By Brian Kelly, KF9, Armenia

The symbol of Karabakh, grandmother and grandfather

I wrote about a week ago before embarking on a trip to Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous region southeast of Armenia known as being a conflict zone between Armenia and Azerbaijan.  I left in hopes of better grasping the political melee between the countries in the South Caucasus and how this plays into the Armenian identity.  Hopefully this would garner some insight into the role of microfinance in Armenia as part of my 4 month crash-course to this completely new part of the world.

A view from the car (sorry for the poor quality) of the winding guard-rail-less roads on the way to Karabakh

Pit-Stop along the way in the snowy mountains

First off, it was an amazing trip.  The land is absolutely gorgeous, protected by enormous mountains that took nearly 6 hours to pass through.  Winding along seemingly-treacherous and snaking roads through what looked like the Swiss Alps, we eventually arrived in a gorgeous and lush valley at the town of Stepanakert.  And when we arrived at the branch office there, I had definitely found my favorite branch within Aregak thus far.  Everyone was so unbelievably kind, and there was a strong sense of community, like a family among the credit officers.  Hearing the all-female staff of loan officers talk about their work, and the care they display for their clients was inspiring.  We accompanied one credit officer – an Aregak veteran of 10 years without ONE client default in her entire time here – to villages up to 60 miles away.  Several villages had as few as 5 borrowers, yet the credit officers still make a point to provide access to those who want a loan.  At one point while trying to track down a borrower in a village about 30 minutes off the main paved road, our cab got stuck in the mud, so we got out and trudged through it ourselves (some in high heels — not me, I swear) in order to get a couple of signatures.  That’s dedication.  Everything I’ve experienced here in Armenia at Aregak was amplified in Karabakh, from the helpfulness towards the clients to the friendliness of the people.  I was really lucky to get a chance to visit.

Proof that the cab couldn't make it through the mud so we got out and walked

So did I find a palpable tension towards Azerbaijan and the contentious political insights that I was seeking? Or a better understanding of the Armenian identity? Not in such plain terms. 

What did I see? A beautiful country with exceptionally generous and kind people.  My impressions were not of the Azeri conflict or of past struggles, but instead of a strong emphasis on the present, a hard-working attitude to make ends meet daily.  There was hope for an eventually-unified and successful Armenia, but it came off as sort of a back-burner wish living in the haze of the future.  People were hard working, extremely family-oriented, and ready to move forward out of this current economic crisis and years of struggle in the region.

But what I took away the most were some lessons in the importance of the Armenian family, as I was lucky enough to experience a true Armenian meal.  The Armenian dining experience is a beautiful event.  Every square inch of table surface area is packed with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as barbecued meat, and it’s essentially a family style feast until you can’t move.  Alcohol, specifically straight vodka is consumed copiously, but there is a thoughtful toast accompanied with each drink.  It’s a time to gather and enjoy each other over delicious food, a refreshing custom I highly enjoyed.  I also learned an interesting little hierarchy.  Family, Region, Country is the order of importance and allegiance for people around here.  Priority number one for so many Armenians is to work as hard as possible to ensure that everyone in the family stays safely fed, housed, and clothed.  The commitment is uniformly present unlike anything in the States.

While visiting borrowers, I often ask about profitability and future plans or hopes for the country, but in the end it’s the focus on feeding and keeping a healthy family environment that trumps all else.  And this is something that doesn’t necessarily present itself in a borrower interview, but is more implicitly absorbed after some time living here.  And the Armenian meal was the perfect personification of this impression.  It’s this familial duty that drives this country and the people here; long term dreams and goals often aren’t usually part of the borrowers’ visions.  Fifteen years ago without electricity and coming off a recent war, the plug had been pulled on support from the Soviet Union, and survival was the number one priority.  Since then, the country has changed and progressed by leaps and bounds, but the undertones and the memories linger.  People are cautiously optimistic to start dreaming big, because they know how quickly things can fall apart.  Dreams come secondary if you can hardly put enough bread on the table.  “There is no time for dreams, only work” I was once told.  This cautious optimism creates an environment of hunkering down and sticking closely to family.  Which is a good thing.  The family is the most important institution of this country, hands down.

And that helps to explain a lot of things.  Like why my MFI’s employees can feel like such a family among each other, and towards its clients.  Why it feels the obligation to go into villages and communities where banks do not.  Why they use intangible qualities like “borrowers sense of family life” in determining loan eligibility.  The way they do business is tailored to the Armenian psyche.  And this is important to understanding microfinance here.  To practice microfinance successfully, one obviously needs to understand all of its constituents.  And what works in Africa or Asia may not work here.  So taking this family-oriented approach, the truly Armenian way, is likely the reason why my MFI has seen such success, whether it be from strong borrower repayment history or impressive profitability.  And it has been interesting to see microfinance being molded to work in the most optimal manner for a specific locality.  It is also reassuring to know that here in Armenia, it all seems to come back to the family approach.

And we'll take you out on a nice Karabakhian landscape from a monastery perched on top of a hill. Bea-u-ti-ful!

Brian Kelly is a member of KF9 serving his Kiva Fellowship in Armenia to help bring pilot partner Aregak UCO onto the Kiva website.  To join the Armenian lending team, click here.  And to see more about Armenian loans, check out Nor Horizon UCO, and click here for fundraising loans (you may have to come back as they are new too)

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