by Stephanie Meyer, KF9, Sierra Leone

I first met Santos through a mutual friend of ours, Dan, who is here in Makeni working at the orthopedic clinic in town (almost exclusively with amputees). Like many of the adult amputees here in Sierra Leone, Santos has a harrowing war-story to tell that reads like something straight out of the film “Blood Diamond”. This is not what is striking about him, however.

What is amazing about Santos is his ability to thrive. He lives just outside Makeni in the Oslo Amputee Settlement. Oslo was established after the war as a place where amputees could get free housing and hopefully get put on a path back to success. Unfortunately for many of them, the placement of Oslo as an isolated settlement has been more of a hindrance than a help. Most are unable to get to town to find employment or sell wares, and are left to simply languish. But not Santos. He rides his bicycle for miles each day (and I’ve followed him on a motor-bike before, the guy has speed!) back and forth to town carrying a carefully-maintained folder with photographs of his work, finding buyers, going to shops, and generally making a name for himself. After losing his arm, Santos began making the most beautiful African carvings I have seen since my arrival here. He starts from scratch, purchasing large pieces of wood from the forest areas around Oslo. While the wood is too big to move, he works with it where it lies, and once the piece has started to take shape he brings it back to the make-shift woodshop he has set up on his porch. He works by holding a chisel in his left hand, and lashing a hammer to the stump of his right. Since starting work, Santos has made pieces that now grace hotel lobbies, local businesses, apotho homes (apotho means “foreigner” or “white person” in Temne, a local language used around Makeni), and even the mayor’s house.

A few days ago, Santos paid a visit to SMT to inquire about a loan. He is eager to expand his workshop and purchase some new tools. He also hopes to save enough money to make a short trip to the capital city, Freetown, to try to locate more buyers there. After his meeting, Santos came back to the house, where he sat on the porch mulling over all the ins, outs, ups and downs of taking out a loan. He spent hours with our friend Dan, examining the “real cost” of the interest he would be charged, calculating the amount of increased profit he could potentially earn with added inputs such as tools and material, and listing potential new buyers he could solicit to cover himself. The opportunity to see this side of the loan process was really exciting for me. Having seen the process from the inside for so long has been a fantastic experience: watching credit officers examine business productivity, interview clients, and evaluate abilities to make payments. It never occurred to me, however, that the decision to take a loan is just as serious as the decision to offer one. A loan for the wrong individual can be more of a burden than a blessing, and it is important to be sure that you can make enough increased profit not only to be able to pay back, but also to make the loan “worth it”.

To see Santos put such thought into his loan before signing the paperwork gave me a lot of hope for the process of microfinance in general. There is a lot of discussion about whether it is “right” to burden the world’s “poor” with additional debt, or whether it is ethical to charge interest rates that can top 30% annually. I already knew that MFIs (or at least the ones I’ve had the opportunity to work with here in Sierra Leone) put a great deal of effort into finding clients who will be capable of making repayments and educating all potential clients on the full ramifications of borrowing money. It was nice to be reminded, however, that borrowers are not simply idle recipients in this process; blank slates to write financial knowledge upon. They are careful evaluators and savvy business professionals making a conscious decision to take some risk now with the hope of increased potential and profit later on.

I am planning to continue checking-in with Santos throughout his loan- from receipt to repayment- while I stay in Sierra Leone. Stay tuned for more updates, and click here to visit SMT’s Kiva page, to make loans to thoughtful entrepreneurs like Santos from all over Sierra Leone!

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