Oh right! I still haven’t said a word about work!
So, here I am. Working at a microfinance institution (MFI) called IMON International in Khujand, Tajikistan, located in the northern Fergana Valley (also known as “The Flat Part”). IMON is one of Kiva’s Field Partners, the microfinance institutions who actually distribute the loans you see on Kiva.org.
That’s my MFI’s building up above. It is absurdly large. This reflects the fact that my MFI is absurdly large – 468 employees as of last year, and currently in the process of becoming a commercial bank that takes deposits as well as providing loans. A far cry from my previous “romanticized” image of microfinance, with a bunch of credit officers crammed behind a dilapidated storefront in the middle of a developing-world slum. This place is dripping with money, and it makes me almost uncomfortable. After working for a small company for the past two years, it’s odd to find myself in such a bland corporate environment. And in Tajikistan, of all places!
Like all Kiva Fellows, I have hit the ground with a defined workplan in hand. This has been one of my favorite things about the fellowship since even before I applied; so many volunteer programs, notably the Peace Corps, take the strategy of just plopping you down in a village somewhere and letting you figure out what needs to be done. But I have a lot of tasks I’ve been asked to fulfill for Kiva, most of which revolve around collecting information about my MFI’s operations, diagnosing problems, and helping to fix them, all while deepening Kiva’s relationship with IMON.
The main thing I’m doing right now, though – and by far the most exciting – is borrower verification. Basically, how it works is, Kiva gives me a random sample of ten borrowers from throughout my MFI’s Kiva portfolio. I then have to go out into the field and move heaven and earth to visit every single one of these borrowers, no matter how far away they are. (I’m going to have to travel for twelve hours over some of the world’s steepest mountain passes to get to one of my borrowers.) I have to verify with my own eyes that all these entrepreneurs exist, that their loan details were reported accurately, that proper Kiva procedures were followed in disbursing their loans, and, most importantly, that no fraud is taking place anywhere along the way. It’s basically an audit of the MFI’s Kiva processes, albeit one that is really cool for the auditor.
But the best part, the most amazing part of this whole thing, is that I get to meet all ten entrepreneurs in person – farmers, bakers, salesmen, owners of tiny stores – and give them the chance to show me how their Kiva loan has changed their lives. I can’t tell you enough how inspired I am by these people. Some of them run as many as four businesses at once, some undertake three kinds of back-breaking labor each and every day, but all, with a small loan and a ferocious amount of hard work, have found themselves empowered to improve their own lots in life. It gives you hope. It really gives you hope.
So far, my borrower verification has been light compared to those of some other Kiva Fellows. No mind-bendingly complex adventures with African public transportation; no five-hour scrambles up the sides of Central American mountains; no clinging to the back of a motorcycle bouncing down muddy dirt roads in the middle of a Cambodian monsoon. Though the borrowers I’ve visited have lived up rough roads in some really remote places, all of them so far have been less than three hours from the office. Because phones are universal in Tajikistan, something that is far from true elsewhere in the world, we’ve been calling ahead to ensure that everyone is home when we come knocking. Aside from one unfortunate borrower who had been admitted to the hospital just before we came, everyone has been present and ready to help.
Today, though, I reached a juncture in my fellowship. This is it. I’ve done all I can do in that big fancy building up there. I have four more borrowers to visit in central and southern Tajikistan (also known as “Not The Flat Part”), so I’m leaving Khujand and hitting the road on my own.
I’ll be traveling until my plane to Azerbaijan leaves two and a half weeks from now. Clearly it won’t take me two and a half weeks to visit four borrowers, so I’m combining my work with some personal travel. Trekking in the Fan Mountains. Visiting ancient ruins and Persian mosques. Staying in homestays with local families. But most of all, just setting aside some time to sit in the world’s most beautiful places and be. Ever since this June, when I found out I was named a Kiva Fellow, my life has been barreling forward just barely under control. I need some time off to re-teach myself how to look, how to listen, how to ruminate, how to create art from the things I see.
It’s funny. I’ve only been here in Khujand for a month, and I feel like I’m being ripped away way too soon. I haven’t taken nearly enough pictures….