Category Archives: Why the Kiva Fellowship

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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Officially a Fellow!

Last Friday, twenty-three friends and I made the transition from being Kiva trainees to fellows after completing a week of  training at Kiva’s headquarters in San Francisco! I was initimated before even stepping into the Kiva office Monday morning, unsure of what to expect out of training. Was this going to be microfinance boot camp? I hadn’t been in a classroom in almost five years, would I be able to soak everything up?

Our days were full of discussions, program tutorials, information sessions, and ice-breakers. Our class (KFP 16, formally) spent, on average, 12 hours a day with one another. Now, you would think one would grow tired of the daily early-morning-to-late-night marathon, but in all honestly, training week was amazing (I woke up Saturday morning sorely missing the early morning chatter over coffee at the Kiva office, good ol’ summer camp syndrome). Throughout training, we also had ample time to also get to know the Kiva Fellows alumni and members of the Kiva staff — all such wonderful, passionate people.. a few who had even visited Sierra Leone before!

Through the long sessions, lunch breaks, coffee breaks, post-session ice breakers, I felt as though I grew as a part of a family. There’s something to be said about surrounding yourself with like-minded, passionate, and genuine people; I feel like everyone’s optimism, ideas, wisdom, sense of humor, and overall awesomeness rubbed off on me and positioned me better to get the most out of my fellowship and keep a positive mindset. Not only that, but I became less anxious over the thought of moving to Sierra Leone. Once I realized we were all in the same boat, that we had each other, that we all were only a Skype call away, my anxieties settled. A little fear and worry still lingers, and still will, naturally, but hopefully over time I’ll grow to enjoy my new surroundings.

Kiva love. Congratulations, class 16!

So now what? It’s hustle time! I have only a few days left to make last minute Target and REI runs, stock up on my dry food essentials, clean my room (definitely am procrastinating with this one), squeeze in time with family and friends, and wrap up my pre-fellowship fundraising. I leave next weekend, and will arrive in Sierra Leone early next week, when I’ll be welcome by hot monsoon rain, humidity, and mosquitoes, my news BFFs.

Make sure to stay in touch on either on this blog, via email, over Facebook, or on Skype, and I will do the same! Until the next post… I bless the rains down in Africa.  Gonna take some time to do the things we never had.. 😉

Hey hey, it’s Fellows time!

Hi friends,

Sweet 16 has never been sweeter. 🙂 Last week, I was humbled and catapulted over the moon when I found the following news in my inbox:

Congratulations and welcome to the Kiva Fellows Program!

I definitely did a little dance on the couch and then shared the news with my family that the Kiva Fellows Program had accepted me as a trainee in their 16th class (KFP 16)! Now, you might be curious about what the fellows program is, why I pursued it, and what it means in the larger scope, so first I’ll give you some back story.

I fell in love with microfinance and using economic tools to fight poverty towards the end of my college career at UC Davis. I remember going through endless supply and demand charts, game theory scenarios, and talks of guns, butter, and steel without feeling a hint of connection towards my focus of study, economics. One of my last econ classes, International Economic Development, however, introduced me to a cool concept that proved to help alleviate poverty: microfinance. The lesson started with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and introduced me to Muhammad Yunus, who had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I was immediately struck with an “aha!” moment after reading Yunus’ “Banker to the Poor,” and researched everything I could about microfinance: where it was taking place, how it was happening, what were the challenges, and how I could fit into it all. I couldn’t wait to get my feet wet.

Shortly after graduating, I heard about Kiva through friends and found the fellows program online. I immediately found the perfect opportunity to work with MFI’s all over the world and further Kiva’s work by giving more entrepreneurs access to microfinance and helping them pull themselves out of poverty. “Holy mackerel,” I thought to myself, “I need to do this.” While keeping this dream in my back pocket, I pursued a career in fundraising with an amazing microsavings nonprofit, EARN, where I honed my skills in data management, organization, project management, and more, which teed me up for this opportunity in so many ways. And after a few years rolled by, started the detailed and extensive application process, interviewed, and here I am, a trainee for the 16th KFP class. Stoked, a bit nervous, but extremely pumped!

What is Kiva?

Kiva is the world’s first peer-to-peer micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs around the globe. Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

What is a Kiva Fellow?

The Kiva Fellows Program is a 4-month long unpaid, volunteer based position designed to increase Kiva’s impact around the world.  The Kiva Fellow works directly with one of Kiva’s partner microfinance institutions (MFIs).  The Kiva Fellow is an integral part of the Kiva Team, acting as Kiva’s eyes and ears in the field and helping to extend limited resources to maximum effect.  The Kiva Fellow fosters the connection between the MFI, Kiva and the lender with their fieldwork and communication.

What exactly will I be doing?

A lot of everything! The main purpose is to work with the MFI on using Kiva’s platform, meeting with entrepreneurs and collecting stories for Kiva’s website, generating content to help share my experience with all of you via photo/video, and blogging on the Kiva Fellows Blog. Here is the list of a Kiva Fellow’s core responsibilities:

Work closely with local staff to maximize the host MFI’s partnership with Kiva

  • Transfer skills to MFI staff on Kiva processes, policies and best practices
  • Observe, learn and document the MFI’s operations and its use of the Kiva platform, making recommendations as appropriate
  • Assist the host MFI to regularly collect and post borrower profiles for funding onto the Kiva website

Facilitate connections between Kiva borrowers and lenders

  • Interview Kiva borrowers to assess loan impact, verify data, and gather information for journal updates
  • Develop innovative ways to facilitate connections via creative journaling, photographs, YouTube video and other means
  • Write a blog entry every two weeks on the Kiva Fellows Blog

Support Kiva’s product, marketing and organizational development

  • Provide updates and feedback through field reports and a final end-of-fellowship report
  • Utilize individual skill sets to complete special projects for Kiva as appropriate

When will it take place and where?

Kiva’s on it! The talented program staff goes through an extremely detailed placement process with each individual trainee, based on his/her skill set and the MFI’s needs. Kiva told me I’d tentatively be placed in East Asia/Pacific.

My travel dates depend on the needs of the MFI(s) I will be matched with. Tentatively leaving around Aug 20-Sept 3, 2011 (gosh, I keep forgetting how soon that is!), and will be returning no sooner than mid-December.

How is it funded?

This is where YOU, my generous network of friends, family, and colleagues, come in! J I have to fundraise for my trip (this includes: flights, housing, daily living costs, etc.), so expect to receive invites to events and campaigns to help me reach my fundraising goal. My estimate target is at $6k at the moment, but once I find out where I’m placed, I will update and post my budget on this blog to give everyone a clearer idea of how much I will need to fundraise.

What am I the most excited about?

In one word: everything! Exploring new surroundings, meeting amazing people, working with borrowers and helping the MFI with whatever they need, understanding new and different perspectives (and hopefully developing a few of my own), tasting new cuisines, putting up with new weather, making new connections with local folks and my class of fellows, and overall, stepping outside of my comfort zone.

So.. what’s next?

Well, I’ll use this blog to update all of you on my placement, departure date, fundraising opportunities, and more. My Fellows training will take place Aug 15-Aug 19 in San Francisco, and I will be off to my location shortly thereafter. Once I’m on the ground as a fellow, I will be using this space to share my experiences and adventures with you all! So make sure to stay in touch. 🙂