Not long ago, I was trapped in a mind numbing corporate cubicle, devoid of spirit, trading my time for money. I fantasized about days like this. Well, not exactly.
Grace didn’t tell me we were going into the field today. I was wearing my best clothes – navy blue slacks, a pressed white shirt and shiny black loafers, prepared instead for a day in the office. Naturally I was excited to join her and seized the opportunity without hesitation. “Nkokonjeru,” Grace replied when I asked her where we were going, “it’s not far.” She didn’t intentionally mislead me. Besides, it sounded like a lovely rural village. That much at least was true.
Our saga began in Kampala’s old taxi park. The old taxi park is a chaotic, densely packed and altogether disorienting entanglement. I try to avoid it at all costs. That’s hard to do since all routes leading out of the city center originate at the taxi park and routes into the city terminate at the park. Even routine movement from say my guest house on Namirembe Hill on the southwestern perimeter of the city to my office in Kamwokya in the north central (about 6 km as the crow flies) requires a frustrating connection and a long delay through the taxi park, turning what should be a short commute into an hour-long journey that tests the limits of one’s patience and tolerance for discomfort. The Ugandan taxi system is not designed for the comfort and convenience of the passengers it serves.
The routine goes something like this: locate your taxi (white Toyota minivan, aka matatu) in a sea of thousands of identical others in a labyrinth of shouting barkers, hawkers and pedestrians. The taxi park is not ordered neatly into rows or equipped with clearly-marked signs or parking stalls, and there are no set schedules. With luck, you’ll eventually zero in on your van through a process of trial and error. Matatus, however, do not leave until they are full – a literal determinant not open to subjectivity: thirteen out of fourteen occupied seats is not full. If you arrive early, as Grace and I did on this unbearably hot day, you grab a seat, start sweating profusely and wait. And wait. And wait. We baked for nearly 40 minutes to medium-well until gleefully accepting our fourteenth victim. While this poor soul was lucky enough to avoid the long wait, he got the most uncomfortable seat – a fold-down jumper that he had to share with the conductor – all the way to Nkokonjeru. Either way, the taxi park exacts its price in misery.
Kampala’s notoriously bad traffic was especially awful this day. I craved movement, not for progress but for the breeze; instead, we roasted in agonizing stillness. We didn’t escape the grip of gridlock until Mukono, well outside the city limit, but freedom was fleeting. We immediately left the paved road (not to be confused with smooth) and joined a bone-jarring dirt road. Each time we hit a rut, or swerved to avoid one, I was bounced around painfully and frequently whacked my head. The van sounded like it was being ripped apart by the fissures, with deafening bangs. Seeking comfort on the “cushioned” seats was wasted energy. The driver, like most, was hard on the throttle and brakes, and the van’s suspension system was on strike. My legs grew fatigued from trying to brace myself – hard to do with my knees in my chest and unable to apply leverage.
Worst still was the dust from two weeks without rain. Constant clouds of thick blowing dust left no choice but to close all the windows. Lacking fresh air, the temperature inside the van sweltered. Closing the windows proved futile as plumes of dirt billowed in through holes, cracks and unsealed windows. I could barely see the front seat of the van as we raced down the abusive road. The limit of my endurance was being teased and I urgently needed relief. So I slid my window open. Big mistake! The other passengers, all Ugandan, shot me an aggravated look in unison while shouting at me in Luganda. I interpreted their response to my (obviously stupid) action as objectionable, and complied by closing my window. Grace thanked me. I couldn’t even access the water I had the foresight to bring – it was like trying to take a swig on a tilt-a-whirl.
I was a physical mess and in wretched spirits when we finally arrived at Nkokonjeru. After being smashed incessantly against my cranium for two hours, my brain felt like one of the blended fruit smoothies a hawker tried to sell me upon debarkation. Dirt permeated everywhere – my eyes, nostrils, ears, teeth, hair, clothing and pretty much everywhere else, as I would find out later. My pressed white shirt was filthy brown and un-tucked and stuck to my reeking body. My blue slacks looked like some kind of hideous disco-era fashion. My shoes were no longer shiny or black. I was dehydrated from the unrelenting dry, dusty heat. In short, I was disgusting. “Not that far, huh Grace?”
But at least the torment had ended (for now). I was nearly euphoric to be out of the van, standing upright and breathing fresh air.
I’ve gotten used to being greeted as something of an enigma in remote rural villages, which of course, I am. I’m always welcomed as an honored guest; I’m usually chased by laughing school kids screaming “mazungu!”, and I’m frequently stared at cautiously and inquisitively by town elders, like I’m an unfamiliar predator. On this day, I was looked upon with horror, pity and comedy. One woman offered me a dirty rag to clean my face with. Another apologized – it’s the dry season, she reminded me. Several were laughing uncontrollably. I took no offense; I must have been quite a sight. They knew from a lifetime of experience what I had just endured. I think they were laughing with me, in empathy and camaraderie – a reminder that sometimes you just have to let go, accept the situation and enjoy the moment. Another powerful lesson learned in the field, of which I tried to heed.
When our meetings ended, Grace determined it was better for a soft, middle-aged mazungu (eg, me) to take a motorcycle taxi to Lugazi, seven miles away, where we could catch a taxi home on pavement and thus avoid reversing our hellish route. Grace got no opposition from me!
I had never been so happy to be on the back of a motorcycle. I enjoyed the smooth and comfortable ride, if even on dirt. Mainly, I treasured the freedom. A fine consolation, I thought, for the afternoon’s effort. The Mukono countryside is undeniably beautiful. The rolling hills to Lugazi wind through Elysium fields of sugarcane, tea and banana. The air was almost sweet and by now it had cooled comfortably. The fresh breeze was as rewarding and rejuvenating as a cool shower after hard labor. An ominous thought.
Without warning, the blue sky turned dark and we were overtaken by a tropical thunderstorm. Yes, the rain felt wonderful but the irony mounted. In the middle of nowhere, with no shelter to be found, I was helpless to resist. I reminded myself of the lesson the laughing ladies of Nkokonjeru taught me earlier, and I embraced the moment unconditionally and with laughter, in what could be one of life’s cherished moments. Certainly beats the heck out of an oppressive cubicle! We pressed on to Lugazi, where I arrived soaked to the bone and muddy. And, strangely, happy.
The return trip offered little respite. I was filthy, my clothes were saturated, and I was absolutely uncomfortable in the 3rd row of the battering matatu. When we passed the Kampala 15km sign, we came to a dead stop and sat motionless for over an hour. With daylight waning and no indication of impending movement (and a completely fatigued body and mind), I decided to complete my journey on a boda boda. Normally, I reserve bodas for rural backroads and short, relatively safe hops in the city. But this was not normal circumstances. I coveted hygiene and comfort, at any cost. Still, fifteen km on a boda was an unsettling acceptance.
After weaving in and out of opposing lanes of traffic, diverting onto sidewalks and popping wheelies for several km’s, the driver skidded into a petrol station and told me to give him money for fuel. I paid him the fare we agreed upon. He didn’t look to his right, the direction of oncoming traffic, when he pulled back out into the derby. The next thing I heard is the last thing you want to hear on the back of a bike: screeching car tires. How we avoided an inevitable collision, and worse, is a mystery. I think we jumped over a curb and slid into a power pole sustaining only minor scrapes and scratches.
Later that evening over a badly needed beer, I wondered if the effort and risk and suffering were really worth it, just to interview a couple of borrowing groups.
The answer is a resounding yes. I share this folly not just to humor and entertain you, but to illustrate a day in the life of a Kiva Coordinator, whose ordinary day is decidedly unordinary and who delivers extraordinary results.
Kiva Coordinators are a vital link that connects Kiva Lenders to Borrowers. They endure days like this one to bring Uganda’s rural poor into your living room and to put a face and personality on a funding request. Their work is exhausting, demanding intellectual and physical capacity. They travel near and far, and they work under tight deadlines and bear large responsibility. I found this one day in the field to be Blog-worthy; this is Grace and Gina’s everyday reality. After “scooping” stories in the field all day, it’s not atypical to find them writing up their interview notes well into the evening and on weekends so they can post them onto Kiva within deadline. Working hard for the poor.
Kiva Coordinators are unsung heroes. Grace (Pearl Microfinance) and Gina (BRAC Uganda) are talented, intelligent women – both attended top universities on scholarship. Their purpose, like most poverty workers I’ve met, drives them to excellence, regardless of the commitment and personal sacrifice asked of them. It would be a lot easier to stay seated at their desks. But ordinary wouldn’t suit Grace or Gina or any Kiva Coordinator. They thrive because they know that are a playing a unique role – there are less than a few dozen Kiva Coordinators in the world, and Grace and Gina represent two of them (the few, the proud). Kiva Coordinators hold a critical responsibility for attracting lenders by writing compelling borrower profiles, and retaining lenders by writing social and economic impact updates (eg, journals). Watching lenders on the Kiva website from all over the world react to “their” loan excites them, and witnessing first-hand how that loan transforms lives invigorates them further. Grace and Gina are changing the world, one long, hot trip over fiery, dusty, battering roads in afflictive matatus at a time. Their profit is pride and the dividends they receive far surpass the distress they withstand. I hope my slapstick tale helps bring them out of the shadows and into recognition. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
I commend BRAC Uganda and PEARL Microfinance for their vision and their commitment to Kiva. Kiva Coordinators are full-time salaried staff resources and, therefore, a long-term investment in their partnership with Kiva, and a further embodiment of their unwavering commitment to poverty alleviation.
It’s truly my great privilege and pleasure to work with Gina and Grace – two remarkable young ladies that I will miss when I return home. I’m proud to call them colleagues. Each one approaches her craft with professionalism, dedication and good cheer, and delivers the results expected by all stakeholders. Their energy inspires me. They are a reward of progress and I’m indebted./>