The Wandering Fellow
Eric Rindal – KF16 – La Paz, Bolivia
This Monday morning I woke up under new sheets on a small bed in a small room amid warm and verdant Santa Cruz, Bolivia. It took me 30 frantic and confused seconds to piece together where I was as the sun beamed through the cracks in the unfamiliar blinds. The day before I was living across the country for two weeks verifying loan terms of Kiva borrowers. Three weeks before that I was in La Paz, Bolivia for eight weeks creating new Kiva borrower profile templates. I wander, therefore I am…a Wandering Fellow.
A Wandering Fellow is a Kiva Fellow who works with one or more Kiva partner microfinance institutions (MFI) within one country during their 16 week Kiva Fellowship. Kiva headquarters in San Francisco serves as the foci to our plasma globe lives while us Fellows travel the world volunteering.The Wanderer, as he or she is often known, is never lost. However, they may wake up one too many mornings squinting, blinking, and darting their eyes around as they try to understand where in the world they are today.
But we’re more than world travelers, we’re traveling Fellows. You see, some, maybe most, Fellows have a relatively static Fellowship and are stationed at one MFI, in one city. These Stationaries may only venture to another city for Borrower Verifications of Kiva clients (checking loan terms, usage, and actual repayments made). The benefit of being a stationary Fellow is an ability to develop trust and friendship with MFI staff, from the person who cleans the office to the CEO. However, despite most efforts by the Wanderer, he or she may inadvertently prompt a sense of disloyalty or apathy from the MFI – which isn’t helpful for anybody.
The real test for the Wanderer is how well they can complete and juggle their colorful Kiva Workplan. This Fellow To-Do list consists of audits to determine loan product types and interest rates, questionnaires about the social performance of a MFI (the target market, non/financial services, efforts made toward equality and poverty alleviation, etc.), and implementing process changes (e.g. new questionnaires or templates for the Kiva work). Make sense? Great.
What this means, in practice, is that cultivating trust, confidence, and familiarity with the MFI is imperative to completing these workplan items. Honestly, MFIs don’t want some fly-by-night volunteer asking (or demanding) all their financial information. This has been one of my greatest challenges as a Fellow; during my first Fellowship in Sierra Leone, I worked with three different Kiva partners. This Fellowship in Bolivia bounces me between two partners and four large cities. I feel somewhat polygamous. And let me tell you, the dance of the Wandering Fellow is more complicated than the say Michael Jackson’s lean (3:50), Michelle Kwan’s figure skating, or learning to c-walk. I swear.
So, despite some disadvantages, how do we live our nomadic Fellowship to the fullest? The secret really comes down to harnessing presence, perspective and perseverance. Wanderers must be present with each loan officer, each client, and MFI employee – undivided attention and focus builds the necessary trust and confidence to complete the workplan items. Perspective on the purpose of the Fellowship: to cultivate and fortify the partnership between the MFI and Kiva, to better MFI processes and workflow, and to introduce innovative products or ways for the MFI to move forward. Each MFI has specific expectations and manner of operations, identifying these keep the wanderer abreast to any and all situations (…relatively speaking). Perseverance in the Fellowship is always somewhat difficult; Robert Service was right on the money when he said, “It’s the keeping-your chin-up that’s hard.” The Wanderer, at times, may waiver, falling into the Trough of Disillusionment (see blog 1 and blog 2) where falsities of volunteering and being an unknown traveler may get the best of Fellows (especially the wanderer). But the Trough doesn’t last forever. Amongst it all, perseverance is truly the anchor of maintaining presence and perspective.
Kiva works with 145 partners in 61 countries, so there is a lot of space to wander. However we live it , the Fellowship is a very personal, challenging, and rewarding experience. In reality, the Wanderer’s journey is the destination. Before I departed to Sierra Leone for KF15 my mentor sincerely reminded me, “Eric, wherever you go, there you are.” Apart from the cliché, this grounds us Wanderers and gives true substance to the places we go and the people we meet. In reality, Kiva makes the world seem smaller, the people more familiar, and our goals for microfinance to alleviate poverty attainable. I’m glad I get to wander around; it’s the privilege of a lifetime.
Eric Rindal is a part of the Kiva Fellows 16th class in La Paz, Bolivia. He is currently working with Emprender and IMPRO. He was previously in KF15 based in Sierra Leone. If you would like to contact Eric, just visit his lender page.