This week was one of those weeks that I knew would be challenging. I expected I’d come home exhausted, feeling dirty, possibly a bit disheartened, which I did. But thankful and loved as well.
I have been waking up each morning feeling lethargic. A bit unmotivated. A bit annoyed. Frustrated. Overwhelmed. I sometimes think about the other fellows in my class and wonder how they’re doing, what adventures they’re chasing, wondering whether they have down days as well. How happy they are in their placements, with their respective MFIs, if they feel lonely too. I think about my loved ones, what they might be doing at this hour. I think about the other placements I might have had, whether I would be waking up in a different bed in a different country, if it weren’t for a change in circumstances. Really bad thinking. I tense up thinking about the local men I’d have to answer to on the street with the “I’m married, just leave me.” I stress about my workplan, about my responsibilities. Worrying that I won’t make an impact. That no matter what I do, Freetown will stay the same, poverty won’t change, people will still struggle. I let my shoulders droop when I check my email and don’t receive any new mail from my loved ones. I let myself sulk. It’s a really sad routine, I’m fully aware, and don’t take any pride in admitting how lame I let myself get on the down days. Before I moved here, I would have never let myself get this negative on a daily basis. Maybe in special cases (after facing some sort of rejection, going through heartbreak, being sick), but otherwise, my body would reject it.
Not anymore. Lately, there have been more down days than usual. The hub of negative energy makes its daily rounds. I encounter it every day, and sometimes let it persist for a few minutes, sometimes a few hours. Lately, I’ve allowed it to linger for longer than usual. I’m not quite sure why. Maybe it’s the loneliness that makes me feel like sulking or complaining, thinking about the “could haves,” and less of, “wait, isn’t this what you wanted for years and years? Didn’t you light up talking about this opportunity?” I make more excuses, like I have the right to feel crappy because of reasons x, y, and z. I have these internal dialogues between the negative hub and my quiet optimism every day.
My day yesterday started per usual, taking okada and taxi to one of the branch office. On today’s agenda, Mbalu and I were supposed to visit one branch office in Waterloo, which is usually about an 1.5 hour drive by car. Since neither of us owns a car, we rely on public transit. So this is how our day went:
Morning: meet at the area office. Leave at 9:30 by poda-poda to Kissy, the east side of town (more poor, crowded, and full of pickpockets). Arrive there after an hour. We walk down Kissy road to catch another poda-poda to take us to Waterloo, another hour away. Except the routes are all messed up today (the recent downpours ruined one of the roads, making it difficult for poda-podas to navigate), so we spent about 20 minutes asking people where we could grab a ride to Waterloo. After finding the tucked-in alleyway, we saw three vans/poda-poda looking vehicles stopped, bumper to bumper. Apparently a small accident had taken place (no evident damage), and the drivers were off in a verbal fight. Eventually, two of the three vehicles left, and once the third car opened its doors, Mbalu, I, and about 20 other passengers pushed and shoved our way into the vehicle. “WATCH YOUR BAG!” shouted Mbalu from 3 feet in front of me. “SOME PEOPLE WILL JUST STEAL FROM YOU HERE!” I slipped into a space next to the window, holding my bag like it was my infant child, certain I’d damaged one of my “sitting” muscles/bones in the process of jumping onto a metal rail. The hot morning sun was just started to bear upon us, but luckily we jumped into a poda-poda in time to hide from it.
The poda-poda took us directly to Waterloo, where, after 2.5 hours, Mbalu and I met with 2 credit officers. We spent 3 hours going over my workplan, Kiva’s partnership with BRAC, and the pilot to active transition, and I faced the burning, common question from credit officers:
”Why should we (credit officers) help Kiva? There is no extra incentive for us. We do so much work, get paid very little, with no promotions in sight, and no extra compensation. Why can’t you (Kiva) change this? We are struggling. We get no promotions, no upward mobility.”
Honestly, the system right now kind of sucks. No, it really sucks. You would lose sleep thinking about it. From what I’ve read, many officers get paid around $150 a month. Transportation usually costs $1/day, food about $4/day, so if you do the math, it’s virtually impossible to save or make the occasional splurge. Each employee’s experience is different, but what I’ve unanimously heard is that Sierra Leone does not have much opportunity for career prospects, growth or promotion. BRAC operates on a different level which I’m slowly beginning to understand, and from what I’ve heard, moving up, or anywhere, within the organization, is very hard.
Now Kiva funds go only through the MFI to the borrower, and do not support operations. Kinda wish there was a way to bridge this. I really feel for the credit officers and Kiva coordinator. Freetown is a very expensive place to live. High costs of living, high unemployment, and low per capita income make for a difficult financial balance, and a hard hustle.
Afternoon: We had achecke (local food that consists of: couscous or rice, noodles, mayo, sometimes stew, and some sort of fish or meat) – Mbalu, the 2 credit officers, and I, and talked about life in Freetown, marriage, and religion (most frequent questions I’ve been asked so far: why aren’t I married/planning to get married soon, and what are my religious beliefs). After a nice lunch, Mbalu and I make our way back to Freetown, but hit a few hiccups on our way back. Apparently, due to the fluctuations in gas prices, taxis are on strike, thus less available. Poda-podas then become in higher demand and fill very quickly, especially over long distances. So Mbalu and I wait about 15 minutes for one to come by (thank goodness) and it takes us back to the east side of town, where the sun is ridiculously scorching. No taxis to be found for 10, 20 minutes. Water supply running low. Head throbbing. Feet failing. Then finally, Mbalu asks a young stranger in a blue Nissan if he could drop us closer to the center of town. He agrees, turns up his Bob Marley CD, and off we go.
The bumper-to-bumper traffic has us sauna-ing in the car for a good hour or so. I lay my head on the seat headrest, watch the pedestrians and salespeople walk by, with the Marley song “Be Loved” drowning out my thoughts like a nice pour of Jameson.
After reaching town, the driver, Michael, drops Mbalu at her evening class, and takes me to my junction further into the city. He pulls over and says, “Make sure you find a good okada here.” “Ah yes,” I respond, “I usually call my friend to take me home.” I pull out a little cash and gesture towards him to please accept. “No no,” he nods, “No.” I shake my head back, “Please, Michael, you’ve helped us so much, take this please.” He still doesn’t accept, and I slowly exit the car, speechless and touched by kindness. I don’t know where Michael was supposed to go that day, what was on his agenda, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to detour through the east end of town, sit in traffic, bake in the sun, and take two people into town during rush hour.
I arrive home, and as expected, feel tired, dirty, and overwhelmed. I push the negative hub out of my system for the evening, a think of the kindness so many people like Michael have shown me. And I feel thankful and blessed. Whether it’s Mbalu yelling at a taxi driver for trying to rip me off, or taking me around to find a cell phone and cursing the young boy who tried to pick pocket me.. or the Indian couple who approached me in a grocery store, immediately invited me over for dinner, and treated me like their own daughter.. or new friends who goes out of their way to give me rides to social functions in Freetown and back home… I’ve been touched by the selflessness people have practiced here. It’s on an entirely different level than what I’ve experienced before, so still takes time to digest and fully understand, but hopefully I can remind myself of the kindness that people possess when I feel an ounce of negativity, and use it to replace the hub in my daily routine.