Posted by: joshtoro | January 8, 2009

A Reflection in a One-Way Mirror

I am entering into the homestretch of my Kiva fellowship- five days left in Huancayo and three days in Lima then it is back to America to start a new race: job vs. my savings account.  If anyone can pick up big changes by noting the small things (quick note: I am reading The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy…I’m pretty sure nothing in this post has anything to do with the book but who knows? I’m only on page 116), they would have noticed that I am not nor will be going to Bolivia.

Basically in late October Kiva had its first ‘summit’ of all their Field Partners that operate in South America in a school on the outskirts of Asunción, Paraguay.  In a side conversation at the summit, it was determined that since Emprender (the MFI I was to visit based in La Paz, Bolivia) had never had a Kiva Fellow before, they wanted one to come who could stay for an extended period of time.  Another part of the equation were my own limitations: I was going to be working with EDAPROSPO in Lima, Peru until December 15th; my fellowship had to end on January 16th; and most MFIs and businesses pretty much shut down/do the year-end books from Christmas to New Years.  After a conversation with Michelle (head of Kiva’s operations in Latin America & the Caribbean), it was decided that I could go on a ‘journaling blitz’ with another Kiva Field Partner (MFI) located in the sierras of Peru (a compromise: as close to a ‘Bolivian’ experience as was available).  Thus, for the past month (minus the week between Christmas and New Years when there was no work to be done) I have been working with Microfinanzas PRISMA Peru, a considerably larger microfinance institution.

If EDAPROSPO central offices had five staff members (they do), then Microfinanzas PRISMA’s central offices have five STORIES (they do).  If EDAPROSPO has branches in six neighborhoods of Lima (again, it does), then Microfinanzas PRISMA has branches in six PROVINCES of Peru (I’m going to stop with these cutsy parenthetical interruptions…but not the if, then facade).  If EDAPROSPO has 400 loans on Kiva’s website, then Microfinanzas PRISMA has 4000 loans on the site.  Thus, my experience was bound to be different than the one I had with EDAPROSPO, a variety that I willfully selected – I had had the option of just staying on at EDAPROSPO for another month.

At EDAPROSPO I was the first Kiva Fellow they had ever had – my main task was to establish the relationship and put a face to the Kiva that wired them money every month and had them interviewing borrowers and putting their photos and stories on a website.  One of my first decisions was whether to live with the assistant director of operations, Guillermo, or live in a hostel in downtown Lima.  I was initially hesitant to choose the former if only because the cost would be the same while the commute would go from a five-minute walk to an hour-long two bus ride.  Living with Guillermo (and his girlfriend Katie who also works at EDAPROSPO, and his grandmother ‘Abuelita’ or María if you’re someone who calls grandmothers by their first name and his cousin Reuben) was the best decision I made.  Guillermo made sure to give me the complete Peruvian experience and towards the end of my time in Lima, I had been certified as one-of-us – a Limeño.  I think being able to decipher all the buses by colors, handpainted signs, letters stenciled into side-view mirrors, numbers that may or may not be on the roof, etc. and then even giving directions to Katie on how to get to a part of town I’d never set foot in (including transferring buses) sealed the deal.  The relationships I formed at EDAPROSPO quickly moved beyond the professional relationship I was to set up and became a personal friendship with several EDAPROSPO employees, most of all with Guillermo.  I won’t recount all the fun times I had with EDAPROSPO staff in this post; but since they are etched in my memory, I will save them for a later post.  A book I read this past weekend – How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen – had an opening essay on his father’s battle with Alzheimer’s which included a throw-away passage on how recounting happy memories actually rewires the physical structures of our brains and thus influences how we interpret future events.  Like Franzen, I won’t say anything further on the subject here.

Building and supporting the organizational relationship between Kiva and EDAPROSPO meant that my work involved much more than simply going into the field to interview entrepreneurs for journal updates.  I would say half my time was in the field and half my time was in the office.  Most of my work went into internal documents for future Fellows and Kiva staff but I did manage to interview around 60 entrepreneurs and take 27 videos that I could share with you.  Though the hours at EDAPROSPO were long (commutes did a stellar job of lengthening the workdays), the days were varied and my tasks were vague and work came of my own initiative.  Over the course of two months I got to visit every branch of EDAPROSPO, working mainly with three of them and extensively enough with one (Comas) that I got to the point where I knew all the staff there quite well.  Because I felt that I had formed pretty solid relationships, visited all of the branches, and written journals for almost a third of their outstanding loans, I felt it would be fun to go to another organization for my last four weeks.

From the start, my work assignment was different: Microfinanzas PRISMA had the same number of journals written as EDAPROSPO had when I got there but ten times the number of outstanding loans that needed journal updates.  I would be going on a ‘journaling blitz’; targeting Juliaca (near Lake Titicaca as a nod to my strong desire to go to Bolivia) and Tarma (in the sierras of Peru, about 6 hours from Lima).  Since the plan had already changed once, I think it decided to just keep on changing.  Before I had finished my time with EDAPROSPO, another Kiva Fellow assigned to Microfinanzas PRISMA in Huancayo (in the sierras, 7 hours from Lima) had her backpack stolen while she ate lunch at a cafe.  Since the backpack contained her iPod, laptop, and camera; the loss was pretty devastating.  She ended up coming back to Lima and, after a time to recuperate and try to get a replacement camera and laptop (which were, tragic to the point of laughable, stolen from a Kiva staff member’s luggage on his way from the States to Peru), headed out to Pucallpa in the jungle and Juliaca.  Since Huancayo (along with Tarma) were the biggest needs in terms of overdue journals, my blitz switched before it began and my itinerary now included Tarma for the first ten days, a surprise Xmas vacation in the States, and Huancayo for 13 days; Juliaca, Lake Titicaca, and Bolivia would all have to wait for some other time in my life.  

A ‘journaling blitz’ when put in the hands of the ‘super-industrious-bordering-on-workaholic’ mindset of Peruvians meant that my weeks in Tarma and Huancayo have been filled to the brim, if not overflowing, with visits to entrepreneurs.  My surprise Xmas vacation split these work-crazy weeks in two and thus made them more palatable.  If my introduction into the working life has gone from 16 hours a week at grad school from January to May, to 40 hours a week at the Carter Center from May to August, to 50 hours (in the office…not any of my time uploading updates on the web or editing short videos) a week at EDAPROSPO from October to early December, then my time in Tarma and Huancayo is merely a natural progression in my work schedule.  In Tarma I worked every day of the week from as early as 5am (usually 6.30am) until 9pm, though I did get to start work at noon on Sunday.  By the time Christmas vacation rolled around, I was ready for it.  My journaling blitz in Tarma proved to be just that: I worked up an astounding (at least to me) 55 journal updates, a number I hadn’t surpassed until the end of my second month with EDAPROSPO.  In Huancayo, in just three work days, I have built up an additional 35 journals.  Thus while EDAPROSPO had varied work and enough office time to meet and know all the staff of every branch, my time with Microfinanzas PRISMA has been very concentrated (WRITE AS MANY JOURNALS AS POSSIBLE) and thus afforded me the luxury of really only getting to know the two loan officers who have directed and accompanied me to all the clients (specifically, Angela in Tarma and Jessica in Huancayo).

Is there a point to this post? you may be asking yourself.  And at this time, probably 7 minutes in, I have to confess there isn’t.  We were simply rained in this afternoon and with a mountain of notes sitting in front of me, written in a mixture of Spanish and English, from 80 interviews waiting to be assembled into coherent stories, I chose instead to write a new post and delay the inevitable just that much longer.  I scheduled myself an extra day in Lima before I fly to Washington DC for the inauguration so I am somewhat tempting fate: hoping that somehow I’ll be able to write basically 100 single-spaced pages of stories in two days and thus arrive, like Obama, in DC with a clean slate and nothing from the past to occupy my time nor demand my immediate attention.

I think we all know how likely it is that between us, Mr Obama and I, won’t have any nagging concerns leftover from the past few months to deal with…


(If you have a story or memory that you want me especially to address in this blog, please post it as a comment to this blog entry… Since it is unlikely you know any of my particular memories of my time here in Peru, I will allow you to proffer emotions, specific dates, possible situations, personal questions, or topics to muse on as potential memories that you want me to share) 


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