By Victoria Kabak, KF9, Nicaragua
Last week I met three borrowers who struck me as particularly interesting, each for a different reason. All three have been thought-provoking and have stuck with me over the course of the week. In their own way, each of the three represented a unique experience for me. Even though I’d been here for over eight weeks, Gregoria, Gloria, and Maria each presented something new, so I want to introduce you to these three women, whose loans are disbursed through the microfinance institution where I’m a Kiva Fellow, Kiva’s field partner AFODENIC.
Each time I talk with a client in order to write a journal update to send to his or her lenders, I ask toward the end of the conversation, “What are your goals or dreams for the future?” I think this question reflects somewhat western notions, and I don’t always get the most exciting answers, even if they’re still very valid goals (and sometimes I get blank stares). Many borrowers say simply “seguir adelante,” to carry on or to move forward (as Julie discussed in an earlier post). Another response I frequently get is to grow or to improve their business in general.
Last week I met Gregoria, who sells a range of goods from her home, including clothes, soda, fresh fruit juices, nacatamales, ice cream, and soup. As always, I asked her the question about her long-term goals. Gregoria told me she would like to “llegar a trabajar con mi mismo dinero”–to be able to work with her own money, rather than borrowing money. She was the first borrower to express this aim to me, and to be honest I was thrilled by it. I have felt frustrated at times when I ask borrowers if they’re going to take out another loan after their current one and both borrowers and loan officers have responded as though it is the most obvious and inevitable thing in the world–of course they will take out another loan. Isn’t a big part of the point of microfinance to break the cycle of poverty, to make these borrowers’ businesses and lives sustainable on their own? Gregoria reminded me that yes, this is the point, and the fact that she had this drive made me believe it’s possible. I don’t think I’m quite ready to move from idealist to pragmatist.
Last Tuesday, I interviewed two borrowers in the same home. It wasn’t because two people in the same family both had Kiva loans from AFODENIC. Rather, Gloria had to come down the street from her store to talk to me in the home of another borrower, because her husband doesn’t want her to take out loans, as he thinks it’s unnecessary, so he doesn’t know about the loan she has right now. I was impressed by Gloria’s resilience and determination even in the face of what her husband was telling her to do. She disagreed with his opinion and didn’t let it stop her from doing what she thought was necessary, even if it meant going “behind his back.” I imagine this risk she’s taking required no small amount of courage, and I felt a lot of respect for Gloria.
While Gloria and Gregoria left me feeling optimistic, my time with Maria didn’t strike quite as upbeat a tone. Maria hasn’t been able to make repayments on her loans and while she’s not the first borrower I’ve met who has been delinquent – not the first “hard” story I’ve had to tell – the specific details behind it were new for me, as well as one other thing about Maria.
Maria had applied for her loan in order to purchase ingredients to use in the restaurant she runs that has been in her family for 50 years. However, instead of investing in her restaurant, the money went to her husband’s squash crops. Maria said she thought the money would go to better use invested in agriculture. Then, her husband ended up losing the crop this year as a result of the ongoing drought in Nicaragua. Of course, it’s possible that there’s more to the story than she was revealing–for example, maybe her husband pressured her into giving him the funds.
Maria was also the first borrower I’ve met who refused to have her picture taken for the journal update. Even though she agreed as part of the contract she signed with AFODENIC that her picture, name, and other basic information could be used on sites like Kiva, no amount of begging could convince Maria to let me snap a photo. While many clients admittedly haven’t always looked too thrilled to have their picture taken, all of them – except Maria – have agreed. Maybe it had something to do with what’s going on with her loan repayments, but all her lenders got was a picture of the outside of her restaurant. My first reaction was to feel frustrated with Maria – that she used her loan differently than she said she would, that she was hindering me from doing my work by not letting me take her picture – but ultimately the situation forced me to step back and try to understand it from her point of view. Maybe the money really would have led to bigger gains invested in crops, and Maria had no way to predict what the drought would cause. And the loan officer I was with explained to me that many people here, including himself, don’t like to have their picture taken because they feel it violates their privacy.
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Taken together, these three borrowers led me to reflect on the nature of my work here in Nicaragua and of microfinance in general. Two months in, I’m still meeting unique borrowers, having experiences I haven’t had yet, and thinking about things I haven’t thought about yet. And this is indicative of what microfinance is really about: people. It’s only because people and their lives are at the core of this work that it stays so varied, so thought-provoking, so surprising on an everyday basis. And I think this too is what makes Kiva.org exciting and makes us keep coming back to it: even when a particular borrower’s loan use isn’t the most original thing in the world, there is still something about each and every borrower that makes their story different from everyone else’s, something that makes them a new experience for us.
Victoria Kabak is a Kiva Fellow at AFODENIC in Managua, Nicaragua. Check out AFODENIC’s currently fundraising loans on Kiva.org, or purchase a Kiva gift certificate for a loved one this holiday season!