By Andrew Whiteman, KF8
My fellowship in Benin is nearly over. It has been ten weeks of hard work, but I have learned a ton and I have great stories to take back to the US. Some everlasting memories include taking a baboon for a walk (yes, on a leash), being told that I could only wear a speedo at the swimming pool, and visiting a sacred forest, the home of a tree that was once a king. More importantly, now I better understand my reason for being here. During my first few weeks, when everything was stressful and confusing, I remember writing in my journal, “Why I am here? What difference can I, a foreigner, make?” Now, I think I have found a good enough answer for myself. Here are a few things I have learned:
Development takes a long time. Democracy in Africa is at most fifty years old. A working financial sector is even younger. Benin was communist in the 1970s and has therefore only recently adopted a market economy. Although the example is dated, our own country had a lot work out in the first fifty years of its history. Many people, including myself, want an easy answer to all of the world’s problems. But it doesn’t work that way. We work on a problem and then others build on what we have done, slowly resolving the problem. Microfinance is a perfect example. It is a relatively new field and we are all working to make it stronger. It is not perfect right now. It is often hard to see a real impact after someone has taken out three loans and they are still selling a small stock of goods on the side of the road. But at least, people are learning how to manage their money. Many borrowers on Kiva have already received a loan from their MFI, meaning that they are considered financially trustworthy. In the future, an MFI might decide to offer advanced money management courses that help people establish financial goals. More Kiva Fellows go out into the field to make Kiva’s work better. As the Kiva community, we should always be thinking of ways to improve what we do, but also we should be patient and give development a chance.
Our world is shrinking whether we like it or not. We are traveling more, learning new languages, and meeting people who are different from us. People in Benin listen to American music and watch Lost and Prison Break. In the rural north of Benin, people are starting to receive Internet service via cell phones. We no longer have the choice to remain separated from the rest of the world. It is our responsibility to engage each other, to figure out where all this is going. This is one great benefit of the Kiva Fellows Program—you enter a totally new environment and are forced to interact. I believe that it is hospitality that can connect us all. Almost every culture in the world places a high priority on hospitality. People in Benin often offer to pay for me, even if they do not have very much money. It is a sign that I am welcome in their country. Often when I say goodbye to someone in Benin, they say, “no worries; we are always together.” Luckily, if we all hold onto our shared generosity and hospitality, we have a lot to look forward to in the future.
In short, engaging the world is relevant and necessary. It is easy to be cynical or overly optimistic about international development, but I think it’s better to be somewhere in the middle. A lot of work still needs to be done to promote development and increase cultural understanding, but through Kiva, we are doing our part. As a Kiva Fellow, I have been able to meet some of the people that you lend to from thousands of miles away. I think this is powerful and I am fortunate to help make that connection. I look forward to continuing to lend to others around the world over the years. I wonder what microfinance will look like in ten, fifteen years…
Part tour guide, part Kiva-in-Benin promoter, here are a few photos of this beautiful country:
Andrew Whiteman is a Kiva Fellow (KF8), currently working at Alidé, a Kiva Field Partner, in Cotonou, Benin.
Please consider joining my lending team, Friends of Benin. Together, we can make a difference!