A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Borrower… Part 1

Borrower verifications can be the most rewarding part of a Kiva Fellow’s time in the field, they can also be the most challenging.  Traveling on your own for days through an unfamiliar part of the country, on less than ideal roads, bridges and buses can deflate even the strongest Kiva cheerleaders.  I would be lying if I did not say that the process of the BV [excluding meeting the borrowers] dropped me into an occasional trough of despair.

Save the violins though, as I said, borrower verifications provide some of the most fulfilling moments of the fellowship.  To meet and speak with a Kiva borrower, and to hear about their successes and challenges makes all the arduous traveling well worth it.

This blog post is not only about meeting the borrowers but, about the things that can happen on the way to visit a borrower once you learn to let go of your preconceived notions, fear of death, car sickness and sense of time.  Once you let go of these things, you may actually start to enjoy the journey and appreciate the bumps in the road [okay, that might be pushing it… potholes on matatus will never be fun].  This is the first entry about a trip to the Kisumu and Kapsabet in Western Kenya that represented the best and most challenging aspects of the fellowship, all at once.

My schedule at Strathmore University made it necessary for me to fly to Kisumu right after interviewing the first ever full tuition loan applicant. Needless to say, I was on a complete Kiva high when I landed in Kisumu and drove straight from the airport to the main bus and matatu station to meet my first KADET client.

The matatu station is right near the center of town and by one of the biggest markets in Western Kenya. As I was getting to the station around 4 p.m., it was already packed with commuters on their way home from a long day of work.

I was meeting Isack, who had taken a loan to purchase additional supplies for his shoe shining business and plastic chairs that he would be able to rent out to the countless other entrepreneurs with businesses lining the matatu station.

As I spoke with Isack about his business and how he had expanded it with the loan, about 15 to 20 people gathered around trying to determine why I was talking to him. This curiosity was somewhat normal — I stuck out like a sore thumb and  was taking photos of Isack in the middle of the bustling matatu station.

Isack sits in the matatu station where he runs his shoe-shining business. He is sitting in one of the chairs that he bought with the Kiva loan, which he rents out to other businesspeople in the matatu station.

Two observers in particular struck me. The first was an adolescent man that kept pointing at my camera and then to himself, which I took to mean that he wanted me to take a photo of him. Someone nearby told me he didn’t care if I took a picture of him. He wanted me to give him my camera. This person described the young man as a “street urchin who was high on glue,” and said he just wanted to snatch my camera.

I was taken aback by the hasty and unapologetic labeling of the young man as a “street urchin,” something less than human, which introduced me to the dichotomy between the many street boys and girls in Kisumu and the rest of the population. There is a documentary being made about the lives of former street boys in Kisumu. Hopefully, the film will provide better insight into the lives of this disenfranchised population.  I hesitated to write about this brief encounter but that would be further validating the notion that this street boy deserved less than humane treatment.

A creatively organized shoe store across from the Matatu station.

The second interaction with an observer had me a bit disheartened.  As I was speaking with Isack, a man pushed through the crowd around us and asked me something with pleading eyes in Swahili that I did not understand. The KADET branch manager who was accompanying me on the visit told me the man asked if I was doing counseling. I obviously said no because I have no experience with counseling or psychology aside from being a little [maybe a lot] crazy myself.

This encounter caused me to pause, maybe because I felt a kindred spirit to him — we all need someone to talk to, or maybe because I was caught off guard by his non-traditional request. It made me think, what kind of experiences had this man had that made him come up to a complete stranger in the middle of the bus station, in front of his friends and colleagues, to ask for counseling. All I can do is wonder because the man didn’t hang around for long after he heard that I was not counseling.

You may be wondering how I could leave out the near-death traveling experiences I harped on in the beginning. Well, the hour long flight from Nairobi to Kisumu was actually the shortest travel experience I had to meet a borrower, even if I include the 30 minute car ride from the airport to the matatu station.

Meeting Isack was great. I learned about his business and I got to hear about how the loan has increased his revenue. But, I learned just as much from the experiences surrounding my meeting with Isack as I did from our actual interview.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of a Funny thing Happened on the Way to a Borrower! Coming soon: an 11 hour harrowing journey on buses, cars, motos, and matatus and meeting a former Kiva borrower along the way.

Fisherman on an early morning Lake Victoria.

Nessa French is a Kiva Fellow working with  Strathmore University and KADET in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Nessa E. French