Visiting Kiva Borrowers in Honduras: Why is there a gringo in my house and is he leaving soon?
With few exceptions, Kiva borrowers have greeted my visits to their homes and businesses with the sentiment captured in the blog title, that is to say with skepticism and unease. Visits can start awkwardly and end awkwardly. But sometimes they inspire; borrowers graciously share their story – their successes and struggles, their hopes and fears – with a complete stranger.
As part of my work with Kiva field partner Prisma Honduras, I’ve been tasked with conducting an audit, or in Kiva parlance, a Borrower Verification (BV). Basically, I get to visit a bunch of determined entrepreneurs and verify that they do indeed exist and that they are using the loan for its intended use. For a more thorough explanation of BVs and why they’re important, please see Kiva fellow Peter Soley’s excellent blog about his experiences in Bolivia.
6 observations from my visits that I hope provide some insight into what Honduran borrowers are really like:
6. Just like us, they want to look good in photos. Shocking, I know. Almost without fail, upon asking if I can take their picture, a flurry of readying ensues. Women change clothes, apply makeup, and fix hair. Men break out combs, button up shirts, and knock the dust off.
5. They trust their loan officers. I’m welcomed into homes and businesses because I’m accompanied by their loan officer. Borrowers often look to the loan officer for a nod or gesture of approval before divulging sensitive information to me. To clarify, they’re not seeking approval of what they’ve said or permission to continue, but rather the assurance that I can be trusted.
4. Machismo: alive and well in Honduras. The job of loan officer is a male occupation. Susan, based out of the main office in Tegucigalpa, is Prisma’s only female loan officer. She accompanied me on a visit to a female client of hers on the outskirts of town. It has been my only visit to a female borrower in which the borrower wasn’t freaked out by my presence. Why? Because Susan has a calming, reassuring influence. All other visits to female borrowers have been made with a male loan officer and needless to say, the ladies are reluctant to share much.
On the other hand, male borrowers, once they realize I’m harmless and interested in what they have to say, readily hold forth.
If over 60% of Prisma’s clients are female, why are there not more female loan officers? Machismo.
3. They take great pride in their work. I start each visit with an informal conversation about business. Rather than, “Hi Nixsa, can I take pictures of your loan passbook,” I open with, “Hi Nixsa, you make bread, right? Can I see the oven?”
2. They have inflated assumptions about who I am. Initially, I thought that if I explained that I was merely a volunteer, it would serve to put the borrower at ease. I was wrong, as borrowers either don’t understand my explanation (most likely) or don’t believe me. On multiple occasions I’ve overheard (or was I eaves-dropping?) references to me as a boss or director from the U.S.
1. They have a limited understanding of Kiva, which helps to explain the uncertainty with which I am received. Most borrowers don’t know they are Kiva borrowers. In the case of Prisma, it is the job of the loan officer to explain the Kiva model to the borrower during the loan application process. However, borrowers forget the explanation or don’t understand it in the first place or don’t care. Furthermore, both borrower internet savvy and loan officer ability/desire to explain the Kiva model vary widely. There is certainly a generation gap: younger borrowers typically grasp the basics of the model, older borrowers simply don’t.
Stay tuned. As I’ll be working with other Honduran field partners during my fellowship, I’ll get the chance to meet many more Kiva entrepreneurs. In a future post I plan to say more about the previous point (observation #1). If borrowers don’t even know they’re on Kiva, is the legitimacy of the Kiva model compromised in any way?