You have to work for the good stuff in India; it doesn’t just appear to those standing around waiting for it. To get to the chocolatey middle, you need to rip off the impossible-to-open wrapper and crunch through many layers of hard candy shell. But when you get there, the sweet and creamy chocolate hits your tongue and you’re reminded just how delicious chocolate is. I’ve had had a few of these experiences in India, and each time I attempt the wrapper, I wonder if getting to the center is worth the reward. So far, it always has been.
Most Kiva loans for BJS, the partner I’m working with, will be dispersed in the underserved region of Jalpaiguri, West Bengal. It’s a remote and very rural part of the state where BJS has five small branch offices, and I’ve been itching to visit. Making that happen, however, was not an easy task. Let’s start with buying the train tickets. Due to demand (I imagine), tickets sell out far in advance; often a month or more for long-haul trips. But the day before departure, you can line up at the train station ticketing counter at 8am for “emergency tickets”. They hold back a certain number of seats for those determined enough to stand in line for two-plus hours with no guarantee of getting seats. For a last-minute pleasure trip it’s one thing, but for five people traveling on business and all the coordination that goes into it, it’s not so convenient. Mr. Das had to ask the credit officers from each of the five branches in Jalpaiguri to convene at Maynaguri branch for an all-day training on Sunday- their one day off. Since we were heading up there, he also scheduled financial literacy training on Saturday afternoon for local BJS borrowers. But P.S. we won’t know if we’re coming until Thursday. Thankfully we did get tickets and were able to leave on Friday at 1pm as planned. Arrival time at Maynaguri station: 4am Saturday.
Amazingly, the guesthouse received us at this ungodly hour. When I entered my room, however, I learned what my co-workers failed to mention before we left: the guesthouse doesn’t provide sheets or towels. You need to bring your own. Okey-doke. Thankfully I brought a silk sleep sack for the train which I ended up using in my room. It’s basically a very thin, silk sleeping bag that folds up into nothing. I bought it in Vietnam for $4 and boy was I glad I had it with me! One of the BJS staff members bought me a towel, which I certainly appreciated.
Next discovery: only cold water in the bathroom, but they’ll provide a bucket of hot water for 10 rupees. I shall never complain about a Travelodge again. Since we’re still on the candy wrapper part of this metaphor, I’ll jump to the final night we spent in Dhupguri. Let’s just say I woke up with a puffy eye and red bug bites all over my face. They didn’t itch, so nope, not from mosquitoes. I prefer not to think beyond that.
After resting for a few hours, we had a quick breakfast of puri and ghugni matar, which I’ve grown quite fond of. Puri is a pan-fried flatbread. It’s about as thick as a pancake, but much denser and not as sweet. It’s served with a yellow curry of channa dal and potatoes which is warm and spicy. On the side is roshogolla, a freshly made paneer cheese ball soaked in sugar syrup, the quintessential Bengali treat. Indians love their sweets and find any excuse to include them as part of a meal- breakfast being no exception. And of course I take dudh cha (milk tea) which I drink 3-4 times everyday.
Bellies full, we head to the Maynaguri branch office for financial literacy (FLAC) training. The town is small and so much quieter than Kolkata. We jump in a van, a wooden flatbed carriage pulled by a bicycle, for the five minute ride. The BJS office is on a gorgeous tree-lined street whose branches nearly touch in the middle.
Borrowers file in and take their seat for the training, one colorful sari after another. As with the FLAC training I saw near Kolkata, the women are engaged and excited to learn. Following the presentation, a handful of women stay for what I later learn was an open group interview. BJS needs another credit officer, so Mr. Das opened it up to borrowers. He calls the final candidate back later that night: a 21-year old married woman with a one-year-old son. Again, the interview is conducted while everyone stands around watching. I don’t know how well I’d do in such a hot seat, but she manages enough to land the job. Borrower to employee- pretty cool stuff.
The next day we conducted Kiva training for the credit officers, followed by a client protection Powerpoint. I really give it to these guys. They gave up their one day off to listen to five hours of presentations. And they were awake! Mr. Das tossed chocolates to employees who contributed. Chocolate: the universal incentive. My Powerpoint skills are definitely improving.
We head into the field to meet some borrowers the following day . This is what I’ve been waiting for. All clients belong to a group with other borrowers, providing moral and emotional support. They function like a structured organization with a president, secretary and treasurer, and new members must be voted in. They are not financially responsible for one another’s loans, but the community support system contributes to BJS’ perfect 100% repayment rate because new members are usually referrals. It’s the truest form of grassroots word-of-mouth marketing.
Every week the members of each group get together at a set time and place (usually one of the members’ homes) to submit their loan payments to BJS credit officers. I visited the “Deep” group consisting of 20 women whose loans were for a wide variety of uses: buying a cow for selling dairy products, tailoring, selling incense, making furniture, growing vegetables, running a sari shop, providing catering services for local ceremonies, etc. All members were gathered on the front porch of a woman’s home when we arrived.
Two credit officers collected rupees and wrote the amounts in yellow loan passbooks that belong to each member. All transactions are made in cash and recorded by hand.
The women were warm and welcoming, each telling me their name and what the money was being used for, translated by Mr. Das. I asked the group what these loans meant to them, and one responded that women can’t progress in this area, so loans give them the opportunity to do something on their own. My years of lending on Kiva and the motivation for becoming a fellow culminated in that moment. The lives of these women were materially changed because of the loans they received. They’re still poor, but can financially contribute to the family and provide a better future for their children. Just as important, I believe, is that it gives them a sense of worth.
Then we got a chance to visit some of the borrowers’ homes and see what their loan money is used for. One woman sat at her sewing machine, another in front of her cow (yes, I accidentally “stepped in it”), one in her small grocery shop and another stood in front of a rice paddy.
I asked if I could take a photo with one of the women, and of course she obliged. As I moved next to her she pointed to herself, then to me and said “black and white.” I paused, completely dumbfounded, and then burst out laughing along with her and the BJS staff. I never expected English to come from this woman’s mouth, but with those three words she broke through cultural, geographical, educational and socio-economic barriers . It was a priceless moment of human connection. Chocolately middle reached.