100 days later, 5 lessons learnt about life, microfinance and the world

I’ve come to the end of my Kiva Fellowship, and as challenging as it was living in a country like Tajikistan, this priceless life experience has been tremendously humbling. Here are some concluding thoughts from me, as I draw the velvet curtains to this chapter.

1. People are good, and the Media can really upset your view of the world

What we consume via the Media on our TV screens often has a huge influence on our views of the world. When I was first told I would be sent to Tajikistan for my Kiva Fellowship, I too, like many friends and family, had assumed that it would be a dangerous place mostly because it was a country that bordered Afghanistan. The truth is that for many, an initial perception of Tajikistan could be shaped by an initial perception of Afghanistan (or the middle east/central asia in general) which would be sadly shaped by the behemoth called the media.

In 2013, Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, delivered a well-argued rhetoric during the Oxford debates, supporting Islam as a religion of peace. I spent almost 100% of my waking hours over the past 100 days with Muslim people – Muslim colleagues, friends, neighbors. During my time in Tajikistan, I met some of the nicest, most hospitable and kind-hearted people I have ever come across in my life.  I travelled to the Afghan border, met Afghan people, and experienced genuine kindness from them. Cyclists I have met who journeyed from Europe through Asia also described Iran as the highlight of their trip from being showered with hospitality as if they were family. If I were to tell you that Iranians, Tajiks and Afghans are some of the nicest people on this planet, you have to believe me. I am a strong proponent that one must experience a place for yourself in order to draw your own conclusions – the media is one big boo-boo. Sadly, because of the media, most people of our generation will grow up thinking of a bipolar world where there is peaceful guys, and the Muslim extremists. This rift will only continue to widen.

Pendjikent

2. Wealth is not defined by $$

This is something that must have been repeated countless times, but I am writing this down not only to share with you but also to remind myself of this fact – wealth is not defined by the digits in your bank account. Tajikistan is the poorest country in Central Asia, but from what I have seen, she is also the richest country in the world – her beauty, her history, her people.

Tajiks are extremely rich in their generosity towards others. First a stranger, I would almost immediately attain the “title” of guest after a quick conversation, and proceed to be given the best things they had. Whatever little they had, they would share. If they had nothing to share, they would extend an invitation for me to return the following week so that they could somehow treat me to something. We barely know each other, but the wealth of generosity overflows from their hearts.

I remember approaching a particular rural village – simple, modest, pretty dilapidated. It was a freezing day in early Spring, the garden was still struggling to recover from the bitter winter that had just passed. When I met the Kiva client, she wore the biggest smile on her face, the joys of life beaming from her face. Her family had so little that she had to take a out a loan to purchase school supplies for her four children. She hosted me with a cup of tea, and continued to wear the smile on her face as she explained the difficulties of village life to me. “husbaht!” she would exclaim repeatedly – to be happy with life, that is the most important in all circumstances. Right at that moment, I was reminded about how wealthy she was in her mind and spirit, despite the most modest of living conditions.

Glorious beauty

Glorious beauty

3. There is a certain wonder about ordered chaos in the developing world

For those who have spent time in Third World countries, you will understand what I mean by “ordered chaos”. Let me draw a reference to traffic, something which is not only unique to Tajikistan, but in common across the world from Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh City. Traffic has to be one of the most fascinating things in this country, and how it actually functions is a daily miracle.

A red traffic light means – hey take a quick peek to check and if you do not see oncoming traffic, gas it! White line markers creating 2 lanes on the road means – who cares about lines? let’s squeeze as many vehicles as we can within the available tarmac space! A minibus stop means – if the existing bus stop space is already occupied by a minibus, pull up right beside it and create your own bus stop in the middle of the road! Direction of traffic? What direction of traffic? Drive against traffic if you need to avoid a stretch of congestion! Last but not least, the horn. God bless the inventor of the horn. The cacophony of car horns at Tajik road junctions at rush hour can send you straight to a mental institution. All that being said, the system works, and people get around!

It is quite amazing that a natural form of order develops within the chaos – people expect the pandemonium, become more tolerant (despite the occasional squabbles) with each one another, get better at driving in order to avoid accidents, and learn to make things work, somehow! This is also the magic of the ordered chaos in the developing world – people learn to hustle, adapt and make things work.

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

Tons of people and traffic in peaceful coexistence

4. Microfinance helps, but isn’t a silver bullet to alleviate poverty

Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for founding the Grameen Bank and pioneering the concepts of microcredit. Soon after, microfinance steadily took off and is now deeply entrenched in many parts of the developing world. Credit is something that we take for granted in the developed world, but can be life-changing for the rural poor. Credit creates opportunity, when managed properly; and this opportunity is exactly the tool needed to alleviate poverty worldwide. However, despite being such a simple concept, microfinance is not easy to operationalize in the field.

Bringing financial services to rural areas come at a significant cost, which translates into sizeable interest rates for the clients. Sadly, it is a double-edged sword, especially for those who do not know how to manage their finances. Fortunately, many of the Kiva clients I visited in Tajikistan received some form of education from their credit officers, which reduces risk of default due to client negligence. I am also glad that over-indebtedness is something that Kiva consistently tracks, but for some microfinance clients in general, the cycle of debt ends up becoming a plague in their lives. It will take innovative ideas and the persistent efforts of new social-enterprises that weave in auxiliary services in addition to credit, to increase the effectiveness of microfinance. Some of Kiva’s partners including the One Acre Fund and Proximity Designs are doing exactly that, and they help us keep alive the dream of a promising future for microcredit.

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

Kiva borrower Marhabo and her grandson

5. Life isn’t a race, take time to pause and ponder

We are wired to work, work hard and work fast. In the rhythm of our work-lives, we find ourselves consumed by our work and the ability to work anytime, anywhere. Unfortunately, many of us forget this – Our days are long, but the decades are short. Next year I turn 30, and it seemed like yesterday when I turned 20.

When I made the decision to take four months off work to volunteer as a Kiva Fellow, some people exclaimed, “wow! that is a really long time! how is that going to affect your career?” “You’ve only worked four years, and you already want to take a sabbatical?” Well, I didn’t know how the decision would affect my career. Honestly, I did think that people only took sabbaticals after working for decades. However, you will never know what tomorrow brings, and living life with no regrets is probably the best thing you could do for yourself. I first came to know about Kiva in 2008, and then about the Kiva Fellows program in 2011. For three years the thought of applying for the program lingered on in my mind, and just as there were plenty of reasons to apply, there were always 101 reasons to not do it too. Thinking back, even when I was preparing to leave, there was significant apprehension lurking…

Four months later, here is what I learnt: Taking a meaningful sabbatical is refreshing and teaches you a whole lot about yourself. Not only does it allow you to recharge, it also gives you the opportunity to contribute to causes larger than yourself for an extend period of time. The truth is, “meaningful” or not, try to take time off to do something completely different from your daily routine. Find work through wooofing, go live on a boat, heck go on a tuk-tuk race across India! If you are looking to put your professional skills to good use during your sabbatical, there are many options available! Applying to go abroad with the Kiva Fellows program is one, but I am sure you will be able to find some in your own backyard too. You will never look back years later and regret taking time to pause, breath, think and hopefully touch the lives of others along that short journey.

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

You will find beauty in the most unexpected places

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5 Comments

  1. Great post Terence! Living in Kenya for the last 8 months, I can really relate to your lessons. Sounds like you had an awesome experience. To organized chaos!….well said

    Reply

    1. So nice to hear from you Olga! I am sure Kenya is changing your life in so many ways too! What an incredible opportunity out there!

      Reply

  2. Great insights – I will not reach a hundred days in my endeavor but I’ll surely think of your blog when I reflect on three months spent in Tanzania, also in microfinance.

    Reply

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