I can’t read anything. That was the first daunting realisation that hit me as my airport shuttle found a spot in Bishkek’s morning traffic jam. Before moving to Kyrgyzstan as a Kiva Fellow, I had not lived and worked in a country where the official language was not english. In the capital, Bishkek, russian is widely spoken while the native, kyrgyz is prominent in the south. When you’re traveling for pleasure, it is easy to get by with only a handful of useful local words like gelato, bratwurst and phở. Here I was, learning russian Microsoft Excel formulas and trying to do my grocery shopping by making animal sounds at the butcher station. Word of advice - using google images is more effective than “Baaa! Baaa!”.
I have to admit, the first few weeks were really tough. I spent many dinners alone, scanning over menu’s with my google translate app. Weekends were a solo-affair, walking the streets of Bishkek with my lonely planet guidebook. I was in dire need of a friend.
Fortunately, the Kiva fellowship experience kept introducing me to new people and that is how I met Lira. I recently delivered a fun presentation on Kiva at a summer camp attended by 200 Kyrgyz youth. The camp was held in the middle of the mountains of Chuy region, a breathtaking backdrop that made me pinch myself as we drove in. Given most campers did not speak english, Lira, a third year sociology student at the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), was my official translator for the presentation.
(Youth campsite in Chuy, Kyrgyzstan)
With international professors, exchange programs and a state of the art campus, AUCA is one of Central Asia’s best universities. However, a years' tuition for an undergraduate degree at AUCA is $5,750 USD, compared to the $2,500 USD average annual income in Kyrgyzstan. Luckily for students like Lira, AUCA is a Kiva field partner! For three years, Kiva lenders have been funding part of the financial aid package available to students from low income families. Lira is one of the 345 AUCA students to date with Kiva loans that come with a 4.5 year grace period.
The first time I met Lira, she was on summer break from university and travelled 1.5 hours from her village to meet me for coffee in Bishkek as a prep session for the presentation. When I apologised for how far she had to travel, she simply smiled and said “Kiva helped me get an education and I am happy to have the opportunity to help Kiva in return”. I was surprised by how open and candid our conversation was from the beginning - it was like we had been friends for years!
She answered all the questions I had piled up about life in Kyrgyzstan and even initiated a discussion on the issue of bride kidnapping - a sensitive topic I had been itching to learn more about. Lira’s mother, now a divorcee, was bride kidnapped by Lira’s father. It is said that only 1 in 100 women marry a man of their choosing here. Bride kidnapping is an integral part of Kyrgyz culture, and although illegal since 1994, is still widely practiced. In a nutshell, a man and his friends will hire a minivan for the day and literally, pick up a girl to bring back home. At home, female members of the man’s family will take turns attempting to cover her head with a wedding scarf while she tries to fend them off. Once the scarf is on her head, the wedding is confirmed. I found this
CNN article and this
Frontline article adequately reflected Lira’s account of the issue.
I am fortunate to have found a friend like Lira and since today is UN mandated, International Day of Friendship, I wanted to share our cross-cultural story with the Kiva community.
(With Lira after a successful presentation at youth camp)
The day places particular emphasis on involving young people, as future leaders, in community activities that include different cultures and promote international understanding and respect for diversity. That in itself is a huge part of what we do everyday as Kiva Fellows in the field. Last week I had the pleasure of meeting a former Kiva Fellow, Abhi, who was placed in Kyrgyzstan four years ago. Abhi formed a friendship with Chubak while researching start-up loan products during his fellowship and four years on, that friendship has developed into a business partnership. Abhi and Chubak run Ideagrad
, a startup incubator based in Bishkek that supports early stage entrepreneurs in the region by providing them with a comprehensive training and mentoring program along with a small seed capital. What a wonderful ripple effect of the Kiva fellowship program!
To further celebrate the day, I reached out to my Fellows class to collect friendship stories from all over the world:
(Roshni & Eka)
Eka was the Kiva Coordinator that I worked with during my time at KSPPS BMI and we got very close over the 3 weeks I was there. During the week we spent basically all our working hours together, and even sometimes hung out in the evenings after work. As most of the office was fasting for Ramadhan, Eka warmly welcomed me to attend many “Iftars” to break their daily fast, giving me the opportunity to experience Ramadhan firsthand. Not only was Eka my connection to many of the employees at BMI, my guide around Tangerang and my translator, but she became a good friend as well. I am thankful my time with Kiva gave me the opportunity to get to know such a kind person and experience her culture! Roshni Khurana, Indonesia
Read Roshni’s latest blog post, here
(Cooper & Alex)
When you’re jettisoned into a new country with a new job, what are the little things that make life easier? Upon my arrival in Peru, I had that familiar feeling of vulnerability that comes about with life’s largest changes – it’s a sort of vacancy that lingers in your heart reminding you of how little you know of the world. Given today is international friendship day – this is a shout out to my buddy, Alex. Alex filled the void that was left as I abandoned my simple life as a college student and moved to Peru. He became my good friend, my guide to Peru, and ultimately the bridge between isolation and solidarity. Turns out friendship is the best remedy to change – it very well might be the remedy to most of life’s hardships. Thanks for being awesome, Alex, cheers tío! Cooper Fitzgerald, Peru
Read Cooper’s latest blog post, here
(Doug & Geofrey)
This is my good friend Geofrey - he is a motorbike driver that I have grown to trust. He checks in on my every day and has had me over to his home to meet his wife and twin boys. I am working to help him budget his money so that he can save enough money to go back to school to be trained as an electrician. Doug Brainard, Kenya
Read Doug’s latest blog post, here
(Oleg & Saidkhon)
This is Saidkhon, an employee of a local MFI in Khujand I’m placed with. We became good friends really fast. He loves introducing me to the local culture, to show samples of local crafts, tasting traditional foods, telling me about ordinary people's life in villages and big cities. He is very patient about improving his English. Some days I teach him English, and other days he's teaching English to students of his own. He's my best guide to the "real people's Tajikistan", not just the fancy touristy stuff. Oleg, Tajikistan
Read Oleg’s latest blog post, here
(Elizabeth & Siang)
This is Siang, a Kiva Coordinator from Proximity Designs and now a really close friend of mine. I was surprised at how close we became and how fast it all happened. We bonded through 10 hour bus rides and have turned long work trips into mini vacations. We've learned a lot about each other and realize that we have quite a bit in common. Every time we meet someone, they just assume we have been good friends for a long time. I'm sad to be leaving her, but I'm excited to see when our paths will cross again. We plan on having a reunion in Bali sometime this year. Elizabeth Espinar, Myanmar
(Caitlin & Lenie)
This is me and my friend, Lenie. Lenie introduced me to our regular lunch spot, where I've tried many different kinds of Filipino food. My favorite is Langka - a jackfruit salad. We also sit next to each other at work and make each other laugh throughout the day. I feel lucky to have met Lenie and to have been welcomed so warmly into a new office and a new city! Caitlin Hurley, Phillipines
(Maelen & the Juhudi Kilimo team)
These are my amazing friends who work at Kiva’s partner, Juhudi Kilimo in Kenya. From the very beginning, Joseph, Elvin, Robert and Samwel have been my lifeline to adjusting to the bustling city of Nairobi. Over lunch and dinners out, they’ve shared insights into the Kenyan culture that you just can’t find in a guidebook. Best of all, these guys are the ones who make sure your Kiva loans are put to work out in the rural areas of Kenya. Elvin (center) is Juhudi Kilimo’s Partnership Officer and Kiva champion. Not only is he the key connection between Juhudi Kilimo and Kiva, but he also manages the Kiva performance of Juhudi Kilimo's 23 branch offices. Joseph (first on left) ensures that the day-to-day Kiva operations run smoothly and that you are kept up to date on new Kiva borrowers. Samwel (far right) trains Kiva borrowers on how to scale their farming businesses. He also educates farmers about the new clean energy products that Juhudi Kilimo offers through Kiva, such as solar lighting and clean burning stoves. Lastly, Robert manages Juhudi Kilimo's marketing and spreads the word about Juhudi Kilimo and Kiva services to rural farmers all over Kenya. Maelen Haugen, Kenya