Snapshots of the last two weeks

It’s been a while since my last entry and I have a few different momentsI want to cover, so I apologize in advance if the following is a little disjointed and meandering. (And for Russell, I apologize that I’ll most likely switch tenses several times in this entry.) I think the best way to cover the highlights of the past two weeks is list form:

June 23:

James (Ebony Foundation’s director) arranged for me to see the KCB Safari Rally. Basically, it’s a year-long series off-road derbies, or as I like to call it, Kenyan Nascar. (If you’re curious, The rally itself was pretty mundane in my opinion – I was helping to operate a checkpoint (timing the cars as they completed a certain section of the day’s course). Read: I was waving a flag as the cars passed me, which was happening at about 10 minute intervals.

Regardless, I was happy James had arranged the experience for me. At the very least, I got to see more of the beautiful Kenyan countryside on the drive from Nakuru to Baringo and Cabarnet. The real treat, though, was the locals I met while on flag duty. One was a high-school boy of Maasi heritage who has dreams of visiting America one day. He’s also an avid Barack Obama supporter. The best were the fifteen schoolboys, ranging in age from 6 to 12, who kept me company for most of the morning. We had a great time trying to figure each other out. Mostly our communication consisted of them pointing to various objects or body parts and me telling them what the English word for it was. One boy became especially adept at mimicking my voice, mainly my exasperated pleas of “I don’t understand you guys! English, no Swahili!”

At one point I took a picture of them, and they were elated to look at the image on the screen of my digital camera.safari-rally-day-005_compressed.jpg

They just giggled and screamed and ran around, and made me take a few more of them and then of passersby on the dirt road. Some of these kids were literally wearing rags, most had no shoes. When I let them all take a sip of cold water, I think it was the first time many of them had drank from a commercially produced water bottle. It was just another reminder of how privileged my entire life and everything I know in America has been. We take so much for granted, and here was this group of kids who had literally nothing but were still so happy, thankful, curious, and friendly. I know this is cliché to say, but it makes just about everything we worry about in the course of our daily lives seem to be absolutely trivial. I think I need a Blackberry and these kids were ecstatic playing with the metal chain holding the Timberland logo tag on my boots. What does that say about me, about America, about the developed versus the developing worlds?

June 25:

That Monday I went to the field with Jane and another Ebony officer, Henry. We went to a village/settlement a little bit past Subukia (the place I wrote about in my previous entry) to meet some clients. It was a productive day of journal writing as we were able to meet an entire group of clients. The group, the Baraka Weru Self Help Group, was the pilot group that Ebony had lent money to in the region. Ebony chose Baraka Weru because the group had already established itself – it had its own internal regulations, its own hierarchy and most importantly its own system of table banking. (The approximately 40 active members, before involvement with Eb-F, came together to pool their savings and resources and then dole out loans to various members in turn.)

All of the group members were eager to talk and tell me their stories. At first when Henry explained to them why I was there, some were nervous about what they would say and what they would tell me, especially because most had used their loans for farming and haven’t harvested yet. I assured them that that did not matter, because I was there to learn about their lives in entirety, not just about the loan. I did my best to explain that Kiva lenders delight in learning as much about borrowers and their lives as possible. Once we got underway it was smooth sailing, and they enjoyed the picture taking. At the end, they requested a group picture with me in it – they want a copy so they can hang it in the small room they use for group meetings.

At one point Henry asked me to address the group; I spoke and he translated into Swahili. I tried to convey why I was there, telling them that most of the lenders were ordinary people just like me who felt a sense of global responsibility and we are trying to do our small part to help. We aren’t Bill Gates and can’t fix everything, but we can help in our small way. I told them how awed and inspired I am that despite their hardships, they remain resilient, resourceful, cheerful and perhaps most remarkably hopeful. I thanked them for that, and wished them all good luck. My words felt hollow and inadequate, but when I was done they all clapped heartily. I guess what I said wasn’t lost in translation.

the Baraka Weru group

(To my left is the group’s chairman, Peter. Standing in the back row with the blazer and white shirt is Henry. Samuel, the group’s own internal loan officer, is in the back row with the light blue jacket.)

June 28:

Fieldwork this day was conducted in Nakuru town itself. Ebony disperses loans according to a cluster system, with each cluster containing varying levels of funds. Many of the clients in Nakuru town fall among the lower clusters.

One entrepreneur in particular really stood out that day. Meet Lucia, nakuru-006.jpg

a 55-year-old mother of three. Her husband works as a matatu (Kenyan equivalent of public buses) conductor, a profession that doesn’t earn nearly enough to cover her family’s expenses. Lucia has been selling bags (purses, backpacks, duffel bags, etc.) for the past 28 years! In the same spot! Her “shop” is a stretch of sidewalk next to the main matatu staging area in Nakuru…a stretch of sidewalk that she has to rent from the local government. For nearly three decades Lucia has been selling bags from that sidewalk – six days a week, every week, rain or shine. But this isn’t what I admire most about Lucia, although the kind of fortitude, patience and strength she must have to keep at it day in and day out is remarkable. What truly struck me is just how incredibly vivacious and friendly Lucia is. From the second you meet her, you like her. She laughs easily, is always smiling and radiates an exuberant and confident feeling. Jimmy, her loan officer and my escort for the day, assured me that this was Lucia’s standard demeanor and not just an act because I was there.

Clarification: In rereading that last paragraph, I admit the tone of it seemingly indicates that she is an aberration. What I want to make clear is that Lucia, while she does stand out in my mind, is not the exception. Rather, most of the clients I have met in my field visits share her outlook on life and good spirits, and that, it seems, is the rule.

This was also the day I discovered that having mail delivered directly to your house or office location (a norm in the West) is not standard operating procedure in Kenya. Everyone’s mail is sent to the post office and put in to mailboxes. You physically go to the post office to collect your mail from the box, like a college campus mail center.

Did you ever consider receiving your mail at your home everyday to be a luxury?

June 29:

Today I got to see the darker side of microfinance: default. Personally, all my previous interaction with microcredit (lectures/seminars/panels/info sessions at college, personal reading and research, and Western press coverage) had never really addressed what happens when a borrower is unable to repay his or her loan.

Since arriving here, I’ve read the Ebony Foundation Operations Manual that fully outlines the steps Eb-F is prepared to take in the case of default. To go in to them in detail would take too long and I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to disclose that anyway. Suffice to say, part of the process is similar to what traditional banks do with regard to recovering their assets when clients default on loan repayments, mortgages, etc.

What I want to recount is the interaction in the field with the group in default. I accompanied an Ebony officer who had called a special meeting of the group. The officer wished to address the entire group, because it is Ebony’s policy to not go down to the individual level in group lending schemes. In other words, if just one person in the group is unable to make a monthly repayment, then the entire group is considered to be in default. Ebony deals with the group as a single entity and does not distinguish amongst its individual members.

The officer conducted the meeting with tact and appreciation for the difficulties of the group (only a few members had failed to make this month’s repayment) but also with a firm hand. Said officer made it clear that the money was a loan and by terms of their agreement must be repaid. The dynamics of group lending (1 group, no individuals in the eyes of Eb-F) were stressed. To be perfectly frank, the scene was reminiscent of a parent scolding a misbehaving child, from the officer’s tone and gestures to the averted eyes and hunched shoulders of the clients. (The officer later admitted to me that maintaining a firm composure in meetings such as these is the hardest and most unpleasant part of the job.)

The meeting was successful in that the officer was able to convey Ebony’s stance clearly and remind the members what group lending was all about. They were given the rest of the day to collect the balance of this month’s payment by whatever means they felt necessary (e.g. dip in to the group’s internal savings or perhaps some members could cover for the members in default for this month). By the time the officer and I left the village a few hours later, the group was still a few thousand shillings short.

June 30:

Saturday night, at dinner, I met some other foreigners who stood out in the restaurant more than I did. They were volunteers from Norway, England and Ireland. It was their last night in Kenya. They had been doing medical volunteer work in Nakuru.

One thing we all agreed on: the people in Kenya are among the friendliest and most hospitable that we have ever met.

(This was a sentiment that I was sure to express a few nights later at dinner with the entire Ebony staff – everyone in the office has been nothing but welcoming and accomodating in helping me get settled and used to life in Kenya.)

July 2:

I commuted home on matatus by myself for the first time. Hooray for life’s little victories.

On one leg of the commute, I paid the conductor 25 shillings. He said something to me in Swahili. In characteristic I-may-be-foreign-but-I’m-not-dumb hubris, I thought he was trying to charge me more. I insisted, “it’s 25 shillings, I know.” He turned away. When I got off at my stop, he put a 5 shilling coin in my hand without a word. Turns out I didn’t know – that leg was only 20 shillings and he had been trying to explain that to me.

About the author

Tanuj Parikh