Struggles at the border
The other day I got to witness the excitement felt at PEMCI when a loan is filled on the Kiva web site. One of the loan officers had put a great deal of effort into writing a descriptive profile for Fred Wafula Lubisia, who sought a loan to purchase a motorbike. The loan was for 1,200 USD, which is a significant loan relative to what PEMCI usually offers. The next day, I was browsing Kiva.org, and saw that the entire loan had been filled, thanks to the collective contribution of 10 lenders. I let the loan officer know, and he was initially skeptical as to how quickly it filled. When I showed him the web page, he literally let out a shout of glee, leapt into the air, and proceeded with a bit of a celebratory dance. Immediately, he went to the calendar and made calculations as to when he would be able to hand over the keys of the bike to Fred, probably a month from now after it is shipped from Nairobi, and all the required insurance papers are filed.
For me, seeing the loan officer celebrate was a moment that encapsulated the power of Kiva. Unfortunately, not all times of the day as a Kiva fellow are as uplifting. I was sitting down for lunch when I saw a friend who works at the local Family Health International. He grew up around Malaba, and after graduating from secondary school, his widowed mother was unable to pay for him to go to the university. This greatly limited his options, but he was lucky enough to land a job doing office work at FHI. Anyways, Azikiel introduced me to the pastor he was sitting with. As we talked, he began to describe the work he is doing to address HIV-AIDS in the area. I asked him if he agreed with the statistic I had heard that around 50% of the community is infected. He said that he absolutely did not doubt it, and that he usually buries 10-15 people every Saturday in one village alone. He had a grave look on his face when he told me that it was destroying the place he grew up in. The pastor blames the high infection rate on the truckers who pass through the town. He says that women, many from the surrounding villages, as old as widows and as young as primary school girls, are driven by poverty and hunger to the main Malaba road, where they can receive 100 Ksh (about 1.50 USD) to sleep with the truckers. After becoming infected, they return to their villages, and the epidemic spreads. According to the pastor, and it was a powerful statement to hear, many of these men know what they are doing when they sleep with the women, they have an intent to kill because they don’t want to die alone.
Since my work in Malaba is with PEMCI and Kiva, I’ve tried to think about how micro-finance is related to fighting HIV-AIDS in the community. From what I have been able to ascertain, prostitution is a main factor in spreading the virus in the area, and these women are driven to prostitution because of poverty. When I asked the pastor what he suggests women to do as an alternative to prostitution, he acknowledges that there is very little he can offer. So he tells them to work harder to support themselves. The pastor is painfully aware that the problem is opportunity, not industriousness; but still, with the limited resources he has at his church, it is the best advice that he can currently give. The way I see Kiva and PEMCI’s role in addressing the crisis is in creating opportunity. PEMCI is a nascent, but burgeoning MFI with a vision to extend its hand to as many people as possible in the region. It is helping people to grow their businesses from the ground up. I have heard firsthand from the businesspeople who sell maize and onions by the side of the road, or who go door to door selling household goods, how they are able to expand their business, increase their profits, and better support their family, little by little with the help of PEMCI and Kiva. These are the fathers and mothers who will now be able to feed their young daughters enough so that they don’t have to seek money on Malaba’s main road. These are the fathers and mothers who can now pay for the secondary educations of their children, which will open up doors of just enough opportunity so that they won’t be forced into the same types of poverty. These are also the widows who can now afford to sustain themselves and won’t be compelled to desperate measures. Of course micro-finance represents just one component in helping to fight HIV-AIDS and uplift the community. It must be situated within many other more health-related and educational programs. Still, I think there can be hope that Kiva and PEMCI are having an impact.