I think most of the other fellows will agree – the best (and the most rewarding, most inspiring and sometimes, the most awkward) part of this fellowship is going out into the field to meet the borrowers. Though each of my field experiences has been unique, there are a few things I have come to expect.
I’ve traveled up to the mountains, down to the valley and along the coast to meet borrowers. The scenery at each place has been drastically different: the northern Bekaa valley is flat and somewhat arid; Mount Lebanon – lush and green; and the Southern coast – flaxen and dotted with palms. Regardless of where I’m headed, the day always starts off with a near-death experience involving a scooter, car, truck or, when really lucky, a semi (nothing like having your life flashing before your eyes to give you that extra jolt of energy in the morning).
After surviving the car-ride to one of Al Majmoua’s branches (Al Majmoua has nine branches located all over the country), I meet the Loan Analyst (LA) I will be trailing for the day. The LA serves as my guide, translator (for when I struggle with the language) and general hero in life. Each LA has over one hundred clients and knows everything about them from how their businesses are going, to the number of kids they have, to what repairs they need done on their houses. From there, we start our rounds – visiting the borrowers.
The Lebanese people are known for their hospitality (and 4 pounds in one month later, I can vouch for it). Regardless of where I am meeting the borrowers (their homes, grocery stores, workshops..) I am always offered at least one strong cup of Arabic coffee. Declining is almost never an option. After accepting the cup (and I don’t drink coffee) the fun really starts. I ask my questions in Arabic: How long have you had your business? What hardships do you face? What are your dreams …and finally, the dreaded: How did the loan change your life? I dread this question because I always butcher this phrase at least twice while on the field. Loan is qard in Arabic; qird is monkey in Arabic- you can guess which word I tend to use. The general consensus is: Many clients have not seen the monkey funded by Kiva but they find the loan to be very helpful. This is where the Loan Analysts (my heroes!) jump in and explain to the confused clients what I was trying to say.
Despite all the awkwardness and confusion that my garbled Arabic generates, these field visits are what bring everything together: I meet the nineteen year old boy who single-handedly supports his family of five by giving little kids rides on the pier on a mini-train attached to his motorcycle (the only business of the like in the area), the store-owner who is working tirelessly to put his four kids through college, the woman selling clothes out of her war destroyed home that she one day hopes fix. I meet people who are determined despite set-backs and generous despite their financial situations. At the end of the day, I am a sweaty, jittery mess desperately seeking the bathroom courtesy of the 5th cup of coffee – and I love it.