By Marcus Berkowitz, KF16, Ecuador

Institutional birthdays in the US can be fairly stuffy affairs. Seating is often arranged to maximize contact with those in the institution with whom one has never spoken (perhaps for good reason, argue some guests) and they tend to be remembered more for inappropriate comments inserted into otherwise boring speeches rather than for the celebrations that they hope to be but rarely are.

Not so at the Cooperativa San Jose de Chimbo (CSJ). Instead of standing around awkwardly, everyone secretly wishing they were somewhere else, the 47th birthday of CSJ (conveniently combined with the office Xmas party) was a chaotic and energetic no-holds-barred inter-office Karaoke war. There wasn’t a bored face in the crowd.

Upon arrival, I found myself quickly ushered to the judges table across the large open dance hall from the stage, which had an impressive array of microphones and speakers as well as three unidentifiable steel objects evenly spaced across the front. They looked like iron champagne glasses. I was told, along with my fellow judges (the general manager of the credit union and the three directors of the members’ association, one of whom also happens to be the booming “ladies and gentlemen” voice of the local radio station) that I would be judging contestants on vocal quality, presentation, and the ‘use of the stage’.

I quickly discovered what the mysterious objects were (and what ‘use of the stage’ meant) when the third singer stepped up. It was the janitor from CSJ headquarters, Don Vinicio, who as it turns out is an impressive baritone with a mean stage presence and a penchant for ballads. As he began to sing, someone walked in front of the stage with a match in hand. Sparks and flames began shooting up from two of the metal objects in front of Don Vini to a height of at least 15 feet. (Please excuse the quality of the following clips… they’re fun, but they aren’t nearly as awesome in terms either content or video skills as Laurie’s video from yesterday)

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That was only the beginning. As the next group began their set, a little boy of no more than 7, wearing a bright yellow shirt and what appeared to be a two foot by two foot papier-mache buffalo or mule head, came stumbling on unsteady little legs through the doorway and onto the open dance floor. In place of horns, the buffalo had the same metal champagne glasses shooting sparks and flames precariously close to the thin cloth hung from the ceiling, until they slowly fizzled out into smoke. The lack of flames didn’t stop him from continuing to dance around the floor, still wearing the smoking buffalo head.

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Just after the set had ended, he and his giant mask collapsed onto the floor. The little boy then proceeded to leave the smoking buffalo head in the middle of the floor and promptly run for the exit laughing wildly, arms flailing.

Ever make a Kiva loan to CSJ that said the borrower lived in Chillanes? The flaming buffalo- headed child is the son of the Loan Officer responsible for distributing that loan! The two women clapping (around the 43rd second of the video) on the left at the far end of the table (one in blue, the other in white) are “the Karinas”, CSJ’s two Kiva Coordinators who happen to have the same first name.

There was a brief interlude during which we all got up and danced to a DJ, after which we went back to our seats to listen to the remaining performances. These included CSJ’s lawyer and assistant director singing a folksy local favorite, and a very pregnant loan officer belting out cheesy love songs; she ended up winning handily after a sub-par performance from Don Vini during the second round head-to-head Karaoke-off.

After the awards presentations, the announcers unexpectedly invited myself, CSJ’s general manager, and three directors of the member’s association to sing “El Rey”, an awesomely absurd classic Mexican ranchera song that is popular all over Latin America for its not-so-subtle allusions to the King of Spain (and to a more general tendency to exaggerate one’s own importance). Sadly, there is no video of this; I think the cameraman was on stage singing with us!

The rest of the night jumped around between dancing, speeches and eating, until a live band (of professionals) came out. After that, nobody dared interrupt the dancing; and when the band finally packed it in, we all went out for more.

CSJ is not always like this. Four social performance badges and a four-star risk rating on Kiva don’t earn themselves; the good folks of the Cooperativa San Jose work hard. But as it turns out, when given the chance, they play hard too. Tomorrow is my last day here, and I already miss them for both, among other things. Happy 47th to the Cooperativa San Jose!

Marcus Berkowitz is a first-time fellow with Cooperativa San José (CSJ) in the western Andes of Ecuador’s Bolívar province. Show support for CSJ´s hardworking rural borrowers by making a loan. Or get even more involved by joining CSJ’s lending team!


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