Posts tagged ‘Anna Forsberg’

Microfinance and Fertility Rates: My Quest for a Correlation

Squished amid the forcibly vertical crowd of 45 some odd people in a Senegalese bus made for “15 maximum!”  (or so the sign read…), arms glued to my sides and modeling a facial expression of utter discomfort, I overheard a jarring statistic shared in conversation between my neighbors:  25% of Senegal’s population is living in .3% of the land in Dakar.

Tried to find empty space -- I dare you.

Try to find empty space — I dare you.

The mind visual these numbers provoked made me pause.

At first my heart sank a bit; “the chaos here in Dakar all makes a bit more sense…” I thought to myself.  My perplexity and distress swiftly morphed into feelings of fear when the busy bus came to a halt.  As I frantically managed to wiggle my way through the dozens of people who stood between me and bus’s doors, I began thinking concernedly about the reality of a population which isn’t growing smaller, and resources which aren’t becoming any more abundant.

Six neighbor boys sharing a 6” sandwich for lunch.

Six neighbor boys sharing a 6” sandwich for lunch.

Poverty wracks the city of Dakar, and the gap between the rich and the poor is as stark as ever.

Using as my lodestar an experiment Jeffrey Sachs shared in The End of Poverty, I began my own personal journey to explore – through an admittedly small sample size — if there may be any relationship between fertility rate/population growth, and microfinance.   Over a two week period in Dakar, I met with three groups of women (groups ranging in size from five to 11).

At one of many informal, outdoor discussion groups.

At one of many informal, outdoor discussion groups.

My conversation and the respective client responses were as follows:

  • How many of you have more than five children?

60%

Some of the kids.

Some of the kids.

  • Before you began having children, did you have an ideal number in mind? 

“Two” – shouted the first anxious participant, followed by many nods of agreement (concur?)

“One” – shouted another.

“Four” — shared one woman, rather timidly.

Many others sat silent, reflecting upon my question, trying hard to recall though to no avail.

  • Why in the end did you have so many? 

The general consensus was as follows:

  1. Hedging their bets out of fear of losing several children to sickness.  (This unexpected response was an especially bitter pill for me to swallow.)
  2. Lack of access to contraceptives.
  3. “Why would I not have?” one woman chimed in with, appearing confused and skeptical.

The quizzical woman above received her first loan four months ago.  I perhaps probed her with too many questions, however enough to reveal some thought-provoking findings for me.

With her own loan, and consequently her own personal income, she demonstrated a limpid sense of newfound empowerment and independence.  At her age of 30 – 45 (I estimated), I imagine she is still in a period of child rearing potential.  Be that as it may, she now uses contraceptives and instead of more children wants to have fewer in hopes of giving each an opportunity at a prosperous, healthy life.

I can’t claim to conclude any findings through this informal, again small scale study, but my hope is that for you – as the findings have been for me – this can be food for thought.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

28 December 2012 at 17:02 1 comment

The Power of a Cellphone: Spotlight on Five Changed Lives

Senegalese cellphone subscribers 2000:     Senegalese cellphone subscribers 2011:

Approximately 250,000                                 Approximately 9.3 million

The numbers are jarring, and the widespread presence of cellphones is palpable.

Before coming to Senegal, a friend encouraged me to keep an eye out for the radical, drastic, and constant changes cellphones are having on the lives of those around me.  She was right in advising me not to blink: the pace of change and developments is so rapid it’s simply exhausting to try to keep up with.

What follows is a spotlight on five individual’s stories (their lives pre-cellphone and at present) which I feel best reflect the greater population.  I’m of course grateful to each individual for allowing me to share their photo and their story; per their request, however, aliases have been given.

Hedy Niane

SAM_0482

Health

Past:  When Hedy or her son were ill, she would commute 45 minutes to the nearest hospital for a check-up.  This was time consuming and expensive (both commute and appointment, as well as lost income from taking time off), and oftentimes a consultation proved futile after revealing no trace of a worrisome diagnosis.  If a malady was spotted, medicine was prescribed, and Hedy would frequently forget to take it on time if at all.

Present: Hedy now uses her cellphone to call her brother-in-law, a doctor, in a town 80 miles away.  Through their conversation she is able to ascertain if a hospital visit is necessary.  If either she or her son is prescribed medecine, Hedy now uses her phone as an alarm clock of sorts to remind her to take the medication as advised.

Diegnane Ba

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Banking

Past:  If Diegnane owed money or was owed money, he was forced to travel to the location of his debtor or debtee.  This trip could take hours or days.

Present:  Diegnane uses Wari, a service provided by his branch of UIMCEC to transfer or recieve funds via his cellphone.  There is always a nominal fee associated with the transfer, but: “Well worth it!  Every cent!” exclaimed Diegnane.

Awa Sene

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Agriculture and Farming

Past:  Awa has a vegetable stand near her home, and also sells her products in larger cities 40 miles from her town.  Awa would make trips to Dakar (40 miles away, often a 1/2 day-long journey) to check market prices.  Awa would also try to sell her vegetables while in Dakar; sometimes these efforts were successful, more often than not it would leave her returning home with a full supply of produce not capable of surviving the commute’s wear and tear.

Present:  Awa now uses her cell phone to send text messages to family, friends, and business partners living in Dakar.  Through communication with her contacts, Awa learns within minutes the market price of her vegetables, as well as if there’s a demand for her product in Dakar.  If there is, she carries the appropriate requested amount of produce with her leaving the rest to be sold in her home town.

Ndeye Mohamadou

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Client Services

Past:  Ndeye makes and sells leather shoes.  His client base spans a 10-15 mile radius of his shop.  Especially around Holiday seasons, when demand is high, it is hard for Ndeye to predict when his products would be ready.  He would give clients an arbitary date, at which point they would make the trek into town to visit his shop.  Time and again clients would leave empty-handed forced to return days later.

Present:  Ndeye is now able to receive orders over the phone, as well as follow-up with clients once an order is ready.  “I’m able to much more effectively meet my clients’ needs,” Ndeye explains.  And it certainly is a time-saver for every party.

Amadou Diop

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Commerce

Past:  Amadou sells hair extensions and other beauty products in a suburb of Dakar.  In the past, when his supply was low, he would close down his shop for one or two days in order to replenish his inventory.  This was required bi-monthly at minimum.  He also explained to me his ritual of eating lunch every day with his family.  His wife is not exactly “punctual” (he tactfully commented), and many a time he would wait for lunch at his home — with his shop closed — for north of two hours.

Present:  Amadou now calls in an order for products every third day, for which he pays a small delivery fee.  As such, he is able to keep his shop open every day of the week.  Additionally, his wife now calls once lunch is ready!

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

30 November 2012 at 18:00

Reinventing the Wheels: UIMCEC’s Mobile Bank

It’s not a path uncharted, per se; in fact, the use of banks on wheels the world over is surprisingly widespread.  The existence of a mobile bank branch with UIMCEC – the bank with whom I’m working – is recent enough, however, to create quite a stir.

Allow me to present you with (drum roll): banks on wheels.  As the name suggests, they’re adaptable, they’re versatile, and they’re… moveable!  The wheels can come in a variety of forms – from cars, to buses, to vans, to RVs – and the impact they have in developing countries is simply immeasurable.

Needless to say the processes and procedures of a bank on wheels varies case by case, bank by bank, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick to exploring and explaining UIMCEC’s bank on wheels.

Parked outside an UIMCEC branch, ready to make the rounds.

Take two: another angle.

How does it work?

At present, UIMCEC has only one van (pictured above) used to service rural areas which surround their 33 branches in four regions of Senegal.  Ideally, the “mobile bank” has a cyclical rotation, visiting “x” town each Monday, “y” town each Tuesday, so on and so forth.  These visits are purposefully scheduled during bustling market hours, and situated conveniently for suitable access to as many clients as possible.

The truck is equipped with nearly everything vital to its business operations otherwise found in a branch location.  This includes but is not limited to: customer account information, a human ATM system of sorts, and a back door access fitted with a service window in the back where all transactions are made.  Clients can make withdrawals, payments, and deposits.  They can also open accounts, inquire about loan acquisitions, and begin any respective applications.

How are clients reacting? 

“I’ve only heard favorable feedback,” explains the enthused agent I was chatting with, appearing at an unusual loss for words.  “I wish I could give you more than that, I’m wracking my brain, I really am…” he promised, with wandering eyes.

“I don’t know, it really seems to work.  In fact, beyond its primary purpose of providing financial transactions, I’ve seen that clients use the presence of the mobile bank in their community as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with whichever agent is present, in a way they would not do in a branch office.  It’s as if it creates a casual setting, which makes people feel more comfortable and at ease.  Not to mention they’re grateful for the convenience.”

I nodded my head and smiled, pleased to agree with all of his opinions.

The only observation I would add from my two hour “tag along” is a small, albeit noticeable, degree of skepticism residing in client’s minds.  While the goal of mobile banking is to increase financial access around the country, in turn further empowering the poor and giving them tools to build a strong sense of participation rather than passivity, users still appear cautious.  “Who am I giving their money to?  In 20 minutes my money will just… drive off?  Can I really get it back whenever I need to back, and how do I ensure the money is properly managed?”

What are the advantages for UIMCEC to join the “mobile banking” bandwagon? 

Because the gains of banks on wheels availability for clients are many, and I risk going on… and on… and on, I’ve decided to create a list of top five benefits as I see it:

  1. Banks on wheels ensure financial inclusion to all socioeconomic levels in all regions.  Geography is among the most significant of problems facing banks in Senegal.  Banks tend to operate in well-off areas, which are often connected by smooth, paved roads to larger cities. It’s often difficult, not to mention too costly, to build banks in rural communities; this consequently requires clients to walk or commute by bus for hours in order to reach their closest bank.  Banks on wheels help to ensure that the country reaches all levels of residents regardless of their location and/or income.
  2. Banks on wheels support other resources aimed to expand financial inclusion. Take mobile phones, for instance.  While the transfer of money through mobile phones is revolutionary and life-changing beyond measure, there remain hurdles to overcome.   Residents of places deemed too small to establish a permanent branch, for instance, receive funds through their mobile phones yet must trek hours to a branch in order to retrieve the funds.  Banks on wheels allow them to cash out much more conveniently.
  3. Banks of wheels strengthen UIMCEC’s social responsibility mission. Social responsibility is always on the minds of UIMCEC’s management.  How best can they reach each and every Senegalese citizens wanting banking services?  How can they provide, to these same individuals, a diverse portfolio of financial options?  Banks on wheels permits UIMCEC to continue working towards this achieving this commendable mission.
  4. Banks on wheels reinforce a targeted mix of modernity and tradition.  It’s a hard balance to strike – a desire to straddle between offering modern, advanced products and adhering to tradition with what has worked best in the past.  Banks on wheels allow banks to find a healthy medium between the two.
  5. Banks on wheels help empower a bank’s clientele. An ideal system for banks is one that is participatory on both ends: where clients openly explain their wants and needs, and the banks provide services and products to fit these demands.  By visiting the centers and hearts of communities, UIMCEC’s bank on wheels has – as my conversation with the UIMCEC agent revealed – allowed clients to feel a more integral role in the banking system.  Banks on wheels enables UIMCEC to devolve power in an efficient, effective, well-received approach.

Candidly, it’s a pretty remarkable development to witness in action.  That’s not to say it’s perfect, it has its flaws and room for improvement, but it is undeniably a tremendous step in the right direction for both UIMCEC and the development of Senegal.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

23 November 2012 at 05:36

Meet Mame Aly Laye: Two Time Kiva Borrower and Entrepreneur Extraordinarie

The magnificent Mame.

Mame Aly Laye had an anchoring presence and glow that pulled me in.

I typically acknowledge the clients stopping by whichever branch I’m working at with a head nod, a soft smile, and a swift return of my gaze back down to whichever activity I’m absorbed in.  It’s my imperfect way of acknowledging that we both have busy days we must carry on with.

There was something different about Mame.  The moment I spotted him walking through our office entrance, I couldn’t help but shoot a wider-than-usual smile and stares of interest.  To my luck, the enthusiasm was welcome and reciprocated.

Mame was an energetic and articulate conversationalist who wanted to know just as much about my life as I wanted to know about his.  He had stopped by our office to provide my partner agent and me with a “journal update” – more of less a check-up report on his business and life circumstances since taking out his Kiva loan.  After responding to all of our required questions, Mame graciously offered to share more through not only an additional hour of his time, but a ride through town to his different “offices.”

Trying to appear tough – in reality, I was trembling.

Break stamping time. I immediately retracted my comment of “what a surprisingly smooth and enjoyably ride!” when we came to this road.

Mame took out his first loan three years ago, at which point his business was floundering.   He used the funds from his first loan to purchase grain to sell in the city and consequently grow his business; his second loan was used to invest in durable products for his “garbage pick-up” business, a start-up on the side.  Mame now employs three workers, with high hopes to increase this number to six with his next loan.

Example of a garbage can Mame distributes to his clients.

“Garbage truck” and its drivers.

In addition to his businesses, Mame also runs a local branch of “ASC,” an association which sponsors sports events for their community’s youth.  “If I want to do good, the change has to start where I know what’s best for whom, and from there I can navigate how we can best accomplish our mutual end goals,” Mame explained, as he juggled client calls and client visits with my presence.

I listened with rapt attention as he went on to explain to me how important it is to him to encourage the hard work of others around him, and his fervent belief that we all must be teachers in life.

“Teaching is far more than just imparting facts.  It’s shaping the way those around us perceive the world and the opportunities in store for them.  There’s nothing more rewarding than being part of the jolt of pleasure one gets when they work hard, when they encounter setbacks, and then – ah ha — when something clicks.”

Ablaye had an unmatched combination of wit, sagacity, altruism, and guileless sincerity.  I found his views auspicious and fearless, and his ambitions – with a slew of new and innovative projects in the pipeline – even more impressive.   I join many others in his community in hoping that his example spawns many followers.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

13 November 2012 at 06:22

Triple Taste of Tabaski: Tour of a Three Day Muslim Holiday

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).

Our family’s sheep, purchased three days before Tabaski. All five kids slept outside with him during the nights leading up to the Holiday.

I caved in and let them have their fun. Three sets of hands and eight hours later, voila — braids. Sadly they only stay in for two weeks.

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.

Hundreds of sheep lining the oceanfront, most unwilling to be washed.

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.

My host sister, one of three vegetable peelers.

Host cousin and tea brewer extraordinaire.

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.

Salad, potatos, and — though hard to see — enormous pieces of meat. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

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.

Sporting their new getups with a whole lot of pride.

I had to partake too, of course.

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.

29 October 2012 at 08:11

Cognitive Dissonance Following a Weekend in Dakar

A Recap of My Visits to a Senegalese Soccer Game and Île de Gorée (Island of Gorée)

Among the first pieces of advice I was given by a local upon arriving in Senegal was: “If you’re to do only two things while here in Dakar, make them a trip to the Senegalese soccer stadium (watch a live game, too, “if you’re lucky”), and an afternoon visit to the emblematic Île de Gorée.”

Senegal’s soccer stadium — Dakar, Senegal

Île de Gorée (Island of Gorée) — Dakar, Senegal

Feeling as though I had no time to waste, I arranged my schedule for this past weekend to accommodate both aforementioned hallmarks of Dakar.  Having witnessed how my host family’s schedule revolves inflexibly around African soccer games, I was able to glean ahead of time the extent to which this country is filled with sports zealots.  As for Île de Gorée, I had followed prominent political figure’s trips to Senegal in past years, and noticed that they always included a visit to Île de Gorée.

Even with some prior knowledge of what was in store for me, never did I imagine the unsettling juxtaposition that these two excursions would create in my mind: one playing to the skepticism I still at times harbor, the other offering promise and optimism for the country I am now calling home.

Senegal vs. Ivory Coast Soccer Game:

I should have known that my wish to have a rather innocuous Saturday afternoon would not be achievable through a 2013 Africa Cup qualifying soccer match.

This truly frightened me.

Khalifa, my host father, and I arrived at 4:15pm for the 6:30pm game, at which point the stadium was already overflowing with fans.  As places are not assigned, it took a fatiguing 20 minutes of searching to find what he considered suitable seats. (This hunt was especially exhausting for me – we found ourselves in a “Senegalese only” section and the crowd was not shy about reminding me of this.  My smiles of “yes, yes, I know, I’m with him –> host father, I’m not leaving :)” did not help calm their indignation). Khalifa and I finally squeezed in a few rows below colleagues of his, and quickly joined the chitchat of our neighbors.  Abdou, the man to my left, had traveled 6 hours by bus to attend the game.

The least crowded section I could spot.

Shortly after the second half began, and the score was 1 – 0 in favor of Ivory Coast, an anxious fan sprinted onto the field.  “Streaking exists here too!” was my first thought.  No, no, I was wrong; he was clothed, and just wanted a midfield player’s signature.  Poor choice of timing for an autograph request, I agree.   The brave soul was briskly “ushered” (tackled to the ground by 6 police officers and dragged…) off the field.

Senegal still scoreless, Ivory Coast’s second goal (note: there was no question from either side of the field that there was an unfair call resulting in a unmerited penalty kick, and subsequent goal) engendered a shift from well-behaved fans enjoying the typical banter of any sports event, to an irascible crowd displaying frighteningly noisome behavior.  Bottles and soccer ball sized rocks were being tossed on the field, flags were being burned, Ivory Coast fans were running down onto the field to seek some sort of refuge from the tumultuous reactions of the Senegalese crowd.

The riot begins.

Nice to know I wasn’t the only one seeking shelter.

What surprised me more than anything was that to me this response seemed befitting a country beset by violence and instability, not the peaceful and calm Senegal I knew.  To my pleasant surprise, shameful apologies in days to come were unending.  Though these apologies were no panacea, they were a step in the right direction towards helping rid me of any lingering cynicism.

Ile de Gorée:

Feeling glad to have made it out of Saturday’s events unscathed, Sunday morning I packed my travel gear and joined my host sister and her son for a day trip to Île de Gorée.

Île de Gorée is a 30 minute ferry ride from Dakar.  Its photo adorns any type of souvenir paraphernalia – stickers, mugs, t-shirts, stuffed kangaroos, etc. – you can imagine.  According to my host family, “if you haven’t been to Île de Gorée, you haven’t been to Senegal.”

Should the stars align, your host sister’s uncle will coincidentally be the ferry’s captain, and you’ll get to ride in style with the cutest co-captain (whose attire may also happen to support your country of origin) around.

The island is only 3,000 ft by 1,500 feet, and thankfully over the years – as visiting the island has become a more popular tourist destination– it has managed to retain its authentic, tranquil, historic appearance.  The island has a slew of well-reviewed restaurants, internet cafes, hotels, gorgeous ocean views, and is even home to the most elite Senegalese school for girls.

Pausing to enjoy the scenery (i.e. catch my breath)

The main attraction of Île de Gorée is Maison des Eslcalves (House of Slaves).  Though a bit funereal, as I suppose most memorials all, the Maison des Esclaves – often considered the final passage point of African slaves during the Atlantic slave trade —  was beautiful, powerful, and an overall breathtaking site to see.

Photo of La Porte Sans Retour (Door of no Return) at UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Maison des Esclaves.

In a small 6 foot by 6 foot room transformed from what used to be a bedroom for upwards of 45 men to now the greeting center, I couldn’t peel my eyes away from the photo below:

English translation: “It is here [image depicted above] that we find an explanation for the long delay that Africa has taken on the track of development.”

When I finally stepped back outside, I saw my host sister who had accompanied me on the tour holding tightly to her son (my “co-captain”), her eyes swollen with tears.  I joined in and gave them a long hug.  Though I’m still not sure if they were enduring it or savoring the hug, I got the impression (confirmed by later conversations) that our embrace was a mixture of grief over the reality of what used to be and hope for what now is and can be.

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal.

19 October 2012 at 07:51

Finding a Kiva lender through a SkyMall pillow

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. 

12 October 2012 at 10:33


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