Hiking in the chilly mountain atmosphere fills me with nostalgia for the sounds and smells of home – wood-burning fires, soft rain, gentle streams, and incredibly lush vegetation. My co-worker and new friend Princewill has even heard of Dolly Parton, which inspired the blog title because Miranda, another co-worker and budding friendship, was joking about hosting us in her country mountain home. And yet, here I am in a new place on “the other side of the world.”
After three full days of travel to arrive at my Kiva Fellowship placement with GHAPE (Grounded and Holistic Approach to People’s Empowerment) – from Sacramento, California, USA to San Francisco, California, USA to Newark to Zurich to Douala to Bamenda and finally to Belo, Northwest Region, Cameroon – via all modes of transport except bicycle (train, plane, bus, taxi, motorcycle, and on foot), I spent a very relaxing evening not too different than a night at home. Yes, in some ways worlds apart. Yet, the GHAPE office where I am staying in Belo has an open-air porch with a beautiful mountain view, just like my childhood home in the Smoky Mountains of Knoxville, Tennessee. Then my GHAPE co-worker Princewill and I walked to another GHAPE co-worker Miranda’s house for dinner.
The differences are many. Paved roads, running water, and electricity are much more scarce than at home. Officially, the language of the region is English, but in reality most people speak a mix of Kom, a local dialect, and Pidgin English, a local broken form of English. I have promised to learn Pidgin, and when I hear it spoken slowly, I can interpret the meaning. Unfortunately, listening to conversations, with the accent and speed, I can hardly decipher between Pidgin and Kom. Yesterday in Bamenda, at the three-quarters mark in my travel, I was so tired that my host had to say “hello” five times before I registered that she was talking to me.
Princewill studied Banking and Finance in Douala and started working for GHAPE just one week ago. He has been very helpful in explaining how GHAPE differs from the local microfinance credit unions. I saw many local microfinance institutions along the way in Bamenda and from Bamenda to Belo. I am guessing there are also several between Douala and Bamenda, but that journey was at night, so I didn’t see. The key difference according to Princewill is that GHAPE is a Program Organization, not a Banking Institution. Specifically, credit unions must be affiliated with a larger bank while GHAPE has more flexibility and also, the loan products and collection methods differ. Whereas GHAPE has a cap on the loan size available to clients and utilizes group loans to replace traditional collateral, microfinance from local credit unions follows the traditional banking model, just with smaller loans available and a collector who goes around to local businesses in the market. As Princewill summarized, GHAPE’s approach allows it to loan to the poorest of the poor through credit managers going into the small villages of the region to disburse and collect loans.