Archive for the ‘Uganda’ Category

Getting Married

April 11, 2010

I was thinking about my options. Three trucks were parked outside the party, all of them full of gifts to be delivered to the fiancée’s family. The refrigerator, wrapped in gold, looked heavy. So did the stove. The bags of rice and floor seemed a little more manageable, but they were dusty and I was in a black suit coat I had borrowed from the fiancé. I grabbed one of the dozens of crates of soda and beer, and I took my place in the queue.


Before you get married, you have to get engaged. Some rushed or unfussy couples might eschew the pomp of a formal engagement but insofar as there is necessarily some period of time between the moment they decide to get married and the moment they actually do, they were engaged. We think of an engagement as a private decision, however anticipated it may be by others, that is later communicated publicly, ideally to cheers and congratulations. Among the Buganda though, an engagement is a family affair, a ceremony just as elaborate and meaningful as the wedding itself.

In the local language, the engagement ceremony is called an introduction. Traditionally, it is the day when the two families meet to negotiate a dowry. We, those of us on the man’s side, had met earlier in the afternoon at a hotel not far from the house where, in more conservative times, the young woman would still be living with her family.

There is a uniform costume that all guests are expected to wear to an introduction. For the women, it is a colorful wrap reminiscent of an Indian sari. For the men, it is a long white robe called a kanzu and, on top, a black suit coat, a local twist on the lore which advises something old and something new. I had borrowed my outfit; my girlfriend had rented hers.

We entered in procession, men and women in two parallel lines. It was a lawn party, with two large tents facing each other across a short court of grass. Her extended family, about one hundred delegates, was already seated under one of the tents. He and his guests, an envoy of another one hundred emissaries, were ushered to the seats under the other tent. It looked like a scene of medieval battlefield negotiation. A third, equally large tent for unrelated guests had been erected on the slightly elevated driveway, like stadium seating for the jousting competition. Immediately when we sat down, friends of the bride delivered cold drinks and snacks from baskets on their heads, part flight attendant, part circus trick, part chorus line.

Negotiations began promptly, and it seemed like they would never end. In Africa, endless insipid speechmaking is the feeble child of the oral tradition and historiography of preliterate elders. Every gathering, no matter how small and informal, begins with a succession of hollow speeches, most of them no more than platitudes. An introduction, at least, is a little livelier because it is a negotiation, however stylized.

The deliberations were conducted in the Buganda language, but the friendly flow of banter and theatrics was easy enough to follow. The fiancée’s family enumerated the many reasons why their daughter merited her high sticker price: her beauty, her education, her connections, her lineage, her job. The fiancé’s family haggled, pretending with a smile to look under the hood for manufacturing defects. The fiancée was kept in hiding until the deliberations stalled, at which point she made a dramatic musical entrance. Immediately, the fiancé and everyone else exclaimed that she is indeed worth everything her family had demanded, which, by convenient prior arrangement, was exactly what we had brought with us to give them.

We, the fiancé’s entourage, went to fetch the gifts. We were a small army of movers in formal wear, like the opening scene of an orgiastic pornographic film. On our first trip, the women carried towering baskets of party foods on their heads, the foreigners discretely using one hand to balance their loads; the men made a chain and carried crates of beer and soda, looking like elephants walking trunk to tail. On our second trip we carried more practical foodstuffs: eggs, sugar, flour, and boxes of water. On our third trip we each carried a small wrapped gift, labeled explicitly for a particular member of the fiancée’s family. There were a few exceptional gifts too: the refrigerator, the stove, the carcasses of one goat and one cow, and several live chickens. Most of the presents were obviously intended to help offset the cost of the party; but others, like whatever was inside the dozens of handwrapped boxes, were clearly meant to begin forging a bond between the extended branches of the two families. Ironically, by the time we finished our delivery a wall of gifts had been built in the small grassy court between the two families. Sometimes generosity just gets in the way.

We were hoping that the program would relax once the deal had been sealed with a kiss, but the formalities continued. On the equator, direct sun feels like a red science fiction laserbeam that incinerates any human it hits. You can almost smell your hair burning. What is rarer on the elevated plains of east Africa is hot air temperature. On a glaringly bright afternoon, the tent trapped the warming air, and we sweltered in our layers of borrowed and rented polyester clothing. As the sun dropped from its zenith its rays angled into the side of the tent where we were seated, and our exposed skin withered and cracked like old autumn leaves. By the time the party ended in the late afternoon we felt like leftover beans that had been simultaneously baked and fried for hours; we were crusty on the outside and mushy on the inside.

Back at our cheap hotel, the air conditioner was broken. But thankfully the shower water was cold.

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Developing the Moon

April 1, 2010

The quest for the source of the Nile was “the opprobrium” that shamed geographers for millennia. The ancient Egyptians knew the river as far south as the great fork, but further exploration along the Blue Nile was blocked by the fortress highlands of Ethiopia and along the White Nile by the strangling, suffocating swamps of The Sudd. Following routes hacked and forged by the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans failed to penetrate any further into the vast blank space in the center of the map of Africa. It was not until the eighteenth century that James Bruce finally confirmed Lake Tana, in Ethiopia, to be the source of the Blue Nile, and it was not until the late nineteenth century that John Speke correctly speculated that the White Nile flows from the immense inland sea of Lake Victoria. Both men were ridiculed in England by disbelieving peers, incredulous that a puzzle which had confounded thousands of years of geographers and explorers had finally been solved. The source of the Nile is an x marking such a famous and lucrative spot on the map that even today countries vie for the title: Uganda claims the highest source; Rwanda the farthest; Burundi the southernmost; and Ethiopia the most voluminous.

Wrapped up in the mystery of the source of the Nile was the legend of the Mountains of the Moon, “mountains so high they defied all nature by bearing on their crests in this equatorial heat, a mantle of perpetual snow.” The Lunae Montes were first charted by the Greek geographer and astronomy Ptolemy in the first century, based on oral reports from the few travelers to Alexandria who had any information about the unknown people and places of interior Africa. For nearly two thousands years, learned Europeans chuckled at the image of snowy peaks in the thick of tropical Africa, until in the nineteenth century persistent reports arrived from East Africa about the glacial summits on the massive volcanic cones of Mounts Kenya and Kilimanjaro. But were these the fabled Mountains of the Moon? Or was there, as Ptolemy’s map suggested, a long, high range of mountains still hidden in the rain forest clouds of Central Africa? It was in 1888 that the debate was finally resolved when the American adventure journalist Henry Morton Stanley, on a hired mission to rescue the besieged Emin Pasha in southern Sudan, glimpsed the shimmering snowcapped peaks of the Rwenzori Mountains, the alien spine in very center of Africa. Not only is there snow on the equator, there are glaciers in a region famous as the heart of an oppressive jungle darkness. While Africa is full of astounding scenery, much of it lacks a recorded local history. Many of the legends that Europeans superimposed on the African landscape have become the commonly accepted mythology of the continent. The Rwenzori Mountains, straddling a few hundred miles of the border between Uganda and the Congo, are now known even locally as the Mountains of the Moon.

Recently, my girlfriend and I were hiking in Rwenzori Mountains National Park on the Ugandan side of the border. To summit the highest peak, Margherita, requires six or seven days of backcountry camping, but ours was a more modest adventure: a series of dayhikes from our base at a community campsite straddling the park boundary, an obvious line where cultivation abruptly bumps up against a tall, dense wall of tropical rainforest. The evening of our arrival we followed a community trail to a lookout point high above the campsite. From there we could see the park ascend in rugged stairsteps, first to the Portal Peaks and then, through a perfectly placed cleft in the nearer cliffs, to snowy Margherita.

The next morning Solomon, a park ranger and our guide for the day, led us on the first stage of the trail that eventually leads to the summit. Our goal was Nyabitaba Hut, where summiting hikers stop to sleep for the evening but where we would only pause before turning around to hike back down to our campsite. While not nearly as grueling as actually climbing the mountain, it would be more difficult than any single day on the summit trail, essentially doing two stages – the first one and the last one – in one long day.

Before entering the park, Solomon asked what other hiking we had done in East Africa, probably as a way to gauge our fitness. When we responded by saying we had climbed Kilimanjaro the previous year, he surprised us by saying that he had climbed the mountain in 2006. Even more impressive than an independent Ugandan tourist climbing a Tanzanian mountain, Solomon was part of a small group of select park staff – one other ranger, a senior officer, and two staff from Rwenzori Mountain Services, the sole concessionaire to run tourist expeditions in the mountains – sent to climb Kilimanjaro as a research expedition, to see what Tanzania was doing to manage its more famous mountain park that perhaps Uganda should be doing for the Rwenzoris.

Solomon almost did not get to go with his colleagues because he had trouble obtaining a passport. Being from the area around the Rwenzoris, Solomon’s tribe is closely related to the tribes of eastern Congo, and his family name is noticeably Congolese. Countless wars have been fought – are still being fought – in the forests of eastern Congo, and countless war criminals are known to be hiding there. The government of Uganda, in an effort to ensure that no Congolese fugitives manage to assume a new, Ugandan identity, scrutinizes passport applications from western provinces with a suspicion suggesting that the applicant is guilty until proven innocent. Solomon had to show his and his parents’ birth certificates to prove that he was born in Uganda to Ugandans, and he had to show his school records to prove he had never disappeared from Uganda, perhaps to fight and plunder in eastern Congo. After several interviews with government officials, he got his passport and then his paid trip to Tanzania.

When we asked Solomon what he and his colleagues had learned, he raved generally about the volume of the tourist traffic on Kilimanjaro relative to the modest trickle on the Rwenzoris. It was an answer that seemed to get the cause and effect backwards, like saying that a professional sports team is good because it has a lot of fans. When we asked what specific practices and policies they are doing in Tanzania that he and his colleagues were not doing in Uganda, he gave only two examples: “They have bigger huts, and more of them. And they have better cooks.” Natalie and I chuckled, fearing that the point of their research expedition had been lost on them, but throughout the day it became apparent that the Uganda Wildlife Authority does have a business model for the development of the Mountains of the Moon. And they seem to be sticking to it.

The trail to the Nyabitaba Hut follows the Mubuku River. Even in the dry season the river was violent and impressive, crashing over giant boulders that looked like little river rocks in the path of a tsunami of water. The trail crossed several tributaries, some of which were small enough to be forded but the other ones, the thick and powerful ones that fell like waterfalls rather than streams, were spanned by a variety of rickety wooden bridges. After about two hours of moderate hiking, the trail merged with one of the range’s spur ridges and angled steeply and persistently upwards. The ridge was so narrow it felt like walking on a stalled escalator to heaven, and on both sides of us the valley floor quickly dropped out of sight. To the right was the sound of one river rushing away below us and to the left was the sound of another; when facing straight ahead there was only the sound of the wind in the trees. Across the valley to the right was a wall of green interrupted only by the occasional cliff or waterfall, and across the valley to the left was the same postcard view. Rare birds like the Rwenzori turaco, endemic to the western branch of Africa’s rift valley, called from the tall, thick foliage. In the wet tropics, greenery grows in all three dimensions, as though it is trying to totally fill every available volume of space. I didn’t know until visiting equatorial Africa that poinsettias are trees.

Like the forest that we passed through, the trail was an ant colony of activity. Every few minutes we were overtaken by another group of three or six or ten porters carrying exactly two cut wooden building posts each. Some used cushioning crowns of woven banana fronds to balance their loads on their heads; others, typically younger men who were either tougher than their elders or thought they were, alternated between sore shoulders. Barefoot or in cheap sandals of used tire rubber, they ascended the muddy, rocky trail at a jaunt, pausing only to untangle themselves when their long, awkward cargo got caught on a jungle vine. Happy for a pause, we would step aside huffing and puffing to let them trot past.

Solomon explained the posts were for the construction of a new dormitory to augment or replace the old Nyabitaba Hut. On Kilimanjaro they had seen that every campsite on the most popular routes had accommodation to sleep over a hundred visitors. Nyabitaba, the only developed hut in the Rwenzoris, has only thirty beds. Solomon explained that it is rare for the park to get that many visitors in a single day, but that both ascending and descending hikers use the Nyabitaba Hut and that sometimes large groups from both directions meet and there is not space enough for everyone in the hut. During our hike, in the middle of one of the peak tourist seasons, we saw only one descending hiker and only four ascending hikers, so like Kevin Costner building his baseball diamond in Field of Dreams the construction of the new Nyabitaba Hut seems to be an act of faithful optimism. If you build it, they will come.

Later and higher, just before we reached the hut, the porters started passing us in the other direction. This time most of them, but not all, carried misshapen scraps of discarded wood. Some carried only a piece or two, but others labored under loads heavier than the posts they had carried up the mountain. According to Solomon, they are paid a flat rate by Rwenzori Mountain Service to carry the posts up and they are paid extra wages for every kilogram of scrap they carry back down. Each porter is free to choose how much scrap he wants to carry, or if he wants to carry any at all. As we had passed the park gate that morning we had noticed a large group of idling men, and we had assumed that as on Kilimanjaro they were hoping to be hired as porters for whichever tourist groups happened to be setting out that day. By the end of the day, after seeing so few tourists but so many porters on the mountain, it was clear the in the Rwenzoris the most reliable work to be had is in preparing for future tourists not serving current ones.

Finally we reached the Nyabitaba Hut, which needs to replaced more because it is too dreary than because it is too small. It is dark and dank, and the bunk beds are so crammed inside that the only way to get to the more distant ones is to climb over the nearer ones. I had to wonder whether I would prefer the one near the door, which would be more bright and airy but which would also be even less peaceful than having an aisle seat near the toilet on a long, crowded flight, or whether I would prefer the frighteningly dark and claustrophobic one in the corner where, once I had climbed past all the strangers between the door and my bed, I would at least get a good night of undisturbed sleep. The new hut was but a skeletal frame so it was impossible to know whether it would be an improvement in style or merely an increase in capacity. Making notes in the back of mind in case I return to climb to the peak, I made sure to confirm that hikers are allowed to sleep in their own tents.

Solomon gave us a tour of the campsite, proudly explaining some of the recent improvements like piped spring water from higher up the mountain and an unfinished side trail to a roaring but unseen waterfall not far away through the steep, dense forest. Most amazing was his description of the management of the camp’s two pit latrines, used one at a time throughout a one year cycle. After one of the toilets has been used for six months, it is locked and the other one is opened for the next six months. The six months allow the waste in the locked latrine to harden. Before the latrine is reopened, last year’s petrified waste is chiseled and shoveled and carried down the mountain one bucketful of excrement at a time. This is done, Solomon explained, because two million people live in the Mubuku River’s watershed, making it a health imperative that so much human waste does not seep into the drainage.

On the way down we asked Solomon about hiking possibilities in the park. Unlike Kilimanjaro, the Rwenzoris are not one big volcanic cone but a long range of craggy ridges and valleys. Our maps showed only one route up the Ugandan side, ascending directly from Nyakalengija to the east, and none up the Congolese side, which seemed like a colossal waste of space. Apparently our maps are dated, as Solomon explained that a new route, from Kilembe in the south of the range, has been opened. Two others routes – one from even further south at Kyarumba and one from Bundibugyo in the Semliki Valley to the northwest – are unofficially in use while still being developed for an official opening. All of the trails meet just below the peak, making it possible to combine them in any order to create several routes up and back down, and even clear over, the Rwenzoris. Solomon added that guides are not averse to bushwhacking, mentioning that a recent visitor had come exclusively to try to spot a very rare and elusive crimsonwing and had spent three unsuccessful days in an unmapped section of the forest. In addition, park rangers regularly bushwhack through unvisited parts of the park to monitor poaching and other illegal activity.

He chuckled when he mentioned that many of the guides and rangers are the children of poachers, and consequently he said they know the forest well, even the Congolese side. Recently, two mountaineering tourists hoping to save a buck had hired local guides to try to ascend the peak from the Congolese side. Their plan backfired when one of them broke a leg and had to be evacuated. Because Congo is in no political state to be developing adventure tourism, the injured hiker had to rely on Ugandan rescuers. Since he had not ascended from the Uganda side, he had not paid for their rescue insurance. The bill for the evacuation – and again Solomon chuckled – was a lot more than what they would have paid had they climbed the mountain from the Ugandan side.

At one point during our descent I pointed to an especially impressive waterfall across the steep river valley to our left, and I asked if I could come back and hire a ranger to take me to it. Solomon said it would be no problem, though he estimated it would take three days from the Nyabitaba Hut: one to bushwhack halfway around the top of the adjoining saddle, another to bushwhack the remaining half, and the third to hike back to the waterfall to enjoy the swim and the view.

We left the park that afternoon just as optimistic as Solomon and the rest of the wildlife authority about the park’s prospects. There seemed to be a managerial vision for the future of the Rwenzoris and a proactive plan to make that vision a reality. Indeed, everywhere my girlfriend and I traveled on our vacation, the Uganda Wildlife Authority and its community partners were equally inspiring. It became clear that their training is integrated when Solomon recommended that we ask for Bosco or Samson when we visited Semliki Valley National Park and they in turn recommended Patrick at Semliki Wildlife Refuge and Patrick recommended the Bigodi Wetlands Sanctuary where he used to work. Though government employees, the park rangers were not bureaucrats; they were insightful naturalists who considered themselves lucky to have the important task of protecting Uganda’s natural treasures. Their passion showed.

Back in Rwenzori National Park, Solomon’s enthusiasm and confidence were infectious, making me hope I have the opportunity to return one day to the Mountains of the Moon.

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Adventures of an African Microfinancier

March 20, 2010

The road to Kihihi, in western Uganda, is like a curvy woman playing the risky game of simultaneously toying with two very bad and dangerous men, thrusting her bottom into one man and flashing her bosom at the other man. As the rough, dirt track wavers back and forth, it flirts a little too boldly with the Congo border in one direction and way too precariously with several precipitous cliffs in the other one. Sure it may be exciting, but crossing the line with one of the men is likely to get you raped and if you take it a step too far with the other one you’ll be smashed to pieces.

Whenever the road took me west, I found myself fixating on a story from a book about Dian Fossey. A friend of hers in Rwanda was expecting a visit from her sons, who were driving from Nairobi, but the boys never arrived. She learned later they had taken the wrong road out of Kisoro, in the far southwest corner of Uganda, and without knowing it until it was too late, ended up in Congo. The boys were never seen again, and to this day no one knows exactly what happened to them. More than once I checked my handheld GPS unit to confirm I was still in Uganda.

On the eastern brink of my razor’s edge I got trapped between two lorries, one ascending and the other descending. I inched forward past the truck that was blocking my way, my outer tires riding the roots of the trees growing horizontally from the face of the cliff. I had to pull the sideview mirror inside the car after it hit the front bumper of the stationary truck. Anyone watching from across the ravine must have seen a cascade of dirt and pebbles tumble down the cliff and probably wondered if I would follow.

I was doing this dangerous dance because I had to check on an investment. I had recently lent $25 – through the internet – to a man named Henry Twinomugabe. I had found Henry through Kiva, a non-profit organization that markets itself as a platform for connecting “developing world entrepreneurs” with “social investors worldwide.” But Kiva had recently been caught in a small scandal for falsifying the way that it operates in order to attract more lenders and their capital. It was no longer clear that my money had actually gone to Henry, as Kiva had very explicitly encouraged me to believe.

The original controversy began on October 2, 2009 when David Roodman posted an article he called “Kiva Is Not Quite What It Seems” on his microfinance blog at the Center for Global Development. Kiva, he explained, does not actually take the money that you lend and distribute it to the borrower you select. In fact, most loans are disbursed long before the borrower’s profile is even posted on Kiva’s website, shattering the illusion of person-to-person philanthropy that so many lenders value and that Kiva itself worked so hard to conjure. Kiva had become immensely popular in recent years – lauded by Oprah Winfrey and tweeted about by Nicholas Kristof – so the allegation that it had been deceiving its users attracted attention. The blogosphere, like the photosphere, was alight.

The volume of the chatter continued to rise as more and more disgruntled lenders posted angry comments of disillusionment. Eventually the clamor reached the ears of The New York Times, which ran a short article on November 9, 2009. I was reading along from Uganda, and by now I had made my small loan – it was time to pay Henry a visit and learn what had become of it.


I began by locating the offices of Pearl Microfinance in Kihihi, but it was late Saturday afternoon and the doors were locked. I called each of the three phone numbers on the impressively clean sign that was staked into the uneven, dusty lot, and finally I reached a man in the Kampala office who quickly and amicably gave me the number of the manager in Kihihi, a man named Reme. He was not at the office but would be happy to meet me there in two hours.

Pearl is a microfinance institution, one of Kiva’s local partners in Uganda and, as I learned from Kiva’s website, the one administering Henry Twinomugabe’s loan. Kiva got itself in trouble by misrepresenting the way it and local MFIs, like Pearl, interact to fund borrowers. On its webpage titled “How Kiva Works,” the organization used to outline a very simple process in which: 1) Lenders “browse profiles of entrepreneurs in need, and choose someone to lend to;” 2) “Kiva’s microfinance partners distribute the loan funds to the selected entrepreneur;” and 3) “Over time, the entrepreneur repays” the amount of the loan to the original lenders. The page has been updated since it was revealed as a gross oversimplification, and now it is a longer description of a more complicated process, including accounting terms like “net billing.” Damningly, the current version existed all along, but prior to the scandal Kiva only used it when marketing itself to new MFI partners, as Tim Ogden revealed on his website Philanthropy Action.

In reality, Pearl had disbursed Henry’s loan a month before his profile was uploaded to Kiva’s website. The closest my loan came to contributing directly to Henry Twinomugabe was in backfilling the accounts of the MFI that had actually lent him money. My loan may have helped to assure the continued solvency of an MFI that Henry can return to for future loans, but it would be a stretch if not an outright fabrication to claim that I lent money directly to Henry, as Kiva’s marketing clearly suggested. And continues to suggest: after making my loan on December 10, 2009 – more than two months after the controversy began – I received an email confirmation from Kiva which stated, “100% of every dollar you have loaned will be used by your entrepreneurs to build their businesses.”

My email also explained, “When the loan needs of each entrepreneur you have sponsored are met, you will receive a confirmation that the loan has been disbursed to the entrepreneur. This may take a while after your individual loan transaction was made, as we may need to wait for other lenders to contribute before the total requested loan funding is raised.” A disgruntled commenter in the blogsphere succinctly summarized the deception, venting a little frustration in the process. “Kiva gives the impression that if lenders do not fund a project, that project will not happen. Right now there’s a project with $250 left to go, and it ‘expires’ in 8 hours, 15 minutes. That gives me a sense of urgency. I might even give the whole amount. But if the loan has already been made, then the ‘expiration’ isn’t true.” It is true that if Kiva lenders do not pledge the full loan amount then the MFI that predisbursed it will not be reimbursed, but that is very different than Henry not getting his loan because I opted not to lend my $25.

Reme, at Pearl, was friendly and welcoming. He gave the impression it was totally ordinary for a lender to want meet the person he had lent to yet at the same time so wonderfully extraordinary of me to take the time and spend the money to come all the way to Uganda to meet Henry, whom he recognized immediately from the photograph and profile I had printed from Kiva’s website. He certainly knew of Kiva, since he manages the field staff who take the photos and write the profiles, but he did not seem to be aware of the recent controversy.

For all his warmth, Reme had his suspicions about me. After we had spoken for a few minutes he telephoned a woman in Kampala he called “my CEO.” They spoke about me in a way that made it clear they had already spoken about me before I arrived. After their phone call Reme and I continued our conversation freely, and Reme said that Sunday morning would be the perfect time to try to find Henry, since everybody stays close to home on Sundays.


I picked up Reme at Pearl’s offices, where he and the accountant live in two of the outrooms on the back lot. Though it was early on Sunday, the small building was impressively active. A few of the field staff had returned late on Saturday; one of them had been in a small accident on the way back, and he was inspecting the dented motorcycle to determine what repairs might be needed. The accountant, George, was up too, because, he said, he never gets the chance “to go to the field,” and he thought it would be a good opportunity to go with Reme and me. He was eager to meet the people he knew so well on paper, and his enthusiasm was endearing. Similarly, Reme said he likes his job because “I get to see people improve their lives.”

They gave me a running tour as we drove to Kanoni, the tiny mountain hamlet where Henry lives, about an hour from Kihihi near the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Pearl has clients in nearly every village we passed, and the men knew them all by name. Reme would describe the borrower’s business, and George would comment on his or her repayment rate, invariably perfect. More than once a villager recognized one of the men and waved as we drove past. In between their presentation on the countryside and all their clients, Reme and George asked a few questions about me. When I told them I was from “a small state called Kentucky,” Reme said, “Oh, the Tennessee Valley Authority,” and George said, “…and Davey Crockett.” I wondered where they had learned their history, and if they were still stuck in it.

For the most part, Reme and George were refreshingly frank, but the one question they dodged was about the interest rate that Pearl charges its clients. They vacillated, Reme said I would have to ask “my CEO,” and finally George explained something about 2% that made little sense and seemed highly unrealistic. According to Kiva’s website, an excellent source of information about all of its MFI partners, Pearl charges its borrowers an average interest rate of 47%, a little less than the national mean of 51%. It is an astoundingly high, seemingly usurious interest rate, but Roodman justifies it by saying that it is normal for the poor “to have to make do with lower quality services,” which may be better than no services at all. Prior to MFIs, the poor had to borrow from often cutthroat informal money lenders who were able to get away with charging whatever they wished. Sasha Dichter, in his eponymous blog, affirms that “one of the many important things microfinance is doing is treating poor people as customers who deserve a certain level of service and respect.” Henry may have to pay 47% interest, but relative to the local market it’s a good deal.

While Kiva is a non-profit organization, Pearl and many other MFIs are decidedly in favor of profits, which does not necessarily make them profitable. Roodman called it “the big economic challenge” of microfinance: “keeping costs reasonable relative to the small loan sizes.” High overhead for the MFI becomes high interest rates for the end borrower. According to its website, Kiva helps by providing interest free capital to MFIs at an administrative cost of “less than 1% as a factor of capital raised.” Kiva’s “main role besides operating a website,” then, “is to screen, rate, and monitor” each of its MFI partners.

Essentially, Kiva claims that it adds value to microfinance by increasing trust, a bold claim from an organization that uses a deception, however slight, to raise funds. To be fair, Kiva is lauded for its usual transparency. It tabulates extensive statistics on all of its MFI partners, and it reacts quickly to any allegations of corruption. It has admitted its missteps publicly, and for that it has been rewarded by lenders who appreciate its candor. A number of commentators have suggested that the world would be a better place if the United Nations and other agencies were as transparent as Kiva. If lending were truly person-to-person, lenders could decide for themselves whether to trust borrowers. But there are at least two intermediaries between the lender and the actual borrower, Kiva and the MFI. Believing that Kiva is regulating the MFIs, which theoretically ensures that they in turn are monitoring the borrowers, lenders do not need to trust borrowers. They only need to trust that Kiva and its MFI partners are policing the system faithfully.

In Kanoni we were given a festive reception. When I stepped from the car, a very old and hobbled woman with white buzz cut hair giggled, hugged me, and tried to get me to dance along with her to the music that must have been playing in her head. The “community chairman” introduced himself and explained that the village was replacing its robusta beans with arabica because there was less and less rainfall in the region. And I met Henry, which, when I had set out on my weekend journey, was more than I expected would happen. Given the scandal surrounding Kiva and my skepticism of any African moneylender charging nearly 50% interest, I had wondered if Henry existed at all. Twin o’ Mugabe? – surely that’s the alias of a cheeky crook, I had thought.

But Henry existed, and he was not alone. I knew that I had selected a group of borrowers to lend to, but I had not understood what this meant. I had assumed, incorrectly, that they were business partners, all engaged in the same endeavor and all intending to put my money to use in their shared business. True, Henry’s profile page on Kiva’s website has a very clear disclaimer which explains that “in a group loan, each member of the group receives an individual loan but is part of a group of individuals bound by a group guarantee.” But this is another example of how the person-to-person connection Kiva tries to portray does not actually exist in any meaningful way. I chose Henry because I wanted to support his particular business: tea farming.

Certain other businesses I did not wish to support: retail, for instance, because Africa already has too many small shops selling the same goods, and charcoal production, because Africa also has enough deforestation. When I met Henry’s group, I asked each of them to tell me how they had used the money they had received. Onasmus had bought goats. Richard opened a butcher shop, perhaps eyeing Onasmus’s goats. Peace and Thomas each bought tea leaves from remote farmers to sell to the local factory at a profit. Esther and Tindyebwa each bought two acres of already planted tea. Henry, whose profile on Kiva said he intended to use his loan “to renovate his tea plantation for increased income,” bought new stock for the small shop he had in the village: retail. And Annette, who had replaced Henry as the group’s leader sometime since I had made my loan, paid her children’s school fees, which she was plainly a little ashamed to admit. And she made charcoal. Kiva had encouraged me to shop for a business that I wished to finance, but in the end very little of the group’s borrowed money actually went to tea farming. Some of it went to the very activities I sought to avoid supporting.

Annette’s group was young and growing fast. When they were still Henry’s group, they were only nine members. When I met them a month later, they were 22 borrowers. Kiva has had nothing to do with the group’s growth, which Pearl has financed from other sources of capital. Another ten or so prospective members joined our discussion under the tea shed, almost certainly convinced by the presence of a foreign funder that Pearl really could work miracles. None of the group members understood where their money had come from though one said to me, “We knew you would be checking in us.” She said it so confidingly I could not help but feel she had been waiting literally for me. Most of them assumed their loan had come ultimately from the government. It is unfortunate borrowers do not know their loans come from foreign lenders because it is one more way in the person-to-person potential is being wasted. Perhaps the world would be a friendlier place if borrowers knew that strangers across the globe cared enough to fund their loans. As it is, the people I met did not know that their photo and story had been on the internet for all to see and read.

The group in Kanoni had formed as a community-based organization in August of 2009, satisfying a legal requirement for accessing group microfinance loans in Uganda, and the same month they applied for their loan with Pearl. They attended four training sessions with Pearl field staff during the next few months, and the loan finally was disbursed on November 17, 2009. It appeared on Kiva’s website on December 10, 2009, and it was fully funded on December 11, 2009, meaning Pearl would be reimbursed for the funds it had already given to the group.

The process of funding the loan through Kiva was lightning fast, and the time that it took to get the already disbursed loan posted on Kiva was a little less than a month. By far the slowest part in the process – three months – was the time it took for the local MFI to approve and disburse the cash, which raises questions about Kiva’s primary defense of the false person-to-person connection it markets.

Matt Flannery, the founder and CEO of Kiva, wrote a response to David Roodman’s initial blog post, the one that sparked the controversy. In it, he argues that it would be bad business to make borrowers wait the extra amount of time it takes for their loans to be funded through Kiva. “Good MFIs are client-drive. To make their clients wait unnecessarily would [be] bad customer service.” The pundits have all agreed. Sean Stannard-Stockton, writing on his blog Tactical Philanthropy, maintains that the “prefunding approach is better for the entrepreneurs that Kiva’s users are trying to help.” Ogden says plainly, “The way that…Kiva actually operate[s] is the way [it] should operate.”

But it is hardly Kiva – with its nearly instantaneous funding – that is the drag on the system. It is the local MFI that takes three months to disburse the loan and then nearly another month to post it on Kiva. If the borrowers can wait all this time for the MFI to do its part, surely they can wait the additional blink of an eye that it takes Kiva lenders to do theirs. To suggest otherwise is to play the part of the crazed entrepreneurial hitchhiker in the film There’s Something Mary who says that “seven minute abs” is brilliant but that “six minutes abs” is just preposterous. If borrowers can wait three months for their funds, why can’t they wait one more? Especially if it allows Kiva to provide a true person-to-person connection between lender and borrower? Thereby attracting even more lenders? And funding even more borrowers?

A person-to-person connection, in which donors interact directly with the recipients of their largesse, is the wet dream of most philanthropists. Donors are people, after all, and people want to feel like their money is making an immediate and personal impact. We want “to make a difference” or, to borrow one of Kiva’s slogans, we want to make “loans that change lives.”

Unrealistically, the urge for person-to-person philanthropy places no value on the organization that acts as the intermediary between donor and recipient. “It seems that donors simply see non-profits as bureaucratic intermediaries who play a necessary role of linking the donor to the recipient, but who otherwise should get out of the way,” says Stannard-Stockton. Unwittingly, donors encourage non-profits to commit little deceptions in order to appeal to the desire for person-to-person contact, like Kiva did. But “the best way for [Kiva] to operate does not fit donors’ preconceived notions about what is best. Therefore promoting the fact that they use the best process will almost certainly lead to less social impact.” According to Ogden, “Where we get into trouble is the donor’s demand for illusion – and even more so, the donor’s anger when the illusion they demanded that the non-profit provide is exposed.”

Roodman calls it the “the larger theme” of the Kiva controversy: “how our behavior as donors rewards charities for distorting and contorting themselves.” The philanthropic system, in essence, incentivizes fraud.

There is one way in which Kiva lenders have a true person-to-person connection to borrowers. If you back a loan that doesn’t get repaid, you don’t get repaid. But even this basic tenet of bookkeeping has been skewed by the largesse of Kiva’s lenders. For most MFIs, the repayment rate for the loans they post on Kiva is considerably higher than the overall repayment rate for all of their loans. Analysts think MFIs may be covering unpaid loans in order to inflate their Kiva repayment rate, securing a steady flow of cash from Kiva’s generous lenders.

In the end, the extent of the person-to-person connection provided by Kiva is from lender to microfinance institution, which is not the sort of relationship that makes a “social investor” feel much warmth. Tim Ogden asks the big question suggested by the debate about Kiva: “Do Kiva’s users want to be connected to a microfinance organization or do they want to be connected to a specific borrower?…If a user wants a connection to a specific borrower, then it is now clear that Kiva does not do that. If [a user] wants a connection to a microfinance organization, why do they need Kiva?”


But an even bigger question remains. Does microfinance work? The evidence, currently, seems to be no, though some researchers are saying more time is needed to know for sure.

Roodman points out that “not all Kiva borrowers are entrepreneurs, for example, nor empowered by microcredit, nor lifted out of poverty,” all of which are claims that Kiva makes in its pitch to lenders. In reality, “the poor,” according to Roodman, “often use loans to pay for food” or school fees. For many, microfinance is not about “people climbing out of poverty through microenterprise, but people doing what they need…to get by.”

In its regular column “Small Change,” the Boston Globe cites a study in which “neither household income nor spending” – the former “a key indicator of financial well-being” – increased for the recipients of microfinance loans. Researchers believe borrowers are so excited about microfinance because they are using the funds to pay off higher interest debts from informal moneylenders. They are using one credit card to pay off another.

Only one aspect of microfinance is known to work: microsavings, small savings accounts for the poor, which, according to the Seattle Microfinance Organization, “has been shown to increase average daily food expenditure, mitigate health shocks, and increase productive investment.”

In Kanoni, however, Annette, Henry, and their associates do not seem interested in saving a little money; they want to borrow a lot. No one in the group complained about the high interest rate they had to accept to access credit. On the contrary, nearly every one of them pleaded with Reme and George – and me too – to be allowed to borrow more money with their next loan. Clients taking their first loan with Pearl Microfinance are limited to a maximum of 300,000 shillings, about $150. Assuming successful repayment of their first loan, they can borrow as much as one million shillings the next time. All of the borrower’s in Kanoni are already dreaming of the day they can tap into the more voluminous fountain of cash, portending a frightening dependency on a cycle of very high interest debt.

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