21 Days on the Road (Part 2)

(To see what happened during the first 11 days, see Part 1)

Day 12 (Warning: slightly disgusting content. Do not attempt to read while eating):
I just finished rubbing my heels with sandpaper for the last hour. It’s a long story how I got to this point, but it involves exclusively flip-flops/sandals and very dirty/dusty/sandy roads for 6 weeks. Basically, I gave up trying to wash or in any way care for my feet a few weeks ago. They were just always dirty. Even when I get home there’s just dirt everywhere so I gave up on my feet. The plan worked out fine until yesterday my right heel began to hurt whenever I put pressure on it. A problem because I do a lot of walking. So I decided to look at my heel (probably the first time I’ve done this in 6 weeks) and saw not only tons of seriously dead skin but also some major cracks—I’m talking into the depths of my flesh—in my heel. There was one in particular that stood out—just a huge crevice where my skin broke running the length of probably a half inch. So today I go to a pharmacy having no idea what the word in English is for that thing you scrape on your feet (like a nail file for your feet) and certainly not knowing the Swahili word. All I have going for me was the Swahili word for “foot” which also happens to include the leg so it is sufficiently vague. When I walk into the pharmacy and decide to scan for an item in the same family as my desired object, to my glee, I spot just the thing I am looking for! Glorious! I’m pretty sure the pharmacist has never seen anyone so excited about a foot-scraper. So I just spent nearly an hour soaking and scraping away the layers and layers of dead skin in the hope that it will ease the pain that the cracks are causing me. There’s still much more work to do there, but a girl can only touch her feet for so long in one day before she has to call it quits. I’ll get back to it tomorrow and hopefully this new hygiene regimen will prevent future fault lines in my feet. (Be thankful I forgot to take a picture of my foot in its most heinous glory or else I’d be posting it right here.)

Day 14:
After a 2.5 hour bus ride from Shinyanga, I arrive in Mwanza and decide to walk around the city. I turn onto a street that is amply occupied with other pedestrians only to have a man walking towards me reach for my face to rip off my sunglasses. Some would let it go at that (afterall, I really don’t even like those sunglasses) but unfortunately my animal instincts kick in and without thinking I begin fighting back for my glasses. We have a standing tussle during which he scratches up my arm and I commit to crushing the glasses in my grasp so long as it means he doesn’t win. All the while, the crowded street freezes to watch the muzungu woman wrestle her attacker. No one steps in to help, but they all watch. In the end I do win and walk away with all of my possessions intact (my brute strength didn’t even cause me to crush my glasses) and only minor injuries to my right arm. As strange as the attack is, so is the reaction I receive from local people to whom I mention it. One accuses me of lying, telling me that the city is safe and that would never happen. Another says that if a thief is caught in the act, everyone in sight will pummel him or her and retrieve the belongings then continue beating the culprit perhaps until death. I ask why, then, did no one step in to get him away from me after he grabbed my face. Unsure how to answer, he says that the man is probably a known drunk or crazy person who does this type of thing all the time so no one wanted to bother. Comforting. I decide not to mention the incident to any more locals.

Day 15:
Today I learned the effect that isolation has on me. Though there have people around me all of the time and I’ve met different BRAC staff every day, it wasn’t until today when I reunited with a fellow Kiva Fellow here in Mwanza that I realized the hole there had been in my communication. Glorious friendship, camaraderie, English language, and mutual understanding. Thank you, Nabomita! To celebrate, we are eating the biggest tilapia I’ve ever seen straight out of Lake Victoria (the source of the Nile River). I’m barely able to stop talking long enough to get the food to my mouth, but when I do it’s well worth it. I’m now fully convinced that the only way to eat fish is with your hands. As a person who never ate fish prior to my move here I don’t think I’d know how to pick out the bones (or eyeballs) using a fork and knife.

Day 16:
I’ve spent each of the previous two weeks training two branches in each region on how to begin using Kiva and generating Business Profiles for the Kiva website. In Mwanza, I am to train three branches in five days. I’ve gotten into a training rhythm and like the two branches in five days regimen, but I’m a little worried about how I’ll pull off three. What I’ve been doing is spending one day with a branch to go to the field and get to know the COs and branch manager. In the afternoon, once everyone has returned from the field, I launch into a presentation and training discussion on Kiva. Then the next day I go into the field with as many COs as I can and visit as many groups as possible to begin filling out business profile forms and taking pictures for the website. I plan on spending two days like this at each branch and then I have the fifth bonus day to spend a little more time with whichever branch I feel needs it. Part of the struggle this week will not only be making it to each branch on two different days (at the very least one afternoon to do the training followed by one morning to go to the field) but also locating the three branches and getting from place to place, as the three branches are spread out on all different sides of the city. It’s doable but there’s not much of a buffer should one of the mornings or afternoons not work out. If I weren’t in Africa the schedule I’ve created for myself would be totally doable, but it turns out I am in Africa and timing absolutely never works out a) as you expect; or b) as you need it to. In my perfect world, my week will go as follows:

Monday—morning: Branch 1; afternoon: Branch 2
Tuesday—morning: Branch 3; afternoon: Branch 1
Wednesday—morning: Branch 1; afternoon: Branch 3
Thursday—morning: Branch 2; afternoon Branch 1
Friday—morning: Branch 3; afternoon: Branch 2

The way I see it, if the week even goes 80% as planned I’ll still complete all of the trainings. Fingers crossed.

Day 17:
A car wearing a bumper sticker declaring, “This Car is Protected by the Blood of Jesus” is simultaneously driving straight into opposing traffic at full speed and coming within inches of hitting multiple pedestrians. It is as though his faith that he is protected by Jesus permits him to drive recklessly, as no harm could find him. What about the pedestrians? What if they’re not protected by Jesus’ blood? Faith is one thing but watching it embolden this country’s drivers is a scary incarnation of religious devotion.

Day 18:
It’s a rainy day in Mwanza and I need to get from one branch to another to begin training another office. Rain wouldn’t be catastrophic except that the Regional Manager is here today and he’s offered me a ride to my next location on the back of his motorbike. We wait for the rain to pass enough for us to be able to take to the streets and after two hours we decide to go for it. We make it through ten minutes of the 30-minute ride when he pulls over and tells me he’s going here (as he points vaguely at the nothing that is next to us). By now it is raining again and we are well outside the city. In shock that he would leave me on the side of the road in the rain in the middle of nowhere I hesitate. Does he really intend for me to get off the bike? He does. He quickly pulls away further off the road and I have no choice but to begin walking in the general direction of the city. I look down to realize I’m covered in mud and filth that’s been kicked up by the motorbike and I’m getting even wetter as the rain comes down harder, but there’s no where for me to take cover. Eventually I make it to a daladala stand where a man ushers me under a shelter and asks me where I need to go. Thank you, my Swahili, for being advanced enough to allow me to talk about directions and destinations fluently! He gets me onto the proper daladala and tells the driver where I need to go. I hate being helpless but my dejection at my soaking state and abandonment allow me to resign myself to it and follow instructions. We reach a stop at which point the daladala driver tells me I should get off. He points to two students whom he says will lead me to my next daladala. In the end it takes five people and one hour to get to the branch. It would all be worth it if it weren’t for the fact that by the time I reach the branch, the staff has gone home as the work day is nearly over. All for naught.

Day 19:
As I said, I need the week to go at least 80% as planned. I knew that something would go wrong but there’s always a strange excitement as I wake up each day not sure exactly what it is that will disrupt my attempt at a plan. The good news is that if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that I need to remain only loosely committed to my plans, as any greater attachment will result in frequent disappointment. Today, Branch 2 is a problem. The Branch Manager has resigned so the branch is in turmoil. I’m wondering if I’m bad luck, as last week both a Branch Manager and a CO resigned on the day I was to train the branch. The Area Manager tells me I should not take it personally as turnover is not uncommon. It’s amazing the difference a solid Branch Manager makes. Without that authority figure to impose a sense of order and routine, things falls apart. COs still attend their meetings and collect their payments but air in the office is more chaotic. Clients coming to receive disbursements get into yelling matches with each other and the COs. The flow of the staff in and out of the office is constant so no one ever knows how to find anyone else. When I try to locate a particular CO, inevitably I am told that “there is a problem, she had to go.” I don’t even know what this means, but I’ve heard it numerous times. Of all of the things Branch 2 has to worry about, I’m not convinced that I can elevate Kiva on their list of priorities. I’m worried that the situation here might consume more than 20% of my plan and leave me unsuccessful, with perhaps 2 or 2.5 branches trained.

Day 20:
“What do you think of the way we collect loan payments?” It feels like a loaded question so I pause. I say something vague to which the Branch Manager responds “do you think it’s safe?” Ahh that’s what she’s getting at. And she has a good point. The method that BRAC employs to collect installments on loans is through weekly meetings at the Group Leader’s home that the CO attends. There, she collects payments—sometimes more than 1 million Tanzanian Shillings in a single day (equivalent of $1,000—a lot of money by local standards)—to bring back to the office. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the COs are women between the ages of 20 and 30 (per BRAC policy) and they make these collections alone. For the Branch Manager to bring it up echoes the concerns I have had as I repeatedly watch COs roll up wads of cash and stick them in their purses, in plain public view and seemingly vulnerable to any bystander should he or she decide he/she wants that money. In addition to safety concerns, the Branch Manager points out that these women do not make in one month nearly the amount of money they collect in a single day. What is to stop them from running off with it?

Day 21:
I am beginning this 16 hour bus ride with a woman more or less sitting on top of me. This would be totally predictable (afterall, what’s an African bus ride without a stranger sitting on your lap?) except that the seat next to her is empty. Why, I beg of you WHY, do you insist on sitting right up on me when there is a perfectly good and empty aisle seat right next to you??? Two hours later, we make a stop and someone sits in the empty seat which finally stops me from gazing longingly at the empty seat trying to will this woman to move. Every 4-5 hours we pull over on the side of the road in the middle of no where. These are bathroom breaks. As one may expect, it’s almost exclusively men who take advantage of these rests (the terrain is desert with no trees or high shrubbery to shield a person) with only the occasional extremely desperate woman partaking. Me, I strategically drank no water for two days so as to avoid this very situation. Wildy unhealthy? Perhaps. Was it worth it? Definitely.

As the clock strikes ten the bus enters familiar terrain. Dar es Salaam is upon us. After 16 sweaty hours, 2 of which were unpaved, and no real food or drink to speak of, we arrive at the bus terminal. As I disembark, to my shock and amazement two of my friends with whom I live are waiting at the door and waving and yelling excitedly. What a fantastic homecoming!


About the author

Julie Ross

Julie focuses on developing the primary technology that Kiva's field partners use to interface with Kiva, whether it be to manage their Kiva finances, post new borrower profiles, or maintain their relationship with Kiva.  She is thrilled to support the work of Kiva's partners by using her field experience and partner knowledge to create easy-to-use, streamlined, and beautiful tools.  Prior to working on the Product Management team, Julie was the Kiva Fellows Program Manager following time spent first as a Kiva Fellow, then as a Coordinator for the program.  She served as a Kiva Fellow in 2008-2009 with Kiva's field partners in Tanzania and Rwanda.  Prior to joining Kiva, Julie worked on Capitol Hill. She graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA with a degree in English Literature.