I Am Happiest When…

Amelegan Amegningnon; a smiling WAGES entrepreneur

By Taylor Akin, KF9, Togo

I began writing this blog on a scrap piece of paper just north of the Burkinabé/Ghanaian border. I had spent my morning walking across the border carrying a 40-pound pack and subsequently spending far too much money on a taxi into the nearest town. My Kiva Fellowship had ended a week and a half earlier, and I was sitting in a hot, dirty hotel room with a concrete floor, grimy walls, and inconsistent electricity. I was desperate for entertainment. I had finished the only book I brought on this three-week post-fellowship excursion, my computer was lifeless without the electricity to charge the battery, and my broken iPod seemed to be mocking me with its inaccessible entertainment. I was entirely alone. So, I took some time to process the last four and a half months.

Antoinette, a dedicated WAGES loan officer collecting a repayment

As a Kiva Fellow, I learned a lot about microfinance. Microfinance is, at its core, just a bank. Loans are disbursed and repaid, interest is charged, and businesses are fuelled. The MFI clients can hardly be homogenized – some are ambitious and grateful for their loans, and others openly admit to preferring hand-outs over helping hands. The MFI staff are as diverse as the entrepreneurs they serve. While some are entirely dedicated to ensuring that their clients have access to credit, others see their job simply as a task that helps keep bills paid and mouths fed. Although, at a micro level microfinance may not always feel like a social good driven by passion and benevolence, it is nevertheless a means to a necessary end: poverty alleviation and empowerment. This target no doubt makes up for the lack of warm and fuzzy feelings we may have in the process of reaching that goal.

I also learned a lot about myself. I learned that I am capable of completely immersing myself in a new culture. Besides spending some time with Kiva Fellow Nick Malouin, I did not make any expat friends until two and a half months into my fellowship. Until then, I had spent the majority of my time with my colleagues and my Togolese host family. I learned that my identity is fluid. By the end of my fellowship, I had ceased to be Taylor Akin, the biracial girl from Toronto, and had adopted my MFI-awarded identity as Adjovi Kiva, “la blanche Canadienne.” I learned that I suffer from crippling homesickness and am in constant need of at least one comforting reminder of home: be it a pirated French-dubbed season of 24, a familiar song, or an overpriced pizza at the local expat hangout. I learned that I am more than willing to try new foods, yet my inner vegetarian still can’t stand the thought of seeing an animal killed for my own personal consumption. I learned that I am perfectly capable of navigating West Africa on my own, and  I have an excellent knack for finding a happy place when crammed with 12 other people in an 8 person vehicle. I learned that I am not completely fluent in French (despite what my high school diploma might say), but I try my best anyway.  Finally, I learned that I am happiest when I am eating mangoes, playing with monkeys, or can see the stars. All of these self-discoveries are raw, unglamourous, and very very real. No, they can’t be advertised on the “Apply to be a Kiva Fellow” website, but they are personal truths that we all take with us when we return home.

Deep in thought as I upload yet another entrepreneur profile

Finally, I learned a lot about others. In my first blog post, I wrote about prejudice and stereotypes I had experienced in Toronto towards the African continent. I cited Chimamanda Ndichie’s lecture discussing the single story Westerners hold about Africa: one of poverty, suffering, corruption, ethnic genocide, bad governance, child soldiers, barbaric practices, illiteracy, and AIDS. It is this single story that fuels our erroneous beliefs about the African continent. And in between the lines of this story lies the assumption that the Western world is categorically none of these things.

Throughout my time in Togo, and my subsequent travels to Ghana and Burkina Faso, I learned that this same representation has been embodied by many West Africans. I had countless acquaintances begin a conversation with the words, “Life is hard here in Africa” or “Do you see how we suffer, here in Africa?” These discussions inevitably involved a broad categorization of North America and Western Europe as being wonderful places to live where unhappiness is unheard-of. It occurred to me that the people I encountered in West Africa had a similar single story about the developed world. Westerners are assumed to be white, wealthy, privileged, hard-working, happy, and successful. There is no unemployment, homelessness does not exist, and every house comes equipped with a backyard pool.

Monkey attack out in the field!

Prior to writing this blog, I had been reading an article from a book given to me by my mother. Notes from Canada’s Young Activists: A Generation Stands Up for Change is a compilation of articles written by Canadian activists from all walks of life. My mother thought it might be comforting to have some like-minded companionship during my travels. Devi Musina is an inspiring young man discussed in the book who spent the majority of his childhood in Zimbabwe. It was not until he moved to England for a year that he learned the fallacy behind his single story of the West. He realized that, “even in Europe people suffered” and that it “wasn’t a dreamy, perfect place” (177). This discovery contradicted his previous conceptualizations of Western life.

As a Canadian, and as someone who is regarded as white in West Africa, I have experience this theory translated into practice. I had incorrectly assumed that my recent graduation from university, and my subsequent volunteer employment would peg me as educated but broke. On the contrary, my light skin seemed to create a new reality. An acquaintance I met in Ghana seemed surprised that my father hadn’t simply paid for my volunteer experience, that I had, in fact, worked for my money. I remember being horrified when a loan officer referred to Kiva lenders as “whites giving money” to the poor. I did my best to show that not all lenders are white and almost all lenders are willing to lend a small amount for the sake of the greater good despite their personal needs and hardships.  I also know that I am not the only Kiva Fellow who has been charged double the standard amount for a cab, has had money stolen, or has instantly made “friends” on the basis of skin colour and citizenship. This is not to say that I am not privileged, it would be foolish to say that I am not. In fact, we have all had the privilege of being Kiva Fellows. Yet, regardless of the particularities and details of our personal lives, the Western single story dictates that we all have money to burn. So it seems that this single story is double sided.

Needless to say, I have learned more during this fellowship than I had ever imagined. I was blessed by the opportunity to work with Kiva, my fellow fellows, and the WAGES staff (even if it took a summer of serving souvlaki to get there). As a result, I continued my informal education and was able to thoroughly discover aspects of society and myself that I had never previously fathomed. And for that, I am truly grateful.

The sun sets over Togo's capital city

Taylor Akin is now a proud Kiva Fellow alumna. She has been out of the field since May, 2010 and has yet to tire of telling the stories from her Fellowship. She is currently working temporary employment and plans on applying to various Canadian law schools over the next year. She hopes to focus on immigrant and refugee law – a specialization that was, in part, inspired by her encounters in Togo. She is thankful to Kiva, WAGES, her host-family and her friends for making her trip a complete adventure. She is also thankful to you, loyal lenders, for staying up to date on the blog and tirelessly lending to Kiva entrepreneurs all over the world.

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