A Chance Encounter En Route to Dakar, Senegal

I have a strong tendency to read (ok fine — skim) blogs filled with photos; aesthetically, it’s what I naturally gravitate towards, and I’m sure many readers out there likely do the same.  Ironically, with this post I’m about to defy most all of my preferences as my camera has… unfortunately found a new home.

It was important to remind myself as my camera went missing (as it is in so many other situations traveling or otherwise) that keeping an open mind and rolling with the punches is vital to staying sane.  Had I not have done so at the very start of my trip, I would certainly not have the following story which I’m thrilled to share.

It didn’t start well, as I suppose encounters with strangers – especially on planes, in close quarters – at times do not.  I “accidentally” placed myself in the seat one to the left (…aisle!) of that assigned to me.  That attempt did not last longer than what it took for me to get situated, as the man who was in fact assigned to the seat I was occupying would quickly and abruptly (for the first time, mind you) correct my error.  His method was not your standard gentle nudge, but instead an aggressive wave in my face of his ticket stub, and two flight attendants accompanying at his back demanding I — “Please, ma’am, you must move.”  Of course I did so immediately, and apologized profusely for my error.  The dispute was settled cordially; we gave one another a very forced smile and I carried on with my reading.

The silence lasted about 15 minutes, until our plane began its ascent and the same man to my left pulled out a SkyMall purchased green blow-up tray table pillow.  Admit it — you know what I’m talking about!  It’s that outrageously oversized item in SkyMall Magazine that, when you’re flipping through the pages, catches your eye and forces you to pause for a few seconds and contemplate:  “Seriously, who on earth would ever need or want this.”  (Photo below if you’re not familiar.)

The infamous SkyMall pillow ad


Well, I’d found my guy, and after 3 minutes of watching him work to inflate his pillow, I simply could not hold back my giggles.  He of course noticed, and turned towards me with initially a glare of sorts.  That is when our conversation began…

Mo (short for Mamadou) was born and raised in the outskirts of Dakar, Senegal.  At the age of 13 his family moved to the states for his father’s work, and he has lived there more or less ever since.  Mo lives and works in Washington DC, with an annual pilgrimage home to Dakar to visit family.   When Mo learned that I was Dakar-bound to work with Kiva, his enthusiasm for Kiva was effusive.  Not only was Mo familiar with Kiva, but Mo is a lender himself.  (I should clarify: Mo is a Kiva lender through his niece, who first joined and began an account for “their family”).

Our destination, and Mo’s home country


To me this was fascinating, an absolutely perfect brain to pick.  Not only was I meeting a Kiva lender (awesome…), but moreover I was meeting a Kiva lender originally from the country to which he finds individuals – or groups – to give loans.  I was so curious to learn more.

Mo explained, unprompted, how powerful in his mind an organization such as Kiva is: “Kiva successfully illuminates the issues and lives of those in my country for people around the world.”  He went on to describe his firm belief in the power of loans.  They are, in his mind, a method through which “his people” can escape from a culture of dependency (aid, corruption, trade, debt, etc.), into independence, self-sufficiency, and retention of their cultural identities.  He emphasized how fundamental this all is to their personal empowerment.

I listened carefully though somewhat perplexedly.  I know that Kiva is subject to the same biases and attacks of all microfinance critics.   It couldn’t possibly be that EVERYONE feels the way Mo feels.

Kiva, bringing people together, even on airplanes

(My questions were incessant.   I apologized several times for this, but Mo insisted I continue.  If I hesitated in order to give him space to breathe, he’d probe me with: “So… what else??”)

I asked what his opinion is of those in or from his county who may feel differently, perhaps averse to Kiva or microfinance, particularly when facilitated through foreign entities.  He explained that of course there are individuals who disapprove of the idea of Kiva and other microfinance organizations.   But if they think the obstacles which ensnare their country and communities are surmountable without outside help, maybe it’s instead the idea – their mindset — which needs righting.

Mo had a cool and perspicacious way about him.  He was truly pleasant to talk to — the sort of person you can tell is addressing you directly, not looking astray at distractions nor seeking approval or agreement.  His speech is soft and unhurried, and as he explained to me, his love for travel comes from chance interactions such as that which we were experiencing right then and there.  Being both snarky and sarcastic, I pointed to his SkyMall pillow – still inflated… — and told him he had “that” to thank.

By the time morning dawned, we were half way through our +/- 9 hour voyage across the Atlantic, and my eyelids were drooping.  That’s where our Kiva conversation ended.

What started off as a seemingly dreadful beginning to my journey ended up being a most memorable encounter for me.  Silly purchases aside, I could not have crafted up a better person to meet than him as I embark on this journey.  I have no doubt that the upcoming months will be filled with peaks and plateaus, and at times (as forewarned at our Kiva fellowship training) “troughs of disillusionment.”  My conversation with Mo, however, made more promising my ardent hope that I find potential in micro-loans.  At the very least, this interaction will undoubtedly make the inevitable frustrations a bit more palatable.

*Mo:  If you’re reading this fellows blog (as I learned you often do) — what a delightful turn of events it was meeting you, and my most sincere thanks for allowing me to share this story.  I’m investing in my own green SkyMall tray table pillow immediately upon return to the states!

Anna Forsberg (KF19) is a Kiva Fellow, working with UIMCEC in Dakar, Senegal. 

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