As I bid a bittersweet farewell to new friends and my Rwandan home, I reflect on a truly remarkable six months and my top 5 wins as a Kiva Fellow:
1. Navigating Kigali like a pro. The streets of a new city can be very confusing, especially to a directionally challenged person such as me. Compared to the well-organized grid system of NYC where I lived before, Kigali streets spool around roundabouts and curve with the thousand hills, making it look more like an abstract art piece from above. For a Kiva Fellow trying to live on a budget, and as the locals do, traveling via public transport is the way to go.
The main bus terminal in Kigali is called Nyabugogo, with no less than 100 buses that take you everywhere in town and throughout the country. I have become a pro at navigating through the maze that is the bus terminal, identifying the right bus based on little signs or the region of the bus park it is usually in. My Kiva partner staff members once even commented that I’m more adept at bus taking than the locals because I always have exact change available.
2. Breaking down cultural barriers. In my time as a fellow, I had a chance to visit over 200 borrowers (high number in part because Vision Finance has many group loans). A key output of my task was to conduct borrower verifications, essentially an audit that involves interviewing the borrower about loan usage, repayment amounts etc. The goal is to ensure the local partner is taking care of the borrower.
In most cases, there is some trepidation on the part of the borrower to my presence. I have refined my “speech” to show them that I am a friendly presence who is there to ensure they are taken care of. It is great to see the anxiety melt away and people open up more to tell me about how great their businesses are doing with pride.
The three winning ingredients I have up my sleeve to break the ice include 1) Showing people their Kiva borrower page. In rural Rwanda especially where people aren’t accustomed to seeing their own faces on paper, the reaction is usually intense joy followed by shyness 2) Getting to explain that they have x number of “new friends” around the world who believe in them so much that they lent them money. One particular Kiva borrower even had a lender from Antarctica! 3) I always bring a little gift as a token of appreciation for their time. It is a nice way to end the meeting. In exchange, I have been gifted with fresh bananas, dances, and tours of their homes / farms.
3. Adapting quickly to partner working culture. In my time as a fellow, I worked with four different partners, all with slightly different working cultures. Coming in as an “outsider” and the “new kid”, it requires a bit of navigating to quickly understand the culture of each office.
For instance, African Entrepreneur Collective, AEC, is a social business with a flat, casual start-up culture. It has an open floor plan, yoga Fridays, and jeans and polo would be completely acceptable. On the other hand, Vision Finance is a microfinance bank where men wear suits and ties. It is also religious, so the day starts with morning devotion at 8 am.
Respecting the culture of my Kiva partner was vital to building strong working relationships.
4. Getting out of the foreigner “spotlight” with grace. My foreignness draws a lot of attention. In villages, crowds of children will gather to examine me. Men may exercise their male privilege and demand that I become their foreign wife. It is probably the part of my experience that never got any easier.
My arsenal of defense mechanisms included smiles and waves, a few firmly spoken words of Kinyarwanda to reclaim personal space, or rhetorical questions of “How many cows can you offer my family?” I have gained a much deeper appreciation for the anonymity of a diverse multi-cultural city and greater empathy for those who may be judged based on their appearance.
5. Finding a sense of “home”. When I first arrived in East Africa, everything was foreign. I didn’t understand the language, couldn’t order in restaurants, didn’t have any friends on the ground. Eight months in, I now know enough Kinyarwanda to get some nods of approval from the local vegetable market ladies, favor local dishes like ugali (a dough made from maize flour) more than some of my colleagues, and have built lasting friendships. I have found my sense of home and belonging in the beautiful city of Rwanda and I am immensely sad to be leaving.
It is a unique experience to be able to live in a country vs. just travel there. While I did go see the mountain gorillas like every other visitor to Rwanda, I also got a chance to immerse myself in a local village for a day, making mud bricks and rope out of banana tree bark. I volunteered at a craft workshop on weekends for a non-profit that helps people with disabilities called Talking Through Art, and even attended a boxing class.
I feel privileged to have been able to call Rwanda home for a short but meaningful portion of my life. This land of a thousand hills has brought me more than a thousand smiles.