Posted By: Katie McIntosh on July 7, 2011
Hello from Kabala,
I am now three months into my eight month internship at SWET, a microfinance institution in Kabala, Sierra Leone. I am continuing to enjoy my time here and I am appreciating the great work and life experience that I am getting.
I want to give you a bit of an idea of the context in which I work. Kabala, where the SWET office is based, is a small town which is the hub of Koinadugu District, Sierra Leone. Koinadugu is geographically the largest district in Sierra Leone, but it is sparsely populated and it is considered to be the most marginalized region of the country. It is difficult for me to give a population figure for Kabala, as no one I have asked knows and I cannot judge population by the same means I would in Canada. I’m going to say it is probably between 15,000 and 30,000 just to give you an idea.
Although life here took a bit of getting used to at first, I feel that I have adjusted pretty well. We live more comfortably than most locals, but my co-intern and I do not have running water or electricity in our house. We get our water from a well (although we do not fetch it ourselves), and although we have a generator that we can power the house with if we buy fuel, we have still yet to take advantage of it. We have grown accustomed to lighting candles and using our headlamps at night, and at a certain point, using a generator to light our house seems extravagant and expensive in the context. As for the water, I use water from a bucket to flush the toilet, shower and wash dishes every day. For drinking water, we will usually boil a pot of water at night to sanitize it and filter it in the morning to use for the day. Unlike most people who cook over charcoal, we have a gas stovetop, which makes boiling water and cooking relatively easy. Leisure activities in Kabala include: reading, playing Sudoku, going to “the roundabout” (where all the activity is at the centre of town), going to “Choices” to grab a drink or watch a football (soccer) match, going dancing, practicing African drumming, playing with the large groups of children who show up at our door and climbing one of the three small mountains that border the town.
A lot of the work that I am involved with at SWET involves what we call “going to the field”. Although SWET has clients in Kabala, most of its clients are in the rural villages of Koinadugu, and to service them we have to go to their villages. Some of the businesses these clients operate include the sale of rice, groundnuts, palm oil or other produce, the sale of prepared food, the tailoring of clothes and hair styling services. Each loan promoter has a route and a number of villages along that route, which they visit to disburse money and collect repayments. It is worth noting that these routes are not easy to navigate. The road conditions are very poor and safety is always, but especially in the rainy season, a concern. From Tuesday to Thursday each week the loan promoters drive to these villages on their motorbikes (and sometimes take me along) and then on Fridays they stay in the office, where the clients from Kabala come to receive and repay their loans. When you go to a village to collect money, you drive through honking the horn to let the clients know you’re there and gather them. Then you stop at one or two houses to wait for everyone to show up. There are set days when the clients make their payments, but setting an exact time to meet is not practical in rural Sierra Leone. So, we wait around on the porch of someone’s house for the clients to show up and while we wait we are often offered food, such as mangoes, bananas or groundnuts (peanuts). It is considered rude to turn down an offer, so I always take some. There are always kids around and more often than not there are nursing babies, but despite the numerous distractions business just continues as usual.
The loan promoters will remind the clients, who are in solidarity groups of 4 to 6 women, how much money is due, the clients will hand it over for counting and then the group leader will sign the receipt with her thumbprint. Although the thumbprint is by far the most common method of signing receipts (because of low literacy rates), I have encountered a couple women who, because of CAUSE Canada’s literacy classes, have learned to sign their name and proudly ask for a pen instead of an inkpad to sign. It is really quite exciting when that happens because you can feel their sense of accomplishment. When we arrive back in Kabala we count the money again and then deposit it in the community bank, which is the only bank in Kabala apart from the two mobile banks that bring money in a truck from Makeni (a city about a two hour drive away) once a week.
So, as you can imagine, the circumstances in which I am living and working are very different from what I am used to. It is all about being flexible and adaptable to every situation – even if it means rats in my bed, but I’ll leave that story for next time.