By Brian Kelly, KF9, Armenia
After making several visits to various borrower communities in the rural villages throughout Armenia, I started to notice a familiar figure emerge. Each village seemed to have a mayor. Not a mayor in the traditional, sash-wearing, top-hat donning, political scandal-causing sense, but a mayor of microfinance.
In these villages usually there is a central gathering place, often a community center where the credit officers meet borrower groups to finalize paperwork, originate loans, provide information on the products offered, or even collect payments and make disbursements. But usually this community center is only the starting point, and individual visits are necessary to track down specific borrowers at their homes – often also their place of business. Usually for new clients, these home visits are a critical part to the assessment process for a candidate for a new loan. Well it turns out that finding borrowers, even in villages populated by less than five hundred residents, can prove surprisingly difficult. After all, the borrowers work long hours which can involve trips to and from their fields, tending to their livestock at a community barn up the road, or even not-so-brief detours spent at a neighbor’s house catching up over a chatty Armenian coffee.
Usually after making initial contact in the village, the credit officer is then off to go find certain people individually, sometimes at a loss for how to get there. Enter the mayor. The mayor, usually the most loquacious one in the community center (sometimes not even there for loan purposes) and the Chief Gossip Officer of the area, quickly volunteers himself to help track down borrowers and be of any and all assistance possible. He hops in the backseat of the two-door Lada Niva 4×4 without being asked and starts navigating towards the borrower before the credit officer knows what hit her.
Along the way the mayor happily glad-hands fellow villagers, gives his account of general village goings-on, and points out what everyone’s business is, who they are related to, and any other pertinent info he sees fit to divulge.
Sometimes the first try of a certain location is unsuccessful and the borrower cannot be found. Without missing a beat, the mayor takes charge, “This way! Her sister lives just around the corner, she is probably there!” And we follow loyally in hopes of finding the client in question. Without the mayor, we would be stumbling around blindly. And maybe we are anyway, but at least it feels official.
The mayor serves an important role. He acts as the finger on the pulse of the community, offering up whether its healthy or facing hard times. How the latest crop has turned out. Whose sons are off working in Yerevan or Moscow to help support the family. He is the chief librarian of all local gossip, a favorite pastime in Armenia. And despite the bad rap it often gets, gossip can be useful in a tight knit community in which a credit officer might be trying to develop an understanding for potentially new clients.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can interest me most; this is definitely one of them. An enjoyable insight into the not-so-insignificant role that these village socialites play in helping credit officers here. And I’m sure the credit officers are thankful, especially when they get the warning of a less-than-friendly neighborhood dog at the 3rd house on the left just around the next bend.
Brian Kelly is a member of KF9 meeting top brass in villages throughout Armenia, and plans to run for mayor of Yerevan in 2010. He enjoys gossiping, learning about microfinance, and cutting red ribbons with oversized scissors. To support Armenians on Kiva.org, check here for fundraising loans. Happy Holidays!