by Joel Carlman, KF8
As I enter the final week of my Kiva Fellowship here in Kisumu, Kenya, I find myself thinking about what my time here has taught me. Kenya is so different from any place that I’ve ever been. The smiles are brighter, the hand-shakes longer, and the hospitality warmer than just about anywhere.
I know that I’m doing microfinance, and that Kiva is about borrowing and lending. The terms, the accounts, the figures, and financials are so interesting to me, and that can sometimes seem like what it is all about. During my fellowship, I dove deep into microfinance, and it’s tempting to look at everything through an analytical lens. Even as a student of development, I always want to find the golden thread that leads you from problem to solution through the complicated fabric of global and local issues.
But, even more than borrowing and lending, Kiva is about connecting. It’s hard enough to connect to people of your own background, from your own hometown, and of your own color, tribe, or social status. How can we possibly connect to people so different from us? I don’t know if I can really answer that question, but I am inspired to tell of the ways in which I have connected to this place during my fellowship.
I haven’t even left yet, and I already miss the days I spend here walking through the poor neighborhoods of Kisumu visiting urban businesses close to main arterial roads and rural farms closer to where the river meets the endless lake. It’s tempting to analyze the poverty–say how horrible the sanitation is, to comment on debilitating disease, or tell stories of loss and tragedy. Those things need to be said, but for me to now harp on the sad lot of the people who are trying to make their way through life here would be to undermine the beauty of that very life. This is humanity, and in the middle of these times, which are about as tough as they come, there is beauty in the Kenyans I meet. I have learned from that beauty, envied it, and marveled over it.
A typical borrower for K-MET runs a simple business selling something: fish, vegetables, chips, beauty supplies. Chances are, their neighbor is doing the same thing or something similar. The profit margins are shrinking as food prices sky-rocket and the Kenyan economy lags. The home is full of children–the borrower’s own and those orphans who have been left behind by relatives or friends that have passed away. As I type these words, they seems so gray. And yet, the truth is that there are no human beings more colorful than these–they that work their hands ragged from dawn until well past dusk to see their children go to school, to support distant relatives, and to see their community through its struggles and growing pains. There are bright colors in their eyes, in their lives, and in the work of their hands. There is immense strength in their stature, and resilience in their optimism.
Barely a year and a half after the post-election violence that left hardly a businesses in tact, they look at me with tears in their eyes which seem to say, “Yes, at times we have nothing. Many times there is nothing for us; and yet we will continue to fight our way back to life. We will be the lasting testimony to decency, hard work, and humility that makes our nation great–and any nation with people as proud.”
Their lives have been built one step from the ledge of despair and crippling poverty, and forces beyond their control threaten always to push them over. And yet, they sing and dance and are thankful. The difficulties of life are found only in their eyes, never on their lips. Unsolicited shouts of “I am fine!” from across the street are so common! And the question follows: “How are you?”
I am thankful for the time I get to spend here. I am thankful that these hard-working, sincere, and humble individuals–these redoubtably bouyant people–are here to teach me (and us?) what it means to earn a living. I have been given so much. How can I take what I have and earn some type of sincere living of my own–not in a financial sense, but in a substantial sense? It’s a complicated question, and probably more than what we want to think about every day, but ask me again: “How are you?” After this experience? In light of what Kenya is? In light of that extraordinary grace only found in the ordinary?
I’m fine. How are you?