This is why I’m here

I have been in Dar es Salaam working with SELFINA for almost 6 months now, and my experience has been somewhat different to that of most other fellows. Unlike most fellows, I have not been going out into the field to visit clients. I have been based in SELFINA’s head office working on integrating kiva’s requirements into SELFINA’s existing processing, e.g. adding kiva-specific surveys to the loan applications. My goal has been to develop an efficient system for posting, journaling, data collection and filing (e.g. Ben Elberger, Dana Lunberry, and the excel master Alec Lovett and I coded an excel template to automatically generate client profiles).

So, for almost all my time here I feel like I’ve been working on the ‘system’, and have become disconnected from the personal and inspirational aspect of client interaction. My mind has been filled with numbers not faces. I’ve processed hundreds of clients, but have not known any of them. Until now…

Planet Rating last week came to conduct a rating of SELFINA, which as has been explained in previous blogs, is an assessment of an MFI’s practices and performance, the result of which affects their reputation and their standing with banks, NGOs, kiva, and other lenders. Kiva took the opportunity to have Planet Rating conduct an independent audit of the kiva portfolio, which required visiting 30 kiva clients at their businesses and homes.

A full day driving around Dar es Salaam, from the reasonably prosperous salons and cafes of Sinza and Ubungo, to the tailoring shop built in a shipping container in one of the remote, dirt-tracked villages of Mbagala, showed the full spectrum of kiva clients and their differing living conditions.

All of the women were strong and inspiring, but two stick out in my mind. The first was Salome, the seamstress in the shipping container (which we found only after driving through a ‘toll gate’ of the tree variety, that was manned by local youths wanting to be paid for the work they were doing on the waterlogged ‘road’). Salome welcomed us as we clambered down the grassy slope to her shop, set against a backdrop of a maize farm, palm trees, and that day, a beautiful blue sky. She explained that she had moved her shop here from one of the busier urban shopping areas, as the rent there was too high. When I asked her if she had enough customers in this location she replied “Ndiyo, nashukuru Mungo”, meaning ‘yes, I thank God’. A sense of calm radiates from her, despite a bad cough, and the fact that she is a widow trying to raise two children alone. Their education is her priority, and she spends a good portion of the profits from her business on private schools fees.

After leaving Salome, we drove through the nightmarish traffic jams that characterise early evening Dar es Salaam. We reached the home of Catherine Kimaro at around 7.30, and despite the fact that she was busy helping the children with their homework and preparing dinner, she welcomed us with a big smile. The two children, Neema and Tumaini had mixed reactions, Tumaini’s a rather indifferent ‘shikamo’ (the greeting used to address someone older than you), and Neema’s, a rather more dramatic play act, involving hiding and feigning shyness at the sight of the mzungu (white person), which she couldn’t keep up for long; ten minutes later she was holding my hand. Catherine is a nurse, who has just started a new position at Tanzania’s National Hospital, but runs a small pharmacy to supplement her income (which is very modest, like that of many government workers). She touched me not because she was one of the poorest or most desperate clients, but because she had worked hard to avoid that situation. She brought us to her tiny shop (no more than 5 square metres), and showed us the small fridge she had purchased with her loan (which she is using to refrigerate certain medicines). She demonstrated her desire to repay her loan on time, if not early, by telling us that just the day before she had gone to the SELFINA office, and made a double repayment, putting her a month ahead. In addition, Catherine had put aside a fifth of her loan as security in case something went wrong with the business and there were months she was unable to make repayments.

It was a joy and a privilege to meet these women, and I hope to be able to do it more often.

I am now in Mwanza, training SELFINA’s staff here, and generally spreading the kiva love. It’s a beautiful city set on the shores of Lake Victoria, with lots of nice bars and restaurants (those who know me well can feign shock at the fact that I have managed to find most of them in just three days!). My favourite, Villa Park, is just a five minute walk (or stumble) from my hotel, a beautiful wooden banda-style place that is characteristic of most Tanzanian bars. This is where I met Ana.

Ana is a big, friendly woman, and she has been serving me most evenings. We have managed to communicate in Swahili (I’m very good at ordering food and drinks, but it all goes a bit downhill after that), and I’m starting to feel at home due to all the hellos and welcomes I receive when I arrive. Last night Ana asked me what work I am doing here. When I replied with ‘microfinance’ her face lit up. She told me that she has a business sending the popular Lake Victoria fish to Dar es Salaam, and that she needs a loan (it turns out that last year her former friend and business partner took all the money from the business and fled to Uganda). She told me that she is just fighting to raise her three children, and the truth of this was evident in her eyes, and in the hand gestures she used to communicate and emphasise every explanation (not to mention the fact that she works as a waitress seven days and nights a week, and still manages to run another business).

I gave her my number and SELFINA’s details, and I lost count of the number of times she said thank you. When the staff from SELFINA arrived, I introduced them to her, and they gave her further details and advice, as well as a warm invitation to come to the office and apply. As I listened to them talking, I let my spirit take a step back, and one thought came into my head and remained there, ‘This is why I’m here’.

After indulging in some self reflection and congratulation, I returned to the conversation, to here again “Nashukuru”. Ana said she was so happy, she thanked me, she thanked the SELFINA staff, and she thanked God. And since we’re all a team, I just wanted to pass along some of the thanks.


About the author