By Jessica Chervin, KF9 Togo
Yesterday evening, West Africa made me giddy.
I have been in Togo for almost five months, and in West Africa for almost nine. Here, my senses are never neutral. The most lovely moments are tempered by inconvenience. My daily moto rides to and from Microfund are at once thrilling and relaxing, but the soot and smell of burning garbage, the potholes that make Lome’s boulevards feel like urban mogul fields, and the passage by open landfills smack in the middle of the capital, tinge the experience with unpleasantness. Sensory and experiential overload and deprivation are not mutually exclusive. On those moto rides, I am equally attuned to what my heightened senses do not perceive: safety, calm, balance, and the ability to breathe deeply. The expatriate experience in West Africa is one of inescapable contrast. Everything is more colorful, too spicy, impossibly beautiful, unbearably filthy—but never quite normal. If one reacts every time to each of these stimuli, one is quickly exhausted. So, with time, in order to complete the marathon, one has to find a sustainable cruising speed, some semblance of equilibrium in a world that is anything but balanced—or, for that matter, equal.
Yesterday afternoon, I found myself once more on the back of a moto, in cruising mode. Hyacinthe, the head credit officer at Microfund’s Noukafou branch, and I were out doing borrower verification visits. It was the end of the day, and I was zonked. The bumper-to-bumper moto traffic getting out of downtown Lome had fried my nerves, and as our moto finally sped forward towards Agoe, I tuned out—well, almost. As we whizzed passed goats and buvettes on dusty, unpaved road, I was, for the first time, struck not by how different everything was (I come from New York—enough said), but by how normal this scenery, this reality, has become to me. So much so, in fact, that when Hyacinthe and I arrived at the client’s business, whose view was obscured by a large cinder block wall, and I smelled what I might previously have identified as a distinctly foul odor, my olfactory reaction was relatively neutral and I thought simply, matter-of-factly, “oh, he must raise livestock”.
But the 2000 chickens I saw as Tchilabalo Gbagalou led me past the wall caught me off guard. The unanticipated coop snapped me right out of West African autopilot mode catapulted me into a fit of giggles. I wasn’t expecting to meet a Kiva borrower who, unlike so many other microfinance clients that I’ve met, is a college student (Tchilabalo studies math, chemistry, and physics at the University of Lome)—this fact inspired tremendous admiration. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear that this loan has enabled Tchilabalo and his two partners to realize a staggering 150000 CFA per week (about 340 USD, at the current exchange rate in a country where the per capita GDP is roughly 1700 USD annually) in profits—this simply boggled my mind. Dare I say it: the synergy of these things just thrilled me. It stirred me to write.
What produced this effect? I couldn’t cite novelty, as surely this was not the first time I’d seen a chicken (although admittedly, chicken coops are inextricably linked to “Napoleon Dynamite”, in my mind, and I’m pretty sure that’s what inspired the laughter). So what drew me from cruise control?
The answer (after considerable reflection): the magnificence of the circumstances that landed me in that chicken coop in Togo, the magnificence of the chicken coop’s existence at all. Eager to build their own success, Tchilabalo Gbagalou and his friends formed a plan. Understanding the increasing need for the provision of financial services to the people of Togo, Joseph Akogo established Microfund. Envisioning a way in which they could harness the power of the internet to give people like Tchilabalo access to capital markets, a dream team in San Francisco built Kiva. And finally, lenders from all corners of the Earth lent a hand. The stunning particulars of the story can disappear behind demands of the daily grind, be it North American or West African, but the connections and initiative are extraordinary, and the chicken coop, dazzling.
Yesterday, it all made me giddy.
Jessica Chervin is currently serving out her third placement as a Kiva Fellow in West Africa at Microfund Togo in Lome, Togo, after placements at Soro Yiriwaso in Bamako, Mali, and at FECECAV in Kpalimé, Togo. Click here to view currently fundraising loans at Microfund Togo./>