By Michele Wehle, KF15, Uganda
Two weeks ago I set off bright and early to the bus park in Kampala to catch my six hour bus to Ibanda, Uganda. My objective was to meet five Kiva borrowers around Southern and Western Uganda in order to complete my Borrower Verification. I gave myself five days and several pep talks to complete the journey. Pep talks and prayers were a prerequisite for my adventure as I would be traveling solo to some places that weren’t even on Google Maps (unprecedented). I didn’t know how I would eventually reach some areas and had no idea where I would sleep half the time, but none of this mattered as I only had one goal – meet those borrowers!
The Holy Grail
Every Kiva Fellow is supplied with a list of deliverables during training week in San Francisco, but perhaps the most daunting deliverable of them all, the Borrower Verification or BV, produces the most anxiety and excitement. The BV is one of the most important deliverables a Fellow can complete as its purpose is to verify that borrowers 1. exist and 2. have stories and loan documentation which match with the Kiva website. The BV is one way Kiva ensures that partnerships are functioning well on the ground, and that borrowers understand to the best of their abilities what Kiva is. This last piece can be difficult as most borrowers have never logged online or even heard of the internet, but it’s imperative they know and are comfortable with the fact that their loans can be viewed by anyone. Most Fellows are given a list of 10 borrowers that belong to one of their assigned MFI’s, and have the duration of their fellowships to complete the task, whether it be by plane, bus, foot, train, boat, or goat -the possibilities are endless! One of the main reasons I wanted to be a Fellow was so that I could meet borrowers, but even sitting in San Francisco 3 months ago during the BV presentation, I remember being nervous. Every borrower must be met. But what if the borrower lives on the top of a mountain that is guarded by wild wildebeests? Too bad. The chuckles and concerned glances between my fellow Fellows throughout the presentation showed I wasn’t alone.
My first mistake was showing up at the bus park on time. I was told the bus left at 7am so I decided to be a rebel and show up only 5 minutes before departure. Five hours later, the bus is finally filled, I am sweaty, dehydrated, hopeless and wondering what I got myself into. The bus finally showed the first sign of having a working engine however and my spirits lifted. Fast forward 11 hours, 5 hours of waiting and 6 hours in transit, and I finally made it to Ibanda.
Walking into the Pearl Microfinance branch I was once again reminded how much work goes into being a credit officer. I naively assumed the two borrowers I needed to meet wouldn’t be too far from the office, but as it turned out both were pretty far away, the first of which was more than an hour away by boda. All dirt roads of course.
The scenery was stunning and riding in the warm open air is incredibly energizing at first, but when you can no longer feel your legs and the dirt is caked to your feet and you burn your leg on the engine of the boda, you realize how exhausting the entire process is. And credit officers do this 6 days a week often skipping meals to get to borrowers in time. Luckily, I had the pleasure of meeting both of my Ibanda borrowers, one of which had so many businesses and projects it made my head spin. This gentleman runs a banana plantation, grows sugarcane, sells groundnuts and beans, started a primary school across the street from his home and teaches in another town two hours away for half the week. Pretty inspiring to say the least. I made a mental note that I should probably do more with my spare time and continued on to my next destination.
Kihihi or Bust
My most obscure travel location was a village called Kihihi about 12 hours from Kampala near the DRC border. The pickup driver told me the roads would be very bad, and he wasn’t lying. Atrocious, or perhaps, you should probably consider writing your last will and testament would have been more appropriate warnings. Only accessible by narrow dirt roads which wind a little too close to the edge of steep cliffs, the 30 kilometer drive took about 3 hours to complete. That next morning I took another long boda ride from town and embarked on a short “climb” to find a borrower. Being told he was at a market near town, the credit officer, myself, and another borrower from his group, a woman around 40 or 50 years of age, set off. “I can do this” I told myself but suddenly realized how hot it was and how loud my stomach was rumbling. My overactive imagination started churning and I foresaw myself being carried back down the path by my older and stronger female counterpart. Pushing all illogical, well perhaps only slightly illogical thoughts aside, the walking commenced, the land relatively flat at first until we reached a fork in the path. Naturally I continued down the friendly downward sloping section because where else would one honestly venture to, but my CO called me back. “It’s up this way” I hear. My heart stops. “This way” was a cliff.
Reminding myself that fainting wasn’t an option, I tried to respond to questions being asked by my two guides but am still puzzled how they hiked and talked simultaneously. Finally we reached a house and it was decided I was probably too tired to continue walking even though I lied saying otherwise. A young girl was sent off to find the borrower and disappeared for at least 30 minutes. Realizing the irony of what a “near walk” in Africa entails, I saw a man approach with several goats and a sharpened weapon of some sort. It was the borrower, and he looked friendly! (Weapon aside). Reactions from borrowers at my presence have typically been positive or slightly skeptical, one borrower from a different location told me he couldn’t believe a “whole mzungu” had come to his village. This borrower in particular seemed entertained by my appearance and we soon got to chatting about his business. The borrower, a man named Levi, owned a retail shop in town and we continued back down the path to get a look.
Levi’s shop was fully stocked with sandals, water, biscuits and other essentials, and it seemed business was going well. After conversing with him to ensure that the facts from his Kiva profile matched with real life, I had to bring up the always confusing question for borrowers – asking to see their ID. ID needs to be checked for every borrower to ensure they are who they say they are, but explaining this as simply and sensitively to borrowers is key as I don’t want them to think I don’t trust their word. Normally no questions are asked and on occasion no ID is found. Explaining to borrowers why you need two of their friends to verify their identity in these cases can be entertaining. Regardless, the process is essential to ensuring that Kiva lenders are protected from fraud and that the lending process is as transparent as possible.
Looking back on my week in the field, I am humbled by how hard our borrowers work to improve their lives and how committed credit officers are to improving the lives of their borrowers. Microloans can’t solve all ills but I can attest that they can enable many men and women to start and expand their businesses, build new homes, and put their children through school. While at times exhausting, my BV brought my fellowship full circle and introduced me to people I will be sure to never forget.
Michele Wehle is a Kiva Fellow working in Kampala, Uganda with Pearl Microfinance Limited and BRAC Uganda. Want to help Pearl Microfinance and BRAC Uganda reach more borrowers? Become a member of their lending teams here: Friends of Pearl Microfinance Limited and Friends of BRAC Uganda.