My Job

To get a sense for what my job as Client Relationship Manager with Zidisha is like, call a student in Buenos Aires who speaks only Spanish over a cell phone with a bad connection while in a taxi with bad brakes and a windshield that has more cracks than glass that is swerving through a maze of donkey carts and Land Rovers and try to explain how to do an algebra problem that she will read to you over the phone.  Also there’s another call incoming and your phone is low on credit.  Also, it’s 95 degrees out.

Today I had a meeting with a new applicant who had a stellar history of credit, a stable business selling dried fish and shellfish, and who had clearly taken the time to dress up for our meeting—she was wearing a scintillating green boubou that probably involved more square yards of fabric than all of the clothes I own combined and jewelry made from cowrie shells.  I thought that this was my lucky day—the perfect client!—until we hustled across the highway to the cyber café, installed ourselves at a station, and she said “you know, this is the first time I’ve ever used a computer in my life.” 

This actually happens a lot.  Even though our entire lending platform is online and borrowers are expected to post updates every 6 weeks or so, I still encounter a lot of borrowers who can barely turn the computer on and who enlist their 15 year old nephews and nieces to type applications for them.  With no nephew in sight, I put my hand over Mme N.’s on the mouse and began to walk her through the application.  I wanted to suggest that she take some time to consider our parameters and start the application at home, but she insisted that we begin right away.  It took us one and a half hours to read through the borrowing conditions and to go through boxes requesting name, DOB, ID number etc. with a time out while she recovered from the strain of typing letter by letter and I set up an email address for her.  That was the easy part.  All clients write a solid paragraph explaining their personal background, and we worked together to write out what region of Senegal she was from (La Casamance, a southern region characterized by poverty and civil war), her education level (a bit of  high school), and what she did with the profits from her seafood business (spent them on her children’s school fees).  I asked her to write a little about her personal interests and she repeated again that she worked at the seafood stand and put her profits towards paying for school and buying books and pens for her three children.  But what do YOU like to do? I asked, and she told me that really all she did was work and hope her children could stay in school and succeed.  Zero percent of her income or time went to entertainment. 

This is my way of explaining that I like my job, I love my job, a very great deal, and also that it’s challenging and time consuming and requires me to draw on reserves of patience that I don’t think I have and by necessity find that I do.  Every day I check our active clients list in Senegal—we have about 50—and if it looks like it’s been a long time since any of them have posted a comment, I call and arrange a meeting and go to see them at a cybercafé to ask about their business and help them write a message to their lenders.  Later I follow up on their message with my own detailed report.  Probably 2/3 of our clients type with one finger, but still take time at the beginning of their message to greet their creditors, wish them a good day, and thank them for their contributions.  While arranging meetings, traveling to meetings, and working to help clients clarify their thoughts and share them takes a lot of my time, my priority is chasing after clients who have fallen behind on payments and are in arrears.  I call to get an understanding of how their financial circumstances have changed—sometimes their business plans take longer than expected to succeed, but it can also be something unexpected, like one client who was arrested on a business trip in Mauritania and had to pay his way out of jail, or another woman who was diagnosed with cancer and spent her loan on the treatment—and we work to agree on a date when they can make a payment.  Sometimes they don’t answer the phone, which is when I use a different SIM card that I bought with a number that I use only for calling clients who won’t pick up for my recognized number.  If all that doesn’t work, I go to their houses and meet with them and work with them to devise a solution for repayment and explain their options for reducing payments or requesting a grace period.  I also work with new clients and am on hand to help them write applications, I review all submitted applications and email requests for more information, and forward finished applications to our verification partner for activation, all while fielding angry calls from impatient callers wondering why they haven’t been approved yet.  I have a grant from my college to be here, but I’m responsible for paying all my own expenses: travel, transport, lodging, cell phone credit, internet time, everything.  My phone is always on and I take calls all through the week and weekend.

I do this because I think I work for the best damn microfinance service there is.  No other group offers lower interest rates, affords as much choice and dignity to its clients and links members of the developed and developing world together on shared profiles that allow honest moments of sharing and shows snapshots of lives that are truly inconceivable to those who don’t experience them.  In the end this work empowers the most proactive and ambitious entrepreneurs in Dakar to access capital and build businesses that they would never have been able to otherwise.  I can’t say that I’m always conscious of this, but at times I truly realize how uniquely privileged I am to be able to straddle these two worlds; to come from a family that can afford to lend money through NGOs like mine and then also to be invited into homes in HLM and Parcelles Assainies to drink mint tea and see the inauguration of a new sewing machine or chicken coop.  A lender in the USA or Europe who lends as little as a dollar can see their loan’s application in real time as borrowers upload photos of the improvements they’ve made to their shop and painstakingly write posts explaining how many cell phones they’ve sold this month.  I love to see how the big picture knits together; how a small contribution by Western standards can have a very significant impact here.

Zidisha is an evolving organization that is always improving, and during my tenure here in Senegal we’re seeing something of a transition from being a small organization that can afford to spend a lot of time individually with borrowers and meet them at their homes to being a more substantial operation that expects more independence and technological savvy on the part of our borrowers.  In addition to the ubiquitous clients who type S L O W L Y we still have active clients who aren’t even fluent in French.  I was really frustrated one day when a client who had a agreed to a meeting in advance didn’t show up after I took a taxi half an hour’s ride away to his neighborhood, but when I met him the next day it was instantly clear: he spoke only Wolof, and a helpful neighbor had to come in and translate so that he could eventually articulate his comment and write it in French.  One challenge to doing business is that clients try to tell me what they think I want to hear: agreeing to meetings that they don’t understand, telling me they’re  5 minutes away when really they’ll be another hour, or most obstructive of all, the clients in arrears who insist that they’ll make a payment “tomorrow” three days in a row.  Our ideal client would have a history of credit, a clear business plan, the means to continue paying back a loan even if their project fell through, fluency in French, and the ability to navigate our website and post comments without being prompted, although that specific permutation of requirements occurs rarely.  From a Western standpoint our website is self-explanatory to the point of being repetitive, but here it’s new and unfamiliar.  My job as Client Relationship Manager is to bridge the gaps of understanding and to facilitate the lending platform.

It’s fascinating.  I predict now, in writing, that peer-to-peer microfinance is the way of the future; that platforms like Zidisha’s have tremendous potential to unite investors and entrepreneurs in mutually beneficial relationships, a potential that is only beginning to be tapped.  I go down to the cybercafés with the mamas and the grandmas and help them type a sentence or two about how their business is growing, and the stations next to ours are packed with precociously technological kids uploading pictures to Facebook from their cellphones minutes after they take them and chatting with cousins in Burkina Faso and Belgium.  In ten years those kids are going to turn from doing Which Twilight Character Are You? quizzes online to filling out applications for loans—I estimate that an eligible borrower who knows how to type and upload documents could write a successful app in 30 minutes.  I don’t think I’ll be working this same job when that time comes, indeed, my prediction and my goal is that this job as liaison to the web site will soon be obsolete.  Times are changing fast.  Let’s capitalize on them. 

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Crossing the marsh

Crossing the marsh

Crazy bridge

Baobab Baby

Baobab Baby

It’s like 10 trees all wrapped up in the same bark. Baobabs are incredible.

Paddling

Paddling

No one has ever been as happy to be paddling a canoe as I was to be paddling this canoe

Abalones

Abalones

Drying at Djifer

Sacred Trees

Sacred Trees

The three intertwined trees represent the coexisting religions of Mar Lodj: Islam, Christianity, and Animism

Delta Days

It was time to get out of Dakar.  I’ve been here for 5 weeks now, and the more time I spend here, the more things I find that I like—buses that obey only the laws of physics and sometimes not even those, my cobbler who speaks only Wolof and fixes my flip flops with an eight inch long needle and a blowtorch for 100 francs, my big rooftop terrace that looks down to the ocean, and the clients who call me, ask how my day is going, and then hang up.  But let’s be honest.  It’s wicked hot, the streets are full of trash, and I’ve only a seen a small part of this big big country.  It was time to go camping.

I arranged with Cheikh, a lanky guide with dreadlocks and gris-gris, to show me and four American girls around the Sine Saloum delta for four days.  The Sine-Saloum is a whole other world from the Cap Vert peninsula where I live now: it’s a patchwork of sandy islands and mangroves knit together by long fingers of briny estuaries, and the region is inhabited by the Serere people, who speak a language incomprehensible to Wolof speakers and who make a living by fishing.  We got there by taking a 4 hour bus ride down to Ndangane, the mainland jumping-off point for islandventures.

Here’s a little traveling tip: money goes a long way in Senegal during the tourist offseason.  In Ndangane we met the crew we would be traveling with; there was Cheikh of course, Kolli, a Baay Fall who played djembe professionally and used to live on the islands, Assane, a Chemistry and Physics student at the university in Dakar, Saana, the boat pilot, and Maimouna, my favorite, a 12 year old kid who hauled anchors, rigged fishing poles, broke down tents, and did anything that needed doing.  “I’ve babysat for kids older than him,” one of the girls told me, but if anything this 12 year old was babysitting us.  We had a 1:1 guide to guest ratio.

And they showed us the best of the Sine Saloum.  A lot of the pictures show much more than I can describe, but every night we ate fish caught that day grilled over charcoal, sat around a driftwood bonfire, played djembe, and drank juice made by mixing local plants and water and shaking them up.  In an uncanny way being out in the Delta reminded me strongly of the things I typically do over my summers back home: two years ago my friends and I built a raft that we poled down the Charles river and anchored to an island, and since then this little platform and green piece of land has been our go-to spot.  We canoe around, fish, chop down trees and light big fires, swim, and engage in various shenanigans.  In Uganda too I found myself spending a lot of time down by another river, the Nile, hanging out with the same kind of people who like to fish and build big fires and sleep outside.  It’s a comforting kind of constancy to know that in most places that I travel, there will always be river people who have an understanding of the good life outdoors.

We slept on a different island every night, and as we moved through the Delta we saw some wicked cool stuff.  There was the village of Mar Lodj, built around three huge intertwined trees and boasting a tam-tam drum that could communicate coded messages over 5 kilometers, the town of Djifer, which has been fishing and harvesting abalones for so long that there is now a spine of 30 foot tall hills of tumbling crumbling pink shells along the shore, and salt pits where women with shovels dig 3 meters into the sand to strike groundwater, wait for it to evaporate, and then scrape the crystals of white salt out of the ground.  The landscape of the salt mines was bizarre: craters sunk into the earth with jackal burrows in their sheer walls and narrow catwalks between them, and what I thought were little shacks but turned out to be storehouses packed to the palmwood rafters with salt.  It tasted great.  The estuary water around the salt fields was so shallow and still that you could clearly see tracks from where hyenas had walked in the water.  We walked through a swamp on the Ile de Diables that started off as a stroll through plains blackened by colonies of scuttling crabs and devolved into something from The Orchid Thief, where we waded up to our chests in gooey water between narrow mangrove corridors and slid slowly through the slippery slimy silt of the Sine Saloum.  I caught a stingray on surf casting tackle, saw boats propelled by sails made of patched bedsheets, and spent a frigid night on a soaked mat when my tent collapsed around me during the thunder and lightning of an unseasonably early monsoon.  I have never regretted leaving the city to spend time outside, and this was no exception.

We spent the last day in Saly, a beach town that caters to French tourists on vacation.  After lunch we trolled the beach for a good spot to swim, and ended up going into a fantastically luxurious hotel with fountains, stripy reclining chairs, nice speakers playing beach music, and cute French girls in pink shirts whose job it is to circulate among the guests to ask how your day is going and would you care to join the water polo game that will be starting in 15 minutes?  I bought 2 drinks, installed myself on a chaise longue, and after catching up on Stieg Larsson’s latest, I jumped into their gorgeous pool and played water polo for an hour. I felt a sense of sneakiness about the whole thing: here I was a filthy backpacker straight off the pirogue, but because my friends and I look European and speak French we were able to infiltrate their swanky club.  It was awesome.  Afterwards we went to a bar, watched The Spanish Armada rout the Italians in an annihilation of a match, and trucked back up to Dakar.  The whole four day weekend of food and travel and touring cost about $100.  Life is good.  It’s even better outside.