This was the reason I became a Kiva Fellow. All of my preparation, training, fundraising, crazed matatu rides, nightly battles with mosquitoes, and long days at KADET headquarters have been for this: impacting borrowers. I was surprised to realize I had butterflies in my stomach, a combination of nerves and excitement, for my first day in the field. Although I was scheduled to leave for the Thika Road branch office at 8:30, it was 10:45 before I actually climb into the KADET van with my driver, Sam. Hey, that’s 8:30 in African time.
As Sam navigated our way through the crowded city streets, I realized this was my first time leaving Nairobi. I’ve found Nairobi to be a compelling place with enormous vitality and character. The controlling ethos is commerce rather than community, and there is never a quiet moment in the free-for-all of commuters, shoppers, merchants, police, and traffic. However, Nairobi’s commercial landscape disappears only a few miles outside of the city. Replacing massive car jams and the sound of honking matatus are dusty roads filled with bleating goats and clucking chickens. In Mwiki, an area where many Kiva borrowers live, the dirt roads are lined with sidewalk vendors and tin storefronts selling everything from second-hand shoes to beauty supplies to charcoal.
I was so engrossed with the scene around me that I didn’t even realize Sam had come to a complete stop and was speaking to someone. He was introduced to me as Erastus, the credit officer with whom I was to spend the next three days. Once Sam had departed and Erastus and I were alone, Erastus confided that he’d rather be called by his African name: Gachi (pronounced Gah-she-ay). [I will have to dedicate an entire post just to the concept of names and name use in Kenya.]
Gachi led me to a kiosk selling soda and cellular air time. He spoke to the owner, retrieved a key, and steered me through the kiosk’s back door and into an incomplete brick structure divided into several open rooms. We walked through a door-less gap and Gachi motioned for me to sit on one of the two thin benches leaning against the rotting brick. I carefully avoided animal feces as I took my seat in the tiny room. A bicycle leaned against the opposite wall; I swatted at the flies buzzing in my face. After a few minutes, my first group of borrowers arrived for their weekly meeting. (Although this was my first encounter with borrowers, Gachi had been in the field since 7am). Every group chooses a name for itself, and this particular group of five is called Simba (lion in Kiswahili). The meeting takes place in Kiswahili, with short moments of English when Gachi translates for me and I ask questions. One member is applying for a new loan. Though it’s his third, Matthew struggles to complete the loan form independently, relying on the other group members and Gachi to help him determine a repayment schedule and other details.
When the meeting adjourns, I shake hands with everyone in the group (a standard greeting and goodbye to any stranger or friend) and follow Gachi out the same way we entered. Gachi informs me that one of the group members, Lydia, has recently applied for a loan and will be put up on Kiva’s website for funding. As we walk to her business, where we will take her photo and gather information for her borrower profile, I ask her questions about her trajectory and how she became a landlord to 35 families.
Lydia is 50, and it wasn’t until 5 years ago that she decided to start a business. Motivated by the desire to send her sons to secondary school—an expensive undertaking—she started out selling kerosene. Eventually Lydia was operating three pumps, but she faced thievery on a weekly basis, so she decided to take her savings and purchase a building in 2004. We maneuver through dusty alleys and makeshift roads, sidestepping dozens of emaciated goats and thirsty chickens, and finally arrive at Lydia’s building. It has 35 rooms; each is no bigger than 8’x6’ and each room houses an entire family. Lydia’s first loan was used to paint the building. Subsequent loans from KADET were used to implement weekly trash collection, install running water and an electricity meter. With these improvements, Lydia has increased the rent she charges from KSh700 (~$9) a month to KSh 1,500 (~$20) a month. The loan Lydia is applying for now will be used to add additional electricity meters, so each pod of families can control their own usage.
“My entire life has changed since I started borrowing money and running my business,” Lydia tells me. Her children are in school, she now owns a vehicle, has moved into a new home and has begun to expand her source(s) of income (she recently purchased two cows for dairy farming). Gachi tells me Lydia is average. At 5’6” wearing a floral top and black trousers she may look average, I tell Gachi, but Lydia is anything but ordinary.