by Rose Larsen | KF20 | Dominican Republic
One of my first tasks upon arriving in the Dominican Republic was to visit 10 borrowers, chosen at random from all of the borrowers with ASPIRE (Kiva’s partner MFI), to verify data and find out how they are doing on their loan. This was an exciting but challenging introduction to daily Dominican life, as I navigated Santo Domingo and the surrounding areas via shared taxis, public buses, motorcycles, the metro and my own feet. I traversed bustling neighborhoods in the center of Santo Domingo, small towns in the mountainous interior of the country and everywhere in between, seeking out 10 lucky individuals to interview for Kiva’s audit of ASPIRE.
As a recent arrival in the country, it was a great experience to learn more about the Dominican Republic and what it’s really like to live here. Though each visit was uniquely interesting in its own right, four experiences stood out as having taught me a lot about what life is like for Kiva borrowers in the DR.
1. Dominicans have a very strong connection to the United States
I have often been surprised by the number of Dominicans who speak to me in near perfect English. Everyone seems to have a cousin or an uncle or a sibling in the States (mostly in New York and New Jersey), and many Dominicans that I’ve met have spent years living in the US as well. According to the census, in 2010 there were 1.5 million people of Dominican origin living in the US.
But what really drove that home to me was when I met my first Kiva borrower, Ramon, the owner of an internet center in the town of La Vega. He heard my accent when I spoke to him over the phone to arrange our meeting, and asked me where I was from. When I said the US, he told me he had lived there, all over – in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland.
As we began our interview in his little computer center, I was surprised to hear him answer my questions in perfect English! After months in Colombia of struggling to understand Kiva borrowers’ difficult Costeño Spanish accents (the ends of all words seem to be cut off), this interview was a breeze!
Like many other Dominicans, Ramón moved to the US in search of a better life, and spent 20 years there. Unfortunately his wife preferred the Dominican Republic and he had to move back. He said that here in the DR, it was much harder to make enough money to live on, because here, inflation is high but wages and income streams remain low.
2. Dominican food is delicious, and Kiva borrowers sure know how to cook
I arrived in Villa Altragracia in the early afternoon, and the branch manager immediately rushed me into the lunch room to eat the Dominican lunch they had ordered for me. It was a plate of rice, soupy beans that are called “habichuelas,” salad, and stewed beef – this is the national dish of the Dominican Republic and is called “La Bandera Dominicana,” or “the Dominican Flag.” The bandera dominicana comes in many variations – sometimes the beans are red and sometimes they are black; the meat can be beef, chicken or pork; and it is often accompanied as well by plantains. The meal I was served in Villa Altragracia was simple but really tasty.
After eating a satisfying lunch I followed a loan officer down the street to a Kiva borrower’s restaurant. It was only after finishing the interview and leaving that I found out that the ASPIRE branch office had ordered my lunch from there! I only wished I could have thanked her for the delicious meal.
3. Riding on the back of a motorcycle on a highway is terrifying, but loan officers do it daily
The second borrower I was scheduled to visit in Villa Altragracia was apparently not walking distance from the branch office. Since Villa Altragracia is a fairly small town, I agreed to get on the back of a loan officer’s motorcycle, so we set out motoring down the main road in search of Nailan.
I was very surprised when, 10 minutes later, I found myself merging onto Autopista Duarte, one of the main cross-country highways in the Dominican Republic. I clutched the waist of the extremely young-looking loan officer sitting in front of me who suddenly held my life in his hands. We stayed mostly on the shoulder, zooming by people selling snacks by the side of the road, and my heart leaped every time an enormous truck went by, going twice as fast as us.
20 minutes later I shakily stepped off of the motorcycle, and Nicolás, the loan officer, seemed surprised by how much the journey had scared me.
“I make this trip every day,” he said. “I used to have a car to do it, but the motorcycle is cheaper.” Gas prices are astronomical in the Dominican Republic – prices are currently at $5.25 per gallon! I had a renewed awe for the hard work that loan officers do to reach borrowers, even ones who are not very conveniently located.
4. Kiva Borrowers Span Many Economic Levels
My visits around the country were a great opportunity to see how normal Dominicans live – I visited their homes and businesses, met their families, and even shared meals with them. I was struck by how different each borrower’s life is – the pair of borrowers that I visited in the Santo Domingo neighborhood of Los Alcarrizos were the perfect example of these contrasts.
One borrower who left an impression on me was Papio. We found him spending the day at his parents’ home, a few kilometers down a dirt road outside of Los Alcarrizos, a working class neighborhood in Santo Domingo. He took out his loans to fund two of his businesses – a car and motorcycle repair shop, and a “colmado,” or corner store. He was spending the day overseeing construction on his parents’ land, where they raise chickens, bees and will soon rent out the new buildings they are currently working on. This was a man with multiple lucrative businesses – though perhaps the home was modest by US standards, he was clearly not struggling and in fact seemed to be flourishing, especially with the help of his Kiva loan! Though these borrowers are not what one normally thinks of when imagining a Kiva borrower, the money they borrow can go very far – Papio has multiple employees at his various businesses, all of whom depend on him doing well.
I spent an hour exploring the extensive acreage owned by Papio’s parents, as he pointed out different types of trees and plants that they grow – besides bees and chickens, they also produced mangos and avocados. I even got to share a meal with them.
Another borrower lived nearby, in the same municipality as Papio. To get to Elisabel, we bumped along down a dirt road filled with potholes, passing rundown shacks that housed whole families. The only day Elisabel was available to meet was Saturday, as she works the rest of the week as a maid in someone’s home – she finished paying off her loan a few months ago and unfortunately is not currently running her own business anymore.
Her home was very basic – a small wooden construction with a tin roof, and a tiny yard out front where a few chickens scratched in the dirt. The difference between Papio’s parents’ acres of land and well-furnished home and Elisabel’s shack where she, her husband and their three children lived was huge – it was hard to believe they lived just a few miles from each other. The difference in the quality of their lives was even more obvious.
Elisabel and Papio, though different, can both be helped by microfinance and the loans that ASPIRE and Kiva provide – though at very different levels. Elisabel’s loan was for $5000 pesos while Papio took out a $40,000 peso loan. The Dominican Republic has a lot of poverty, but as you can imagine, this poverty doesn’t always look the same, and it’s important to remember that Kiva borrowers don’t fit just one profile – they are as diverse in background as Kiva lenders!
Rose Larsen served with the 19th class of Kiva Fellows in Colombia and is now serving her second fellowship with KF20 in the Dominican Republic, with Kiva partner ASPIRE. Lend to one of ASPIRE’s borrowers today, or apply to be a Kiva Fellow!