First day in the field

Yesterday was my first day of field work – meeting entrepreneurs who have gotten loans from Kiva lenders and capturing their stories and lives to be written about in journals that are then posted on the Kiva site. The following is an account of the day’s happenings. Disclaimer: It was an eventful day so this will definitely be a long entry; feel free to skim.

I arrived at Ebony’s office around 9:30 in the morning. Jane made some brief preparations to leave and then we were off. Jane was a loan officer for Ebony and worked here out of the main office, servicing areas in and around Nakuru. She was recently promoted to Business Development Officer and then again to Unit Manager for the Mombasa (Kenyan coastal city) Office. She’ll be moving to her new position in a few weeks, but until then I’m lucky enough to have her accompanying me on my field visits – she’s friendly, knowledgeable and from what I can tell, extremely skilled at what she does. After seeing her interact with people in the field, it was clear Jane had developed a strong rapport with her clients during her time as an LO.

Our destination for the day was Subukia, a village town surrounded by acres and acres of farmland. Subukia is approximately an 80 kilometer drive from Nakuru, so Jane and I found ourselves subject to the whims of the local public transportation system. From the office we flagged down a matatu (“bus”). Now, when you picture this bus, I need you to not think of the huge American public transport vehicles that can hold upwards of 40, 50 people. Rather, think minivan, but not the American soccermom type…I’m talking the bank robber getaway type – the big white ones with one side sliding door. Inside each matatu, behind the driver’s seat, 3 triple-seat rows have been installed. On the outside of each, painted on yellow stripes are the destinations of that particular vehicle. Here’s the catch though – matatus do not operate on a set time schedule or even a standard driving route, and there is not set price (you had better negotiate your fee before you get in). Drivers will take any shortcut or alternate road they see fit and will stop at any point on the road that a potential passenger could be waiting. What’s more, once stopped, it may be several minutes (if not 20 or more) before you get moving again b/c each driver is trying to maximize his profits (these are privately operated businesses, not government run) by filling the van to capacity. (Our day’s first matatu blasted reggae from the speakers and the interior was adorned with stickers in Swahili saying “If you think the music is too loud, then you’re too old.”)

Anyway, a 10 minute ride later, we arrived at the central Nakuru “bus station” where we found a matatu heading to Subukia; we waited a good 15-20 minutes before the driver felt the vehicle sufficiently full of passengers. As we drove out of Nakuru, we passed the State House. I thought it was for the local city government, but Jane corrected me. The State House is a sprawling estate, complete with full-time staff, meant solely to house the Kenyan president whenever he visits Nakuru, which according to Jane was very rarely. It seemed a giant waste of resources if you ask me; Jane agreed.

On the ride out to Subukia – interrupted by many abrupt stops and shuffling of passengers in and out – Jane and I chatted. She commented on the lack of any set matatu schedule as a microcosm of a general lack of adherence to time schedules and deadlines in Africa at large, and figured that it would require a sea change in people’s attitudes to change the time culture. I feel that it will require a change on the other side – ideally, the public transport will be taken over and fully regulated by government. Once the government sets up a strict time schedule for buses to adhere to, and drivers stick to it, and people start missing buses when they don’t come on time, the culture will change. Of course, that all supposes that the Kenyan government has the flexibility and resources to address such concerns, a seemingly quixotic hope considering all of the other more pressing challenges it faces.

As we left Nakuru farther and farther behind, the landscape outside became increasingly more scenic and breathtaking. On either side of the road rolling hills swept up and down, covered in lush greenery. At first glance it reminded me of some parts of the US I’ve seen before, namely Wisconsin and parts of California.

We arrived at the Subukia town center, which I can best describe as reminiscent of the town square you see in old American Western movies. Except rather than dusty desert, the roads are thick, hard slab of mud in varying degrees of wetness. And the buildings weren’t wood, but more clay and cement, but still low-slung one-story edifices lining either side of the streets. Jane flagged down two motorbike taxis – they were the only way to get out quickly to the Subukia farms, because the mud roads were too rough and rugged for any vehicle (except maybe a Humvee or something).

As I mounted a motorbike behind its driver, I elicited loud laughs from a nearby group of teenagers. I sincerely doubt they meant any derision – it was probably that I just looked funny in my bright orange t-shirt and gray sweatpants (my luggage still hadn’t arrived as of yesterday morning, although it thankfully did this morning). To be honest, I could feel it, just how much I stood out. On the 15 minute motorbike ride to the first set of Ebony’s clients, everyone we passed did a double take when they saw me, most with mingled looks of curiosity and wonder on their faces.

When we got to the farms I was the one who had to do a double take. The landscape was absolutely stunning – in a developed country where utilities and access to this area would have been possible, the land would have been worth a fortune and surely a high-income neighborhood. Words can’t capture just what I saw, and I’d love to upload pics but the internet connection here won’t allow that too easily, so you’ll just have to trust me.

As we walked from farm to farm for the rest of the day, I had to remind myself to look up and take in the natural magnificence all around me.

The first two women I met were Lucy and Rebecca. Both women received loans from Kiva lenders to expand their farming business, mainly in the form of leasing more acres of land and buying farming supplies like fertilizers, seeds, etc. Both women had to lease land that was quite far away because all available land near their current farmland was already taken. Rebecca for instance walks 2 hours one way to get to her extra land. Each woman, and every person I met for that matter, was extremely friendly and hospitable, taking great care to invite me in to their homes and offer me what little they had. Lucy wouldn’t let me leave her farm until she had made me tea and eggs. Their hospitality was so refreshing – it wasn’t offered with any ulterior motives or hidden agendas, but simply because they knew it was the right thing to do, and it gave them joy to include me in their lives in whatever small way they could.

Something else I found so interesting was the handshakes. As background, you should know that everyone you meet in Kenya, even for the briefest of encounters, will shake your hand. The strength and firmness and style of a handshake is considered cross-culturally to be indicative of a person’s bearing. What touched me was how every single person I met yesterday greeted me with a strong, deliberate handshake – they were more poised in their handshakes than many successful adults I’ve met in America. What this told me – and it was confirmed in their voices and their eyes – was that these people are proud, earnest, honest and decent. Don’t get me wrong, they aren’t naïve – they understand the plight of poverty that they are in – but they are not defeated. They are hopeful, resourceful, resilient…and frankly, people to be admired.

Later in the day, I met Samuel, a 48-year old farmer who cares for his own two children, his parents, and his deceased sister’s three children. Samuel specializes in tomatoes, but when he isn’t working in the field, he supplements his income by teaching Standard 1 at a local school for youngsters. He was just hired a few months ago. Samuel must have been a tour guide in another life, Jane and I both thought. He was incredibly vivacious and eager to show us around his farm and the surrounding areas. He took us to the south side of his land where a natural river ran through the property. Proudly he stood by the natural waterfall, describing with joy how he harnessed the power of gravity for his irrigation pipes. With a smile and a flash, Samuel was off again, briskly winding his way through the trees and crops to take us to the next stop on his tour.

And what a stop it was – the now-in-ruins estate of Phillip Mitchell, British governor of Kenya in the late 1940’s when the country was still a colony. The sprawling complex must have been magnificent in its heyday – there were large open courtyards, several gardens, a few buildings connected by pathways. According to Samuel, Queen Elizabeth herself stayed there in 1948.

Samuel also was determined to find the snakes he knew to be hiding in the crops, much to Jane’s laughing displeasure. He kept describing a huge black mamba he knew he to be slithering around somewhere. (It’s a sign of how out of touch with nature this New York City raised Kiva Fellow is that the first thing I thought of when I heard “black mamba” was Kobe Bryant…followed closely by Uma Thurman and Kill Bill).

Samuel also provided another reminder of just how pervasive American influence is abroad. One of his brothers moved to the US a few years back and is currently stationed in Afghanistan as a Sergeant in the US Army.

The day was filled with a lot of walking but it was pleasantly relaxing and energizing. I think that was the first time in several years that I’ve been in an outdoorsy nature setting for an extended period. It was also inspiring – meeting people who faced tremendous adversity day in and day out with a smile. Daniel, for instance, is nearly 60 and is still caring for three of his own children and five grandkids. Yet, he stood in the middle of his freshly dug fish pond (where he plans to breed tilapia in the coming months) looking carefree and telling me how wonderful his Kenya was.

Jane and I left Subukia around 5:30 and made our way back to Nakuru. All in all, I’d say it was a fantastic first day in the field.


About the author

Tanuj Parikh