Be the spark, light the fire, keep burning

This is a blog that I’ve written in a hurry so as not to let the words swirling in my head escape my fingers on the page. In my tenure at SMEP, I’ve never attended the weekly devotional, held every Monday morning from 8-10 in the morning. I always thought of myself as a secularist, and I assumed that attending would make me uncomfortable – after all, I come from a place where there is separation of church and everything. I’ve grown up in the deeply religious “bible belt” of the Southern United States, and I just assumed that at SMEP, the devotional would take the color of some of the church services I have attended back home.

Nelly Barati, SMEP Client, and I show off the outfit that she made for me when I went to visit her at her shop. Nelly is one of my "mamas" in Nairobi.

Nothing prepared me for what I experienced today, as I attended devotion for the first time. As a community builder and activist, I know that sometimes we pull ourselves out of our own comfort zone to forge connections with others. I felt that by attending the morning devotional today, I’d show my co-workers that I cared about this institution and that I am interested in connecting with all of them on a deeper level.

SMEP is an organization that was born out of the highly influential organization, the National Council of Churches Kenya, an ecumenical Christian governing body that is an opinion leader in the country. This is a religious institution. Employees are asked if they are saved when they come on board. Meeting and trainings begin with prayer, and end with prayer. These people are serious about their god.


This morning however, when I sat in the devotional for the first time, I got some surprised, but happy looks. We open the devotion with song, and I falter, not used to the tunes, but pick them up quickly – my voice cracking from the diesel fumes I’ve inhaled on my daily walk to the office.

The songs set the tone for the rest of the meeting, we’ve cleared our throats, found our collective voices, and then we begin individual prayers. Most pray out loud and the room is filled with the voices of everyone at the head office. I hear snippets of others’ prayers;  “thank you oh God, oh Father, for keeping this institution alive and for all the blessings you have given us…” “ ….my children safe and for your continued healing, My God…” “ …for my family and my loved ones, watch over them, and continue providing…”

My prayer is silent, more meditative, and begins by putting everyone that I love in a “bubble” of love and protection. I come to realize that this time; my bubble includes all the people that I work with and the wonderful friends who have become family here in Nairobi- the other Kiva fellows and their teams, my neighbors, people who I have had the privilege to meet since being here. My bubble has expanded, and a new, larger family is a part of my life now and I am so thankful.

I begin to tear. How is it that I’ve come to Kenya to learn and tell the stories of others whose lives have been changed at SMEP, and I finally understand my OWN story? I fruitlessly try to wipe away the tears so that my mascara doesn’t run, but they keep coming.

Over the past year and a half I’ve lost family and friends to suicide.  I’ve lost the love of my life. I was told that my father might need a kidney transplant and that I would have to be tested as a donor.  A month before coming to Kenya I was in a horrible car accident and thought that I wouldn’t be able to come.  My life has transformed. I’ve come to realize that passion is the only thing in life worth pursuing and if you aren’t feeling a fire for something – let it go. So many deaths, so much lost, so many lessons to learn.

But I’ve come here, heart empty, only to have it filled with the love of a new family, and a new country that has made me feel at home. I would save this blog for my last but my heart is flowing with so much, that I feel the momentum will be lost if I don’t convey how fortunate I am to be here even telling this to you.

We come here to find and tell stories. But the Kiva Fellows also each have their own story to tell. Each of us leaves something behind to come and open our hearts to new people and experiences. My heart has been filled, each and every day that I have been here. I love my “family” here that lets me cook experimental Indian meals and feed them without any reservations about my ability as a chef. Or the co-worker that sings with me in the 14-seater shared vans called matatus that we take into the field to visit borrowers. The family that prays in the morning devotional that they are thankful for me and my commitment and that they implore god to help me stay in Kenya permanently.  The ones that take me out dancing after a hard week in the field. The people I have re-learned how to laugh with. Everyone here, who has helped me heal.

What does this have to do with microfinance? It’s all about framework. The CEO said in the devotional today “If you are here to make a living, you are in the wrong place. Making a living should be your second priority; your first priority should be to change a life.” She’s setting the tone for the week, and I find such peace in her message. Sometimes we take this message for granted, that with our hearts open to possibility, we can enter the world and connect with people, even during a first meeting. I go in to the field and smile at the possibility -that the person I see is touching my life, and maybe I am touching theirs. Clients at SMEP have become my “mamas,” maternal figures to me at a time when I am so far away from real family. The CEO urges the team to find the real reason for all of this. We connect one loan at a time, to a person, a family, a story. We tell those stories to you in the profiles and journals; we share stories of our own on the blog. My own story has taken on a life of its own here in Kenya. My heart is open. I am the spark and the flame, and I want to keep burning – never losing my passion for changing a life.

I am a very fortunate woman to be able to open my heart, and let tears of joy flow. To sing words of praise, and to be with family. In Kenya they say “Karibu”, which means welcome. And I have never felt more welcome, or more at home, than I do here.

Kiva Love!

Avani Parekh-Bhatt, KF9
SMEP, Nairobi


About the author

Avani Parekh-Bhatt