We all work hard. We all put in time into something we are passionate about. Or, we exhaust all our efforts into something we believe will make a difference. Studying for tests. Crunching numbers in the office. Life is work. Work is life. Throughout my entire life I’ve been fortunate enough to meet extremely hard working individuals that have inspired me to not only work hard (my father) but follow your heart (my mother) despite any setbacks you may face (my sister).
However, in only a few weeks into my Fellowship I encountered a person, a position, and a lifestyle that I would like to shed light upon in hopes of providing a better understanding of what occurs behind the scenes of microfinance for our Kiva Lenders.
Juanita is a small yet extremely energetic mother of three young children. She is a loan officer in San Felipe Del Progreso with VisionFund Mexico. Like the town itself, her smile is small and humble. Her eyes are as delicate as her laughter, which erupts in any given situation. When you first meet Juanita, her tender voice makes your world feel more secure, more at ease.
I rush off the bus, still dazed from the two-hour bus ride from Mexico City. It was 8 am and I was a little late. Failing to successfully navigate the tiny maze that is San Felipe I find myself asking every person that walks by where Calle Juarez is located. I reach deep into my pockets out of frustration and pull out a small piece of paper with the office number scribbled on it. I call and ask for Juanita. I tell her where I am and she directs me where to go over the phone. Within minutes I see her waving me down furiously. We greet each other and she begins telling me the plan for the day. We will visit four groups in a limited span of time. Before I can catch my breath and orient myself, we immediately jump into a cab.
The ride is about a half hour. The driver crams five of us into his small taxi car. I’m the fortunate one who gets to sit right on top of the clutch. Each time the driver needs to switch gears, he reaches between my legs, grabs a metal handle, and jams the metal ball into my crotch. Back and forth. Left and right. Whenever the driver slows down or speeds up, I immediately clench my jaw and close my eyes.
We finally reach our destination. In a town even smaller town than San Felipe del Progreso, we switch into another taxi. This one drops us off at the bottom of a mountain. We get out. The sun is beginning to get hotter, and there is no shade for miles. She looks at me, looks at the mountain, and looks back at me. As if to tell a joke, she cracks a smile and giggles “Vamos?”
The altitude in San Felipe del Progreso is actually higher than Mexico City. It’s a little harder to breathe. After 30 minutes of walking up the hill we reach our first group. Juanita, without even needing to catch a breath, immediately takes control and gathers everyone together. This meeting is for repayments and to request new loans. The meeting runs smoothly. I learn that one individual, who isn’t present, isn’t paying her fair share of the loan. So Juanita, a pack of five women, and I decide to go find her and settle things (peacefully, of course). We walk about a mile towards a small farm surrounded by muddy paths and barbed wire. Suddenly, one of the women points towards a dust cloud being pulled by the reins of a large truck, its tires growling under the scorching sun. I’m told it’s the woman the group is looking for.
Juanita leads the group in front of the truck as it seemingly picks up speed, the roar of the engine clamoring along the dirt path. The ground shakes as its cries crawl up through our feet and into our hands. We have a Mexican Standoff (pun intended). The truck comes to a screeching halt. A tall woman jumps out, clearly perturbed by the roadblock. Juanita, stiffening her back as she speaks, explains to the woman the obligations she has to the group and the repercussions if she does not abide by them. Her voice is stern and her dedication unwavering. The two women argue back and forth in rapid fast spanish. Ultimately, the woman apologizes, acknowledges her responsibilities, and promises to pay the money that the other women had to pay to cover the loan.
Once that’s settled we are off walking again. I ask here where it is and she points to a small church lodged between 2 rolling hills. It’s similar to seeing the large castle at the end of the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz. Except hotter. And with mountains. And rivers to jump. And manure to tread through. And more mountains. And in spanish.
We are told that we can’t walk down the road because it inundated by the recent hurricanes. We have to find another path. With Juanita leading the way we jump over small rivers, walk through cornfields, and run past angry cows to reach our next destination. Another meeting is held, more documentation filled out, and money exchanged. We are off again. I ask Juanita again where the next place is. As usual, she references the farthest place seeable along the distant horizon. I let out a sigh and she laughs “Vamos?”
As we walk the sun gets hotter. The grass gets taller. The cows get angrier. When we arrive to a cement house a young girl meets us. She tells us that the group had to leave for various reasons. Juanita doesn’t appear disappointed. She calmly tells the girl to tell her mother that she will return tomorrow at the same time. The girl promises to pass along the message to her mother and we’re off again.
As we walk I look at Juanita. Her eyes are as tired as her shoulders. It’s about two in the afternoon and I haven’t seen her eat anything since we first met. The entire journey she led the way. I would try, but I could barely keep up with her. I ask her if she walks long distances every day. She says she does. She adds that at the end of each day she returns to the office and fills out paperwork. There’s no resignation in her voice, no burning exhaustion poisoning her words. Rather, she speaks with her chin pointed to the sky and a large smile as bright as the overhead sun, as if challenging it to outshine her optimism. She is palpably passionate about her work and her clients. Everyone we meet greets her as family. She believes in her clients, and they trust her in turn.
We scale down the long hill and wait at the curb for the next bus to pass. I look around and see nothing but open plains, houses dotted haphazardly throughout the landscape, and one long, windy road that splits the hills surrounding us. Juanita tells me that buses sometimes do not pass for hours. Luckily, within 20 minutes a friend Juanita knows passes by and offers us a ride to a bus stop along the highway. He drops us off and we catch the bus. We ride it for about 20 minutes and get off. We cross the street and I look up. Juanita recognizes the exhaustion in my face. She just pats me on the back and orders “Vamos”.
We climb for about 30 minutes. We reach the house of our next meeting. The women we meet with are happy to see us. They openly tell me about heir businesses, traditions in Mexico, and ask me what I think of their country so far. The sun is starting to set. Juanita makes the the meeting quick so we can get back on the road before it gets dark. Too dangerous to go down the way we came up, we have to walk down the winding rounds that wrap around the hill.
Finally able to catch my breath, Juanita and I are able to talk at length about a wide variety of things. Family, passions, habits, cultures and worklife. In fact, Juanita tells me that she was recently promoted to a managerial position. For the past couple of weeks she has been saying goodbye to borrowers as she slowly transitions into her new position. She felt sad, but she was looking forward to taking on new responsibilities. Upon hearing the news I scream “Yay!” and we exchange high fives. I was almost as happy as watching the Patriots and Red Sox win last second games this past Sunday (sorry, I had to).
We take a taxi to our final borrower. We drive up a mountain and take so many turns I lose all sense of direction. We park outside the house and walk up. We approach two children and ask where their mother is. The young boy points behind us and we look over to see her walking back towards us, probably wondering what two strangers are doing at her house so late. Relieved to have found her, I am able to complete one of my deliverables as a Kiva Fellow, which is to verify the accuracy of loan profiles posted on the Kiva website. I finish taking photos and asking her questions so that Juanita and I can head home.
Back at the office Juanita heads straight to her office and buries her head in paperwork. I recollect my things and get ready to head to Veracruz, about 8 hours away. Before leaving, I thank Juanita for her patience and kindness. She smiles at me one last time and wishes me the best of luck. I step out of the office and back onto the street to catch my bus, forever enamored and inspired by the simple beauty of San Felipe del Progreso and the people that were kind enough to welcome me into their homes.
This blog isn’t about glorifying the life of a Loan Officer. Rather, it’s about exposing the gears that churn endlessly across the globe to power the machine that is microfinance. It’s fantastic to see and read about the lives that were changed through the empowerment of microfinance. However, without people like Juanita the money might never reach borrowers. The hopeful faces of countless entrepreneurs may never be known to the outside world. Their stories may never be told. Borrowers may never develop the self-confidence to confront a capricious world and invest in a business with the hopes of providing better financial security for their families. Without people like Juanita microfinance does not reach its full potential.
So, as a kind reminder, the next time you make a loan keep in mind the people that work hard to build the connection between borrower and lender. Whether in Kenya, Peru, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, or Cambodia, there is a Juanita who brings a warm smile to every meeting, no matter how many mountains she climbed or how many miles she walked, to get there.