Kiva Magic

The conventional definition of "Kiva magic" is when a borrower sees a printout of their Kiva profile and realizes, ecstatically, that they're involved in much more than an ordinary loan: dozens of strangers on the other side of the world have pledged them money on the strength of their photo and bio.  It's wonderful when this happens, and it makes inspiring photos and videos.  Yet in the course of visiting more than 25 borrowers, I've only witnessed this once.  In Peru and Ecuador at least, most borrowers are more overcome with bewilderment than joy.  In some sense this is good, because it means borrowers are too focused on their work and families to be preoccupied with the Internet, making them seem extra-authentic.  Still, the rarity of classic "Kiva magic" has made me think that perhaps the definition needs expanding.

Classic Kiva magic: Claudina Janet Avilez Arevalo, corn farmer, Ventanas, Ecuador
When people ask why I got involved with Kiva, I struggle to answer.  A teacher by trade, I majored in English, and my graduate degree is in creative writing.  Unlike many of my fellow Fellows, who studied International Relations and worked in investment banks, I never even took Economics (shhh!).  I just wanted to help, and I'd traveled enough to see that people in the developing world want opportunity more than charity--"a hand up, not a hand out," as the slogan goes.
Despite being a Kiva lender for almost a decade, I was never able to articulate how it connected to my life.  During Fellows training in San Francisco we were asked to describe Kiva in a single sentence, as if we were talking to someone who knew nothing about it, and suddenly it hit me: Kiva is where a good story can change a life.  And stories, of course, are the stock in trade of English teachers--yet a good story is much more than dog-eared pages in a dusty textbook.

Dionisio Diaz Leyva, coffee grower, Pucará, Peru
The modern world bombards us with polite fictions, from "All you need is love" to "Have a Coke and a smile."  And though we know statistics can be made to say anything, and the essentials of life defy calculation, we pay rapt attention to the Dow, the cancer-preventing properties of blueberries, and the likelihood of rain calculated down to a percentage point.
It's been said that the shortest distance between two people is a story.  Anyone who's struck up a conversation with a stranger on an airplane knows how true this is.  Kiva puts this axiom to the ultimate test, because the stories that drive Kiva transcend language and culture and distance, and filter through many layers of humans and technology.  It's a testament to the modern age that a student in Chicago can connect with a goatherd in Azerbaijan.  More deeply, it's a testament to the timeless power of narrative.

Mirian del Rocio Pilco Seis, swineherd, San Miguel, Ecuador
As a Kiva Fellow I learned that all stories are not created equal.  Some borrowers "sell themselves," while others can use a little help.  One of the profiles I looked at said, "Maria needs to fix up her house because it has no roof."  Most people hardly need to hear more, because they can imagine the rest of the story viscerally.  That single sentence lets people far away, in comfortable houses, know exactly how difficult life is for Maria.
It's a tribute to the generosity and imagination of Kiva lenders that most loans get quickly and fully funded, because despite the best efforts of everyone at the local partner, and everyone in San Francisco, and the volunteer translators, and all the technological wizardry, a borrower profile can only convey so much.  Take Victoria Mendoza, a shop owner I visited in Peru.  Her Kiva profile states, "Victoria is happy, friendly, and hard-working."  That's nice, but hopefully all Kiva borrowers fit that description.  The next sentence makes her an individual:  "She is a woman who pushes herself in order to have a better quality of life."  Victoria's own words make her unique: "Everything I've accomplished has been for my son." 
Victoria Mendoza Carrasco, store owner, Cayaltí, Peru

The joy of visiting borrowers is that they become fully dimensional people, revealing parts of their stories that didn't make it onto the web page.  Some borrowers impart wisdom that transcends their own situation, like Dionisio Leyna, coffee grower, who mused, "A plant is like a Christian.  You have to feed it with love," or Cesar Cayambe, corn farmer, who explained how agriculture is a race against the calendar: "You have to help the next year," or Lady Diana Comtreras, cashier, who insisted, "Patience is the most important thing."  Others are funny, like Wilmer Sanchez, store owner, who demanded, "Are you sure you don't want to visit somebody else?  I'm not even wearing shoes!"  Still others reveal the hidden complexity of poverty, like Mirian del Rocio, swineherd, who admitted, "I love my life, but I want better for my children."

Cesar Patricio Cayambe Mendoza, corn farmer, San Pablo, Ecuador
A good sentence is more powerful than commonly thought.  When that sentence offers a vivid window into another person's life, it becomes an X-ray, dissolving all the dross that drives people apart.  It's all too easy to be overwhelmed by statistics--2.8 billion people live on less than two dollars a day, 781 million are illiterate, 60 million are refugees, 2.4 million endure human trafficking.  Real human stories, simply and honestly told, one person at a time, are irresistible.  They become fulcrums balancing the humanity of borrowers with the generosity of lenders.  Who wouldn't be moved by these living poems?
Claudina's dream is to buy herself land to plant more.  In her free time she likes to sew.
Ivan requests this loan in order to buy a refrigerator because his refrigerator broke.
Isatu hopes to use any additional profits to educate her children and buy a piece of land to build a dwelling in the future.
Cesar's dream is to help his parents be comfortable as they are now older.
In the future, Oimnisio plans to use the profit from her business to marry off her son.
Joseph owns a bicycle which he uses as transportation to distribute bread.
Mariam is a widow who cares for five orphans and three other orphans (her stepchildren), who are all in school.
In Consuelo's heart is the hope of creating a small school of traditional dance to pass on the artistic legacy of her ancestors to the youth of the city.
You'd need kryptonite to stop sentences like these.
Lady Diana Comtreras Vera, cashier, Ventanas, Ecuador

Most borrowers' financial gains are modest, but Kiva has a profound psychological effect by putting them in control of their lives.  Getting a Kiva loan means that someone, from a loan officer on up to a couple dozen strangers on a website, believes in you, thinks you're special, wants your business to succeed and is putting something at stake to make sure it does.  Borrowers take a chance on their businesses, and lenders take a chance on borrowers.  This risk makes microfinance different from traditional charity.  There are 1001 ways a borrower could fail, which would cause all their lenders to fail.  A Kiva loan is neither a gift nor a guarantee, but an act of faith, an assertion of optimism.  A Kiva loan is much more than money; it's a statement of belief in someone's potential, and a way of honoring their unique story.  That's the power of narrative.  And that's Kiva magic.

Wilmer Sanchez Benites, store owner, Morropón, Peru

You can celebrate a unique story of your own at

To support the microfinance organization where I'm working (Cooperativa San José, San José de Chimbo, Ecuador), click here.

Kiva gift cards make excellent Christmas presents, celebrating both your loved one and a "friend you haven't met yet" in the developing world.  It's never too late, and personalization and shipping are always free.

About the author

Gordon Thompson

Originally from New Jersey, Gordon earned a BA in English and Music from Swarthmore College. During two summers with the Forest Service, neither Latin nor French helped him communicate with Mexican sheepherders. Over the next several years he learned Spanish by traveling and studying in Latin America while completing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Florida. After teaching in Chile, he landed at Cranbrook, a boarding school outside Detroit, where he has taught English, led wilderness expeditions, coached Forensics, advised the literary magazine, and worked in the dorm. Thanks to summer vacations, he's visited more than 50 countries, including volunteering at ASSET The Gambia and the Tshume school, South Africa. A Kiva lender almost from day one, he's thrilled to get deeper into microfinance.