Its been 10 months since I left my previous job in Los Angeles and had the privilege to become a Kiva Fellow. I began working in beautiful Kenya and am now in colorful Colombia. Though geographically far apart, there are more similarities between the two countries than one might think.
Some of my fondest memories are from visiting about 20 Kiva borrowers all over Kenya. While riding countless matatus (public transportation vans) and boda boda (motorcycles), I got a taste of what life is like for many people in rural and urban settings.
From the whitesand coast, to the rolling foothills of Mt. Kenya, to the verdant maize and tea fields near the Kakamega rainforest, I found Kenya's true beauty is in its people. Being in Colombia for two months has also shown me that its people outshine the beautiful landscapes and hardships that exist in this part of the world.
While there has been great progress recently, many Colombians and Kenyans still face economic poverty and poor quality of life.
Here are a three similarities between the two countries:
#1 - Armed Conflicts
Low-income neighborhoods in Nairobi (left) and Medellin (right)
About 600,000 Kenyans lost their homes and became “internally displaced people” after the post-election violence in 2007-2008. Even more saddening is the approximately 1,200 people that were murdered during that turbulent time in Kenya.
More recently, Kenyans have suffered from multiple terrorist attacks by what appears to be Al-Shabaab militants for its involvement in Somalia. Despite feeling generally safe, I did experience fear, tension, and people's suffering from grenade and mass-shooting attacks during my time in Kenya.
Colombians unfortunately have also suffered from about 50 years of armed conflict.
Guerrillas and paramilitary groups have killed and forced thousands of members of rural communities away from their homes. In fact, not even children are spared as guerrillas are known to recruit child soldiers. Even though Colombia is much safer than during the 1980's and 1990's, many people's safety and economic stability has also suffered at the hands of (weakening) Narco-paramilitary groups and organized gangs.
#2- Economic & Education Disparity
Common sight in Colombia (left) and Kenya (right).
It's nearly impossible not to witness the economic disparity in Nairobi and Medellin.
Two blocks separate a 100 shilling ($1.50) lunch for two in Kenya's largest slum from a Nakumatt supermarket where you can buy imported chocolate and wine for about 1,400 shillings ($16).
Densely populated and low-quality homes stand meters away from stone two-story homes. You can also encounter many young people working. or trying to work, who have been unable to continue their education after secondary school.
Medellin's hillsides expose the juxtaposition of luxury high rise apartments that contrast the densely populated low-income neighborhoods. A street vendor offers you coffee for 500 pesos ($0.25) or you could pay 3,500 pesos (~$2) for a cup at Juan Valdez (a high-end coffee shop).
An average monthly salary of $692 (47% of the worldwide average) is one factor that prevents about 63% of Colombians from getting a tertiary education.
#3 – Innovation and Self-Employment
Family-run arepa factory near Medellin, Colombia (left) and a grains & cereals seller in Nanyuki, Kenya
Despite these and other hardships, people persevere and turn to informal micro-businesses in order to provide for their families and achieve their dreams. Many people in both countries turn to traditional retail shops/stands, labor-intensive services or they leverage technology for jobs.
I've seen street vendors in Kenya AND Colombia selling grilled maize and chicken, fresh squeezed sugar cane juice and men pulling heavily loaded carts in busy streets ( see above). Both countries also have a growing innovative startup community leveraging mobile technology.
I'm currently at Interactuar, an exciting field partner located in Medellin who offers microfinance and business development services to low-income small business owners. Through Kiva lenders, they truly offer a hand-up to Colombians wanting to work themselves away from poverty.