Posts tagged ‘Travel’
Here in Mongolia, my top priority with XacBank has been to complete borrower verifications (BVs)—visits to 10 randomly selected Kiva clients to ensure that everything in the field checks out with the information reported to Kiva’s San Francisco headquarters. As it happened, the borrowers in my sample were scattered across the country. Here’s a summary of what my month of April looked like:
- 1 month spent
- 4,872 km covered
- 9 borrowers verified
- 5 aimags traveled to
- 7 branch offices visited
- 10 training sessions delivered
- 35 loan officers and other staff trained
- 13 top Kiva borrowers recognized
- 1 television interview completed
- 67 client waivers checked
- 2 runaway borrowers chased down
- 1 Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
- 2 beautiful lakes and other sights experienced
- 4 items delivered via Mongolian messenger service
- Many kilos of cheese curds (and other nice gifts!) received
I couldn’t help but feel lucky—I knew it would be an eye-opening experience to visit all these different parts of Mongolia. After all, I think most Kiva Fellows are in this as much for the professional experience as for the exposure to new countries and cultures. Why not mix business with pleasure if you can?
I’ve talked before about some of the work that Kiva Fellows do when we visit branch offices during our BVs, but what I didn’t explain was how, in order to successfully complete a BV, the Fellow must meet with every single borrower on the list. If for whatever reason, a borrower is unavaible or nowhere to be found (and that’s happened before!), the sample must be re-drawn and 10 new borrowers must be verified—no matter how close you were to finishing the first set of 10 (and irrespective of how far and long you had to travel to see them). So it’s safe to say that Kiva Fellows sweat it a little when these meetings don’t line up perfectly. And people are often on the move, which can raise some serious logistical challenges sometimes.
Take Aibek, for instance. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, booked us flights to go see him in Bayan-Olgiy, the western-most province of Mongolia (flying made sense given that Olgiy, the city centre, is a 3 day drive from UB). She also arranged our accommodations and made plans with the Director to deliver training sessions at the branch office. We were all set to leave on Monday morning, but late in the afternoon of the Friday before, she called me up sounding very serious: ‘Aibek is not in Bayan-Olgiy. He’s in UB right now. I just spoke to the loan officer.’
The trickiest part was that he was only planning to be in UB for a few days—which meant that by the time we came back from our branch visits in Bayan-Olgiy and Uvs provinces, he would have left already. We couldn’t change our flights, and flying to Bayan-Olgiy a second time was pretty much out of the question. So the best thing to do was to meet in UB during the weekend. We made plans to meet him on Saturday at 10 a.m. in his neighbourhood. We made our way to the east end of the city and waited… No Aibek.
Batzul called the loan officer in Bayan-Olgiy, who then called Aibek, but he wasn’t picking up his phone. We communicated through his wife, who was at home. We waited and waited. No Aibek. We gave up and agreed to try and reschedule.
Our opportunity came that afternoon. Aibek, the loan officer told us, would meet us by the Wrestling Palace at 1 p.m. When we got there we searched in vain for any passers-by who looked like the man in the borrower profile. An hour passed. No Aibek.
But the third time’s a charm, right? On Sunday afternoon I got a call from Batzul—Aibek had been located! We hopped in a taxi and made our way to the west end of the city. We were driven to a desolate, industrial area surrounded by auto body shops, where random vans were parked and people seemed to be waiting around for something. We waited in the safety of the taxi, but when no Aibek appeared, we cautiously stepped out and started asking strangers if they knew of our man. Eventually, one of them pointed us to a van, and lo and behold, Aibek was there!
Our first stop in our travels was Bayan-Olgiy. Bayan-Olgiy is a special part of Mongolia: This region is home to the country’s Kazakh minority, giving it a very distinct feel from the moment you arrive. The Kazakhs, who make up some 90% of the population of this province, adhere to Islam (rather than Buddhism, like much of the rest of Mongolia), and the predominant language is Kazakh, not Mongolian (though most people speak both). From my hotel window, I could hear the evening call to prayers.
The Kazakhs were first drawn to the high mountain pastures in the region in the mid-1800s, where they let their sheep graze during the summer months. Throughout most of the 20th century, they were an isolated, tight-knit community, and this region is considered even by people in Kazakhstan as the best-preserved example of Kazakh culture. One of the things it’s best known for is the Eagle Festival, which takes place every year in October.
I think my Kazakh colleagues were as curious about me as I was about them. I immediately started learning some words in their language. Instead of bayarlalaa for ‘thank you,’ they say rahmed. Amansasbaa is the common greeting, whereas in Mongolian it’s sain bain uu (or more casually, you can say salem in Kazakh). And learning to say tansganmaa huanshtaman (it’s nice to meet you) came in pretty handy several times later on!
Having finished our work at the branch quickly, our colleagues took us to see the main mosque in town, followed by a hike up a nearby peak to get a beautiful view of Olgiy, the Altai Mountains, and the river that flows from them. Later, the Branch Director and driver took us on a long and bumpy drive to Tolbo Nuur, a freshwater lake about 50km south of the city centre. Though it was still frozen, it was amazing to see a body of water (there aren’t many in Mongolia!).
Next stop: A visit to the Branch Director’s extended family living in the countryside! True to Kazakh/Mongolian hospitality, they welcomed us warmly and prepared a massive and delicious feast for us. It’s customary for people in Mongolia to welcome strangers—locals and foreigners alike—into their homes and feed them. It stems from their nomadic history, in which families would help other people who were passing through the area, or receive visitors from different parts of the country (for example, the capital) and exchange news with them. It’s a beautiful aspect of the culture here.
On our way back to Olgiy, we soaked in the peaceful landscapes of the countryside…
A picnic at Uvs Nuur
By midweek, we were bidding farewell to our new friends in Bayan-Olgiy and boarding another plane, this time bound for Uvs. We were welcomed at the airport by a small crew, and no sooner did we arrive at the branch than we got down to business. Client waivers, visits to borrowers, loan officer training—check, check, check! Then the branch staff treated us to a warm welcome dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant. We were starting to feel like royalty!
The following morning, we had certificates and tokens of appreciation to hand out to 5 Kiva borrowers who had repaid their loans on time (or early). It turned out that the Branch Director had invited the local television crew to film the small ceremony! They asked me to say a few words about Kiva, so I was happy to talk about the good work Kiva and XacBank are doing. It aired on the evening news that night. I guess that makes me famous in Mongolia!
Next on the agenda was a trip to Uvs Nuur, a saltwater lake that is the largest in Mongolia. Lucky us! We followed a road for part of the trek but veered off after a while to avoid muddy areas where our SUV could get stuck. We zigzagged across an open field and eventually made it to the water’s edge, where Mongolians love to come and take a dip in the summertime. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and we took in the warm rays as we sat idly by the water’s edge and enjoyed the picnic our colleagues had packed for us. We couldn’t have spent a nicer time in Uvs!
Business owners, an ancient monument and a stolen dinosaur
The following week, we hit the road for two more aimags, Arkhangai and Bayanhongor.
There, we had the opportunity to meet some borrowers who told us about their businesses. It’s always rewarding to make the connection between the borrower profiles on Kiva’s website and the people who are actually behind them. It’s also nice to see microcredit working effectively. These lovely ladies passed along their thank you’s to their Kiva lenders… Allow me to introduce them.
While visiting these aimags, we also learned about some of Mongolia’s rich natural history. Not far from Tsetserleg, Arkhangai’s city centre, is Taikhar Chuluu, a large rock formation that juts out in the middle of a wide plain. Legend has it that a snake emerged from the earth one day, many moons ago, and a hero named Bökebilig forced it back and sealed off its cave with this rock. The rock has been revered by various civilizations since ancient times, as evidenced by the Mongolian, Tibetan, and Turkic inscriptions which can be found on it (the latter which dates back to the 6th century AD, although sadly, most of the inscriptions have been overwritten by modern-day graffiti).
And did you know that it’s possible to smuggle a dinosaur out of a country? Luckily, the one that was taken from Mongolia is now on its way home. Bayanhongor, which is part of the Gobi Desert region, is home to some of the incredible dinosaur fossils that have been unearthed since the 1920s. These include many dinosaur eggs and several Velociraptors (which of course you’ll remember from Jurassic Park!). One of the most famous discoveries is of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops that were locked in battle and frozen in time 80 million years ago. You can also see exhibits such as a nest of newborn baby dinosaurs, and a mother protecting her young at the Natural History Museum in UB—that is, when they’re not out touring the world!
The Mongolian Messenger
I witnessed another curiosity during these BV travels. In a country where there are effectively no street names or real addresses, I’ve been intrigued by how mail gets delivered around here. You may know that the Mongolian Empire had a highly developed mail system at the height of its rule. People have assured me that when they receive mail—that is, anything that cannot be taped to their doors—they are given notices to go pick it up at the nearest postal outlet. Sounds reasonable, right?
But the truth is, Mongolians today have instituted an informal delivery system that would surely do Chinggis Khan proud. My edification began as Batzul and I waited in line at the check-in counter in the UB airport to fly to Bayan-Olgiy. A man was hovering nearby, and finally he approached Batzul. They exchanged a few words in Mongolian; he passed her an envelope, and she took down a phone number. I observed the whole interaction somewhat suspiciously.
‘What was that all about?’ I asked after the man had gone.
‘Oh, he just wants me to deliver something in Olgiy,’ she replied casually. And to my confused stare, she added, ‘It’s the Mongolian Messenger service.’
As if that explained everything! My jaw must have dropped. I started sputtering… What? How? Who?? I was full of questions!
These questions were somewhat cleared up when we arrived in Olgiy. As we stopped for lunch with our branch colleague, Batzul got on the phone and a short while later, a lady walked into the restaurant. Just a few words were exchanged before the envelope was handed over and the lady walked back out. I watched in fascination. ‘How did you know she was the right lady?’ I exclaimed.
‘Because I just talked to her on the phone,’ Batzul answered matter-of-factly.
‘But don’t you need to see her ID or something?’ I persisted.
‘No.’ We resumed eating.
This happened again and again until I finally started to believe in the system. Coming back to UB this time, we walked out of the baggage-claim area of the airport and Batzul delivered another envelope straight into the outstretched hands of a stranger. She knew him by the black shirt he was wearing, she assured me. On the way into the city, our driver stopped along the road from the airport, not once but twice, at seemingly random intersections where our little Messenger hopped out, delivered her goods to waiting recipients, and hopped back into the car. I was blown away.
The Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
Speaking of this Messenger, delivering envelopes isn’t Batzul’s only talent. For the past four months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her, and for good reason: She is a truly exemplary Kiva Coordinator. We’ve worked closely together, particularly during all of our branch visits for the BVs, and I must say we’ve made a great team. We get our work done quickly and efficiently, and even have time left to have some fun (as you now know).
But it’s not just that. Batzul is an impressive young professional all on her own. She is always on the ball with her Kiva work and manages several other projects on top of that. But the best part about her is that she takes immense pride in her job as a Kiva Coordinator, and also in the fact that her work is impacting the lives of many Mongolians. Whether we are running a training session together, or visiting a borrower, she’s been far more than just a translator. She elaborates by adding anecdotes and lessons from her own stock of experiences, including her interactions with branches, loan officers, and clients, thus adding colour and depth to the messages we deliver. She makes my job as a Kiva Fellow easy!
Just as I had thought, the opportunity to see so many different parts of Mongolia for my BVs was fun, rewarding, and incredibly enriching. And I have Batzul, the Kiva borrowers, XacBank, and all the incredible people at the branch offices we met to thank for that—so from the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for a truly amazing experience!
Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).
It never ceases to amaze me how you can connect with people who are completely different from you. Maybe you don’t speak the same first language. Maybe you grew up on opposite sides of the world, or you were born in different decades. But somehow, despite all your differences—and perhaps against all odds—you find commonalities. And what’s more, sometimes you realize that below the surface, maybe you’re not actually all that different after all.
Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending. That happens every day through its online lending platform, http://www.kiva.org. But as Kiva Fellows, we have the opportunity to carry out this mission in the field. Sometimes we get to meet with borrowers, but all of us get to connect with the local people where we work and live. We learn about who they are and how they live, and we share a little bit about ourselves as well. And when you find yourself having a good laugh with them, it’s a pretty amazing thing.
So, the three months of my fellowship are drawing to a close. It’s hard not to get sentimental when I think about leaving behind this beautiful country and the warm, generous people who welcomed me into their homes, their families, and their lives. Some took the time to get to know me, others took the time to share their stories, and others still simply made me feel at home, wherever I was. Many went out of their way to make sure I had a fantastic experience here. Pictured in this blog entry are just some of the wonderful Ticos that I met in Costa Rica.
My time here has been full of adventures, sightseeing, and some notable firsts. Among those have been:
First time seeing toucans. They are too cute for words!
First time riding on a moto, or motorbike, ever. (I think I’ve gained some street cred in Uganda).
First time seeing dressage. One weekend, I chanced upon a big street party that was complete with cowboys and horses getting their horse ballet on. I thought that was pretty fortuitous, since I had recently learned what this sport was all about (courtesy of Stephen Colbert).
First time eating rice and beans for 90 days straight. I’m talking about the famous typical Costa Rican dish, gallo pinto, which is pretty much what everyone here eats every day for breakfast—and sometimes lunch and dinner, too. OK, so maybe I didn’t eat it for all 90 days, but I tell you it was pretty darn close. It’s a good thing I like rice and beans!
First time trying sopilote (vulture meat). Ooops, wait! That was chicken and a couple of colleagues trying to trick me.
First time watching the entire Twilight saga. Oh yes I did! (It made for a fun bonding experience, OK?)
But in any new experience, it’s always the people you meet who make all the difference. While I love to travel and see new places, I also love the very different experience of living abroad, because that’s when you really get to know the locals.
People asked me why I wanted to come to Costa Rica for my fellowship. In fact, it’s somewhere I’ve wanted to go for a long time. I have always been intrigued by this country that constitutionally abolished its army in 1949, thus diverting resources towards health and education for the general population. I was curious about the nation with a long history of ecotourism that today remains one of the world’s leaders in environmental protection. I wanted to meet the people who lived in the country that was ranked #1 in the 2012 Happy Planet Index.
So here are some things I’ve learned:
Ticos are proud of their country and have a strong sense of national identity. The expression Pura Vida (Pure Life) says it all. It’s something of a national motto here, but it’s more than just words; it’s a way of life. It’s used here in greetings, as an expression of gratitude or satisfaction, and also to describe something or someone who’s generally pretty awesome.
Ticos love to toot their horn. I’m not talking about national pride anymore. I’m talking about the constant beep-beep you will hear as you walk along any road or highway. The pitos (horns) are how Tico drivers communicate, and the beeps can mean very different things. Here’s a little guide to help you decipher the various meanings, should you be traveling to Costa Rica anytime soon:
Beep! Hellooooo there, baby.
Beep! Coming through!
Beep beep! You go first!
Beep! Thanks dude!
Beeeeeeeep! I’m stuck in traffic and mildly annoyed.
Beep! I’m bored and tooting my horn is fun!
Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!……………….
Ticos love their coffee. As they rightly should: Costa Rican coffee is really good! Even for someone who’s more of a tea-aholic, two coffee breaks a day will get you hooked in no time. If you search long and hard, though, you will find some tea aficionados, and you might even chance upon a tea store if you’re lucky.
Ticos are incredibly tolerant of rain. I’ve never seen so much rain in my life! It’s true I’ve been here during the rainy season, but I never thought this kind of rain was possible—where a heavy downpour can last 5 hours, or sometimes even two days. But nobody complains. (The cold is another thing, but it’s totally fair game to complain when it’s 12oC and windy, given that buildings are not insulated here.)
Costa Rica is largely rural. Like the diminutive Tico suggests, things here are small-scale. Even the bigger city centres are more like large towns. Many Ticos live in rural areas or have some connection to rural life. For example, quite a few people who work in the city commute some distance from a more rural area, or their family might own a finca (a property in the countryside).
And many Ticos and tourists alike are averse to San José, whose metropolitan area has some 2.3 million people. While it may not be the world’s most attractive city, the Ticos’ dislike for it stems more from the fact that it is a city. I am going to make a bold statement: I like San José. That may be attributed to the great people I met while I was living here, though.
Ticos are quite devout. Costa Rica is fairly homogenous and its population is made up of 70% Catholics and 14% Evangelical Christians. It was interesting trying to explain that my family’s roots are Buddhist, since Buddhism, like many other religions, has had limited exposure in Costa Rica.
It was also interesting being introduced as Canadian to new Ticos. Their eyes always said the same thing: You can’t fool me. A further explanation of my parents’ Japanese origins brought a sort of relief to their faces and often facilitated the conversation that ensued. I was, without a doubt, something of an anomaly to them, although that humoured me more than anything.
The word china means many things in Costa Rica, as it does in other Spanish speaking countries. Hmm… seems like not a lot of thought has gone into the nuances of its meanings. For example:
- China = the country
- china = the language
- china = a Chinese person
- china = any other Asian-looking person
In addition, there is a type of flower called china and porcelain plates are also called china. To add some variety, I tried to make up my own word, chinesa, to describe the language, but I was corrected. Por favor. It’s china.
That being said, China (the country) has become Costa Rica’s most important ally after the US, as evidenced by the generous gift they sent last year. (A symbol of its former relationship with Taiwan can also be found firmly planted in northern Costa Rica.) So maybe it’s good that, as long as they’re going to use one generic word to capture all these meanings, that the word be china.
Ticos work hard to get ahead, but that’s not always easy. They could use a break. That’s why lending through Kiva’s partners like EDESA and FUNDECOCA can go a long way. (Stay tuned for FUNDECOCA on www.kiva.org—they’re a new partner so their partner page is forthcoming!)
These MFIs are doing a great job of providing opportunities to people in rural areas, where the poverty is often striking, but urban poverty is rampant as well, and sometimes microfinance can overlook this. One of my colleagues pointed out that a person is probably better off being poor in a rural area of Costa Rica, because at least then they can still produce their own food. In the city, on the other hand, if you don’t have money you can’t survive.
Recently, I had the opportunity to get to know a lady here in a similar situation. While she had a job in the city that gave her enough income to support her family, she was in a position where she could not access credit from the regular banks. As such, her daughters would never have the chance to pursue a better education so that they might someday be able to get ahead. As we chatted, I realized that rarely had I met someone so wise and open-minded. She had a lively curiosity, and she had come to grips with her situation in life with laughter and a positive attitude. She left me with a feeling of admiration mixed with heartache.
Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the fortune to live and work in 7 different countries, and travel to countless others. Throughout those experiences, I’ve met friends who come from over 70 countries, and I’ve come to understand so much about the world thanks to them. Ticos, I’ve learned, are totally pura vida. And hopefully, they’ve learned something about me, too, so that the next time they meet someone really different from them, the differences won’t be as striking as the similarities are.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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”!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
By Eileen Flannigan | KF19 | India
Eileen and Irene are both fellows in India. Eileen is living in Imphal, Manipur and Irene is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. While in conversations with one another, we have been struck by how different the cities are. We’ve compiled these observations to share with you our experiences of the rich and diverse culture of India. Eileen’s profiled in Part 2 below, while Irene is featured in Part 1.
Top 3 things that you notice while roaming your neighborhood?
To some degree, Imphal looks like most Indian cities; colorful clothes laid out on riverbeds, vibrant vegetable vendors, cows grazing in busy streets, sidewalk barbers and active “hotels” (i.e. shops) of meat, rice, and tea. However, on closer investigation, my curiosity led me to these:
- Rickshaw drivers in disguise. I was perplexed why most of the rickshaw drivers were covered from head-to-toe with only eyes showing, even on very hot days. I learned that these educated young men were forced to take this job because of the high unemployment in this region. It’s considered an act of shame for themselves and their families if their identity was known.
- Men with large guns. Sadly, this has been a hotbed for militancy for decades. At any given moment, I’ll see men in combat uniforms jammed into the back of a vehicle or a crew taking a break at a paan shop or a tank slowly cruising down the street with the watchman’s bust out the top.
- Kids in uniform. I live right across the street from a primary school and my favorite morning ritual is to watch them all gather with the last bit of wild exuberance before the subdued day ahead. Children arrive scrunched with siblings on bikes, rickshaws, or father’s shoulders. Sisters eagerly tie younger one’s bows, friends connected by sweet hand holding and boys arm and arm while imitating their favorite cricket bowler.
When you want the “comforts of home” experience, what do you do?
I live with a family that has two young boys, so I’ve taught them some American card games like Go Fish, Slap Jack and Crazy Eights. On chilly nights we obsessively play with gusto, which always makes me happily nostalgic.
Although, when I’m really longing for home, I head to the best hotel in town to have a cappuccino and baked yogurt, which is a newly delicious discovery that is a cross between a crème brûlée, and American style yogurt. Although I appreciate the ritual and social nuances of chai time, there’s nothing like the comforts of a cup of coffee or two, to turn my day around. Added bonus is this cafe plays the most wonderfully bad acoustic remakes of American songs. Depending on my mood, I am either really happy or deeply embarrassed that I now know all the lyrics to Rhinestone Cowboy.
Describe the people and culture in your region.
Manipur is one of the most northeastern states of India, snugly positioned next to Myanmar, formally known as Burma. Almost all states in the northeast have international borders with countries that include Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and China which has meant a continuous migration of people with strong ethnic identities. The amalgamation of different tribal nations, indigenous traditions, languages and food has left a dynamic imprint on the Manipuri culture. They have a rich arts heritage, however my favorite pastime is the daily theatre of weaved garments whisking by in the streets, with just the right amount of dramatic flair. Most women don’t wear saris but a long wrap-around skirt that tell a story of the woman, her home tribe and religious lineage through the intricate patterned design, electrified colors and weave techniques.
I love Indian food and its explosion of spices to awaken an exotic, far-away feeling in me. However, one of my biggest surprises has been with my culinary experiences. It’s not your typical Indian fare of masala, cardamom, coriander and the like, with the exclusion of turmeric, spices are used minimally here, if at all. Manipuris smother everything with the king chili (the hottest in the world) and say that “rice is always the main course” with something fermented (fish or bamboo) and possibly dried meat as a side. Thankfully, my host family has been understanding of my western palette and doesn’t try to push the king chili on me, as I think we both know it would end badly.
What type of work is common in this region for Kiva borrowers?
I’ve been awed by the way Kiva borrowers work many different, inter-connected businesses to sustain their livelihoods. There is no main industry to speak of, so the women must find creative ways to bring in little bits of income from many different sources, mostly 4, 5 or even 6 businesses operating at once. The Kiva borrowers, all women, live in remote hill areas with fertile land and weaving skills that start at a very young age and are seeded in deep traditions. They are using these strengths to form business of:
Weaving + Rice Paddy + Garden
All village women will be involved in these three activities. Weaving is done twice daily, at dawn and late night when all the other household chores are completed. Rice harvesting is only once a year and the yield is not only expected to feed the whole family throughout the year but provide a small supplemental income. A majority of families, regardless of income level, have a paddy field that has been pasted down through the generations. In addition, village families will have anything from a kitchen garden to a full farm. In this region, they typically grow potatoes, gooseberries, ginger, turmeric, cabbage, chillies and will use the harvest for family consumption and market sales.
Piggery + Poultry
“Piggeries”, as pig farms are known here, can reap a good profit, especially around festival time when the demand is high. Ladies will spend about 8-9 months feeding their pigs from scraps from their garden and rice paddies. In most cases, a woman who is raising pigs will be raising chickens,too. This is because chickens, like pigs, are a home based business and can be sold within 4-6 weeks, allowing the Kiva borrower profit to live and pay back the loan while waiting for the income from the piggery.
Clothing +Tea + Paan+ Variety Stores
The resale of used clothing has provided a good living for Kiva borrowers here because of the high profit margins with less time and hard labor then other activities. In addition, tea stalls, paan shops and variety shops are heavily littered throughout India, but in rural areas they are still viable means to respond to village needs.
What are the main strengths of your MFI and how have you experienced these in the field?
Kiva’s partner, WSDS-Initiate, has many strengths that contribute to successfully penetrating the remote regions in the northeast. Manipur has several challenges and complexities that make it difficult for financial institutions to operate. Which of course, compound the effects of social, political, and geographic circumstances by widening the disparities in rural populations by financial exclusion. WSDS- Initiate, has a long history of working in this area, not only in a financial role but a social services capacity and understands the ethnic conflicts and nuances needed to work with many different tribal communities. They operate with an inclusive approach that tribal harmony and peace-building is pivotal to the regions long-term growth. Therefore, they work with the three major tribes (Kuki, Naga & Meitei) in remote and sometimes dangerous regions with a needs-based approach to financial inclusion. This includes, not only providing loans, but financial training and savings education. I’ve personally met hundreds of WSDS clients, in several villages and have witnessed how they work to financially include and educate all women, even those that are considered “too high risk”, such as widows, women over 55 years old and those with little collateral.
In addition, I’ve been particularly inspired by how they continue to strive to make a social impact in this region, which isn’t easy. They have partnered with organizations that are using innovative ways of enhancing their client’s livelihood activities by enabling them to get better access to solar power, education, agriculture and forestry projects that benefit the whole community. It’s clear that WSDS’s investment in these villages are holistic with the overarching driving principle of poverty alleviation.
Eileen Flannigan is a Kiva fellow (19th class) serving in Manipur, India with the micro finance organization, WSDS Initiate. Support our Indian partners here, join the Indian lending team, WSDS lending team or get a holiday gift card for someone special!
Eileen and Irene are both fellows in India. Eileen is living in Imphal, Manipur and Irene is in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. While in conversations with one another, we have been struck by how different the cities are. We’ve compiled these observations to share with you our experiences of the rich and diverse culture of India. In Part I, we start with Irene in Odisha and continue with Eileen in Part 2.
Top 3 things that you always notice while roaming your neighborhood…
Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan
When you live in a new culture for a long enough time, you start to realize subtle cultural norms that you wouldn’t have necessary learned by reading a book about the country. I have now been in Kyrgyzstan for exactly 2 months. Here are some interesting facts about the country and its culture that I have noticed after arriving here.
1) Manas: Manas, a warrior who united Kyrgyzstan, is undoubtedly the most popular folk hero in the country. You see this name everywhere. There are streets, statues, universities, radio stations, national parks, and many other things that are named after him. Even Kyrgyzstan’s main airport is Manas International Airport. During one of my borrower visits, I visited his final resting place, Ala Too mountain, in the northwestern city of Talas. There they have Manas Ordo, a historical park and museum built in his honor.
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)
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!
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.
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!
Abhishesh Adhikari | KF19 | Kyrgyzstan
It’s crowded, overwhelming, loud, and cheap. And you can find almost anything you need here. Osh Bazaar is a huge marketplace near the center of Bishkek. People from all over Bishkek and the surrounding areas come here to buy and sell.
Trekking to La Danta
Two weeks ago I headed out for the last of my borrower verifications with EDESA, the microfinance institution where I’ve been working. All week long I anticipated my trip to Golfito, which is way down in southern Costa Rica, in the Puntarenas province. I asked my colleagues about our portfolio there and peppered them with questions like: ‘Have you ever been to Golfito? How far is it from the Panamanian border? I heard it’s raining hard in Golfito now, do you think it will clear up by the time we go?’ (more…)
I’m piggybacking Holly’s great blog on Eid al-Adha – i.e. Tabaski – to give you a peek into how another West African country celebrates this highly anticipated holiday. Turns out, as you will learn, the brouhaha differs a bit from place to place.
My introduction to Tabaski began several weeks ago when I arrived for my first day at UIMCEC. Within the first 30 minutes of being seated at my desk, conversation with my supervisor was interrupted twice by clients seeking to take out loans for Tabaski. Both times, my supervisor shot me a look of: “Much more of this to come…”
Even the most destitute of families celebrate this holiday, trying as best they can to save up for months in advance. This year proved particularly financially challenging for families, as the celebrations coincided with the payment of electricity and water bills (both of which, here in Senegal, are collected once every two months) as well as beginning of school year costs. Unfavorable timing of this sort only happens once every +/- 15 years.
Activities began weeks in advance. For women, preparation consisted of getting their hair braided, and carefully crafted outfits ordered (anywhere from one to three outfits, depending on one’s budget). For men, in addition to ordering attire about which they care much less than the women, their energy was poured into purchasing their family’s sheep (prices ranging from $100 to $500,000, again depending on their budget).
Tabaski’s date each year is dependent upon the lunar calendar. This year, the dates were Friday, October 25 – Sunday, October 27; three full days. The first day kicked off with sheep washing at 6am.
Around 7am, all family members headed to their respective mosque for prayer time. Upon return home somewhere between 30 minutes to one hour later, folks were fast at work, tending diligently to their assigned task. At our home, there was a vegetable chopper, a tea maker, a floor sweeper, etc. My role was “photographer,” a position for which, being a Tabaski neophyte, I suppose I was uniquely suited.
Around 10am, the sheep sacrificing began. Once the animals are “sacrificied” (I’ll spare you of more detail than that…), the eating begins. According to my family, it was an honor to take the first slice of very rare meat. Peppering me with encouragement and pressure – the kids especially — I politely declined. After everything I had seen, it felt it was a bit too much like playing Russian Roulette with my health.
Throughout the day, the kids danced in circles and played all sorts of creative “homemade” games. I was invited to take a turn and participate in one game, which required me to kick an empty water bottle through a makeshift hoop. Off the record, please, my performance was a pitiable 0 for 12.
When the sun began to set, females donned their most elegant dresses and polished faces. The kids skipped around in groups of two to five, visiting as many neighbors and family friend’s homes as they could squeeze into a three hour window. During these visits they asked for small amounts of money. Parents were waiting outside with glowing grins, ready to shake the children’s right hand (the standard Senegalese gesture), extend warm greetings, and fulfill their request for pocket change. It was clear to me that even those who had so little were willing to give so very much.
As for day two and three, see above and put on repeat (less the sheep washing/sacrificing, which only happens once). When 10pm Sunday evening struck, there was finally a return to the zen-like-calm that ordinarily fills the streets of our neighborhood.
The festivities were colorful, lively and extravagant, and the food similarly impressive and memorable. Though I recognize that nodding my head in response to my host family’s suggestion that “I must return to Senegal every year for Tabaski!” will most likely be unattainable, I do sincerely hope it’s not my last.
Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.
A chance encounter en route to Dakar, Senegal…
I have a strong tendency to read (ok fine, skim) blogs filled with photos. Aesthetically, it’s what I naturally gravitate toward, and I’m sure many readers out there likely do the same. Ironically, this post will defy this preference, as my camera has — unfortunately — found a new home.
It was important to remind myself when my camera went missing (as it is in so many other situations traveling or otherwise) that keeping an open mind and rolling with the punches is vital to staying sane. Had I not done so at the very start of my trip, I would certainly not have the following story, which I’m thrilled to share.
It didn’t start well, as I suppose encounters with strangers – especially on planes, in close quarters – often do not. I “accidentally” placed myself in the seat to the left (…aisle!) of the one assigned to me. But this arrangement didn’t last long, as the man who was in fact assigned to the seat I was occupying would quickly and abruptly (for the first time, mind you) correct my error. His method was not your standard gentle nudge, but rather an aggressive wave in my face of his ticket stub, backed up by two flight attendants urging me, “Please, ma’am, you must move.” Of course I did so immediately, and apologized profusely for my error. The dispute was settled cordially; we gave one another a very forced smile and I carried on with my reading.
The silence lasted about 15 minutes, until our plane began its ascent and the same man to my left pulled out a clearly SkyMall-purchased green blow-up tray table pillow. Admit it — you know what I’m talking about! It’s that outrageously oversized item in SkyMall Magazine that, when you’re flipping through the pages, catches your eye and forces you to pause for a few seconds to contemplate: “Seriously, who on earth would ever need or want this.” (Photo below if you’re not familiar.)
Well, I’d found my guy, and after 3 minutes of watching him work to inflate his pillow, I simply could not hold back my giggles. He of course noticed, and turned toward me with a glare of sorts. That’s when our conversation began…
Mo (short for Mamadou) was born and raised on the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal. When he was 13, his family moved to the United States for his father’s work, and he’s lived there more or less ever since. Mo lives and works in Washington D.C., and takes an annual pilgrimage home to Dakar to visit family. When Mo learned that I was Dakar-bound to work with Kiva, his enthusiasm for was effusive. Not only was Mo familiar with Kiva, he’s a lender himself! (I should clarify: Mo is a Kiva lender through his niece, who first joined and started an account for “their family”).
To me, this was fascinating — an absolutely perfect brain to pick. Not only was I meeting a Kiva lender (awesome…), but moreover I was meeting a Kiva lender who makes loans to individuals and groups from his home country. I was curious to learn more.
Mo explained, unprompted, how powerful organizations like Kiva are: “Kiva successfully illuminates the issues and lives of those in my country for people around the world.” He went on to describe his firm belief in the power of loans. They are, in his mind, a method through which “his people” can escape from a culture of dependency (aid, corruption, trade, debt, etc.), into independence and self-sufficiency while retaining their cultural identities. He also emphasized how fundamental this is to their personal empowerment.
I listened carefully, but was somewhat perplexed. I know that Kiva is subject to the same biases and attacks made by all microfinance critics. It couldn’t possibly be that EVERYONE feels the way Mo feels.
(My questions were incessant. I apologized several times for this, but Mo insisted I continue. If I hesitated to give him time to breathe, he’d probe me with: “So… what else??”)
I asked what his opinion is of those in or from his county who may feel differently, perhaps averse to Kiva or microfinance, particularly when its facilitated through foreign entities. He explained that of course there are individuals who disapprove of the idea of Kiva and other microfinance organizations. But, if they think the obstacles facing their country and communities are surmountable without outside help, maybe it’s instead the idea – their mindset — that needs righting.
Mo had a cool and perspicacious way about him. He was truly pleasant to talk to — the sort of person you can tell is addressing you directly, not looking astray at distractions nor seeking approval or agreement. His speech is soft and unhurried, and as he explained to me, his love for travel comes from chance interactions just like this one. Being both snarky and sarcastic, I pointed to his SkyMall pillow – still inflated — and told him he had “that” to thank.
By the time morning dawned, we were halfway through our 9 hour voyage across the Atlantic, and my eyelids were drooping. That’s when our Kiva conversation ended.
What started off as a seemingly dreadful beginning to my journey ended up being a most memorable encounter for me. Silly purchases aside, I could not have imagined a better person to meet as I embarked on this journey. I have no doubt that the upcoming months will be filled with peaks and plateaus, and at times (as forewarned at our Kiva fellowship training) “troughs of disillusionment.” My conversation with Mo, however, made me ever more hopeful that I find potential in micro-loans. At the very least, this interaction will undoubtedly make the inevitable frustrations ahead a bit more palatable.
*Mo: If you’re reading this fellows blog (as I learned you often do) — what a delightful turn of events it was meeting you, and my most sincere thanks for allowing me to share this story. I’m investing in my own green SkyMall tray table pillow immediately upon my return to the States!
Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.
Costa Rica so far has been nothing short of breathtaking. Those of you who’ve been here will remember its lush green landscapes, abundant tropical fruit, sunny 25oC days that constitute its ‘winter,’ magnificent animals and birds that we in Canada only know from pictures, and a sense of environmental protection that seems to be ingrained in the nation’s conscience. (more…)
Olivia Hanrahan-Soar | KF18 | Johannesburg, South Africa
In January of this year, a fatal stampede occurred at the University of Johannesburg while students and parents waited at the University’s gates, anxious to secure one of several hundred last-chance places. The stampede left one dead and several injured, and is a tragedy emblematic of the societal difficulties engendered by lack of access to education in South Africa. Last year, About 85,000 students had applied for the roughly 11,000 seats available at the University of Johannesburg; 20,000 more than the previous year. While access to education is tough to come by, there are organisations in South Africa working to meet the demand for education shown by the country’s youth, and students determined to succeed in getting their education.
By Muskan Chopra | KF18 | Kenya
Sitting in the Virgin Atlantic flight to London after 10 weeks in the field, I knew of one thing with absolute certainty – Kenya will rightfully own a piece of me forever.
Never have I found myself in a new country, expecting it to change me. But Kenya surpassed all unreasonable expectations. Seeing such diversity of nature, living in local communities, soaking in the culture, meeting small people with big dreams… I transformed myself.
Meredith Pierce | KF18 | New Orleans
As I spend more time here in New Orleans — and as I get ready to depart — I have started to appreciate the daily sounds I take for granted. Just as important as the visual scenery, sounds can transport us to faraway locations.
In the past months, Kiva Fellows have shared video stories, insights on public transportation and accounts of our excursions into the field, but we’d like to invite you to experience our everyday lives through sound. Below are some clips that a few of us recorded in our various countries. Can you tell what they’re of or where they were recorded? Give us your best guess in the comments!
By Anya Raza | KF18 | Pakistan
Racing against the onset of monsoon season and the holy month of fasting, Ramadan, my female colleague Shazia and I challenged ourselves to travel 1,500 km across South Punjab to meet with seven borrowers in three days.
The mission was to complete an audit of sorts, known as a “borrower verification.”
What may seem like an awkward, laborious task is in fact most fellows’ favourite part of their fellowship — the chance to travel and meet borrowers in the flesh.
To meet Rani, we had to park our car under the sole tree on that lane and continue by foot into a tiny village divided by railroad tracks. Overseeing a bustling home with children, goats and neighbors casually popping in and out continuously, Rani shared with me the ambitious story of her seamstress/farming endeavors made possible through Kiva loans over the past five years.
“It takes two hands to applaud,” Rani emphasized, highlighting her need to supplement her husband’s income as a mason.
Varick Schwartz | KF18 | Kenya
Kenya’s got milk alright, and it’s a good thing, because just like good ol’ USA and Starbucks, I’m not sure what people here would do without their twice daily milk tea! Milk is big business; an integral part of Kenya’s expanding agricultural sector. (more…)
Micaela Browning | KF17/18 | Sierra Leone
Let’s face it: If you are a foreigner in rural Sierra Leone during the rainy season, you will invariably find yourself engaged in a game of what my friend Ryan once referred to as Tropical Disease Roulette. While you may be unsure whether the bullet contains typhoid, malaria, or the alphabet soup of the hepatitises, you can be absolutely certain that – probably sooner rather than later – you are going to come down with something.
Julie Kriegshaber | KF 18 | Uganda
Ahh, Kampala. So charming, so dusty, so chaotic.
Due to a bit of poor planning on my part, I had about 32 hours between landing in Kampala and starting my Fellowship, so my first week here was a bit of a blur. Somewhere within the disorder of my first days, I met two Ugandans with inspiring stories that stuck out to me, and I want to share their stories here.
So, meet Walter and Destreet. They don’t know each other and their only common link (aside from meeting me!) is that they both had a vision and decided to make it a reality. Oh, and they are both young – Walter is 25 and Destreet is only 24!
by Luan Nio | KF18 | Nicaragua
We think we are all well-travelled, educated and smart, with great interpersonal skills and able to handle difficult situations. But what does actually happen at a Kiva Fellow’s first day in the office?
Most of us have not worked in microfinance before, have never visited their destination country and sometimes don’t speak the local language as well as they might think.
Here are impressions from around the globe during our first day with our assigned Kiva field partner.
Varick Schwartz | KF18 | Kenya
As I walk down the dusty, traffic-choked streets of Nairobi on my way to work, I feel the stress melting away. Another cool morning; Kenyans all around wearing coats and sweaters to fend off ‘winter.’ I’m fine in a light shirt, having grown accustomed to ‘summer’ in San Francisco.
The warmth of the people here is part of the reason that it’s easy for me to release stress, to allow immersion within conditions so different. Smiles beget smiles, for the most part. No one is in a hurry; I haven’t yet gotten the impression that someone doesn’t have time to converse, which feels good, reassuring on a human level.