On Buoyancy

24 August 2009 at 11:47 19 comments

by Joel Carlman, KF8

As I enter the final week of my Kiva Fellowship here in Kisumu, Kenya, I find myself thinking about what my time here has taught me.  Kenya is so different from any place that I’ve ever been.  The smiles are brighter, the hand-shakes longer, and the hospitality warmer than just about anywhere.

I know that I’m doing microfinance, and that Kiva is about borrowing and lending.  The terms, the accounts, the figures, and financials are so interesting to me, and that can sometimes seem like what it is all about.  During my fellowship, I dove deep into microfinance, and it’s tempting to look at everything through an analytical lens.  Even as a student of development, I always want to find the golden thread that leads you from problem to solution through the complicated fabric of global and local issues.

But, even more than borrowing and lending, Kiva is about connecting.  It’s hard enough to connect to people of your own background, from your own hometown, and of your own color, tribe, or social status.  How can we possibly connect to people so different from us?  I don’t know if I can really answer that question, but I am inspired to tell of the ways in which I have connected to this place during my fellowship.

Kiva Borrowers

I haven’t even left yet, and I already miss the days I spend here walking through the poor neighborhoods of Kisumu visiting urban businesses close to main arterial roads and rural farms closer to where the river meets the endless lake.  It’s tempting to analyze the poverty–say how horrible the sanitation is, to comment on debilitating disease, or tell stories of loss and tragedy.  Those things need to be said, but for me to now harp on the sad lot of the people who are trying to make their way through life here would be to undermine the beauty of that very life.  This is humanity, and in the middle of these times, which are about as tough as they come, there is beauty in the Kenyans I meet.  I have learned from that beauty, envied it, and marveled over it.

A typical borrower for K-MET runs a simple business selling something: fish, vegetables, chips, beauty supplies.  Chances are, their neighbor is doing the same thing or something similar.  The profit margins are shrinking as food prices sky-rocket and the Kenyan economy lags.  The home is full of children–the borrower’s own and those orphans who have been left behind by relatives or friends that have passed away.  As I type these words, they seems so gray.  And yet, the truth is that there are no human beings more colorful than these–they that work their hands ragged from dawn until well past dusk to see their children go to school, to support distant relatives, and to see their community through its struggles and growing pains.  There are bright colors in their eyes, in their lives, and in the work of their hands.  There is immense strength in their stature, and resilience in their optimism.

Barely a year and a half after the post-election violence that left hardly a businesses in tact, they look at me with tears in their eyes which seem to say, “Yes, at times we have nothing.  Many times there is nothing for us; and yet we will continue to fight our way back to life.  We will be the lasting testimony to decency, hard work, and humility that makes our nation great–and any nation with people as proud.”

All Kiva Borrower Photos1-2

Their lives have been built one step from the ledge of despair and crippling poverty, and forces beyond their control threaten always to push them over.  And yet, they sing and dance and are thankful.  The difficulties of life are found only in their eyes, never on their lips.  Unsolicited shouts of “I am fine!” from across the street are so common!  And the question follows: “How are you?”

I am thankful for the time I get to spend here.  I am thankful that these hard-working, sincere, and humble individuals–these redoubtably bouyant people–are here to teach me (and us?) what it means to earn a living.  I have been given so much.  How can I take what I have and earn some type of sincere living of my own–not in a financial sense, but in a substantial sense?  It’s a complicated question, and probably more than what we want to think about every day, but ask me again: “How are you?” After this experience?  In light of what Kenya is?  In light of that extraordinary grace only found in the ordinary?

I’m fine.  How are you?

Joel Carlman is in his final (11th) week as a Kiva Fellow with Kisumu Medical & Education Trust in Kenya.

Entry filed under: Africa, All, blogsherpa, Kenya, KF8 (Kiva Fellows 8th Class), Kisumu Medical & Education Trust (K-MET). Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , .

How I Became a Godmother Kiva’s Ever stretching Hand


  • 1. Unilove  |  17 September 2009 at 00:34

    Joel, a true and honest post, with sincerity and conviction. You are indeed wonderful…

    Unilove aka Lisa
    Kiva Fellows fan

  • 2. Justin Isenhart  |  7 September 2009 at 08:54


    WOW. I knew you were a good writer – but you have truly caught something powerful in this experience. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us – I am excited to share this post and the video you made with our friends. Mostly I am excited to talk on the phone soon and catch up!


  • 3. Jeff Davenport  |  2 September 2009 at 08:01

    HOPE! This is all about HOPE! Joel, can’t think of anyone better suited to help these folks, love these folks, and to tell their story than you and Alison. Good, good, good.

  • 4. Helena Smith  |  28 August 2009 at 09:50

    Your article was truely touching and inspiring. Beautiful.
    I wish everyone would read this. I’m surely passing it on!

  • 5. alisoncarlman  |  28 August 2009 at 06:14

    I’ll respond to Mr. Oglaza with two KF blog entries about the Post-Election violence that occurred in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the political crisis at that time, but the contested presidential election had a deadly and devastating impact on the entire country. The economy was shattered, especially the informal sector. Most micro-entrepreneurs in our area (Western Kenya) lost everything and had to not only re-pay their loans but also start from scratch with their housing, families, food, etc. I do not believe that the default rate has anything to do with Kenyan people, but it is a reflection of the far-reaching impact of a disastrous political situation. Please read both Kiva Fellows Blog entries for more information:

  • 6. David Oglaza  |  28 August 2009 at 02:53

    I have been looking at the number of defaulted loans while making a decision and seems that the majority of African defaulters are Kenyan MFIs why do you think this is? Is it because they have more MFIs then other African countries or are they possibly more corrupt? I have made a loan regardless to Kenya and will await the outcome of this before making further loans to Kenya – im interested to hear your views on this!?

  • 7. I’m fine. How are you? | myKRO  |  27 August 2009 at 20:00

    […] is a great post over on the Kiva Fellows blog by Joel Carlman — it’s called On Buoyancy and it’s about Joel’s experience as a Kiva Fellow in Kenya. Here’s an excerpt: […]

  • 8. Nancy Polumbus  |  26 August 2009 at 08:19

    The Polumbus family is all fine! You have made me realize how richly blessed we are every day here in America no matter what life challenges are. Thank you and Alison for your incredible love and passion for helping others!

  • 9. Narisa Dicken  |  26 August 2009 at 07:18

    This was amazing to read and see. I forwarded this to all of my friends and family. This was a great reminder that we have nothing to complain about here in America. Our lifestyles, things we have, money doesn’t make us who we are.It truly is what’s inside. The women in Kenya define true beauty. Thank you Joel for sharing!

  • 10. Justin Dicken  |  26 August 2009 at 06:18

    Very moving and well written. “The difficulties of life are found only in their eyes, never on their lips.” Too many times I will complain about life and the difficulties without taking the time to realize what “difficulty” is and what it truly feels like. Thank you for reminding me of all that is great in my life. You have painted a picture that I may never be able to see personally, but I feel I will be a better person because you were able to paint it for me. I’m fine…jd

  • 11. Vicki  |  25 August 2009 at 20:48

    How are you Joel? I am fine! I will remember those lines for the rest of my life and know that I am truly blessed -not so much by what I have, but by the people I know such as you and Alison. Thank you for all you do and all that you share.

  • 12. Suzy Marinkovich  |  25 August 2009 at 12:00

    Incredibly written, Joel. 🙂

  • 13. Joel  |  25 August 2009 at 11:00

    So Marilyn, overall, would you say that you’re fine? 🙂

  • 14. Marilyn  |  25 August 2009 at 10:14

    Thanks for teaching hope and how to recognize it in the most dire conditions. I admit envy for their authentic joy within a simple life and appreciate their dedication to earnest work. Shine on.

  • 15. Monica Oguttu  |  25 August 2009 at 05:08

    There would be no better description than this about this disadvantaged community but with Kiva around I can see bright light at the end of the tunnel!!
    Kiva seed being planted will forever bear fruits.

  • 16. morrisctm  |  24 August 2009 at 23:08

    Great post Joel. I really liked this line. “I have learned from that beauty, envied it, and marveled over it.” I don’t think this aspect of the kiva fellowship is emphasized enough on this blog, but it needs to be celebrated. As a fellow in Mozambique day after day I meet people that are, as you said, very poor but whose happiness and warmth outshines their hardships. This is definitely something to learn from and to transmit to the lender community. Great job!

    How are you? I am fine!!!

  • 17. Pete  |  24 August 2009 at 23:05

    In true Africa life is built brick by brick and one smile at a time! Thank you for sharing the joy that you have found in these wonderful people…

  • 18. Nikki  |  24 August 2009 at 20:39

    Thanks for providing us with a window into the life of the Kenyan people. You are obviously touched by their friendliness and tenacity as they struggle to survive. Through your experiences and blogs this summer I have a whole new respect and understanding for these hardworking humble people. I’m fine!

  • 19. ryanfred  |  24 August 2009 at 12:48

    Amazing. I love the description of the Kenyan people’s ‘buoyancy’. I strongly believe that Micro-finance is the golden thread you’ve written about. It seems that the other pieces are in place: hope, optimism, hard work, and perseverance. Now, with the help of Kiva lenders and similar efforts/organizations, the people of Kisumu as well as similar communities, may be able to finally rest their feet on the first rung of the development ladder. God willing, and with the kindness of people just like yourself.

    Thanks for sharing.

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