By DJ Forza, KF16, Georgia
There’s a certain amount of introspective review that happens near the end of a Kiva Fellow’s time in the field, as previous Fellows have written about self-discoveries in spirituality, competitiveness, and self-acceptance. We’ve all gained a better worldview, certainly. Witnessing extreme poverty, adjusting to life in a developing nation and participating in the small technological miracle of connecting Kiva Lenders and Borrowers can lead to some genuine soul-searching. I’ve learned an important life lesson and, at the risk of public humiliation; but ultimately hoping to a) cement this lesson to my own heart and b) encourage future Fellows, I’ll admit that due to my own ignorance and fear, I nearly missed out on one of the greatest experiences of my life.
As soon as I received the news that I had been accepted into the Kiva Fellows program, I threw myself into learning the complexities of microfinance; taking a course provided by the United Nations and reading everything about Africa I could get my hands on, especially works by and about Nelson Mandela. I indulged in elaborate daydreams about waking up to warm African sunrises, traveling through spectacular landscapes and helping women in Africa connect with Kiva Lenders; enabling them to sell more cows, purchase a sewing machine to launch a school uniforms business and find a self-determined way out of poverty, thus making a better life for their children. Even though I knew that the kind of wild animals found on safari would be nowhere Richards Bay, South Africa, my dreams had songs from THE LION KING soundtrack playing in the background. Yep, you could say my expectations were high.
Reality hit during a Skype call with my Kiva Fellows Program coordinator.
KFP: Hey DJ, I know we talked about your placement in Africa, but we decided you are needed in Georgia.
Me: I don’t want to live in Atlanta.
KFP: Um, we’re talking about the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. You know, next to Russia and Azerbaijan?
Me: (fumbling for my atlas) Uh…oh…can I think about it?
KFP: Sure, but this is your only option. It is Tbilisi or nothing. Everything else has been taken*.
Me: (desperate) What about Liberia? South Sudan? Sierra Leone?
KFP: Sorry, not options at this time. Anyway, Sierra Leone was just filled.
Me: (whining to self) WHY couldn’t I have Sierra Leone???
*Note: the Kiva Fellows Program coordinator was professional and kind; my ears just did not want to hear it in that moment. At no time was I guaranteed a placement in Africa.
Devastated would be an overstatement, but I was severely disappointed. My beautiful Africa fantasies dissolved. Fear and uncertainty took over. Bad stereotypes of the former Soviet Union filled my head. Never mind that it was early July, I felt as though I had been exiled to Siberia, picturing endless cold and depressing days; trudging through blizzards, surviving on bread and vodka, suffering as though I was a tragic character in a Tolstoy novel. Snapping out of those dark (Hello! Overly dramatic much? ) thoughts, feeling deeply ashamed at my reaction (the Golden Rule of volunteering: be flexible!) and embarrassed by my serious geographical ignorance, I anxiously surfed the web for any information about Georgia. I clicked over to the Kiva website and found several borrower profiles from Georgia. One jumped out: Nanuli, who wanted to borrow money for tomato seedlings and to pay for her son’s wedding. I noticed her loan was just $25 from being fully funded and took that as a sign. Two clicks later, I felt immensely better and quickly committed to my assignment. Thankfully, the Kiva Fellows Program team was gracious in the wake of my cringe-worthy moment. Really, is there a worse way to react than out of selfishness and ignorance? My cheeks get hot thinking about it to this day.
The irony, of course, is that living and working in Georgia has exceeded every expectation I had about volunteering, living abroad and my ability to contribute to Kiva’s mission to alleviate poverty. The Kiva Fellows Program wisely and carefully matches Kiva Fellows with each host MFI, based on the experience and skills each Kiva Fellow can bring to the table, with the critical needs of Kiva and the MFI itself. In my case, Credo has been working to move from pilot to partner, and I had a set of deliverables that challenged me and was incredibly rewarding to work though. I’m proud to share they are well on their way to full partnership and, pending final approval, a significant increase in available funding. Oh yes, I worked with Kiva Borrowers to help them connect with Kiva Lenders; enabling them to sell more cows, launch businesses and find a self-determined way out of poverty- just as I had envisioned. There have been warm sunrises and spectacular landscapes- a bit different, but no less amazing than I planned. Perhaps most significantly, I’ve begun to understand urban poverty and have taken a more compassionate view about what poverty does and does not look like.
Daily, I’m humbled by the famous hospitality of my Georgian friends, neighbors, colleagues and especially Kiva Borrowers, who live by the belief that guests in their homeland are a “Gift from God”. Georgians will literally give anything and everything they have if they thought it might make a guest happy. I’ve learned to refrain from complimenting things, yet am still showered with bags of delicious fruit, homemade tomato sauce, and invitations to supra, weddings and cultural events. Each kindness takes me back to my initial reaction, and I’m humbly reminded that the universe has a bigger plan for me than I ever had for myself.
In part 2, we’ll take a look at an innovative new program Credo is launching to help bring Kiva loans, financial services and client protection education to the most vulnerable of borrowers: previously rejected loan applicants.
Thank goodness for second chances.
Previous posts by this author:
DJ Forza is a Kiva Fellow working in Tbilisi, Georgia and is truly happy her good friend Tejal Desai landed in Sierra Leone, but she still hopes to visit one day. She also thinks Atlanta, Georgia is just great. Mostly, she is thankful for the second chance that lead her to Georgia and the team at Credo. To learn more, please visit Credo’s partner page, and join the Georgia lending team.