the husband told me not too long ago: “i love the blog posts that are funny. the other ones are ok too, but the funny ones are the best.”
and while i, more than anyone, appreciate the hilarity of an uncomfortable story at my expense, i’ll tell you in advance husband (et al.) the following is sort of long and not really all that funny.
but you should read it anyway.
so i spent yesterday in the field not too far away from our office. the day started with two repayments in the morning – where we go to the ‘center’ (a pre-agreed client’s home) and collect their weekly loan installment. i’ve seen probably fifty to sixty repayments so far, but yesterday morning’s was particularly amazing.
we turned off the bustling semi-urban street into an alley about 1.5 meters wide and maybe 1 km long. being a self-proclaimed giant, i had to crouch a good part of the time we were walking to save my head from being taken off by the roofs (rooves? who knows.)
well it may have been a tight space, but man was there ever life happening.
the water taps had just turned on so everyone was carting fresh water back to their houses. brightly colored and buckets were stacked outside almost every door. women, wearing their day dresses that look like nighties, were washing clothes and dishes in their kitchens and kids, cats and dogs were roaming around looking for trouble.
it amazed me how life can carry on, and carry on so vibrantly, in a confined space such as this one. it was like its own self-contained world.
after finishing repayment and eating some lunch, we hosted 20 clients in the branch for their loan disbursement. with the indian microfinance crisis still affecting our business, disbursement is few and far between these days. t’s a real treat to see it go down.
the women arrived dressed to the nines – quite a contrast from their housework attire in the morning. they had on brightly colored sarees with gold edging and they talked quietly among themselves while they waited.
disbursement day is an exciting time for them – one that has the potential to make things a little easier for their families in the coming year.
as i was sitting in the room with these women, i couldn’t stop staring. something about the contrast between the morning’s living conditions and the well-coiffed people sitting in the office really hit me more than usual. so many things were running through my mind:
are you nice to your friends? do you ever bully your loan group members? do you treat your children with respect? do you worry if they will always take care of you? what will this money do for you? will you respect the process and repay? have you been truthful, or will you do anything to get money?
when the branch head eventually gave them their money about 30 minutes later they were beyond elated. they got almost giddy, but then tried to tone it down when they thought i was watching them. (which i was, like a jc-esque creeper)
with huge smiles on their faces, a quick goodbye “namaskar” (pronounced namoushkar) and carrying their purses filled with cash, the women left the branch. we then rushed off to facilitate a loan test.
these tests are administered to sanction a loan so that we can be confident that they understand the process and terms. this is one of the realities of dealing with often uneducated clients who are – at times – desperate for money.
we meet the group in a community that is quite possibly the most active i have seen so far. it’s an urban slum located, almost ironically, across the street from a new crop of luxury apartments and a big shopping mall.
kids and dogs were running everywhere, rickshaw and motorbikes were trying to squeeze through the lanes, cooking, laundry and baths were happening by the pond – all in a small space like you could never imagine. the houses themselves had thatched walls and clay tile roofs – like most i’ve seen so far – and were finished off with tarps or garbage bags to protect the structures from the rain.
once you enter inside these homes you almost forget that they aren’t made of much more than bamboo.
the house for the test had two rooms, a separate kitchen with tiles and a gas stove like my own – they even had a table for eating. the other room had a tv, fan and a giant family bed with plenty of floor space for sitting. (although these houses perpetually smell damp and musty, this one was among the better i’ve been in)
the group was made of four women ranging in ages from 25 – 50. the youngest, and the most vocal, was absolutely beautiful. she had lovely white straight teeth (fairly uncommon) and a warm face at which i just couldn’t stop staring. i am fully aware that this sounds weird – but hey – beauty is beauty.
and seeing as she was so enchanting – and close to my age – my mind started to once again race with questions:
are you married? is your husband good to you? do you have children already? do you enjoy life? do you want more than this? do you know that there is more than this? what do you hope for? what do you look forward to? what is your biggest fear?
and as we wrapped up the test, i found it oddly hard to say goodbye to this woman and walk out of the slum. for the first time since i got here i felt really struck by the poverty juxtaposed with how life goes innocently – almost unknowingly – on. it’s a sort of beautiful thing really, if you think about it.
and with another day under my belt, the journey continues to understand our clients. my mind is, and always will be, buzzing with things that in any other context i could somehow manage to strategically ask and understand. but not here. here, i have to observe and make my best guesses – and in many cases – i have to keep wondering.
so to the women who i have met, and who i will meet, if you somehow read this in a distant time, please know that these are the things i wanted to ask. these are the things i wanted to learn from your lives.