“Habari. Nina itwa Maia,” I practice saying as I walk into my first group meeting of the day. Today, Gachii and I are visiting Kiva borrowers living in Kamae, a slum-like area filled with tin huts and roads littered with garbage and roaming animals. Almost all Kiva borrowers here lack formal education and exposure to English, and I wanted to make sure that I could at least introduce myself in their language. I take my seat on a long sturdy bench and face a group of 12 borrowers sitting in four straight rows before me. With perfect posture, the borrowers stare earnestly at Gachii, waiting for an explanation as to why a mzungu (white person) is joining their meeting. A round of introductions begins, translated by Gachii, and I learn that the group’s name is Kihatu, meaning broom. When they hear their group name announced to me, every single borrower’s face breaks into a proud grin. Until now, the groups I have met have names that translate to English words like lion, opportunity, and faith. Puzzled by this self-designated title, I ask for insight into this choice. A willowy woman with a strong, clear voice responds and Gachii translates, “This is the first loan cycle for all of us in this group,” she says, “and each of us is looking to sweep away the problems of our past and the problems of luck. We are no longer going to depend on luck, but on ourselves.”
The symbolism behind this word selection moves me, and I’m eager to learn more about this community. However, my excitement to engage with these individuals is met with wariness and even hostility as Gachii describes what Kiva is and why I’m here. Voices rise as rapid Swahili dialogue fires between group members and Gachii. I try to wait patiently for a pause in the conversation to ask Gachii to explain what is going on. Although I do not know most of the cultural norms here, I have learned that heated discussion is rare among Kenyans, and that this is an unusual scene playing out before me. Thinking that perhaps I can help Gachii explain Kiva’s role in a constructive way and emphasize that becoming a Kiva borrower is completely optional (while still being able to remain a KADET borrower), I finally interrupt.
I’m told that the group, led by a particular woman seated in the third row, objects to the idea of having their photos taken for Kiva borrower profiles. Historically, this community has been a target area for aid workers and NGOs. Unfortunately, despite posing for pictures in front of their homes and allowing their children to be photographed in their streets, the Kihatu group has not reaped any of the benefits promised by camera-toting journalists and aid workers. Instead, what money has trickled in has gone to squatters, those individuals who roam the streets and sleep on piles of dirt. The Kihatu borrowers have been considered above the need for these donations, even though they lack appropriate nutrition and their homes are unsound, one-room tin structures. There is a consensus in the group that somewhere, someone (even a reporter or newspaper) has profited from the photos of their families, and they are angry at what they see as a violation of their rights.
The woman in the third row, Lucy, also questions why Kiva works through KADET instead of just giving (not loaning) money directly to her.
Through Gachii, I join the conversation and tell them that Kiva lenders do not view them as vulnerable victims in need of hand outs. “Instead,” I say turning to Lucy, “lenders view you as a business partner, capable of engaging in a financial relationship based on respect and for the purpose of providing you with opportunity.”
I explain how Kiva works, but Lucy is so used to western aid workers parachuting in to “save” people in Kenya, that it is hard for her to grasp the concept of accepting a loan from people in the United States (or other western countries) that she must repay. She views all mzungus as rich, and therefore is angry that we would ask someone who is much poorer, like her, to pay it back. In Lucy’s experience, this is simply not the ruling precedent for how a relationship with the west functions.
My next approach is to explain to the group who are Kiva lenders. I’m grateful that I remembered to print out a few lender profiles from Kiva’s website. I hold them up, giving them three different faces to attach to the concept of lenders. “Lenders and borrowers are equal partners; this is not a benefactor relationship. These individuals that you see here are some of Kiva’s lenders. Your loans are not funded by just one of these individuals, but by a group of people that have banded together to invest in you. Contrary to your belief, they may not have much money to spare, but by grouping together they are able to support your business and empower you to improve your life.”
I wait while Gachi translates in his soft, calm voice. When he finishes, I add, “The purpose of taking your photograph and interviewing you for a borrower profile is to facilitate this connection and to create understanding. By providing a view into your life and work, lenders are likely to choose to invest in your business.”
I reach into my bag and extract a thin photo album covered in a plastic coating that depicts a map of the world. Passing it to Lucy, I say, “This shouldn’t be a one-sided mirror into your lives. In here you will find pictures of my family, friends, boyfriend and favorite places in my home town. This is what my life is like in the United States. And this is my job, working with KADET to create greater access to funding for micro-entrepreneurs.
Finally, I want to re-emphasize that being on Kiva’s website is your choice. If you do not feel comfortable signing the waiver, then please do not.”
When Gachii has completed the translation of my words, two women actually stand, walk to the front of the room and wrap their thin arms around me in a strong embrace. For Kenyans, a people to whom formality and courtesy are extremely important, this is a big gesture. “Asanti sana kwa kazi njema,” they say. Thank you for your good work.
I’m proud that I was able to reach through to them, and extremely touched at the appreciation they’ve shown for a conversation that took less than 30 minutes. Insecurity can stem from ignorance, and these people have not had the education that would equip them with the ability to fully understand how their loans work. They are used to being taken advantage of, and I am so happy to have the chance to dispel their doubts by providing information. The power of transparency cannot be underestimated.
The murmurs settle and Gachii goes around the room, asking every individual how they feel, if there are any lingering questions, and if they are willing to become a Kiva borrower. Susan needs time to think about it. John says that my presence has given Kiva validity in his mind and is appreciative that Kiva will help him receive a loan; he agrees to be photographed and interviewed for Kiva’s website that afternoon. Turning to Susan and those that have not yet responded, John uses big hand gestures as he speaks, trying to convince them to become Kiva borrowers. “We are lucky to have the opportunity to receive a loan from KADET,” he says, “by becoming Kiva borrowers, we bring the possibility of loans to more people. The money KADET may have allocated to us can now be given to someone else. We help our neighbors by being on Kiva.”
This is a message they all seem to hear. Mary, Matthew, Naomi, Paul and five others, even Lucy, their fearless leader, agree to become Kiva borrowers. Susan changes her mind and asks if she can be photographed first.
I’m touched by John’s message of community and his desire to provide opportunity for others. This is the spirit of Kiva and why I am here working as a volunteer. To see this sentiment echoed in a place where access to electricity, running water and sanitation is minimal is extremely moving.
After we’ve visited our day’s worth of borrowers, Gachi and I catch three different matatus before arriving back at the KADET branch office. During our trip back, I’m able to reflect on the day and am thankful that our morning group challenged Kiva’s role in their lives, and with it, my assumptions. I naively expected all borrowers to be grateful to Kiva for providing access to capital. I didn’t take into account skepticism towards the west that has brewed from past experiences or the expectation of donations and an inability to immediately grasp the concept of a business partnership. It’s also given me a lot to think about on another level, in terms of what the mechanism should be for assisting less fortunate communities. In a country that lacks the infrastructure, or in which corrupt systems exist, how do we reach those like the Kihatu group in a constructive way?
Finally, the morning’s discussion reinforced the responsibility I have as a Kiva fellow to portray these individuals with the dignity and respect they deserve. Photos that circulate of emaciated African children and downtrodden workers, what some at Kiva call “poverty pornography,” fuel the image of Africans as helpless, dependent victims rather than as diverse, capable people with unlimited potential. No one hears this message more than Africans themselves. I am working hard to combat established expectations of relationships with the West. I believe Kiva loans and partnerships are a big step in the right direction.
Some of the Kihatu group borrowers with their businesses:
Though Naomi is unsure of how to sign her name, opting for three small dots on the paper, she is excited to be a Kiva borrower. Her loan is for 10,000 KSh (~$130) with which she will diversify her income by opening a fruit stand. Naomi used to borrow with another MFI, but switched to KADET after a loan officer disappeared with the group’s money, including their savings. Encouraged by others in the Kihatu group, Naomi decided to give micro-credit another try. She doesn’t know her age and can’t remember the name of where she comes from, but she does know how to keep a passbook and make her repayments. Naomi says she is proud to provide food for her children.
We find Lucy standing in front of her used clothing business, 12 or 13 blouses carefully laid out on a piece of worn, woven straw. As Gachii interviews her in Swahili, Lucy takes hold of my hand and squeezes several times.
Lucy announces to Gachii that I am hard working, just like her daughter, and therefore she wants to hug me. She insists on taking eight different photos together, and giggles when she sees herself in playback mode on my
digital camera. Lucy’s loan is for KSh15,000 (~$200) and with it she will purchase more stock to sell. Although this is Lucy’s first loan with KADET, we learn that she had previously borrowed from another MFI but that her group was crippled by the hospital bills of two members and their inability to repay. (One member lost his arm in a motorbike accident and the other had throat surgery for a tumor.)
Julius’ taxi is a red motorbike with peeling paint and cracked seats. Julius has a big grin on his face during the entire Kiva interview. His loan is for KSh20,000 (~$265), which he will use to purchase merchandise for a secondary business and pay for limited insurance. With his profits, Julius says he will purchase comprehensive insurance, which will cover his vehicle and all parties in the incident of a crash.
Mary mostly sells charcoal, and once in a while vegetables if she can afford to stock them. Mary’s kiosk is made from wood and tin, with burlap walls. A large jug labeled “sulfuric
acid” sits next to the charcoal. When I ask why she has sulfuric acid, Gachii laughs and tells me it’s a container for water. It has never been cleaned. Mary’s loan is for KSh10,000 (~$130), which she will use to purchase potatoes and additional charcoal to meet customer demand.
Across town, we find Peter’s butchery. The thick, pungent smell of blood and fresh meat hit my nostrils the moment we walk through the narrow door. A partial carcass hangs from a hook in the window. On the counter sits a scale and a glass aquarium, which holds three small pieces of raw meat. The instant we step inside, it starts pouring rain outside. The noise is amplified by the tin roof over our heads, making it difficult to hear what Peter is saying (not that I understand anyway). Peter’s loan is for KSh15,000 (~$200), which he will use to renovate the butchery. His top priorities are improving the broken tiled floor and installing an appropriate enclosure for where the meat hangs. One day, Peter says, he hopes to buy live animals to slaughter and sell to retailers. By the time we leave Peter’s shop, the rain has completely stopped falling.
A five minute walk down the main dirt road and we come to John’s butchery. A slightly muted version of the thick odor present in Peter’s shop lingers. Flies swarm, landing on my head, notebook, jacket and hands. This space is larger than I expected, and three men sit inside chatting. John wears an orange and white mesh jersey and sucks on a toothpick during the interview. With warm eyes and a bright smile,
John is charming–even in a language I don’t understand. This is John’s 11th year in business; he buys cattle and sells the individual pieces to retail butcheries (like Peter’s). John takes the parts of the cow that he is unable to sell (intestines, heart, lungs, feet, etc) and creates a stew and sausages, selling lunch and dinner on the street. The loan he seeks is for KSh40,000 (~$535), with which he will expand his meat supply coverage. When it is time to photograph John in front of his business, he is giddy. He runs across the street to find a butcher’s coat, slicks his hair back and poses.