Not Glamorous, But it’s Life

What you think I’ve been doing for the last month.

What I actually do every day.

After a small break from blogging, I realized I’d better dust off my keyboard, lest I disappoint my faithful readers (hi dad!). The truth is, whether it’s a result of getting close to my 3-month mark, a continually stalled social life, or a focus on work in the office instead of the field, I just haven’t found much to be blog-worthy lately. My biggest recent triumph is that I found a rugby team to play with! Hopefully, I can put together something about rugby in Samoa, which is the only thing that really feels like home here. In the meantime, I thought I would write a little bit about (yawn) work, since I realized it’s a little bit unclear what I do here besides go joy-riding in yellow pick-up trucks, battle mosquitoes, and expend huge amounts of energy grieving over what to eat. Continue reading

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Pointing You Elsewhere (oh, and about the pants…)

With the enlightening clarity of health (thank you, antibiotics that I DID pack), I realized that I may have left a small void in the information when it comes to the question of Samoans and pants. Perhaps some of you assume that everyone wears shorts, if not pants, or all the women dresses/skirts…but lest anyone think there are hordes of Samoans running around pants-less with nothing to inform your imaginations, let me me introduce the lavalava and the ie faitaga. A lavalava is basically a brightly printed sarong wrap that both men and women wear on their lower bodies. Women, from what I can tell, always wear shorts or tights underneath (the shorts are usually what we would consider totally appropriate to wear around without a wrap). Unclear–at least to me–what the men wear. I wish I could present you a triumphant picture of me wearing a lavalava but I honestly haven’t mastered the knotting situation, and I’m hot enough without wearing two layers of clothes–although I will vouch for the comfort of lavalavas when lounging around the house with less concern about accidentally flashing someone.

Tui rocking ie taisaga and pouring water from a vodka bottle (borrowed from a nearby village, of course) into the trust yellow truck.

The ie faitaga is more formal, and worn only by men. It’s what they would wear to work in an office, or to go to church and special events. They have pockets and ties (versus just knotting the ends together) and are usually made out of linen and are a solid color, like dress pants. These are what all of my male colleagues at SPBD wear to work, although a couple of them swap out for shorts on Friday, which is more casual because CMs don’t go out in the field. Formal dress for women is the puletasi, which is matching, or at least coordinated, top and skirt.

 

One of my borrowers, showing off her beautiful puletasi!

Anyway, I wanted to share these tidbits, but won’t be writing a full post today. Instead, I’d like to point you towards my most recent post on the Kiva Fellows blog. Don’t be shy about commenting there, it will still be me getting the comments and responding. I guess I could have just re-posted it here, but that seems like cheating!

Meet the Borrowers: So who takes out these loans anyway?

Just looking out the window on the drive to visit borrowers, no biggie...

“Do you have credit?”

“What?”

“Do you have credit on your phone?”

“Oh…yeah.”

“You might want to call your parents up and tell them goodbye.” Tui, one of SPBD’s Center Managers, informed me solemnly. “That guy,” he pointed at Peni, who was currently behind the wheel, “used to be a pilot.”

As I laughed along with the three Center Managers (loan officers), I double checked my seat belt and tried not to let the sheer terror show on my face. After a long day of borrower visits, it seemed I would meet my end at the hands of a previously normal-seeming, now maniacal Samoan (who is apparently, not actually an ex-pilot) bent on ending my existence by demolishing everything in his path, whether man, animal, or machine.

On the bright side, after being soaked through in sweat, whizzing down a windy, two-lane, oceanside road did create a nice breeze.

I spent last Wednesday out in the field conducting one of my Borrower Verifications. Almost every Kiva Fellow must complete 10 BVs (some have to do more!) during their time in the field. This basically entails interviews with borrowers to confirm their identities and loan information, and find out what they’ve done with their loan. The key thing is that the 10 borrowers are a random sample chosen by Kiva and all 10 borrowers must be visited, and pass their BV, for the MFI to pass overall. This helps Kiva guard against fraud and ensure that the correct policies are being implemented by their partners. It’s also a great excuse to get out and meet some borrowers!

In order for me to carry out my BVs, I have to tag along with one of the teams of CMs. As I previously mentioned, each team usually leaves the office around 9:30 and returns around 4:30, so that means that even if I just want to meet one borrower, I’m along for the ride for their whole route. I try to work in meeting other Kiva borrowers just to chat and possibly post updates for them on their borrower profiles, but the tight schedule and varying levels of helpfulness from CMs has left me with both amazing days and super boring ones. But will I tell you about the boring ones or the amazing ones?

Zumba, Remote Islands, and Price Wars: What could they have in common?

Note: This was written over the weekend, but I haven’t had a chance to post it until now.

Epic sky over Manono-tai.

I finished up my second full week of work and it’s gone by both quickly and slowly. Some days, as I waited for a certain document to be tracked down or tackled the monotonous task of uploading borrower profiles, seemed to last forever. Others whizzed by with the landscape of ‘Upolu as I followed loan officers on their collection routes. I feel like I’m getting into the swing of things, work-wise, although I’m still a bit pathetically lacking in the social realm of things. Still, work–the main purpose of my time here, after all–is definitely turning out to be an exciting journey. After a rain-filled weekend of huddling indoors watching movies while the sky emptied itself, I’d like to highlight some of the best parts of the last week.

Zumba in the office after work. There’s not much more to say than that! In case anyone is wondering what Zumba is, see the video above. After the surprise staff meeting at the end of the day on Friday (surprise only to me), there was a surprise Zumba session (again surprise only to me). Apparently Zumba as a fitness movement has been embraced pretty thoroughly in Samoa, and many companies and/or government branches have installed is as their official ‘get fit’ program.

There I was, typing away at my laptop, when suddenly it occurred to me that everyone around me is changing into athletic clothes. A quick inquiry confirmed my suspicion that I was left out of the loop–my coworkers are apologetic–but there’s no question that I will still participate, work clothes or no work clothes. They are surprised that I am slightly incredulous to find out that the planned activity is Zumba, as if I have been leading some kind of deficient life under a Zumba-less rock somewhere. Samoans do love to sing and dance, so I guess it makes sense that Zumba is popular, although I was intensely relieved not to be the only person nervously giggling at some of the pelvic thrusts included in the instructive videos. Still, I think the most enjoyable (and slightly surreal) aspect was that the session was led entirely by Tui, a broad-shouldered, beefy man who looks like he could do some serious damage on the rugby pitch, but also, as it turns out, kicks ass at Zumba.  What else could there possibly be??

~200 Samoans down… ~199,800 to go!

The sign for SPBD's headquarters in Apia!

It’s totally unbelievable that I’ve only been in Samoa for one week. One measly week?? Are you sure that’s not two or three–especially judging by the number of mosquito bites I’ve acquired? When I first heard that I would be doing my Kiva Fellowship in a country with fewer than 200,000 people, I semi-jokingly vowed that I would meet everyone. After three days of shadowing loan officers into the field, it feels like I’m well on my way.

Those would be the "ferries" to get to Manono!

SPBD is the only microfinance institution (MFI) in Samoa. Their headquarters is in Apia, with a branch office on Savai’i island, and they have borrowers throughout the country. This includes Manono and Apolima, which are the smaller islands where there are no cars! You just take a boat across and walk everywhere. SPBD loans exclusively to women, although interestingly they do make exceptions for the fa’afafine–men who are Samoan drag queens of sorts, generally treated like a ‘third gender’. From what I can tell fa’afafine are generally well-accepted by society, although homosexuality is not. It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s not unique to Samoa, and I hope I learn more about it during my time here.

But I digress.

I’m going to share the nitty gritty of my MFI, which is probably most interesting to fellow KFs, so if you’d just like the fun details of my visits, skip down to the jump! First and foremost, borrowers cannot be formally employed to receive a loan from SPBD. Sounds harsh, but in fact according to the State Department, only 18% of Samoans are formally employed. Eighteen percent! SPBD organizes their borrowers into groups, which are part of centers. Any group will have 4-7 borrowers, and each center must have at least 2 groups. Centers are then divided up amongst the loan officers, who are called Center Managers (CMs). CMs visit centers once a week to collect repayments, accept deposits for savings accounts, fill out applications for new loans or new members, and answer questions. All members should be present at these meetings, although it’s generally okay if they must miss a meeting but send their payment with someone else.

What’s interesting about SPBD’s groups is that although the loans are individual loans, they use a group guarantee. Each member’s loans are not bound to their group-mates in any way except that they are responsible for covering each others’ missed payments. If the group cannot guarantee the loan, it falls on the center to find the money. CMs are instructed not to leave meetings until they receive full payment, which can result in some loooong meetings where everyone sort of stares at each other, coins and bills are shuffled around, money is finally brought from elsewhere, and the CM is then running late for the rest of their meetings.

Some of the centers I visited. I couldn't find all the villages on the map!

Over the last 3 days, I’ve attended meeting at 18 centers, as well as a few collections (situations where a center is no longer running but CMs must visit individual borrowers to collect repayment) with 5 different CMs. CMs leave the office in teams of 2 or 3 around 9:30am and don’t return until 4:30pm at the earliest, so I covered some good ground on ‘Upolu. Each center had 7-30 borrowers, which adds up to quite a few Samoan ladies!

READ ON, for the more interesting stuff!

Goodbye California, Talofa Samoa!

Well, not quite. I’ll be stopping over in New Zealand to visit my old friend from high school before I finally arrive in Apia, Samoa to begin my Kiva Fellowship. The top three reactions to my placement in the small island nation are:

  1. Where IS that??
  2. I hear the people are huge…
  3. Oh, like the cookie!

To clarify, Samoa is in the South Pacific, about halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand.

Where is Samoa

I swear there's an island nation under that pin.

The people do, in fact, tend to be very large–which is helpful when playing rugby or football, as many, many Samoans do, quite successfully.

And lastly, I would argue that the cookie is like Samoa, not the other way around. Please note that they are also known as Caramel DeLites, which seems to me a more descriptive name that causes less confusion over the national identity of a people. Just a thought for the Girl Scouts to consider.

Now, many of you may be wondering: what is a Kiva Fellow and what do they do? Being fresh out of Kiva Fellows training, I should be able to explain this well. Let’s see…

  • Kiva is an organization that uses online crowd-funding to provide capital to microfinance institutions (MFIs) around the world. Basically, anyone can log onto Kiva’s website and view the information and plans of individuals who are taking out small loans. You can then choose to contribute $25 or more to help fund a loan–and when the loan gets paid back, you get paid back. Your money can then be re-invested or withdrawn. This an overly simplified description of a complex model, so you should find out more about how Kiva works.
  • Kiva Fellows come from a wide variety of backgrounds (finance, politics, education, human rights–to name a few) but share a common desire to spend 4 months or more living in a foreign country, where they may or may not speak the local language. Since Kiva can’t keep a large number of staff in the field, they utilize these foolhardy courageous and generous volunteers by placing them with a partner MFI to serve as Kiva’s presence.
  • Don’t let the word ‘volunteer’ fool you! Aside from the week of intensive training at Kiva HQ that turns us all into Kiva devotees and microfinance wizards, this group is a shockingly talented, well-traveled, full-of-work-experience bunch of people. I actually have no idea how I fit into this profile, but I’m extremely happy to be associated with them all. Fellows lend their diverse skill sets to their host MFIs to institute sustainable change in their operations–hopefully making life easier and more productive–and strengthen their partnerships with Kiva.

Each Kiva Fellow enters the field armed with a lengthy work plan, detailing the projects they will accomplish during their fellowship. Thank goodness for training because the deliverables that sounded like words in a foreign language now merely sound like a very busy and challenging 4 months! After months of lounging around NYC on my couch, I’m so excited and nervous to dive into some hard work on a tropical island. But first, New Zealand!

(Oh…what’s that you say? Curious about the name of this blog? Guess you’ll have to keep reading to find out!)