Malaria Dreams: The True Kiva Fellowship Experience
By Tejal Desai, KF16, Sierra Leone
As my Kiva fellowship winds down, I reflect on the memorable journey I’ve been privileged to experience through the Kiva Fellows Program as a member of its 16th class. Through personal revelations and humbling lessons in adaptation, microfinance work, cultural differences (and a unique incidence of malaria), I’ve grown attached to beautiful Sierra Leone. Throughout the fellowship, I’ve found my journey paralleling that of a character in a humorous novel, Malaria Dreams by Stuart Stevens, in which a man travels through the Central African Republic in one mission in mind: to find a friend’s Land Rover and drive it back to Europe — only to find that his 3-month journey has a lot more in store for him than he anticipated, and nothing goes exactly as planned. My fellowship similarly followed suit with its own surprises, bumps in the road, and memorable moments.
This journey started with a phone call. Much like the experience of my KF 16 friend, DJ Forza, this call arrived out of the blue, and was received with some degree of hesitation. As I was daydreaming about my placement relocation (first placement was planned for the Philippines) to the South Pacific gem, Samoa, two weeks before Kiva Fellows training, Kiva Fellows Program staff informed me that there was an urgent matter we needed to discuss.
A ball of tension immediately struck me in the gut. As the conversation progressed, I learned that, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wouldn’t be going to Samoa… and I wouldn’t be going to the Philippines. I would be going somewhere for this fellowship, but the location was yet to be determined, and I would find out in a few days.
Three days later, KFP informed me that Sierra Leone was the most available placement, and that I would have to make the decision and shift gears as soon as possible. I think my response at that moment was, “Wow. Ok. Can I think about it?”
My family started to wonder what I had gotten myself into, what I signed up for. There was a lot of head shaking and concerned looks shared amongst my family and friends, and a lot of pity faces that conveyed, “Oh jeez, Tejal, you’re nuts. What ARE you doing?” I recalled images and scenes from the movie “Blood Diamond,” reports in the news about corruption, documentaries about civil war, and tried to push them far out of my mind. Kiva Fellow alum assured me to relax and do more research, and shared their overwhelmingly-positive experiences in “Swit Salone.” Shortly after, at KF16 training, I met over 20 amazing individuals who signed up for the same experience of spending almost 4 months in unfamiliar surroundings, and realized that if I’m crazy, I have many crazy friends right by my side to help me through this exhilarating journey. And so it began…
A warm welcome
Salone undoubtedly welcomed me with open arms, with its people being some of the warmest and most accommodating I’ve ever met, and its weather being comparable to a rainforest sauna. On my first day at BRAC, I was pleasantly shocked at how quickly the staff took me under their wing, instructing me how to take public transit around the city, taking me to beaches and local football matches, and planning weekend outings.
Additionally, the Kiva Coordinator, Mbalu, and I found ourselves inseparable: we stuck side by side on field visits, trainings, even for fun weekend cooking sessions. And when I wasn’t at the office, I found new friends in local business owners, school kids in the neighborhood, and families that religiously welcomed guests with a friendly, “How de body?” (Krio for “How is your health?”).
The rainy and humid weather forecast made for exciting adventures navigating through Freetown on the back of motorbikes and cramming into poda-podas to jet across town to complete Kiva deliverables with Mbalu. There really is nothing quite like taking a motorbike ride through a torrential storm in Freetown!
Speed bumps, pot holes, and the trough of disillusionment
Like every journey, mine hit quite a few bumps and pot holes along the way. In Kiva Fellows training, we were told to expect a trough as we progressed through our Fellowship workplan. My “fall” into the trough occurred slightly early, around week two, while I was starting a large project that would help take BRAC Sierra Leone from Pilot to Active status in their partnership with Kiva. A few of the catalysts that induced my “falling” into the trough were a combination of understanding cultural differences, adjusting to a new work environment, and finding a groove to personal productivity.
At first, I tried absorb and observe as much as possible in the new work environment: work culture, policies, traditions, best practices, hierarchy, field work, microfinance products and programs – without passing judgment on what could be “better” or more efficient. But little did I know that my KF-powered brain was already in go-mode, looking for ways to improve things and not actually taking the time to understand how systems worked, and more importantly, why they were the way they were. This resulted in major frustration, miscommunication, misunderstandings, and many hand-on-forehead moments.
Those six weeks in the trough, although very difficult, proved to be some of the most eye-opening of the entire fellowship, and brought to light a very humbling and important lesson: modifying my definition of success and using different benchmarks to measure productivity will in turn change the way I viewed efficiency. As soon as I realized this (thanks to the help of family and friends who gave the golden advice!), everything seemed more manageable, clear, and sensible.
A third struggle I encountered, and unfortunately have never quite overcome, was understanding the weight of poverty and economic conditions in Sierra Leone, and realizing as a Kiva Fellow, as a foreigner, and as an individual, there were few things I could change on my own and had control over, but many more that I could not change. This has by far been the hardest reality to digest. And although microfinance work does help hundreds of thousands of people in Sierra Leone, the reality is that microfinance alone won’t solve all problems, it won’t heal an entire nation.
Despite these challenges, the growth, knowledge and friendships I’ve gained in Sierra Leone have made this fellowship a memorable and life-altering experience I won’t forget. The wonderful people I’ve met, the warmth of the people, the food, the natural beauty, and of course the work I’ve done at BRAC Sierra Leone will always remain fondly with me.
I think back to that memorable day in August when Kiva called me to introduce me to this opportunity, and have never been more thankful to have given the chance to find a home in Sierra Leone during my fellowship. I’m very sad to leave, but know that soon enough, I will find myself back in the embrace of Swit Salone.
Tejal Desai is a Kiva Fellow finishing her fellowship in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She has been working at BRAC Sierra Leone, and has been grateful for the hospitality and support the BRAC Staff has shown her during her time in Freetown. She encourages you to support sustainability in Sierra Leone by joining BRAC Sierra Leone’s lending team and loaning to a BRAC borrower.
Read Tejal’s additional Kiva Fellows blog posts here.