“You come here with your laptop computers, your malaria medicine and your little bottles of hand sanitizer and think you can change the outcome, huh?”
The flickering light from my laptop screen turns the inside of the mosquito net into a tent of shimmering blue silk. I reach out and take a doxycycline tablet from its packaging; the green capsule leaves a chalky smear on my tongue. A swallow of cold mineral water washes away the faintly unpleasant medicinal taste as the electric fan overhead swings past, providing another few precious seconds of relief. What am I doing here?
Danny Archer, Leonardo di Caprio’s character in the film Blood Diamond, is not the first person to directly or indirectly ask me some version of this question. Before leaving the UK to board the plane for Kiva Fellow’s training in San Francisco I had become the master of confidently fending off concerned questions from my friends, family and colleagues concerning my motivations, intentions and sanity.
Back in this previous life, in the icy cold of a London December, I sat writing my motivation statement for Kiva. I wrote that I wanted to participate in some tiny way in the story that is Kiva, to go and hear first-hand some of the stories of success and of failure that Kiva Borrowers are living every day and that Kiva lenders participate in through the magical combination of the internet and of credit.
So three weeks into my Fellowship here in Senegal I thought I might share a few early stories with you of what it actually means to be a Kiva Fellow.
A Story of Chemistry (or: Why I love Microcredit)
There is an expression here in Senegal; “Barca ou Barcakh”, which translates as “Barcelona or death”. Every year thousands of young Senegalese men and women set off on the dangerous journey to Europe. Too many die on the way. The story of COFLEC, the Collectif des Femmes pour la Lutte contre l’Emigration Clandestine (“the womens’ collective for the struggle against illegal emigration”) has been brilliantly told by my Kiva colleague and friend Kathy Guis in her blog post: http://kivanews.blogspot.com/2010/10/making-soap-fighting-illegal.html
The first time I encounter some of these stories first hand is on a delinquent borrower visit, a very quiet affair that takes place in a shaded sitting room in Yoff. It is here that I first meet Sali, COFLEC’s Yoff representative. Later I ask if I can go back and find out more about COFLEC.
“We do it to keep our children here”, Sali tells me when I ask her about the motivation behind COFLEC. It is not only the deaths at sea that trouble the members of COFLEC. They also run programmes to repatriate Senegalese expats and return them to their families. The most important part of these programmes revolves around providing economic opportunities for ambitious young men and women here in Senegal. In the Yoff office there are two main industries that are promoted by COFLEC: fishing and soap manufacturing.
It touches me that the loans for both of these activities have been financed by Kiva Lenders. I am quite certain that these same Lenders would forgive COFLEC both of these loans if asked; but that is not how microfinance works. As Sali shows me around the small soap making facilities on the roof of her house, I am caught off guard by her sudden infectious smile. The loan repayments were late, she tells me, because of problems on the Guinea border. This restricted the supply of palm oil, one of the key ingredients of soap, making it unaffordable.
COFLEC have been experimenting with rachid oil, which is plentiful in Senegal. A mix of 50 / 50 rachid and palm oil does not noticeably impact on the quality of the soap, but makes its manufacture economical again even with the current high price of palm oil. As the latter drops this innovation could also improve the profitability of soap production – an interesting bit of chemistry, catalysed by microfinance that might result in fewer families mourning their young ones.
A Story of Partnership (or: How I Keep Ending up on TV)
The sun was beating down in its usual relentless way as Abdoulaye and I pulled up at the Senghor National Stadium in Dakar to attend UIMCEC’s annual presentation of results. It was early on a Saturday morning and after only three hours sleep I was already tired and uncomfortable in my supposed summer suit. As we entered the stadium and climbed the stairs towards the function suit a tall, well-dressed African came striding towards us. “Monsieur Tim!”, he exclaimed and with a hand on my shoulder guided me away from the inviting breakfast buffet table and down a long dark corridor to a room filled with slightly over-sized sofas.
My host is MBacké Gueye, President of UIMCEC and one of the most charming people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. As I perch on my sofa, smiling and trying to remember how to greet the assembled dignitaries in Wolof, I catch myself wondering about the many facets of Kiva.
The truth, as I am about to find out, is that Kiva is not financially a terribly important part of UIMCEC’s success story (full disclosure here). During 2010 UIMCEC grew its loan portfolio by 30% to $14 million. Over this same period, Kiva Lenders funded $358,400 of UIMCEC loans, accounting for just 2.3% of the total of $15.8 million of loans dispersed by UIMCEC during 2010. And yet here I am talking about football and microcredit with some of West Africa’s most influential social entrepreneurs.
Seated in pride of place at the centre table, just to the left of the Ousman Thiongane, the CEO, I am fortunately not asked to make a speech. This does not stop me receiving a lot of attention from the national TV camera crew, however, who are once again out in force (I think they might be following me). My role here is not entirely passive however. As Ousman reaches a slide on UIMCEC’s partnerships, I am asked to stand and wave to the assembled crowd as Ousman talks about Kiva (in Wolof) to universal applause. Later I am called upon to help give out prizes.
This aspect of Kiva is less tangible than statistics about money raised and loans granted, but no less important. Kiva has the capacity to bridge cultures, religions, linguistic, ethnic and economic divides like no other organisation I have encountered. People are proud to be associated with Kiva and to be part of its unique global network that puts individuals in touch with individuals in the struggle to end world poverty.
Mr. Di Caprio might have the good looks, the glib lines and a passable Southern African accent, but I don’t think Danny Archer would have made a good Kiva Fellow. And there are two further points I would like to make to him in response:
1) I didn’t bring any hand sanitizer. Soap is fine for me.
2) I don’t expect to change the outcome. I just want to meet some of the people who are already doing just that.
Tim Young is a Kiva Fellow with UIMCEC in Senegal. Since arriving here he has seen and heard more stories than he could possibly ever tell and has been touched by the hard-working, good-natured, innovative approach of UIMCEC’s borrowers. Want to hear stories first hand? Why not apply to be a Kiva Fellow yourself and find out how microfinance really changes lives. Find out how here: http://www.kiva.org/fellows. In the meantime Tim would like to dedicate this post to his sister Charlotte, who shares his love of Africa and Blood Diamond!