Sometimes the Most Boring Client is Really the Most Interesting
In the past week I have met with almost 50 clients, which is way more than I met in the previous six weeks combined. I should feel inspired and excited by that accomplishment, but I mostly feel tired and battered. That’s because all of the clients I met with were BORING! I’m not exaggerating – I didn’t have one interesting interview. At least, that’s what I thought in the days surrounding the visits….
When I meet with clients, I ask a bunch of questions about their business, family, and personal history in order to get a better understanding of the benefit they have experienced from working with a microfinance organization. The clients in and around my home base of Khujand haven’t exactly talked my ear off, but they’ve been surprisingly open and forthcoming with their responses. So when I took a week to meet with clients in the southern part of the country, I was shocked by their consistently brief and reticent responses. Here is a sample interview from the past week:
Me: Why did you decide to start a business?
Client: Because I wanted to.
Me: Why did you decide, after 9 years of owning your business, to apply for your first loan last year? Client: Because.
Me: What has been the impact of the loan on your business?
Client: It’s been good
Me: Can you provide any specific examples?
Me: Do you have any goals for the next few years, for your business or family?
It was the same thing, client after client. I wanted to scream – didn’t anybody have a wedding to pay for; a child to send to college; or a satellite dish to buy (all very typical responses to the goals question)? I pulled out every trick in the bag: rephrasing my questions; asking follow-up questions, smiling more; and talking about their family. But, no matter how hard I tried, I could not get anything out of these clients. We tried different communities, different branches, different translators and still nothing….the clients simply would not talk.
My first reaction was to chalk it up to the fact that microfinance isn’t always ‘sexy’. It isn’t always the glamorous success story that, as a lender, you hope to hear. My second thought was that this part of the country was simply more religious and therefor more reserved. But, I wasn’t satisfied with either of these explanations and decided to ask for some help from my IMON coworkers.
It turns out that the “boring clients” are a complex and emotional consequence of Tajikistan’s civil war, which erupted in 1992, just after the country had gained its independence from the U.S.S.R., and lasted until around 1997. The violence took up to 50,000 lives and resulted in widespread and devastating food shortages. While the northern cities were able to avoid most of the conflict and suffering, it was a different story in the communities I visited around Dushanbe and Sharituz. In these towns, up to 30-40% of the women are war widows; almost one hundred thousand people fled to neighboring Afghanistan; entire communities were burnt to the ground or otherwise destroyed; and most people lost their job or simply stopped getting paid. That’s why microfinance was so necessary and therefor so successful in Tajikistan. It helped individuals and communities create their own jobs and futures after the war.
When I went back through my interview notes, signs of the war and the ensuing reconstruction were glaringly obvious. I realized that most (indeed, almost all) of the clients had had some sort of career before starting their business: they were nurses, teachers, managers, government employees, factory workers, on and on. And they all said the same thing when I asked why they had started the business: “because I lost my job”. I also noticed that many of the women I interviewed were widows. Even my colleagues from IMON filled in part of the big picture. I had two translators: one to translate from English to Tajik and the other to translate from Tajik to Uzbek – because the English translator missed out on learning Uzbek when he fled to Afghanistan.
Even during our conversations, it was clear that the entrepreneurs had started their businesses in order to get back on their feet after the civil war, but I still couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t talk. I wasn’t asking questions about their deceased husbands or their burned down towns or their abandoned factories – I knew well enough to stay away from all of that. No, I was just asking questions about their current successes and their future goals – why wouldn’t they want to talk about that?
Because, I couldn’t join them for a cup of tea.
Tea is an integral part of the Tajik culture – we have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between. It is the first thing you are offered when you enter someone’s home and, as an honored guest, your hosts will never allow you to pour it yourself. Most of the clients I meet with ask me to stay after the interview in order to have tea, even if I am meeting with them at the very busy central markets. This is such an open and giving culture that it feels very natural to accept the invitation and focus on issues other than work but, when I am representing Kiva, I always decline the offer. First off, my MFI has strict rules about never accepting gifts from a client. And secondly, even though I have all the time in the world to sit with clients, I am always joined by a translator and loan officer who have very busy schedules.
So it wasn’t that my clients wouldn’t talk, it’s that they wouldn’t talk right away. Unfortunately, you can’t always get the interesting story in a 15 minute interview and you don’t always have time for a cup of tea. And, when you have a business history that includes death, war, and struggle, you’re not always interested in ‘cutting to the chase’ and explaining how it’s all connected.
I’ve learned a lot of things during 7 weeks in Tajikistan, mostly that this country is way more interesting than it often appears on the surface. The people are a complex mix of religions, languages, experiences, and dreams for the future. And the more work you put into uncovering these complexities, the more you are rewarded. I’ve learned to slow down when I am at work and when I am communicating. And I’ve learned to establish more realistic expectations about success, because sometimes it’s less about the answers and more about the process of getting there. To truly succeed in understanding Tajikistan and the people who live here, you must find that balance – as a Kiva Fellow and even as a Kiva lender.
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