Category Archives: Kiva Fellows

Missing Salone + What’s Next?

Merry Christmas everyone!

I arrived home 2.5 weeks ago, welcomed at the airport by my cheerful dad on a cool December afternoon. As we headed home (with the heater on full blast, of course), I looked at the hazy sky and San Francisco skyline, thinking, “Wow, nothing has changed. I feel like I left yesterday.” That sentiment has more or less stuck during these last few weeks at home, as I’ve attempted to settle back in and get back to a familiar routine. In the process, however, I’ve hit a few unexpected bumps and realizations (surprise, surprise 😉 ) that I’d like to share..

1)  Isolation by familiarity
Those of you who have spent a decent amount of time in a country with a distinctive collective culture might have encountered this upon your return home (especially if home for you is the suburbs). Going directly from a very social, energetic/chaotic  and people-oriented culture (where you form friendships on your way to work, at the store, or see a handful of friends every day) to a more isolated, individualistic environment where people keep to themselves and resort to the comforts of their homes, favorite coffee shops, or cars (hello, suburbs of CA),  causes a dramatic isolation “culture” shock. I felt extreme loneliness, lethargy, and overall blueness my first week/week and a half. Although I was super excited to have visiting family over (cousins and their kids, who hit 10 on the cuteness Richter scale), there was something about being in one place constantly, almost having too much familiarity, that made me feel super anxious and down. It was weird. Anyway, the sentiment has not totally faded, and probably won’t for a while, but it was surely a strange surprise.

2) Blessing realization: We can make choices!
Something that occurred to me while in Sierra Leone was that we (generally speaking of course, like those of us who have the luxury of reading this from home/the office/a cafe) are incredibly privileged for not only the circumstances we’re born into or the opportunities made available to us, but also the action to make choices. We can choose where we want to drive, work, go to college, have for dinner, the right doctor to treat the right symptoms, movies we want to watch on Netflix instant stream, who we want to marry, etc.. We are given a ridiculous amount of choices, that, in retrospect and in comparison, is almost sickening. Now, not to generalize for all of Sierra Leone, but there are very limited choices due to the way of living, per capita GDP, societal roles, traditions, employment opportunities (or lack thereof), and so on and so forth. We can make choices because we have a vast selection to choose from! It’s crazy, amazing, and excessive, but we can *choose* what we want to do with ourselves, with our lives. For Pete’s sake, we even have a “Self-help” section in book stores we can visit if we ever choose we want to learn how to improve our lives and enrich our spirits. It’s a beautiful thing that I really hope I don’t take for granted again. Never forget you have more control than you think over the choices you make and the life you lead..

3) Love affair with SL
Among the chaos, confusion, difficulty with the fellowship, I came to love the life in SL. Maybe it was the novelty of everything, and learning something new every day (wow, so I only jump onto okadas with CM on the license plate? Good to know! There has been a new case of robberies reported in the neighborhood and this is what/who I need to look out for? Yeaaah, good to know!), but every day felt like a new day. There was a basic routine of getting up, getting dressed, heading to the office, coming home, and making evening plans, but each day felt like a new day, a new adventure. I attribute a lot of that to of course the environment, but also part of it to the mentality of being new to a place, seeing something with fresh eyes. I haven’t tried to adopt that mentality at home.. maybe it will force me to become fascinated with things that I tend to take for granted, but  it’s definitely easier and more mind-blowing when you’re actually new to a place. 😉 Anyway, I really fell in love with the way of life, regardless of the challenges, and hope I take up the opportunity to spend an extended amount of time in a new place again.

4) There is no money tree
Dammit! Wait, so money doesn’t grow on trees? It doesn’t grow out of the leather in my wallet or the plastic in my credit card? Wamp wamp. This was more of a personal revelation, since I’m not the most conservative spender. Although I’ve always saved with each paycheck, I would never take a second glance at the cash register bill or small print. Something about living in an expensive city like Freetown, however (yes, it is SUPER expensive, even compared to SF) reminded me how to tighten the wallet a bit and look out for spending. There is a way to strike a balance between spending in a smart way and having fun, and thankfully, my experience in Freetown trained me how to be a smarter spender and watch my finances.

A few people have asked how much the fellowship in total cost. Here’s a loose breakdown:

Flight: $2200
2 nights hotel stay: $220 (no kidding)
First month’s rent: $300
First month’s cleaning/laundry: $35
Monthly rent thereafter (at the new apartment): $500/mo.
Cleaning: $30 for the last 3 weeks
A sushi dinner at Mamba point (expensive treat): $25-$30
Lunch at the office: $1/day
Taxi ride to the beach (1 hour away): $25 (usually split 3-4 ways)
A beer (usually Heineken, Carlsberg, or Star beer, the local draft): $1.50-$2.50
Dinner at a restaurant (there’s either eating local off a cart or at restaurants): $15
One-way taxi ride: $0.25
Bottle of 1.5L of water: $3.50

In total, I spent about $1000/month, which, including flight, amounts to about $5,800. Although it required a little dip into the savings pool, every penny (and leone) was worth it.

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What’s next? I really have no idea, to be honest. As much as I loved being out in the field, working alongside BRAC, the world’s largest NGO representing Kiva, an amazing organization, I don’t know where I stand now. Before the fellowship, my thoughts were: fellowship, office job to pay the bills and save for b school, apply for b school, go from there. No idea really now. Do I go back into the non-profit world, or try something different? Do I apply to business school, or travel for a few more years? Do I go back to Salone, another part of Africa, spend time in India? Do I move to a new state just for the heck of it? Or do I stay at home and take the time to figure out what I want out of life? Who knows, but this experience has helped me develop all types of insights that I am so fortunate for.

Thanks to everyone who has been reading about my journey, supporting me and cheering me on, staying in touch while I’ve been away, and inspiring me to keep going. You and your support mean more to me than you know, and you’ve helped make this experience forever memorable.

Always,

Tejal

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Heading Home

I’ve been so wrapped up with life here that I cannot believe I haven’t written here in over a month! My apologies. For those of you following my updates on Facebook, November was a crazy month (most of it fun). Things really picked up a BRAC: my colleague and I trained new branches in Bo and Kenema (provincial cities in Sierra Leone), we completed a few deliverables, did some training and review of our own, and finished our Borrower Verification (the Kiva-type of audit). I’ve also been spending more time hanging out with friends and colleagues in Freetown, making weekend trips to beaches, running around and making visits to different parts of Freetown. I attribute this MIA-ness to taking advantage of having a social calendar and really taking advantage of every moment.

I’m leaving this week, and am both sad and excited to be finishing my fellowship. In many respects, it was not what I had imagined. I felt like I was climbing up a slippery slope for about my first 10 weeks, no feeling productive or too helpful at my placement, not fitting into the “ways” of doing things here. It’s definitely been a lesson in patience, humility and adaptation.

Additionally, I’ve been lucky to meet so many wonderful people in Freetown. Both the national and expat community have been amazingly welcoming and have really helped me stay afloat when things got rough.

A big lesson I’ve learned while here is: you never quite can figure things  out. The more you think you know, the less you realize you actually do. Does that make sense? I’ve learned that about myself as well. As much as I thought I knew myself coming in here — about my skills, capabilities, habits — situations manifested here that forced me to rethink my own ways of thinking and behaving. Some of it has been hurtful, disappointing, some of it enlightening, but overall, enriching.

Below, I’ve pasted my latest blog post reflecting back on the fellowship. Hope you enjoy it.

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Malaria Dreams: The True Kiva Fellowship Experience

As my Kiva fellowship winds down, I reflect on the memorable journey I’ve been privileged to experience through the Kiva Fellows Program as a member of its 16thclass. Through personal revelations and humbling lessons in adaptation, microfinance work, cultural differences (and a unique incidence of malaria), I’ve grown attached to beautiful Sierra Leone. Throughout the fellowship, I’ve found my journey paralleling that of a character in a humorous novel, Malaria Dreams by Stuart Stevens, in which a man travels through the Central African Republic in one mission in mind: to find a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to Europe — only to find that his 3-month journey has a lot more in store for him than he anticipated, and nothing goes exactly as planned. My fellowship similarly followed suit with its own surprises, bumps in the road, and memorable moments.

This journey started with a phone call. Much like the experience of my KF 16 friend,DJ Forza, this call arrived out of the blue, and was received with some degree of hesitation. As I was daydreaming about my placement relocation (first placement was planned for the Philippines) to the South Pacific gem, Samoa, two weeks before Kiva Fellows training, Kiva Fellows Program staff informed me that there was an urgent matter we needed to discuss.

A ball of tension immediately struck me in the gut. As the conversation progressed, I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wouldn’t be going to Samoa… and I wouldn’t be going to the Philippines. I would be going somewhere for this fellowship, but the location was yet to be determined, and I would find out in a few days.

Three days later, KFP informed me that Sierra Leone was the most available placement, and that I would have to make the decision and shift gears as soon as possible. I think my response at that moment was, “Wow. Ok. Can I think about it?”

My family started to wonder what I had gotten myself into, what I signed up for. There was a lot of head shaking and concerned looks shared amongst my family and friends, and a lot of pity faces that conveyed, “Oh jeez, Tejal, you’re nuts. What ARE you doing?” I recalled images and scenes from the movie “Blood Diamond,” reports in the news about corruption, documentaries about civil war, and tried to push them far out of my mind. Kiva Fellow alum assured me to relax and do more research, and shared their overwhelmingly-positive experiences in “Swit Salone.” Shortly after, at KF16 training, I met over 20 amazing individuals who signed up for the same experience of spending almost 4 months in unfamiliar surroundings, and realized that if I’m crazy, I have many crazy friends right by my side to help me through this exhilarating journey. And so it began…

A warm welcome

With the BRAC SEP staff in Kenema.

Salone undoubtedly welcomed me with open arms, with its people being some of the warmest and most accommodating I’ve ever met, and its weather being comparable to a rainforest sauna. On my first day at BRAC, I was pleasantly shocked at how quickly the  staff took me under their wing, instructing me how to take public transit around the city, taking me to beaches and local football matches, and planning weekend outings.

Additionally, the Kiva Coordinator, Mbalu, and I found ourselves inseparable: we stuck side by side on field visits, trainings, even for fun weekend cooking sessions. And when I wasn’t at the office, I found new friends in local business owners, school kids in the neighborhood, and families that religiously welcomed guests with a friendly, “How de body?” (Krio for “How is your health?”).

The rainy and humid weather forecast made for exciting adventures navigating through Freetown on the back of motorbikes and cramming into poda-podas to jet across town to complete Kiva deliverables with Mbalu. There really is nothing quite like taking a motorbike ride through a torrential storm in Freetown!

Speed bumps, pot holes, and the trough of disillusionment

Like every journey, mine hit quite a few bumps and pot holes along the way. In Kiva Fellows training, we were told to expect a trough as we progressed through our Fellowship workplan. My “fall” into the trough occurred slightly early, around week two, while I was starting a large project that would help take BRAC Sierra Leone from Pilot to Active status in their partnership with Kiva. A few of the catalysts that induced my “falling” into the trough were a combination of understanding cultural differences, adjusting to a new work environment, and finding a groove to personal productivity.

At first, I tried absorb and observe as much as possible in the new work environment: work culture, policies, traditions, best practices, hierarchy, field work, microfinance products and programs – without passing judgment on what could be “better” or more efficient. But little did I know that my KF-powered brain was already in go-mode, looking for ways to improve things and not actually taking the time to understand how systems worked, and more importantly, why they were the way they were. This resulted in major frustration, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and many hand-on-forehead moments.

Those six weeks in the trough, although very difficult, proved to be some of the most eye-opening of the entire fellowship, and brought to light a very humbling and important lesson: modifying my definition of success and using different benchmarks to measure productivity will in turn change the way I viewed efficiency. As soon as I realized this (thanks to the help of family and friends who gave the golden advice!), everything seemed more manageable, clear, and sensible.

A third struggle I encountered, and unfortunately have never quite overcome, was understanding the weight of poverty and economic conditions in Sierra Leone, and realizing as a Kiva Fellow, as a foreigner, and as an individual, there were few things I could change on my own and had control over, but many more that I could not change. This has by far been the hardest reality to digest. And although microfinance work does help hundreds of thousands of people in Sierra Leone, the reality is that microfinance alone won’t solve all problems, it won’t heal an entire nation.

Swit Salone, it’s been real.

Reflection

Despite these challenges, the growth, knowledge and friendships I’ve gained in Sierra Leone have made this fellowship a memorable and life-altering experience I won’t forget. The wonderful people I’ve met, the warmth of the people, the food, the natural beauty, and of course the work I’ve done at BRAC Sierra Leone will always remain fondly with me.

I think back to that memorable day in August when Kiva called me to introduce me to this opportunity, and have never been more thankful to have given the chance to find a home in Sierra Leone during my fellowship. I’m very sad to leave, but know that soon enough, I will find myself back in the embrace of Swit Salone.

Tejal Desai is a Kiva Fellow finishing her fellowship in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She has been working at BRAC Sierra Leone, and has been grateful for the hospitality and support the BRAC Staff has shown her during her time in Freetown. She encourages you to support sustainability in Sierra Leone by joining BRAC Sierra Leone’s lending team and loaning to a BRAC borrower.

Read Tejal’s additional Kiva Fellows blog posts here.

The mean reds + attempts at stalking Nick Kristof

I just got back from dancing to Sierra Leonean music and watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in the theater. Pretty random, huh?

Random is a PERFECT word to describe the events of the last 2 weeks. First, I’ll say, the workload is definitely picking up. BRAC is very ambitious to expand and become an active Kiva partner before November, so I’m working/stressing my brains out at the moment. Talking to people, figuring out what needs to be done and how, why things might be incorrect, finding solutions, banging my head against the wall, pouting for 5 minutes, chatting with other fellows about their challenges and high points in the field, then doing it all over again. It’s been an adventure, and as always, a bit scary and disheartening, but I learn something new everyday. And I’d much rather be confused and  constantly learning than just existing and moving stagnantly. I’m getting used to feeling defeated every so often, but I’m beginning to think that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s when things are actually happening? I imagine if you come home everyday thinking “Well hot damn, I did an AMAZING job today!” you’re probably having less of an impact than you think. So maybe feeling behind is a good thing? Or at least.. I’ll keep convincing myself that it is. 🙂

Back to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Audrey Hepburn, who plays socialite Holly Golightly in the film, has the following dialogue with her neighbor, Mr. Paul Varkjak:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?
Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?
Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

The reds! That’s what it is. I think lately there has been extra pressure of keeping up with my workplan, completing deliverables, staying in touch with  local and home friends and family, taking care of myself, eating well, drinking water, staying sane.. that I’ve driven myself into a really sticky place that Holly Golightly identifies as the reds. Although I don’t have a swanky Tiffany’s store to run to to alleviate my stress and fear, or my favorite comforts available (trashy reality TV, a big hearty burrito, or the movie “Sabrina”), I do have an awesome support network that puts up with my rants, frustrations, high points, and “red” moments. And I am forever thankful for these friends and family, both back at home, in India, and in SL, that lend an ear to listen to me and continue to cheer me on. It really means a lot. I hope you know that!

Onto events from the last week or so..

Last week, I was perusing through facebook, and found out that my favorite journalist, Nicholas D. Kristof, was in Sierra Leone! “No WAY, Jose,” I thought to myself, “what are the chances we are in the same city on the other side of the globe?!” So I researched a little more, but nada. This guy seems to keep a low profile. The next night, I was at a friend’s place for a movie viewing, and met a national who was actually working on the set of his documentary, “Half the Sky,” based on his amazing book (by the same name), which I would HIGHLY recommend you read. I’ve been following his work for years and cite him as one of my professional heroes. He writes editorials twice a week for the NY Times, mainly concerning women’s global issues and poverty solutions. In “Half the Sky,” he and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, address major issues and oppression factors against women in the world, as well as proven solutions and ways to help. My description doesn’t give this book or his work justice, so check these links out:
Half the Sky: http://halftheskymovement.org/
Nick Kristof’s Blog, “On the Ground”: http://kristof.blogs.nytimes.com/

Anyway, as you can tell, I am a huge fan of his. So I asked any potential contact or link to NYT/the documentary as I could for his whereabouts (specifically for the filming). He actually gave Kiva a shoutout in his book, and I thought, “what great timing! I could tell him I’m a fellow and try to chat with him for a bit!”

Unfortunately, after a few tweets, texts, online searches, in-person inquiries, and facebook posts, my stalking attempts failed, and I wasn’t able to locate or reach out to him. One of my friends here has a tie to NYT and confirmed that Mr. Kristof has quite a large entourage in SL (and having Eva Mendes on set makes security even tighter and the desire for a lower profile higher, I presume), so well, I gave it a shot.

I honestly have no idea what I would have asked Nick Kristof if I had met him. A part of me honestly believes I would have just grinned big while bursting into tears and telling him how much I respect his work, and how his work is a big reason why I’m in this fellowship. Another part of me thinks I would have stared blankly at his face and really creeped him out. I guess we’ll never know.

For this week, I’ve been very focused on balancing work with “me” time. I have struggled with the same issue at home. When I wasn’t checking work email, I was mentally preparing for meeting, conference calls, projects, etc. I am trying to hold back that tendency to overinvest in work. So I’ve spent this week capitalizing on good relationships in SL, at BRAC, resting when necessary, living in the moment and learning more about SL, and taking a few breaks to hang out on the BRAC balcony or listening to Sade. It’s not the perfect solution, but hopefully will help over time.

Up for air + day to day social interaction

Well, it’s been a while! I apologize for not writing sooner. First I had to pull myself out of the trough, then moved apartments, then went into deep-dive mode with a fellowship project, then celebrated my birthday, then.. fell back into the trough.

The greatest challenge of adapting here has been learning to accept not having a rhythm to things. I’ve had to hush the perfectionist in me many times, and will probably need a few more weeks until I’ve successfully adapted to the flow of things. Not having reliable internet is also another large hurdle. The power goes out frequently at work and home, and my usb modem averages about 15 kbps. It becomes a real challenge when something as simple as sending an email or skype chatting with a colleague becomes a 2-hour task, but people still get a lot done without it, so I think it’s all a matter of adaptation.

Anyway! What’s new here? I moved apartments. My first place was great, I mean the roommate, apartment, everything was pretty fine. But the commute became a drag after a while,  and I was getting super lonely after work. As lovely as Tony Soprano & co. were as company (I brought the HBO tv series with me here), I needed more human interaction. So I moved in with a nice Canadian woman who works for UNICEF. She’s since introduced me to her also awesome friends, and we’ve spent the last 2 weekends hanging out in the city, on the beach, and in our jammies at home. It’s been a nice change for sure. I also never thought I’d need A/C, but man. What a gift it is.

Aside from that, as I said, I’ve been visiting beaches, exploring town, making friends, celebrated my birthday. Some friends and I went to dinner at a restaurant called Montana (awesome pizza) and dancing later at a local bar called Aces. I’ve also been spending some time with a nice Indian couple who took me under their wing like a member of their own family, which has been really great. I feel so grateful to have met such kind, warm-hearted people here.

Speaking of people.. one of my friends asked what every day social interactions are like. Well, it definitely varies, but here’s a shot at a typical day:

Morning: walk to work, pass a few folks on the street from the neighborhood, starting with the construction guys on our street. “How ya morning!” they usually yell. “Fine, fine!” I yell back. Kids run up and wave a big HELLO! It’s seriously the cutest thing.

Anyway, once in a while, I’ll be approached by a young man who wants to get his flirt on and shout “Heyyyyyy, white girl! Hey girl, say hi to meeeee.” There are a lot of young men who I pass at work, many of who like to take the extra effort to approach me/other foreign women on the street or shout from afar. It’s usually harmless, and after a while, you sort of get used to it.

At the office, I greet the folks downstairs, some of the Bangla staff I pass on the staircase, and my colleagues on my floor. Once I settle into my desk, my friend Mohamed usually comes by to shake my hand. He always has this hilarious Rico-suave look on his face when he does it. “Hello, Tea-jaal,” he says. “How ya morning? How ya body.” “Great,” I reply, “How ya body?” “Ma body fine, health fine” he replies and grins. The Bangla staff are definitely more reserved that the local SL folks. Most of BRAC consists of men, so it’s interesting to see the difference between the two cultures and styles of communication: open, inquisitive, and relaxed vs. more reserved, quiet and disciplined. But this is just in the work context, and at BRAC. It could definitely be different elsewhere.

My colleague Mbalu and I sometimes act more like sisters than colleagues on our breaks or in the field (or when we’re going crazy once in a while, like when waiting for taxis in the heat) but get a lot done when we’re on the clock. I think it’s wonderful to have someone at work I can talk to about my life.. about weird stuff I saw on the street or ask honest questions about SL and the lifestyle. She reminds me so much of my cousins in that way. I feel at ease when I’m with her.

At lunch, if I pay earlier to eat at the office, I’ll usually dine with local or BRAC staff (usually mixed at tables) in the dining room, and chat about our weekends or plans after work. Nothing work-related. Lunch usually consists of a large portion of rice and stew, with a side of fried chicken. If I decide to eat out, I usually join one of BRAC’s staff on a 5-8 minute walk up the hill to someone we call the spaghetti lady. I need to find out how to spell her name, but this woman’s lunch spread is amazing. She has giant Tupperware set up on her cart, filled with: black-eyed peas, fried rice, spaghetti noodles (no sauce), lettuce, cucumbers, fried chicken, fried fish, stew, and couscous, acheke (local dish, processed cassava) and chili. You choose what items you want and she throws them into a nice aluminum dish. My regular order is usually bean salad (black eyed peas), fried chicken, couscous, chili pepper, veggies, and stew. Mmmm. The most random combination of foods, but delicious (and cheap! 7,000 leones, about $1.75).

The rest of the day flies by, and on my way home, I’ll usually stop to say hi to a few friends/business owners, like Mohamed, the Airtel (mobile phone company) guy who helps me add credit to my phone when I walk home from work, Magdalene, a woman who owns a small store that sells water, biscuits, soap, laundry detergent. Once I walk down my street, the neighbors will usually wave, or join and walk with me in my direction. One man today started walking with me once I passed his house. “Where you work?” he asked. “BRAC.” I said. “Ahhh ok,” he replied, “You stay here?” “Yes, you know such-and such person? In their house.” “Oh ok. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow when you walk home.” Haha. Once I pass the last store before my street, I’ll make small talk with the older man, the storeowner, and his niece/granddaughter, Janet, an 11-year old smart girl who helped me carry water one day. She told me how much she loves to read and write and do math. I think she’s going to run this country someday. Ok, it was only a 3-4 minute walk, but I’ve never met a young girl with so much confidence, positivity, and sass.

Once I’m home, my roommate Karen and I will usually talk about our days, any characters we encountered in our day, plans for the evening. Once in a while, we’ll plan to go somewhere on a weeknight.. quiz night, neighbor’s house for board games, but sometimes we both like to veg on the couch and chat or zone into our computers. On weekends, we’ll hang with other expat or local friends, head to the beach, go to a restaurant, the movies (there is one movie theater located in a Chinese casino, below a nightclub. Love it, and they serve the best popcorn). We have a running joke of a taxi driver, Eddie. Here, if you want a private taxi (not shared taxi, which functions like a bus), you need to pay a driver more to take you somewhere, and usually if you meet a decent driver, you can call him often to pick you up and drop you places for a negotiable rate. Eddie is a driver our friend Jo found, but he’s super unreliable and head over heels in love with her. He’s let us down quite a few times (arrived late, drove recklessly one afternoon and broke the gear in his car, drove recklessly at night chasing a friend’s car, to name a few), and Jo has “broken up” with him many times, but we seem to still call him when the weekend comes around and we’re in need of a ride somewhere. Ahhh, some relationships are just so hard to let go of. 🙂

Anyway, that’s all for now. Take care.

Click to view photos.
Link to my latest KF16 blog post.

Be Loved

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.

This small world

Yesterday, I finally went into the field to meet borrowers, and was reminded of how funny and small this world really is!

My day started when I met a branch officer (and new friend), Aminata, at her office to start our borrower visits. We visited two BRAC clients, both hard-working, impressive women featured on Kiva, Marie and Ethleem. First stop was Marie, who owns a pharmacy business and is using her loan to expand her business and stock up on high-demand products (malaria medicine and blood tonic fly off her shelves). She’s been in business for a few years, and has managed to earn enough to send her eldest child to college! The second client we met with was Ethleem, a passionate and charismatic borrower who is using her loan to expand her stationary business. She supplies local schools with text books, notebooks, and paper, and was inspired to start this business after seeing how severely schools is Freetown lacked these educational necessities. She also shared her goals to someday start an orphanage and build schools in Freetown. Call her another hometown hero.

Wait, speaking of which..

While waiting downtown for a taxi to head back to the branch office, I saw a familiar face flash by in a white SUV. “Wait, who…?” my mind drifted. Then click! Guess who it was? The hometown hero himself from my first day in Freetown! I ran to catch up with the car, which pulled over to the side of the street. The hometown hero hopped out, greeted us all, and asked how I was enjoying Freetown. It was a funny, warm moment that reminded me how small this city – and world – really is.

Once we arrived to the branch office, my colleague, Aminata, told me she was planning to interview a client for Kiva, and ask whether I’d like to sit in on it. Sounded great, so I sat tight, and in rolled in a woman who had “topped up” my internet SIM card last week. She owns a small store in my neighborhood, and a week ago, of all the top-up joint in all of Murray Town, I walked into hers. 😉 I remember her well: after giving her my usb modem and SIM card, she gave me a puzzled look and went running across the street to consult with more folks on “topping up,” or adding credit, to my internet SIM card. She then returned with a topped-up card in hand, and insisted to come back immediately if it didn’t work­. I was so excited to see a familiar face join the Kiva family, and look forward to experiencing more small-world moments in this new city.

Oh, it’s a small, small world.

The second-day trough and a humbling reality check

If the last three days are any indication of what the next few months have in store, I am in for quite a ride! Foreword: this is a long description/rant of the past 3 days, so brace yourself.

I woke up Thursday morning excited and pumped for my first day at the BRAC office. I traveled by okada with a young man in my neighborhood, Ibrahim. My commute by okada is about 15 minutes, give or take a few minutes, depending on traffic and weather conditions. I took a flipcam video during part of my commute – will post that as soon as I can. The scenery is stunning, definitely a highlight of my day is my commute (sans the insane rush hour traffic and iffy roads).

At the office, I was greeted warmly by each staff member (there are about 25 in total). Unfortunately I can only remember the name of a few (I’d be lucky if I knew 1/5), but everyone across the board was friendly and welcoming, asking about previous fellows and my background. Now, some first days are nice and slow, usually an ideal time for one to observe to organization, take it all in – but mine was more of the jump into the deep end! Within the first hour, Mbalu and I met with the microfinance manager to review my work plan and identify my fellowship objectives. I prepared myself for the biggest priority of my tenure, which is to take place this month. Exciting and a little intimidating!

After settling into my desk and starting on a few projects, I joined the staff for lunch, prepared by a cook by a small fee; we enjoyed rice and fried fish with this delicious red sauce.  No one talks shop at lunch, which is a pleasant, and everyone breaks from 1-2pm. I felt my old habits kicking in – upon finishing my lunch, I started heading back to my desk, and Mbalu and colleague Prima cried, “Where are you going? We still have 20 minutes left!” Hah. Reminded me that seldom did I ever take full lunches in the states. It was a great opportunity to chill out, watch one of the renowned downpours, and meet with BRAC staff (one of whom grilled me on Hinduism, it was pretty entertaining).

Day number two was a reality check in many respects.

First realization: Nothing will go as planned, smile and laugh it off. This is advice I’ve been given by the previous Kiva Fellows who served here, Eric and David. They both mentioned that during their fellowships, they would think they had the flow down, and then something would come in out of left field and completely rearrange their schedule or way of thinking.

Additionally, Kiva expressed to us at training that we’d eventually fall into the “trough of disillusionment” after beginning our fellowship, and advised us to expect that we may feel prepared with tools and knowledge going into the field, but will hit challenges when applying what we’ve learned to our work. I definitely started to hit mine the second day, but am patiently learning how to work through it and climb out. Everything is a learning experience, and one thing I’m trying to remind myself is to take David and Eric’s advice, abandon my perfectionist tendencies to avoid frequent frustration, and roll with it. Plus, it’s only been 2 days. I need to relax.

Second realization: I stand out, time to get used to it. Mbalu took me to the market Friday after work to pick up necessities. I was thrilled to (1) buy food, since I was living off of granola and cliff bars, (2) explore the marketplace, and (3) see other Indian people! I assumed since there was a decent-sized Asian and Lebanese population here, I’d blend in a little, but nope. Stick out like a giraffe. With that of course, comes the fun game of bargaining down and trying not to be taken advantage of or paying twice than regular price, being called out on the street and sometimes honked at. Certainly this is not a unique phenomena; this happens every in the world where one is clearly not a local, but I think this is the first time I’ve had to deal with a more extreme case. Best way, I think, to deal is accept the fact, and make friendly with people. Other fellows successfully made allies in their neighborhoods and were subsequently treated like most locals. I think it’s all about relationship building, which absolutely takes time.

Third realization: This city is EXPENSIVE. Hats off to people who work hard to earn wages and live in this city, because boy is it pricey. I purchased a bag of lentils ($9), basmati rice ($10), a box of Lipton tea ($7.50), and couldn’t believe what I had just paid. Produce is a little more reasonable, but just given that fact that one usually has to dedicate a large part of their budget to transportation alone, there is little money left to spend on food, necessities, or even save. It’s very saddening to observe this cost economy trap in one of the poorest countries in the world. I’m very interested to learn more about this subject and hopefully can gain more insight over time.

Fourth realization: It will get lonely. After a fun first two days, I came home in high spirits, but an odd breeze of loneliness unexpectedly set in. Thankfully, my sister called me my first evening after work, and my dad called me when, inconveniently so, the outgoing call credit on my cell phone and internet credit ran out  (yay for Skype call forwarding), You have to love the timing. Friday night, alone, no internet, phone, or company. I’ve acknowledged that I will feel lonely frequently right now, and hopefully that will slowly change as I stay here. (But I continue to welcome calls and highly encourage them! J)

Today has been better, considering the micro-trough I hit yesterday. I met with the BRAC staff in another Freetown office to introduce myself and discuss my/Kiva’s objectives. Most of the executive staff I met with at BRAC are Bangladeshi, so we spent half of the time talking about my work plan and BRAC’s goals, and the other half talking about Bangla-Indo-Sierra Leonean politics and culture. It was quite a diverse and entertaining series of discussions!

I took public transportation by myself for the first on my way home (one taxi, one okada, and negotiated the fee, woohoo), and explored the street I live near. Added credits to my phone and internet SIM cards, and tried to make conversation with a few locals that run neighborhood business (most of which are small retail shops and phone carrier “credit top up” locations). Overall, it was nice to start taking baby steps and push out of the small comfort circle I’ve arrived with.

Realizations, regardless of the experiences that elicit them, have already become valuable learning experiences. Here’s to more to come..