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??

Samoa: Definitely More Than a Cookie

You can walk along the seawall for almost the entire span of the harbor...

Wow! My first weekend in Samoa has been a sunny one, with blue skies and equator-strength sun streaming full force. I haven’t decided if the lower temperature of rainy days is worth the humidity and grey sky…my inclination is always towards sun but considering how intensely the heat slices you down, we’ll see how I feel in a month. The weekend was also full of firsts, starting with my first day of work with SPBD on Friday.

1)  First day of work–To be honest, it was disappointingly slow. I’m sure, or at least I hope, many of my fellow KF17ers can commiserate with getting super excited for your first day and then not doing too much. I showed up at 8:30, shockingly sweaty (lesson learned that taking a taxi to work is advisable in humid climates) and ready for duty. I waited about an hour for the Kiva Coordinator (who is the liaison between Kiva and the MFI) to show up, talked with her for awhile, met everyone in the office, and then sat there for about 6 hours. I alternated between trying to figure out how to make the time productive and just accepting the down time as a consequence of first days, Fridays, and ‘adjustment time.’ I definitely expect next week to be a little more active and am looking forward to shadowing loan officers out in the field!

2) First taro–Or TALO, as they call it here in Samoa! Yes, this is the key to the name of my blog. Taro root is definitely a staple here, and actually used to be the main export until a blight wiped out crops and forced diversification a couple decades ago. I ate a solid lunch of taro with a side of chicken cooked with taro leaves, which was fairly tasty. The taro was cut in half lengthwise and probably baked in an outdoor oven (umu) using hot rocks. I’ve eaten plenty of taro in my life but nothing like this–it was dense, dry, and not even purple! I really had to muscle it to break it apart. Many meals are eaten with your hands, so taro is broken into pieces and used like an edible spoon. Pictures to come.

The things that aren't coconut halves are breadfruit!

3) First breadfruit–The other staple of Samoa is a fruit that grows EVERYWHERE. I doubt if there is a family in Samoa that doesn’t have a breadfruit tree accessible to them. Calling it fruit is a slight misnomer to my Western mind, as breadfruit is not the least sweet. When boiled, it has the consistency of a potato, kind of, and is generally eaten with coconut cream. When baked, it’s a bit lighter and not so mealy. It honestly doesn’t have a taste that I could describe, as it’s quite bland. It does have an interesting look to it, and I think pictures are definitely better than words in this case–I don’t have a great picture right now but will attempt to document it more next time.

What other firsts could there possibly be??

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!)