of the game, with its trademark little army men taking control of continents and sweeping across the globe in the attempt to gain complete domination of the two dimensional board game-world.

Only in BRAC’s case, the army is not little plastic figures, but a human, benevolent BRAC army of Bangladeshis, Afghanis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Southern Sudanese, Ugandans, and Tanzanians. And this is just the beginning – the army is growing, sweeping the globe, out to conquer the poverty of the world, one country at a time.

The figures in green represent BRAC, those in red...poverty.

The figures in green represent BRAC, those in red...poverty.

Okay, my analogy may be getting out of hand at this point. “Out to conquer the poverty of the world” is definitely too melodramatic, but the quantity and quality of BRAC’s global work to improve the lives of those living in poverty is undeniably striking.

Created in 1972 as a small-scale relief and rehabilitation project that was designed as a response to the consequences of the liberation war in Bangladesh, BRAC has since evolved into the largest southern NGO in the world.

With its programs in Asia and Africa, BRAC provides services to more than 110 million people. These services include: microfinance, health, water and sanitation, education, adolescent education and life skills, agriculture, livestock, and other social development programs.

Poverty is a simple word for a complex beast – BRAC works to improve the quality of people’s lives using a holistic approach, with strategically linked programs that address the causes of poverty from multiple angles. This might mean that within a microfinance group, there will be a health worker providing medical supplies for her group members or that down the street from a microfinance meeting a client’s daughter will be learning about gender issues at an adolescent club.


2 June 2009 at 02:47 5 comments

Victory is Mine! . . . or is it?

I’m going to make a bold statement: microfinance is the land of minute incremental change, and joy resulting from massive professional achievement is rare here.  Afterall, one loan of $125 does not take a family from impoverished to middle-class, and three months in the field does not illuminate the solution to eradicating global poverty.  As a result, any goal achieved feels like an immense victory, and yesterday, victory was mine.

Several weeks ago I spent three weeks traveling north to train 7 of BRAC Tanzania’s branches on how to implement Kiva (for a synopsis, see summaries, part 1 and part 2). Yesterday, I finally saw the fruits of my labor. Allow me to give you some background:

BRAC Tanzania has more than 65 branches throughout the country, and that number is constantly growing. Right now, only a handful of those branches actually “do” Kiva. What that means is that only a select number of the branches have been trained on what Kiva is and how to produce the business profiles that are found on the Kiva website. When I travelled to 7 of the branches in September, I did so to train the Community Organizers and Branch Managers at those branches so that they could begin to produce Kiva business profiles. The goal was that after I left, they would be self-sufficient in the Kiva process and able to complete business profile templates with their groups and take the accompanying photo.  An added bonus would be if the pictures were interesting and the forms contained more detail.

For those of you unfamiliar with BRAC on Kiva, a picture like this has been the norm:

Typcal BRAC Kiva Business Profile Picture

Typcal BRAC Kiva Business Profile Picture

In addition, the descriptions are historically brief and lacking in colorful details.  After arriving here I realized there’s very good reason for that: BRAC has more than 100,000 clients throughout the country, and more than 2,300 groups on Kiva.  The staff is extremely busy and has a lot of paper work to fill out, of which the Kiva Business Profile Template is just one piece.  When I first arrived here, I spent quite a bit of time ascertaining how l could create a template that produced more interesting profiles for Kiva lenders without demanding more time from the BRAC staff.

What I came up with were a few multiple choice questions and a bit of clarification on existing questions.  I tested the forms in the field to see where the staff got confused (the forms are in English but the level of English spoken by each CO varies), which questions clients had difficulty answering (for example, listing the ages of their children is no easy task), and which blanks were likely to be filled by something generic (i.e. the loan will be used “to expand her business”).  I revised the BRAC-Kiva template based on all of these observations, and I still consider it a work in progress.

Waiting to receive the first batch of profiles from the branches I trained has been like waiting to receive exam results; I was dying to know how I’d done.  To see their finished forms and photos would be my only guage of success or failure.  Yesterday, my waiting finally came to an end as I received profiles from 2 of the 7 branches.  The elation I felt at seeing pictures like this made those three weeks on the road fully worthwhile:

A new-and-improved Kiva Business Profile picture from BRAC Tanzania

A new-and-improved Kiva Business Profile picture from BRAC Tanzania

Look at the depth, color, and action!

Look at the depth, color, and action!

As I hurriedly looked over the forms they completed I was happy to see very few questions left blank (possible if the staff forgets what the question means) and a lot of great, thorough information.  I left the office eagerly looking forward to coming in this morning to begin adding them to the Kiva website.

Unfortunately, the pictures above will never make it to the Kiva website.  What I viewed as a major professional accomplishment turned into a disappointment as I made a frustrating discovery: many of the pictures were not correctly matched with their accompanying form.  During training I tried to convey to the branch offices how important it was that we know which picture goes with which form, but it remained a difficult task.  I explained how to find the picture number on the camera and there were nods of understanding all around, and even demonstrated understanding as I stepped back and watched the staff complete the Kiva process on their own.  But alas, I now have brilliant photos and thorough templates that will never see the light of day.

For an evening, I thought victory was mine, but it seems I did miss something afterall.  This is not a fatal error nor is it irreconcilable.  After a few hours of trying to make sense of the picture numbers, I admitted that I’d have to chalk these ones up to a loss.  I got on the phone with the branch and tried to re-explain the picture number concept, and this time I think I got some traction.  Happily, not every business profile had this issue and I’m hopeful that the next batch I receive will not have this same problem.  To see if my optimism paid off, check out Kiva’s currently fundraising BRAC Tanzania loans.  Now, if I could just find out what happened at those other five branches . . .

23 October 2008 at 10:49 8 comments

Happy New Year!

Hello Kiva Fans,

A little more than a week ago I was sitting on the plane for the last hour of what had been a 36 hour journey – Boston, New York, Zurich, Nairobi, Dar es Salaam.  I watched as the computer generated plane tracker moved across the Kenya/Tanzania border and tried to steady myself for the new circumstances I was about to enter.

This week, I want to share some of the pleasant surprises – of which there are many.  One of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the dogged, and at times heroic, efforts of many to highlight to suffering on this continent is that it has come to define the African brand.  This is not in any way to minimize the hardships of many, indeed witnessing and hopefully beginning to understand their struggles is in large part why I am here.

The first surprise has been how safe I have felt.  Considering I was dropped quite literally half way around the world, with no arranged ride and only the address of a hotel from a guidebook – this was a welcome discovery!

Another surprise was how diverse the community is here in Dar.  Take for instance my day on Tuesday.  I woke up at my hotel, the Jambo Inn – small, cheap, but clean – which is run by Jignesh, a 32 year old Muslim, who was born in Mumbai.  It stands at the corner of Libya St. and Mosque Street.  If you take Libya St. 5 blocks west, you will Ohio St. (even here Ohio beats Michigan).  William, the Tanzanian who runs the front desk, is a Christian.
I bought a cell phone from Mahmood, Hindu, born in Tanzania to Indian parents.  My lunch was prepared by a Somali woman and later I went to a Rosh Hashanah service performed by a rabbi from Brooklyn at a restaurant owned by two Israelis.
Four religions (five if you count the chasm between me and an orthodox rabbi), people from three continents, two great meals, all in one afternoon.I hold no allusions that this day, or any other day that I might have here, is a “typical” day for locals.  I just hope that is adds some texture to that heavy, often sorrowful image often associated with Africa.  

Oh yeah, the pizza is pretty good too, who knew?
Thank you for your support of Kiva, thank you for your support of the Kiva Fellows. I look forward to sharing stories from the microfinance world soon.
Let’s go Red Sox! J

12 October 2008 at 14:55 1 comment

21 Days on the Road (Part 2)

(To see what happened during the first 11 days, see Part 1)

Day 12 (Warning: slightly disgusting content. Do not attempt to read while eating):
I just finished rubbing my heels with sandpaper for the last hour. It’s a long story how I got to this point, but it involves exclusively flip-flops/sandals and very dirty/dusty/sandy roads for 6 weeks. Basically, I gave up trying to wash or in any way care for my feet a few weeks ago. They were just always dirty. Even when I get home there’s just dirt everywhere so I gave up on my feet. The plan worked out fine until yesterday my right heel began to hurt whenever I put pressure on it. A problem because I do a lot of walking. So I decided to look at my heel (probably the first time I’ve done this in 6 weeks) and saw not only tons of seriously dead skin but also some major cracks—I’m talking into the depths of my flesh—in my heel. There was one in particular that stood out—just a huge crevice where my skin broke running the length of probably a half inch. So today I go to a pharmacy having no idea what the word in English is for that thing you scrape on your feet (like a nail file for your feet) and certainly not knowing the Swahili word. All I have going for me was the Swahili word for “foot” which also happens to include the leg so it is sufficiently vague. When I walk into the pharmacy and decide to scan for an item in the same family as my desired object, to my glee, I spot just the thing I am looking for! Glorious! I’m pretty sure the pharmacist has never seen anyone so excited about a foot-scraper. So I just spent nearly an hour soaking and scraping away the layers and layers of dead skin in the hope that it will ease the pain that the cracks are causing me. There’s still much more work to do there, but a girl can only touch her feet for so long in one day before she has to call it quits. I’ll get back to it tomorrow and hopefully this new hygiene regimen will prevent future fault lines in my feet. (Be thankful I forgot to take a picture of my foot in its most heinous glory or else I’d be posting it right here.)

Day 14:
After a 2.5 hour bus ride from Shinyanga, I arrive in Mwanza and decide to walk around the city. I turn onto a street that is amply occupied with other pedestrians only to have a man walking towards me reach for my face to rip off my sunglasses. Some would let it go at that (afterall, I really don’t even like those sunglasses) but unfortunately my animal instincts kick in and without thinking I begin fighting back for my glasses. We have a standing tussle during which he scratches up my arm and I commit to crushing the glasses in my grasp so long as it means he doesn’t win. All the while, the crowded street freezes to watch the muzungu woman wrestle her attacker. No one steps in to help, but they all watch. In the end I do win and walk away with all of my possessions intact (my brute strength didn’t even cause me to crush my glasses) and only minor injuries to my right arm. As strange as the attack is, so is the reaction I receive from local people to whom I mention it. One accuses me of lying, telling me that the city is safe and that would never happen. Another says that if a thief is caught in the act, everyone in sight will pummel him or her and retrieve the belongings then continue beating the culprit perhaps until death. I ask why, then, did no one step in to get him away from me after he grabbed my face. Unsure how to answer, he says that the man is probably a known drunk or crazy person who does this type of thing all the time so no one wanted to bother. Comforting. I decide not to mention the incident to any more locals.

Day 15:
Today I learned the effect that isolation has on me. Though there have people around me all of the time and I’ve met different BRAC staff every day, it wasn’t until today when I reunited with a fellow Kiva Fellow here in Mwanza that I realized the hole there had been in my communication. Glorious friendship, camaraderie, English language, and mutual understanding. Thank you, Nabomita! To celebrate, we are eating the biggest tilapia I’ve ever seen straight out of Lake Victoria (the source of the Nile River). I’m barely able to stop talking long enough to get the food to my mouth, but when I do it’s well worth it. I’m now fully convinced that the only way to eat fish is with your hands. As a person who never ate fish prior to my move here I don’t think I’d know how to pick out the bones (or eyeballs) using a fork and knife.

Day 16:
I’ve spent each of the previous two weeks training two branches in each region on how to begin using Kiva and generating Business Profiles for the Kiva website. In Mwanza, I am to train three branches in five days. I’ve gotten into a training rhythm and like the two branches in five days regimen, but I’m a little worried about how I’ll pull off three. What I’ve been doing is spending one day with a branch to go to the field and get to know the COs and branch manager. In the afternoon, once everyone has returned from the field, I launch into a presentation and training discussion on Kiva. Then the next day I go into the field with as many COs as I can and visit as many groups as possible to begin filling out business profile forms and taking pictures for the website. I plan on spending two days like this at each branch and then I have the fifth bonus day to spend a little more time with whichever branch I feel needs it. Part of the struggle this week will not only be making it to each branch on two different days (at the very least one afternoon to do the training followed by one morning to go to the field) but also locating the three branches and getting from place to place, as the three branches are spread out on all different sides of the city. It’s doable but there’s not much of a buffer should one of the mornings or afternoons not work out. If I weren’t in Africa the schedule I’ve created for myself would be totally doable, but it turns out I am in Africa and timing absolutely never works out a) as you expect; or b) as you need it to. In my perfect world, my week will go as follows:

Monday—morning: Branch 1; afternoon: Branch 2
Tuesday—morning: Branch 3; afternoon: Branch 1
Wednesday—morning: Branch 1; afternoon: Branch 3
Thursday—morning: Branch 2; afternoon Branch 1
Friday—morning: Branch 3; afternoon: Branch 2

The way I see it, if the week even goes 80% as planned I’ll still complete all of the trainings. Fingers crossed.

Day 17:
A car wearing a bumper sticker declaring, “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus” is simultaneously driving straight into opposing traffic at full speed and coming within inches of hitting multiple pedestrians. It is as though his faith that he is protected by Jesus permits him to drive recklessly, as no harm could find him. What about the pedestrians? What if they’re not protected by Jesus’ blood? Faith is one thing but watching it embolden this country’s drivers is a scary incarnation of religious devotion.

Day 18:
It’s a rainy day in Mwanza and I need to get from one branch to another to begin training another office. Rain wouldn’t be catastrophic except that the Regional Manager is here today and he’s offered me a ride to my next location on the back of his motorbike. We wait for the rain to pass enough for us to be able to take to the streets and after two hours we decide to go for it. We make it through ten minutes of the 30-minute ride when he pulls over and tells me he’s going here (as he points vaguely at the nothing that is next to us). By now it is raining again and we are well outside the city. In shock that he would leave me on the side of the road in the rain in the middle of nowhere I hesitate. Does he really intend for me to get off the bike? He does. He quickly pulls away further off the road and I have no choice but to begin walking in the general direction of the city. I look down to realize I’m covered in mud and filth that’s been kicked up by the motorbike and I’m getting even wetter as the rain comes down harder, but there’s no where for me to take cover. Eventually I make it to a daladala stand where a man ushers me under a shelter and asks me where I need to go. Thank you, my Swahili, for being advanced enough to allow me to talk about directions and destinations fluently! He gets me onto the proper daladala and tells the driver where I need to go. I hate being helpless but my dejection at my soaking state and abandonment allow me to resign myself to it and follow instructions. We reach a stop at which point the daladala driver tells me I should get off. He points to two students whom he says will lead me to my next daladala. In the end it takes five people and one hour to get to the branch. It would all be worth it if it weren’t for the fact that by the time I reach the branch, the staff has gone home as the work day is nearly over. All for naught.

Day 19:
As I said, I need the week to go at least 80% as planned. I knew that something would go wrong but there’s always a strange excitement as I wake up each day not sure exactly what it is that will disrupt my attempt at a plan. The good news is that if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I need to remain only loosely committed to my plans, as any greater attachment will result in frequent disappointment. Today, Branch 2 is a problem. The Branch Manager has resigned so the branch is in turmoil. I’m wondering if I’m bad luck, as last week both a Branch Manager and a CO resigned on the day I was to train the branch. The Area Manager tells me I should not take it personally as turnover is not uncommon. It’s amazing the difference a solid Branch Manager makes. Without that authority figure to impose a sense of order and routine, things falls apart. COs still attend their meetings and collect their payments but air in the office is more chaotic. Clients coming to receive disbursements get into yelling matches with each other and the COs. The flow of the staff in and out of the office is constant so no one ever knows how to find anyone else. When I try to locate a particular CO, inevitably I am told that “there is a problem, she had to go.” I don’t even know what this means, but I’ve heard it numerous times. Of all of the things Branch 2 has to worry about, I’m not convinced that I can elevate Kiva on their list of priorities. I’m worried that the situation here might consume more than 20% of my plan and leave me unsuccessful, with perhaps 2 or 2.5 branches trained.

Day 20:
“What do you think of the way we collect loan payments?” It feels like a loaded question so I pause. I say something vague to which the Branch Manager responds “do you think it’s safe?” Ahh that’s what she’s getting at. And she has a good point. The method that BRAC employs to collect installments on loans is through weekly meetings at the Group Leader’s home that the CO attends. There, she collects payments—sometimes more than 1 million Tanzanian Shillings in a single day (equivalent of $1,000—a lot of money by local standards)—to bring back to the office. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the COs are women between the ages of 20 and 30 (per BRAC policy) and they make these collections alone. For the Branch Manager to bring it up echoes the concerns I have had as I repeatedly watch COs roll up wads of cash and stick them in their purses, in plain public view and seemingly vulnerable to any bystander should he or she decide he/she wants that money. In addition to safety concerns, the Branch Manager points out that these women do not make in one month nearly the amount of money they collect in a single day. What is to stop them from running off with it?

Day 21:
I am beginning this 16 hour bus ride with a woman more or less sitting on top of me. This would be totally predictable (afterall, what’s an African bus ride without a stranger sitting on your lap?) except that the seat next to her is empty. Why, I beg of you WHY, do you insist on sitting right up on me when there is a perfectly good and empty aisle seat right next to you??? Two hours later, we make a stop and someone sits in the empty seat which finally stops me from gazing longingly at the empty seat trying to will this woman to move. Every 4-5 hours we pull over on the side of the road in the middle of no where. These are bathroom breaks. As one may expect, it’s almost exclusively men who take advantage of these rests (the terrain is desert with no trees or high shrubbery to shield a person) with only the occasional extremely desperate woman partaking. Me, I strategically drank no water for two days so as to avoid this very situation. Wildy unhealthy? Perhaps. Was it worth it? Definitely.

As the clock strikes ten the bus enters familiar terrain. Dar es Salaam is upon us. After 16 sweaty hours, 2 of which were unpaved, and no real food or drink to speak of, we arrive at the bus terminal. As I disembark, to my shock and amazement two of my friends with whom I live are waiting at the door and waving and yelling excitedly. What a fantastic homecoming!

17 September 2008 at 17:01 3 comments

21 Days on the Road (Part I)

On August 24th I left Dar es Salaam for a 3-week trip to central Tanzania to train BRAC branches on Kiva in three other regions. Here’s a glimpse into the first 11 days of my 21 days on the road:

Day 1:

Seven hours on the bus from Dar es Salaam to Dodoma has kicked off with a traveling saleswoman making her pitch for soaps, toothpastes, and aloe vera at full volume to the entire bus for at least 30 minutes. Perhaps I would mind her hard-sell less if I were able to understand more than 1 out of every 12 words (I do learn, however, that “aloe vera” is the same in English and Swahili. Good to know). When I arrive in Dodoma I discover that the method used by the bus company employee to match bags to owners is to write in permanent marker on the front of the bag the seat the owner is sitting in. F-1 will forever be a memorable place for me.

The Branded Backpack

The Branded Backpack

Day 2:

During an evening battle with hoards of mosquitoes I get to talking with the Dodoma Area Manager, a Bengali beginning his 5th month of a 3-year commitment in Tanzania. He comments on the number of mosquitoes here and compares it to the mosquitoes in Bangladesh. I mention that I am trying to avoid malaria and am taking medication at which point he interrupts me—there is medication for malaria???? At first I think he’s joking (after all, there is malaria in Bangladesh) and then remember I’ve never heard him make a joke. Attempting not to appear shocked, I try to explain that there are these things called prophylaxis that one can take while in a malaria-infected area to try to prevent contracting malaria. Unconvinced by this idea, he maintains a puzzled look on his face and says “malaria is not so bad. I’ve had it many times.” After our conversation ends I walk into my room and promptly take my Malarone.

Day 3:

After a successful training for one of BRAC’s Dodoma branches, it’s time to head into the field to begin collecting Business Profiles for the Kiva website with some of the Community Organizers (CO’s). As we prepare to leave, one CO asks me with little optimism if I know how to ride a bike. I respond that I do. The entire staff finds this extremely amusing (I’m not exactly sure why, but one week later I will have the same effect on another branch office when they learn I know how to ride a bike). Within 50 meters of beginning our journey in the abandoned, desert-like neighborhood, locals come out of no where to call in wonder at the muzungu on the bike. A muzungu on foot is one thing, but on a bike is a true novelty. Fifty meters later, I break the chain on the bike. Way to look like a bike-riding expert!

Day 4:

I spend the day visiting groups in a region more remote than any I’ve seen. The uproar my presence creates amongst children and adults alike is a distraction from the meetings we attempt to hold. Our first stop is at the home of a client next to an elementary school. Within five minutes of my arrival, the elementary school has emptied and stands outside of the house. Trying to be sociable, I go outside to say hi to the children who are eagerly trying to sneak a peak, but I miscalculate. The entire student body runs away in fear at my approach. With the help of some local women I coax them back and am able to speak with the kids a little, but none want to come within five feet of me, unsure what will happen. The awe at my presence continues as we walk to another client’s home. A small child sees me and asks if I am higher than God. Not sure what to make of a white person and having never seen one before, this particular child isn’t sure if I am worthy of worship. The Branch Manager and I quickly assert that I’m just like him and not to be worshipped.

Day 5:

Have you ever wondered what happens when you go through your closet and donate bags full of old clothes and shoes to charities? Well I have your answer. They go to Africa to be sold by small-business owners. The second lives of these clothes often come with a very different owner. The line between men’s and women’s clothing is erased as I see manly laborers spitting and pulling up their sagging pants, only to look at their shoes and find they are purple flip flops with sparkles and flowers. Men wearing women’s jeans is also a common occurrence. Other unexpected items have cropped up reminding me of home and making me wonder where the original owners are. Today it’s a BRAC client in a Harvard University t-shirt. Then one of the CO’s creates a stir in the office while we debate whether her new shoes are men’s or women’s. This is the first I’d heard any recognition that there is a distinction. When called upon to state my opinion on the white loafers I realize that they do look a little like men’s shoes. But then again, what’s the difference?

Day 6:

The contrast between the types of businesses BRAC’s clients own is illuminated. Visiting one business I am confronted with a fruit and vegetable stand brimming with every variety of both. I next visit a client’s vegetable stand that is located in front of her house and consists of no more than four tree branches supporting two planks of wood and shaded by a potato sack. She has some tomatoes and five bunches of bananas for sale.

Veggie Stand, V.1

Veggie Stand, V.1

Veggie Stand, V.2

Veggie Stand, V.2

Day 7:

Hit with a stomach bug, I do little poverty alleviation today. I have spent my week in Dodoma in a guest room at one of the BRAC branches here. On this, my last day before moving to another city, the entire branch staff comes into my room every few minutes to see how I am feeling. Unconvinced that constant company is the best way to rest and recover I want to be frustrated but can’t help but appreciate that there are people concerned about my well-being. Us lone-travelers rarely expect anyone to know or notice if something is amiss. In this case, the week spent with this staff has fostered a close bond. That, and I think they are a little freaked out seeing a foreigner sick. They try to convince me to go to the hospital, in part because no one wants to have my death on her conscience. The cook is particularly concerned as he frantically tries to feed me more food, despite that he is deathly afraid that his food is the cause of my problems.

Day 8:

Another bus ride—this time from Dodoma to Shinyanga. The bus departs two hours late and the ride lasts 7 hours. I begin panicking at the end of hour number 1 when we hit unpaved road. Fearing this means 6 more hours of intense bumpiness and massive wafts of dust attacking us through the windows (which we had to leave open or else we would roast to death) I trick myself into falling asleep during the most uncomfortable part of the ride. I wake up two hours later when we rejoin paved road and am thrilled that I’ve found such a constructive way to kill physically uncomfortable time.

Day 9:

It’s the subtle differences from region to region that reveal variances in inhabitants’ standard-of-living. Some generalizations based on my experiences: group meetings of the 20 individuals in a large group are all held at the home (or more specifically, in the yard) of the group chairperson. In Dar es Salaam, we attend group meetings where all members are seated on chairs in a circle. In Dodoma, the group chairperson brings out a large, immaculate woven mat on which all 20 members sit. In Shinyanga, groups squeeze onto tattered tarps not large enough to fit them all. Differences in the dress of the clients bear similar contrast. In Dar, it is not uncommon for the members to arrive in dresses, both western-looking and locally hand-made. In Shinyanga many women wear a combination of Kanga (local inexpensive died fabrics) and discarded t-shirts from America. There is a relationship between mat-style, dress, and the monthly income for each of these women. As we complete loan descriptions to be posted on Kiva’s website we ask what their monthly profit is prior to receiving a loan. In Dar it’s almost always above 150,000 Tsh (nearly $150) and even goes as high as 500,000 Tsh. In Dodoma, the women I meet typically earn a monthly profit of between 50,000 Tsh and 100,000 Tsh. In Shinyanga, most women I meet do not earn more than 20,000 Tsh per month (or $20).

Day 10:

“How old are you?” the CO and I ask one small group leader in Swahili. She confidently declares “31.” We proceed. “How old are your children?” Pause. Blank stare. Women sitting around the small group leader begin to try to puzzle through with her to identify the ages of her 8 children. She takes a guess at her oldest: 23. I let it slide for now, even though it seems quite unlikely that both of the ages she has answered could be correct. From there she tries to remember for how long she was not pregnant before having her next child: “21.” Then she says “19.” She pauses for a moment and asks how many she’s listed. Several minutes later, eight ages have been listed ranging from 4 months to 21 years. I hate to harp on this obviously difficult question but Kiva and its lenders find it implausible when they see ages listed that require the mother to have been under 10 years old when first giving birth. So I ask, “how old were you when you gave birth to your first child?” This she knows. “18” she says confidently. Ah, “so are you 41?” Hmmm. She’s unconvinced. She looks around. The women around her remain engaged in helping her deduce the answer. Finally a light bulb goes off as one of her friends says “yes, you’re 41!” Mystery solved.

Day 11:

When first looking up BRAC Tanzania clients on Kiva you may be struck by something: almost every picture is a group of women standing indoors against a blank wall looking miserable. I came here wondering why this is so universally the case for BRAC’s clients, and today I’ve found my answer. I’m training my 5th branch and for the 5th time, I see that the CO’s have never before held a camera. I’m trying to illuminate the nuances of making the subjects smile and arranging them outdoors so that they look more natural, all the while the COs can’t for their lives figure out how to get in the viewfinder the portion that they are hoping to photograph (I guide their hands to tilt the camera up slightly). Natural-looking pictures will have to wait—for now I’m more concerned with the heads of the clients making it into the shot.

Now, onto the next 10 days!  To see all of BRAC Tanzania’s currently fundraising loans, click here.

6 September 2008 at 14:43 5 comments



A Tanzanian friend, who stays at the same guest house as me, came up with an expression that can be used to make any frustrating, confusing, or illogical moment in Africa, funny. TIA (this is Africa!). I can’t even remember the origin of this phrase (bad referencing I know), other than that my friend said it on the way home from a club one night, and made me believe that it was a commonly used expression in Dar es Salaam (N.B. sadly my gullibility cannot be attributed to drunkenness, it’s a special characteristic of mine, despite my supreme intelligence). This gullibility led to me using ‘TIA’ at will, until I realised that no one knew what it meant! I confronted my friend, who broke down and admitted that he had made it up himself and just wanted to embarrass me (although further research tells me he may have lifted it from the movie Blood Diamond). The minor embarrassment it caused has been well worth it though, because TIA has saved my sanity a number of times since.

Example #1: Dana Lunberry, my fellow Fellow in Dar, accompanied me on a trip to train an MFI’s staff on how to use the kiva system. The staff were professional, punctual, receptive, hospitable, kind (they gave us gifts), and generally wonderful (so much so that we finished the training a couple of days early). Until our second-last day. Usually we were picked up from our guest house at around 8am. On this particular day, we didn’t hear from our hosts until 11am (this wasn’t so strange because everyone realised there wasn’t really much to do, and we had been on an epic adventure the day before – involving a five hour drive to Lake Malawi with a fish flying along next to us in a plastic bag tied to the car to prevent it spoiling. The flying fish was subsequently presented to the manager and cook at the beach resort, who agreed to cook it for us. BYO fish was a new concept for us, but our hosts couldn’t understand our amazement and hysterical laughter).

Back to us waiting at the guest house. Our host rang and asked us if we were ready, because they were on their way to pick us up. “Of course”, I replied, cheekily using an expression often used out of context here in TZ, usually in cases where the implied obviousness of the situation does not exist, and where a simply yes would suffice (in this case, at 11am, I feel my polite “of course” was justified). So Dana and I waited, and waited, and WAITED! Until 4pm, when we decided a) to go for a walk, and b) to stop speculating as to why someone would say they were on the way to pick you up and then not show up. ALL DAY! As we observed later, neither of us ever suspected that a fatal accident or other form of emergency had occurred. Maybe we’ve been here too long. Anyway, the next morning one of the staff members showed up unannounced while I was still in the bathroom. Dana answered the door, and after the usual polite greetings asked, “So, what happened yesterday?”

“What yesterday?” our host replied.

“HOW YOU NEVER CAME TO PICK US UP YESTERDAY!” (Ok, Dana did not shout, she never does, I just couldn’t resist writing it because it would have been really funny if she had).

Our unnameable host: “Oh, we decided you were tired and needed to rest”.


When Dana relayed the conversation to me later, I asked her what she said. “Nothing”, she replied, and anticipating my hot-tempered reaction to her non-response, added “What can you say to that?”

“TIA!” we chorused in unison.

Disclaimer: I love Africa, and Tanzania, and SELFINA, but I have gone beyond the ‘culturally sensitive’ stage of accepting everything I come across (although TIA is a form of acceptance). It’s now gloves off when it comes to cultural observations and criticisms, and in my experience most Tanzanians find it funny and refreshing (maybe because I’m just as critical of my own culture!)

N.B.: More examples to follow – I can guarantee that ahead of time!

23 June 2008 at 14:26 2 comments

This is why I’m here

I have been in Dar es Salaam working with SELFINA for almost 6 months now, and my experience has been somewhat different to that of most other fellows. Unlike most fellows, I have not been going out into the field to visit clients. I have been based in SELFINA’s head office working on integrating kiva’s requirements into SELFINA’s existing processing, e.g. adding kiva-specific surveys to the loan applications. My goal has been to develop an efficient system for posting, journaling, data collection and filing (e.g. Ben Elberger, Dana Lunberry, and the excel master Alec Lovett and I coded an excel template to automatically generate client profiles).

So, for almost all my time here I feel like I’ve been working on the ‘system’, and have become disconnected from the personal and inspirational aspect of client interaction. My mind has been filled with numbers not faces. I’ve processed hundreds of clients, but have not known any of them. Until now…

Planet Rating last week came to conduct a rating of SELFINA, which as has been explained in previous blogs, is an assessment of an MFI’s practices and performance, the result of which affects their reputation and their standing with banks, NGOs, kiva, and other lenders. Kiva took the opportunity to have Planet Rating conduct an independent audit of the kiva portfolio, which required visiting 30 kiva clients at their businesses and homes.

A full day driving around Dar es Salaam, from the reasonably prosperous salons and cafes of Sinza and Ubungo, to the tailoring shop built in a shipping container in one of the remote, dirt-tracked villages of Mbagala, showed the full spectrum of kiva clients and their differing living conditions.

All of the women were strong and inspiring, but two stick out in my mind. The first was Salome, the seamstress in the shipping container (which we found only after driving through a ‘toll gate’ of the tree variety, that was manned by local youths wanting to be paid for the work they were doing on the waterlogged ‘road’). Salome welcomed us as we clambered down the grassy slope to her shop, set against a backdrop of a maize farm, palm trees, and that day, a beautiful blue sky. She explained that she had moved her shop here from one of the busier urban shopping areas, as the rent there was too high. When I asked her if she had enough customers in this location she replied “Ndiyo, nashukuru Mungo”, meaning ‘yes, I thank God’. A sense of calm radiates from her, despite a bad cough, and the fact that she is a widow trying to raise two children alone. Their education is her priority, and she spends a good portion of the profits from her business on private schools fees.

After leaving Salome, we drove through the nightmarish traffic jams that characterise early evening Dar es Salaam. We reached the home of Catherine Kimaro at around 7.30, and despite the fact that she was busy helping the children with their homework and preparing dinner, she welcomed us with a big smile. The two children, Neema and Tumaini had mixed reactions, Tumaini’s a rather indifferent ‘shikamo’ (the greeting used to address someone older than you), and Neema’s, a rather more dramatic play act, involving hiding and feigning shyness at the sight of the mzungu (white person), which she couldn’t keep up for long; ten minutes later she was holding my hand. Catherine is a nurse, who has just started a new position at Tanzania’s National Hospital, but runs a small pharmacy to supplement her income (which is very modest, like that of many government workers). She touched me not because she was one of the poorest or most desperate clients, but because she had worked hard to avoid that situation. She brought us to her tiny shop (no more than 5 square metres), and showed us the small fridge she had purchased with her loan (which she is using to refrigerate certain medicines). She demonstrated her desire to repay her loan on time, if not early, by telling us that just the day before she had gone to the SELFINA office, and made a double repayment, putting her a month ahead. In addition, Catherine had put aside a fifth of her loan as security in case something went wrong with the business and there were months she was unable to make repayments.

It was a joy and a privilege to meet these women, and I hope to be able to do it more often.

I am now in Mwanza, training SELFINA’s staff here, and generally spreading the kiva love. It’s a beautiful city set on the shores of Lake Victoria, with lots of nice bars and restaurants (those who know me well can feign shock at the fact that I have managed to find most of them in just three days!). My favourite, Villa Park, is just a five minute walk (or stumble) from my hotel, a beautiful wooden banda-style place that is characteristic of most Tanzanian bars. This is where I met Ana.

Ana is a big, friendly woman, and she has been serving me most evenings. We have managed to communicate in Swahili (I’m very good at ordering food and drinks, but it all goes a bit downhill after that), and I’m starting to feel at home due to all the hellos and welcomes I receive when I arrive. Last night Ana asked me what work I am doing here. When I replied with ‘microfinance’ her face lit up. She told me that she has a business sending the popular Lake Victoria fish to Dar es Salaam, and that she needs a loan (it turns out that last year her former friend and business partner took all the money from the business and fled to Uganda). She told me that she is just fighting to raise her three children, and the truth of this was evident in her eyes, and in the hand gestures she used to communicate and emphasise every explanation (not to mention the fact that she works as a waitress seven days and nights a week, and still manages to run another business).

I gave her my number and SELFINA’s details, and I lost count of the number of times she said thank you. When the staff from SELFINA arrived, I introduced them to her, and they gave her further details and advice, as well as a warm invitation to come to the office and apply. As I listened to them talking, I let my spirit take a step back, and one thought came into my head and remained there, ‘This is why I’m here’.

After indulging in some self reflection and congratulation, I returned to the conversation, to here again “Nashukuru”. Ana said she was so happy, she thanked me, she thanked the SELFINA staff, and she thanked God. And since we’re all a team, I just wanted to pass along some of the thanks.

5 May 2008 at 13:21 1 comment

Dr. Victoria Kisyombe, Director of SELFINA

Dr. Victoria Kisyombe pic

Mambo from Dar es Salaam! Mambo to the staff at Kiva, my fellow Fellows, our MFI partners, kiva lenders, and anyone else who wants to jump on the kiva rollercoaster. My apologies for failing to share my impressions of SELFINA, Dar es Salaam, and Tanzania for almost two months. The only excuse I can give is that has been too generous with its posting limit, kiva lenders have been too generous and quick with their support, and the subsequent workload has kept me too busy to even think about blogging! 

Perhaps the best way to introduce SELFINA (Sero Lease and Finance Ltd.) is to introduce its founder, director and ‘Mama’, Dr. Victoria Kisyombe. Originally from Mbeya, a beautiful and cool mountainous region in the South-West of Tanzania, Victoria completed her primary and secondary education first in Mbeya, followed by Morogoro, and finally Kenya. She returned to Tanzania to attend the University of Dar es Salaam, where she completed a bachelor degree in Veterinary Science in 1983. After completing her degree Victoria returned to her hometown of Mbeya to work as a vet, where her skill in dealing with livestock made her very popular amongst the largely agricultural community. In 1986 she was awarded a scholarship by Edinburgh University to complete a Masters degree in Veterinary Science.


Upon her return to Tanzania in 1987, Victoria began working on an intergovernmental project, which involved providing livestock to disadvantaged individuals and families as a source of income generation or subsistence. This position provided Victoria with an insight into the difficulties faced by many Tanzanians, particularly women. As is the case in much of Tanzania, many of the women she came across did not own any assets; their land, houses, household items, and agricultural equipment and produce, were inevitably owned by their husbands or a male family member. Consequently, it was, and remains, difficult for Tanzanian women to access finance.


Victoria and her colleagues tried to incorporate into their program, strategies to address the gender inequality and poverty they encountered. They began to insist that the women hold joint ownership of the livestock the program provided, and also encouraged widows and single mothers to participate. In addition, they expanded the program and began providing small loans, marketing advice, and business training to women running non-agricultural businesses.


In Victoria’s own words, all of this was an ‘eye-opener’ to the volume and variety of problems faced by women, but also to what a big difference just a little support can make. This is where her vision of an NGO to foster women’s empowerment began. In 1995 she established Sero Business Women’s Association (SEBA), named after a cow called Sero that was left behind by her late husband. Sero the cow supplemented Victoria’s paltry salary and provided milk for her one year-old daughter. Victoria hoped that SEBA (and later, SELFINA), would provide the same support and source of hope to the many women it served as Sero the cow had to her and her children.


SEBA’s first programs included providing business training, legal advice, health workshops, and forums on gender issues such as Female Genital Mutilation. But after providing business training to over 7000 women, Victoria realised that a lack of capital remained the major impediment to women’s empowerment, progression, and escape from poverty. SEBA needed a finance wing.


In 2002, Sero Lease and Finance Ltd (SELFINA) was born (or, to be more accurate, incorporated as a Limited Liability Company), following the successful implementation of a pilot microfinance project by SEBA. During the early years SELFINA struggled to access finance, not only because it was a new organisation, but because it loaned only to women and was directed by women. An important initial source of funding was the Tanzanian Government’s Small Enterprise Loan Facility (SELF). Efficient management and repayment of these funds made attracting further capital a little easier, and slowly but surely SELFINA has established an excellent credit history and large portfolios with institutions such as Bank of Africa, CRDB Bank, FBME Bank, ETIMOS of Italy, and the African Development Foundation (ADF).


SELFINA’s loan products are an innovative alternative to standard loans. In response to the fact that many women lack tangible collateral assets, SELFINA introduced a product called microleasing. Using microleasing, SELFINA, after consultation with the client, purchases a piece of equipment required for the client’s business. SELFINA owns the piece of equipment and leases it to the client until the final repayment is made, at which point ownership of the item is signed over to the client. SELFINA recently introduced a new product called ‘sale and leaseback’, in response to a need for working capital by many of its clients. Under this system, SELFINA purchases assets or equipment from its clients, in essence extending a loan to them, and then leases the same items back to them. Fortunately for the clients, the items are only physically seized by SELFINA if the client fails to make her repayments!


SELFINA now has over 6,000 clients and a portfolio of over US$3 million, and this is due to the tireless work of Victoria and a number of dedicated staff members (I should mention, so as not to be too biased, that we do allow men to work here and that many of them are extremely hardworking – a big shout out to Robbie Mageta). However, it is Victoria who is usually the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave (late at night). Even then, she frequently brings work home with her and regularly works on weekends. And despite the constant stress of never-ending loan applications for which there is not enough funding, meetings with bank managers to negotiate funds for these applications, phone calls day and night from clients, partners and staff members, Victoria always manages a big smile and always has time to discuss any problem, personal or professional. As Robbie once said to me, “she’s a strong woman”. That’s an understatement! Simply put, there are not enough synonyms for ‘inspiring’ to describe Victoria and what she has achieved.


The future? “To loan to more and more women!” says Victoria excitedly. And with her in charge, you can be sure it will happen.


View From SELFINA’s office

 The view from SELFINA’s Office (now you know why we don’t mind working long hours!).

8 February 2008 at 16:29 5 comments

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