My memories of the last eight months away from home are a jumbled mass of color, freedom, fear, patience, frustration, and energy – raw, shifting memories that have not yet arranged themselves into neat, packageable stories that I can pull from the shelf at parties when I get home.
I have tested my sense of self against new backgrounds, ripped away the familiar context of home to hold my idea of “Abby” up to bright new lights. I have sometimes been ashamed of my reactions to new stimuli, and sometimes proud. Catching myself swearing under my breath at street children who asked a little too aggressively for money was not my finest moment; insisting that the Kiva Coordinator not fudge the dates to make loans eligible for Kiva’s website redeemed me.
I have learned about how microfinance operates on a day-to-day basis and about the difficulty of managing work and relationships across distances and cultures. Telling an MFI employee she did not have the IT competency necessary to be the Kiva Coordinator and watching her eyes tear up was my first real introduction to the uncomfortable realities of managing people. These challenges of human nature, of judgment, failure and success, cross all cultural boundaries.
I have changed in many ways. After struggling for months with my pocket French dictionary, and then, this morning, listening to myself rattle off yet another training in French on sending journal updates to Kiva lenders, I felt like I had tangible proof of how I’ve grown since September. Other ways I’ve grown are less easy to put a finger on, and most will continue to be elusive for many months to come.
Throughout all these things, the most wonderful surprise was not something that came from my own growth or self-examination. It was the overwhelming kindness I have been blessed with along the way. As a young white girl traveling alone, navigating nine countries in eight months, flinging my 25-year old self into the unknown, I have had to rely on others who are more established, more experienced, and more knowledgeable at almost every step along the way.
Before I left, my friends and family pitched in generously to help bear the cost of my trip, and my ever-supportive, unconditionally loving mother accompanied me on endless CVS and Walmart trips in preparation. Then, selflessly, she let her daughter climb onto a plane.
The family of a Togolese acquaintance from New York welcomed me wholeheartedly into their home, calling me “Ta-Ta” and fixing me a separate dinner every night because I didn’t like their gooey okra sauce. A South African friend cooked an entire turkey so that my Togolese family would have a special Christmas. My American compatriots welcomed me into their fold with beaches and Trivial Pursuit, movie nights and fresh, delicious salads. Jacques, the Kiva Coordinator, drove his motorcycle sooooooooo slowly over the potholes because he knew I was a little scared, and ate spaghetti with me for lunch whenever I wanted it even though he preferred the Togolese specialty of cow skin and pounded yams.
In Thies, the MFI’s chauffeur came to pick me up every single morning, and when asked me every single time how I was doing and if I had slept well, he really, truly, wanted to know the answer. In Mbour, the Director of my hotel was there to greet me, small, round and jovial, and overflowing with love and smiles, every single time I came home. In Dakar, my new friends welcomed me unquestioningly into their lives with endless generosity and laughter, a safe and happy way to end my great adventure.
If I’ve realized one thing about international development, that elusive struggle that all Kiva Fellows believe in, it’s that nothing truly significant in the world can be changed alone. As I struggled to accomplish my mission as a Fellow, even the smallest acts of kindness gave me safe places to catch my breath in between the scary jumps into the unknown. Countless hotel employees, waiters, and taxi drivers gave directions, led me places, smiled,
and asked how I was doing. Every time someone went out of their way to help me, I gave thanks to the universe and pledged to repay the kindness.
Thank you to all the good Samaritans who have helped me along the way, including my friends and family, my MFIs and their clients, the Kiva Fellows, the Kiva staff, and, last but not least, the Kiva lenders, whose generosity and initiative make Kiva’s vision a sustained, energetic, and hope-filled reality.