They seem to always be where you are, which is to say everywhere, as repellant and inescapable as a maelstrom of gnats. Step around one and you bump into another. You politely wave them off and mumble “no, thanks” with a disingenuous smile. Making eye contact might suggest interest or intent; or worse, invite confrontation. So you learn to ignore them. Faceless, nameless, spiritless ghosts you look right through and beyond. They don’t appear in travel magazine teaser shots or in the imaginations those publications sell. Their sole purpose, it seems clear, is to detract and annoy and chip away at an otherwise fine day. You wish they would just go away and leave you alone.
In actuality, their purpose is survival and the well being of their children. I don’t imagine anyone aspires to be a street vendor, or enjoys the profession once it becomes them. Hawking is the exclusive domain of peasants. It is not a particularly dignified or satisfying means to an end, but one mandated by necessity. Hawking requires no training and little skill, except perhaps pushy persistence and physical endurance – this is a 14- hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week job. Hawkers own nary a thing of value – no shop, no land – just the bag of goods on their back which, in itself, is practically worthless. I can imagine few jobs more miserable.
In fairness, Uganda’s street vendors are not a nuisance; to the contrary, they are the most passive and unobtrusive hawkers I’ve experienced anywhere. They truly are ghosts – they are present and ubiquitous, but one hardly notices them, except for the sidewalk congestion they create. They are certainly not assaulting. Like all Ugandans, Kampala’s hawkers are respectful and courteous. Their presence adds color and energy to the city.
Kiva Fellows witness difficult things every day and we could easily fall prey to indifference. My job would indeed be easier if I could be purely analytical. But I can’t be. Instead, I’ve developed some tools for coping. One is bedside manner, which enables me to connect more personally and deeply with clients as they walk me through circumstances which are inevitably more wrenching than mine. Another is shifting my notion of ordinary, which of course is a relative state of being. What is ordinary half-way through my Fellowship would have seemed sensational six weeks ago. It’s easier to deal in ordinary. And finally, balance. Empathy is fundamental, but emoting pity is condescending and counterproductive. It’s almost always a delicate trade-off.
Still, interacting with borrowers in a dignified manner without falling apart is sometimes challenging and often depleting. Take Florence, a Pearl Microfinance borrower I interviewed last week. Florence is a 45 year old widowed mother of seven children who recently lost her small grocery shop, her only asset and sole source of income, to a senseless and random act of arson. As I prompted her to describe how she’s depending on Pearl to re-build her life, tears streamed down her cheeks and at times she was too choked up to speak. I found it difficult to push through the interview, but my task had a noble purpose and I came with my toolbox.
Some stories are even more difficult.
Specioza is an attractive and demure woman, not five feet tall. Her face is gentle and soft, almost youthful, and it does not reveal decades of hardship. She is soft-spoken and shy; yet she’s inexplicably inviting. She is pleasant and polite and gracious. The members of her BRAC borrowing group admire her – Specioza is one of its elected officers. She is dignified and commands an understated respect, not through her words but how she carries herself. Her strength, I sense, emanates from a lifetime riddled with loss. There’s a depth in her eyes not found in innocence and her smile signals anguish more than peace. Specioza is the kind of person you would want as your friend. I wanted to know more about her and felt cheated that time would not allow for such pleasantries.
Specioza is also a ghost.
Like most women in Uganda, she married young and began having children immediately. At the time, she and her husband were farmers in Mbarara, a town in rural southwestern Uganda, not far from the Rwanda border. There must be something fertile in the water in those parts – Specioza delivered an astonishing four sets of twins! One boy and one girl in each set, none of them identical. That same fertile water, however, must also be toxic – she lost half of her twins at birth and nearly perished herself during one particularly difficult delivery.
Uganda’s civil war was in its fragmented twilight shortly before Specioza’s youngest surviving twin was born. The family farm was doing well and Specioza and her husband wanted a way to help refugees in their country’s war-ravaged northern regions. They joined a program administered by the UN where they sold crops to the World Food Program for distribution to IDP camps in Gulu and surrounding districts. Occasionally, her husband would accompany the WFP on the 9-hour drive to Gulu and help distribute the supplies. On one such trip, he never returned.
When his convoy of WFP trucks arrived at Gulu, it was ambushed by LRA rebels in a well-orchestrated and bloody attack. The LRA was intent on preventing aid from reaching the people it was determined to eradicate, and it wanted the provisions to fortify its own forces. Like the parents of the orphans he was trying to keep alive, Specioza’s husband died a brutal and unceremonious death on the side of a road in an act of unthinkable savagery (the LRA’s use of inhumane and gratuitous torture is legendary).
When a wife loses her husband in Uganda’s rural villages, the late husband’s family – by a mystifying and disturbing tradition – excommunicates the widow from the family (and often community) and seizes the family assets. Women have no value unless attached to a man. So that she wouldn’t also lose her children to this twisted fate, Specioza fled Mbarara and left behind the only life she had ever known. She migrated to Kampala where the best prospects for work and her children’s education existed. She arrived with just the clothes on her back and her 4 children – scared, broken hearted and broke. She had never been to the city before. She was disoriented and terrified.
Specioza’s farming skills were useless to her in the city. In desperation, she took up hawking as her only viable and immediate source of income. The entry barriers are nil, requiring no land, machinery or skill and very little capital. She bought her first bail of used clothing at the Owino market near the public bus station the day she arrived, using borrowed funds from a money lender. Money lenders are legal loan sharks. They require full repayment within a few days and they charge exorbitant interest rates. Specioza sold that first bail in time to repay the money lender, but had barely enough left to feed her family. She didn’t like hawking, but figured it was only temporary and the most practical means to an end under the circumstances. She had no sales experience. Promoting her wares and competing against armies of peddlers made her uncomfortable.
In time, she learned where to find the most buyers and how to optimize her selection of used clothing items. As her sales climbed, it became easier to repay the money lenders and more was left over for family expenses. Eventually she could afford school fees, although it was always a struggle and frequently caused her to forego eating so that her children could. Not once did she accept charity.
Her first break came sometime later when a BRAC Uganda credit officer came to her village conducting a survey to identify new recipients for its poverty alleviation programs. Specioza fits BRAC’s profile: she is very poor but she’s economically active with a stable track record and she comes recommended from her community borrowing group. The latter is not insignificant. Since each borrower in a group is responsible for the total repayment of the group’s obligations, a recommendation is a vote of confidence by one’s peers and a testimony to their character and abilities. With the help of small loans from BRAC (300,000 Ush or $170), Specioza can now avoid money lenders. This improves her profits, which enables her to keep her children in school without sacrificing meals. It also gives her a buffer for bad sales days. Perhaps most importantly, she has the support of her group and the world’s largest microfinance NGO has her back. For the first time in many hard years, Specioza has hope.
I don’t want Specioza to go away. She is not a parasite. She’s just a very hard-working mother trying to raise her kids and help them thrive under profoundly difficult circumstances. She has a face – a beautiful face, and a name and a soul. She, like all co-called ghosts, is a living, breathing human being who’s doing her level best with the bad cards she’s been dealt. She has purpose, hopes, dreams, thoughts and feelings and a voice, just like you and me. Perhaps she’s selling something I want to buy; if not, she would certainly offer a smile. But if I treated her like a transparency, I would never know and I would forfeit a unique opportunity to connect with a wonderful human being.
Specioza is not trying to annoy anyone; she’s only trying to eat. Ultimately, we’re all selling something, whether trying to convince others of our ideas or get people across the room to notice us. Trade connects people across continents and cultures. Supply would not meet demand efficiently without promotion of goods and services and, thus, markets would not work. It makes no difference to me if sellers are pedigreed “suits” sitting behind desks in San Francisco skyscrapers or uneducated peasants like Specioza trying to survive on the bustling streets of Kampala. Hawking may not be the most dignified profession, but successfully raising a family in the context of Specioza’s life is the most honorable thing I can think of.
I’m thankful to BRAC for recognizing Specioza’s needs and supporting her determination. And giving me the opportunity to meet her./>