Finding a Kiva lender through a SkyMall pillow

12 October 2012 at 10:33

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.)

The infamous SkyMall pillow ad

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”).

Our destination, and Mo’s home country

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.

Kiva, bringing people together, even on airplanes

(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. 

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