May I be excused?

And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud
was more painful 
than the risk it took to blossom.
— Anais Nin

boots

Boots in Zambia (with chickens)

“When there is an outbreak of a disease, it usually starts here in this area…”

Oh.  Ok.

“But this is the nicer part of the area we are in now.”

Ah.  Right.  Good.  I guess.

Chimawa’s dusty ways and streets pot-marked with standing cocoa-colored pools blurring by the window like a smoke bomb through a fan blade.  So many people.  All purposeful no matter their posture – in either their brisk pace or relaxed pose.  It’s noisy, and my window is up because the last time I rolled it down diesel exhaust blew directly in my face.  Directly.  In my face.  Lucky for me, I’m with Memory, whose laugh is on a hair-trigger and quite contagious.  So no matter such a discomfort, the oddity that I am – both physically and culturally – manages to make these scenes light-hearted…

* * *

My pneumonia is gone, and my last Levaquin tablet departed for my bloodstream Friday morning.  It was replaced with a Mefloquine tablet and a few probiotics.  Between the two-day journey, odd meals at odd times, illness, jet lag, and fatigue, my body has been like a spring getting uncoiled.  I finally feel stretched out and relaxed.  I finally feel well, and in place.

A day after my arrival, I had a warm welcome at Zoona – the Kiva Field Partner I’ll be working with during my three-week deployment in Zambia as part of my Kiva Fellowship.  For anyone unfamiliar with Kiva, they are a US-based non-profit that connects people around the world through micro-loans to support entrepreneurs in developing countries.  Lenders can make loans as small as $25 (as part of a larger collective loan) to help shop owners, farmers, students, and artisans around the world.  The loans are paid back, and the money is then available to lend to another person.  I’ve been a Kiva lender for a number of years.  For me, Kiva is the technological manifestation of the absolute truth that we are all connected.

For its part, Zoona provides affordable, secure mobile money transfer services for people across Zambia.  Their technology offers people a more secure way to manage savings, pay bills, and send money to family.  Loans that originate through Kiva are then managed by Zoona to help entrepreneurs set up mobile money booths around the country to reach more people with this safer, more affordable service.

My desk.

Their offices are very professional (I don’t think I packed the right clothes), and everyone’s friendliness helped take the edge off of the final gasps of being sick.  By the time she picked me up on Wednesday morning, Memory had already scheduled visits for my first day, yet took mercy on me and bumped them one more day so I could catch my breath.  We did, however, get right to work with an orientation and preparations for the four borrower visits scheduled in Lusaka.  My other visits will take me to the Northern Province by car on Monday (a 12-hour journey), then the Copperbelt north of Lusaka, and finally Livingstone in the south, the location of Victoria Falls.  (This list will keep my schedule full until I move on to Harare sometime the second week of March for my three-month deployment with CAMFED.)

On Thursday, we set out for Chimawa, one of Lusaka’s “compounds” comprised of an artery of small shops and market stands bordered by simple housing.  It was my first “Borrower Verification” – a formal term for a visit with a Kiva borrower to ensure their loan was received and is having a positive impact.  As part of my preparations, I printed a copy of the Kiva Borrower Profile page from the website for each borrower.  These pages show a photo of the borrower, describe their business and their need for capital, and also include a list (with thumbnail photos) of lenders who supported the loan.

Oslo.  Munich.  Memphis.  Tel Aviv.  Istanbul.  Elkhart, Indiana.  Not a single thing in common among these cities…except.  Except someone from each of these places, and 63 other spots around the globe, contributed to make a loan possible for Robby – a shop owner on the main street of Chimawa.  Robby is a few years younger than me, with a wife and two children.  Despite an open doorway to the sooty street, his shop is tidy and orderly.  Products on every shelf have been meticulously faced to keep labels turned toward customers, and lined neatly to create a vivid backdrop to the sales counter, which itself is cleared of clutter to provide adequate space for lollypop displays (which held three fewer lollipops when I left than when I arrived).  He keeps his kids out of the store.  He told me he didn’t want his children to be around money right now.  Maybe some day later.  He wants them to focus on being little kids.

Kiva Borrower, Robby

My visit with Robby lasted about 40 minutes.  The noise from the street and Robby’s fast speech sometimes made it difficult.  But I was able to confirm all of the details of his loan, and convince him to make a short “thank you” video to share with all of the people who supported him.  As I said my goodbye, Robby turned and left a stack of papers behind on the counter.  But in his right hand he clasped the print-out of his lenders I had brought for him.  The connection, it seemed, was complete.

Central Market

Kiva Borrower, Ntalasha

Our next visit was with Ntalasha who operates several Zoona booths around Lusaka.  His Kiva loan led him expand services to other communities, and has helped him build a steady, more reliable source of income to support his growing family.  His wife just had their second child, and his business is now doing well enough for him to begin work on building a home for his family.  Ntalasha is creative, enterprising, and clearly works very hard to honor the support he’s been given by operating a successful series of booths.  He ultimately wishes to expand into other arenas now that he’s demonstrated his aptitude for growing a business.

With two visits complete, I felt I had the hang of things.  The verification process can be a little awkward if the borrowers don’t understand its purpose.  Memory clearly did a great job informing Robby and Ntalasha about my role, so I received gracious receptions from them both.  I think the opportunity to boast about their businesses meant a lot to them, as well as the chance to share their ideas and feedback.  This created value for them, and I imagine kept them from feeling like it was a one-sided, bureaucratic nuisance.

Kiva Borrower, Nelia

With a few modifications in tactics, Friday’s visits were a little more efficient.  Memory and I visited Nelia, who sells soda in one of Lusaka’s biggest outdoor markets.  We weaved our way through market stands filled with baskets of dried fish, bread, fruit, phone cards, and crates of chickens as distorted pop music blared from a distant loud speaker.  Next door to Nelia’s shop were two enormous piles of used shoes, all mixed together.  People were bent over raking through the pile with their hands, searching for matches.  Nelia sat behind her counter, squeezing in a few transactions as we stood and talked.  She was bashful, and a little self-conscious of the smiling image I had printed for her from her loan profile.  She told me about how her father had started the business, and continued to set off on other ventures after turning over this particular shop to her.  Nelia, too, has visions for expanding her business and continuing to build a life for her and her children.

Through the shoes.

Before our final visit of the day, Memory was kind enough to help me get my local phone number, and then we had lunch.  I had been duly briefed by Maxwell, my driver from the airport, about nshima – the traditional Zambian cornmeal served with a relish of beef, or chicken, or fish, and vegetables.  It has the consistency of a bowl of Cream of Wheat that’s slightly coagulated from sitting out too long.  It has no flavor whatsoever, so I found it particularly curious when Memory told me her father has “addicted” to nshima.

“What is there to be addicted to here?  It has no flavor at all.  I neither love it nor hate it.  I cannot even form an opinion about it.  It’s like eating air.”

Air – I mean, nshima – with buffalo, beans, and sauteed pumpkin leaves.

But the garnish was exceptional, especially the pumpkin leaves sautéed in oil and spices.  No utensils are used.  You scoop some nshima in the palm of your hand, flatten it out, then fold garnish into it before dribbling it all over your chin – at least in my case.  I ate mine with buffalo, which was tender and flavorful like a slow-cooked pork roast.  But the pumpkin leaves!  My God, the pumpkin leaves!

Perhaps the most enthusiastic of our borrower visits was with Stephen.  His face is open, as if to leave plenty of room for his frequent smiles.  His eyes are excited, and the more questions I asked him the brighter his expression became.  Stephen operates three mobile money booths, with designs on more.  He spoke very passionately about how his businesses help his community in one of Lusaka’s market areas.  He was just married, and I asked if he had any children.

“No, not yet.”

“But soon!” I teased.

“Yes. Soon!”

Kiva Borrower, Stephen

* * *

I had to wrap my right pinky toe in a bandage before starting my walk to the market Friday evening.  I’d managed to wear it to a bloody nub after mistakenly hitching my wagon to an indecisive fellow-traveler-turned-lunch-companion on the train into central Frankfurt during my layover.  I was still only slightly hobbled, but since I wasn’t sure how long the walk would take me it made sense to put on a protective pinky toe layer.

Home for the next three weeks.

Home for the next three weeks.

It’s near the end of the rainy season here.  There has been only one downpour since I arrived, with lots of short-lived, intermittent showers here and there.  Most days are partly cloudy with enough humidity to give the air the dewy sweetness of an Oklahoma alfalfa field.  The walk to the mall is about 2 miles, and after two days on planes and plenty of desk and car time, it was invigorating to be out in the open for a stroll.  I chose a shortcut through Lusaka’s agricultural complex – a large plot of land that very much resembles a fairground.  It was quiet and slightly deserted.  I passed only a dozen or so people along the way, and exchanged a friendly “good evening” with a few.

The humor to be found inside the grocery store was only in my own mind.  The well-stocked aisles jammed with misdirected carts, screaming kids and deliberations around breakfast cereal struck a distinct contrast to what most imagine when they think of Africa.  Close your eyes, and this was any supermarket in Denver, or Dallas, or San Francisco.  All the same sounds, smells and specials.  It’s an important side of Africa to see.  It’s not all the wide-open game parks, shantytowns and the thatched-roof villages of subsistence farmers or hunter-gatherer tribes.  Suburban, middle-class malls factor in as well.  They are a reflection of a growing economy, which has led to a growing middle class.  The same ice cream shops, bars and cinemas that fill with crowds on a Friday night in Phoenix, also fill on a Friday night in Lusaka.

No Express Lane here. Nope. None.

To be sure, this is not how most Zambians – or most Africans – live.  A friend once told me that to truly know a place, you must know both the poverty and the wealth.  I think that’s fair, and especially relevant to any student of the world.  The market areas I had visited in the previous days were more reflective of how life unfolds for most, and certainly where most needs are evident.  But they don’t tell the whole story here, or anywhere.  Part of the story resides in the strip malls, car lots, franchises and gated homes that represent the same “some day” wishes we’ve all had.

You have to see the possible unfold for some, in order to dream it for others.

* * *

His name is Steve and he will meet you at the landing of the Powell Street subway station on the 5th Street exit with a “Good Morning! Have a great day today!”

That’s his sole purpose.  From 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. every workday morning, he holds a folded up newspaper under his left arm and an empty coffee thermos in his right hand.  He wears a worn leather jacket over a hooded sweatshirt.  His boots are scuffed.  His hair is salt and pepper, as is his beard.  His eyebrows are jet black, and his skin weathered.  A tattoo across his Adam’s Apple is the only thing that would potentially interfere with his otherwise distinguished look were he clean-shaven and dressed in a suit.  He looks directly in the eyes of those diverting theirs, and is as kind and warm to those who ignore him as those who acknowledge him by nodding their head as they talk on their phones.

My friend Rachel told me about him.  He greets her every morning at the same stop on her way to work.  I was ready for my greeting.  Up the stairs I went.

He caught my eyes and let it rip:  “Good morning young man! Have a great day!”

I pointed at him.  “YOU have a great day, will ya?”

He laughed.  “Oh wow! You almost beat me to it!”

The next morning, I decided to up the ante.

“Can I fill your coffee for you?”

“Oh my gosh, yes!”

We walked to the nearby coffee cart and chatted while his thermos was filled.  He carried it over to the sugar cart and poured lots of cream and lots of sugar into his cup.  Over the course of the next five minutes, we stood chatting with our coffees.

Twenty-five years in federal prison for robbing more than 70 banks.  His children are in the area, but he never sees them.  He sleeps behind the Bloomingdales down the street with a few others for safety.  He was eligible for parole three years prior to his ultimate release, but volunteered to serve the extra time so he would be free and clear once outside.  Why does he stand here for three hours every morning to wish people a good day?

“Because I’m here!  I’m out here!” looking up and around with his arms extended. “And if this means something to someone, then that’s a little thing I can do.  I’m not in there anymore.  That’s what matters.”

For the next three days, Steve and I shared our morning coffee.  A little more of his story trickled out with each stream of sugar in his thermos.

For me, Steve is one of those rare beacons lighting the sea of random souls in which we all paddle.  His mantra is true for each of us:  “Because I am here!”  Say it out load with conviction and it’s like a spell.

I am here, in Africa, after much soul-searching and confiding with friends about my internal deliberation to break through my own self-created bubble of routine and convention.  I am also here after much change and loss, having lost my father, my marriage, and – though leaving my job was a choice, and a good one – in doing so you could say I lost a certain career momentum.  What I’ve been reminded of is that loss and change are quite synonymous, and require the same sensibilities as a response.  When I announced my departure from my previous executive director position five years ago, I received a thoughtful and insightful email from (then-Mayor) Governor Hickenlooper:

“Patrick:  Congratulations, and condolences.  Changing one’s life when one has been as successful in one arena as you have takes real courage.  When the oil exploration company I worked for was sold back in 1986, and we were all to be laid off, the company hired an ‘industrial psychologist’ to spend an hour individually with all 150 of us.  The one thing I remember vividly was him explaining that all change, even good change, involved loss.  And that loss needs to be mourned, in whatever way is appropriate…”

It’s true.  And both change and loss require a paradigm shift – a recalibrating of our internal compass.  As part of that process, over the past two years I’ve turned away CEO opportunities and other executive positions so I could more closely dial in to what’s been residing in my heart to do for a long time.  My two- or three-week volunteer enterprises over the years during vacations have created amazing life experiences, but have never afforded me the breadth of time I craved to better assimilate and really dig in to the meaning of the work.  I needed to respond to that craving.  I needed to be here, right now, for now.

“I’m out here!” I can still hear Steve’s passionate declaration.

I’m far from settled in my surroundings, but I am exceptionally settled in my heart.  My house is occupied with rental tenants, my finances all managed remotely, and my support system is resolute.  And I am here!  I am here after a lot of work, patience, and a great deal of faith in the act of dreaming.  And I am here after an excruciating, somewhat frightening, process through which I was able to muster up the courage to finally raise my hand and ask (myself): “May I be excused?”

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4 thoughts on “May I be excused?

  1. Markus says:

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an incredibly long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr…
    well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just
    wanted to say wonderful blog!

  2. Yvonne says:

    Patrick, you are a beautiful writer. So much of what you said echoes what I have felt about the decision to do this and about life on the field. Keep up the writing and have a wonderful time.

  3. Jen Chavez says:

    What an adventure! I can’t wait to read the next installment. Thanks for sharing, Patrick.

  4. Tracey Bobo says:

    Thank you so much for sharing. I miss you but I also know you are exactly where you are supposed to be. XOXO

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