Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A day in the life of...

I’d like to see a study on the relationship between speed/availability of internet and power in a country and its development trajectory. So much of business conducted today depends on internet connection, especially as markets become more globalized and even businesses in remote locations must keep up to date with technology to compete with products and services coming from abroad. At the office where I worked in Khartoum, we faced power outages more often than internet failure. A power outage meant that not only the computers but the fans turned off, and as it was 50+°C during the day, sitting in the office without power was unbearable. Often we would arrive at the office to discover that the district where the office was located had lost power, sometimes randomly, sometimes due to a light rain the night before. The staff of the NGO would sit outside and drink tea, wander idly to a local shop, and wait for a few hours to see if the power would turn on later in the day. Many of those mornings I drove to the local “white person” café where there was a generator, a great cappuccino, and outdoor air-conditioning that came down in a cool mist from lines that hung between the trees. There I could read over reports, or study up on Arabic, or sit and people watch as upper class Sudanese and foreign aid workers sipped orange juice and imported croissants. Every few hours I’d check back in the office and see if the power was up and work could resume. We lost power or internet at least 3 times a week, sometimes for a full day but more often for an entire morning or afternoon.

Here in Malaba power is definitely more stable. We have had extended outages three times perhaps, lasting 1-3 hours, though especially in the evenings we are frequently plunged into momentary darkness over dinner. Our main work grievance is the Internet. Working as a Kiva fellow, we are expected to post roughly 15 journal updates as a group each week. Sometimes just logging onto the Kiva website can take more than 20 minutes, with each subsequent step of logging in and getting to a borrower’s page taking 3-10 minutes or just failing to load entirely. Only one of us can access the internet at a time. Some days the internet is unavailable, other days it works well for a few hours before cutting out. PEMCI is working hard to improve the internet situation at their office as it clearly impedes their work with Kiva. There are serious limitations to what they can do, and most likely they have one of the best internet set ups in town, certainly better than the few local internet cafes. The internet provider is based in Uganda, though a new cable is supposed to be laid in Kenya “soon.” As this morning was my turn to be in the office, I am feeling especially annoyed with the connection and am holding my breath it will stay on.

A brief description of daily life in the dusty border town of Malaba, population approximately 7,200 or so. Max, Ryan, and I awake between 7 and 7 30, amazed at how exhausted we feel despite going to bed far earlier than we ever do at home. As that is around the time I get up typically at school after going to bed not at midnight like here but at 2 or 3 am, I am surprised by how groggy I feel. Most of the time a slight headache persists until I can chug some bottled water and pop an allergy pill with the rest of my tablet cocktail of vitamins and anti-malarias. Basically I feel slightly hung over from dehydration and dust every morning even if my friend Tusker did not make an appearance the previous evening. We gather for breakfast, and whoever gets there first orders the “usual”: scrambled eggs over a piece of soggy but surprisingly yummy bread with some shaved carrots and cabbage on the side. Black coffee, milk tea, and passion fruit juice is ordered for myself, Max, and Ryan. The whole process takes entirely too long, but we enjoy the time to zone out and wake up for the day. We head to the office and find out the plan for the day, as well as evaluate the all-important internet situation. Usually two of us head out to the field, while the third stays in the office to write and upload journals and profiles for Kiva. I have been going to the field mostly with Mike, a loan officer at PEMCI, who now insists on speaking to me almost exclusively in Kiswahili. I understand roughly 20% of what he says, and can gather the general meaning about half the time from words I remember in Kiswahili or those that sound like Arabic. Mike has a great sense of humor and comes up to around my shoulder, but I trust him more than anyone else as my motorbike driver. We’ve gotten up to around 80 km on some of the back dirt roads, but he has yet to make me feel like my life is flashing before my eyes. So far, only rolling green fields, Ugandan mountains, mud huts, and roadside food stalls whiz past me. I’m pretty sure the motorbike rides are significantly less painful for me than for Ryan and Max… Reason number 20847 I am happy to be a woman. However, the bathroom situation in the field makes me a little less enthusiastic about my gender luck. I have seen my fair share of creative bathroom alternatives, but days in the field really test my ability to stop the olfactory system and multitask so that I may brush away buzzing insects while I am trying to go. Being able to stand and keep a distance from latrine holes would be a lot less frightening. Was that too much detail?

We leave for the field around 10 am and get in around 5 pm. Sometimes we pack a light lunch, but the sandwiches we were ordering from the hotel restaurant were pretty dismal, so I prefer to snack on fruit, crackers, or a hard boiled egg, depending on if we can get anything while we are out. Often one of the borrowers running a fruit stand will offer us some food, and I have come back with loads of delicious avocado that help spice up dinner. We attend both outreach meetings, during which the loan officer explains PEMCI’s loan protocol to prospective clients or groups, as well as existing community group meetings. These meetings can be painful at times, as most often I don’t understand what is being discussed. Struggling not to doze off, I find myself idly making lists, such as attempting to list every country in the world (did you know Comoros was an island nation in the Indian Ocean? Those little dingers get me every time.. not that I have attempted this before or anything…). On the productive side of things, while meetings are going on I check the list of attendees and crosscheck it with the list of people on Kiva. Those who match up I interview and photograph after the meeting in order to make an update. In these interviews we are looking to find out how the loan was used and how business is going, but also to provide more personal information so that lenders can find out more than is listed on the rather limited business profiles. One challenge has been dealing with discrepancies between what is listed on their business profile and what they tell us. For example, one man named Shaban, a retired school teacher turned cattle trader, told me he had 16 children (presumably with multiple wives- polygamy is not uncommon around here) and 18 grandchildren, while his profile said he only had 3. Sometimes clients only list their children with one wife, or lower the number of children because they think a high number will hurt their chances of receiving a loan from PEMCI, which is not really true. Other times, a client will have used part of the loan for emergency hospital fees when a child has gotten sick. Clearly this is a more than reasonable action of any caring parent, but we cannot report that on Kiva’s website really. These clients most often repay their loan eventually; it just may take a bit longer. I don’t think Kiva not including this information is morally problematic, as these circumstances are confusing to explain to lenders. It just makes our task of reporting more challenging, but also has allowed us to see the raw side of micro-lending in developing countries.

After returning from the field, we begin to compile our notes into journal entries and Kiva profiles, as well as catch up with the PEMCI staff and each other. Its rained a few days towards the end of our field time, which makes a fantastically muddy motorbike ride. When dinner time rolls around, its back to the Taifa Country Inn restaurant, where we sit at the same table, often in the same seating arrangement, with the same waiter every night. There are a few other places around town, but we got a deal with the hotel so meals are cheap and none of us have gotten sick so we usually stay here. Plus, I doubt many other restaurants play the Fresh Prince of Bel Air every night, with sporadic terrible American sitcoms and movies as well. Though, after a long day these shows are preferable to news stories of taxi driver beheadings and other mob killings going on in the Nairobi region.

Evenings are spent often working for a few hours in the office, especially if internet is working. A few nights we have gone to local bars with coworkers, and one night we even checked out the Malaba disco. For a mere 1.50 USD cover, we were able to sit in a small hut-type structure and watch the action on the dance floor… an outdoor concrete slab with 15 or so dancers awkwardly scattered, bumpin and grindin to a mix of Western and Kenyan favorites. I clearly joined for a bit as I tend to dance with the slightest bit of music, but even I could not muster up the motivation to stay for long. Malaba night life is often best left untouched, so early, quite nights are the norm.

Alright, that’s my more light hearted update on daily living Malaba style. This is embarrassingly long already, so I will most some more introspective thoughts in a separate post which I’ll load at the same time.

1 comment:

NubianKing said...

Mzungu McGowan,
I love your funny and interesting anecdotes. Thank-you for sharing. I feel like I'm there with you.