Last week, I spent two days in the town of La Castellana, visiting the NWTF branch here. I went to speak with existing Kiva clients about their business to send an update to the lenders, and also interview new clients to post up on the site. You can always tell the profiles and updates I’ve written because I try to employ the same literary techniques that make this blog so readable (or unreadable, depending on your perspective). Of the six weeks I have been working here, I’ve spent two and a half in the field. This is where I get to see microfinance implemented on the ground. I get to see the how it is executed and talk to the loan officers and the clients – the people in the proverbial shit. It is the part of the job I enjoy the most.
The day begins early. I’m told I need to be ready to go by 5:45, so I set my alarm for 5:00. At 5:30, I get a knock on the door. It is Albert, one of the janitors, who is supposed to take me to the bus stop a kilometer away. Fresh out of the shower, I asked for 5 minutes to gather my things before we left. When we get to departure point for the van, the gate is closed. Albert yells to the driver, who is sleeping in the rundown ticket office. He rubs his eyes, gets up and walks over to the van (inside the gate). He says something to Albert in Ilonggo, climbs into the backseat of the van and falls asleep on the seat. “The van doesn’t leave until 6:15,” Albert tells me. I told him to go ahead, and that I can wait on my own.
The trip takes about 1.5 hours, snaking along the same road that took me to Pontevedra before turning inland toward the farmlands of Negros. La Castellana is at the foot of Mt. Kana-on, an active volcano in the middle of the island. You can actually its outline on the far right side of the panorama photo at the top of this blog (taken from my room at NWTF). The soil is rich here, and the farmland is highly arable. It is also one of the poorest towns in the region. Many NWTF clients are married to farm workers that make 100 pesos ($2) per backbreaking 12-hour day. Also, this is one of the key areas affected Agrarian Reform, which I will discuss in detail in the next post.
When I arrive, Sheila, the branch bookkeeper, and a fresh new loan officer meet me at the terminal. We take a trisikad to the branch. I have to wait for an hour or two while the branch manager tries to find a loan officer to take me to meet some clients. Unfortunately, no one wants to go with me (I’m told they don’t like to speak English), so Sheila begrudgingly takes me. We hitch a ride on the back of the motorbikes of two loan officers to a rural barangay in Moises Padilla, a neighboring town. Sheila and I split up while the other two go off to their center meetings. We go to meet Juliet, a woman whose home sits off to the side of a terraced rice field overlooking the mountains. It is about 200 meters off the road, so we walk. She is in the market selling her goods, so we wait with her son and their neighbors for her to return. After a half hour, she arrives.
I pull out my notepad and Sheila helps translate the interview. We discuss her business, how long she has been a member, the challenges she faces, and her hopes for the future. These are the things Kiva lenders like to hear. The interviews start a bit awkwardly. Naturally, I feel intrusive and prying, but it is my job. Usually by the end we establish a good rapport and it becomes a little easier. We talk for about 15 minutes and I take a picture of her holding the back of roasted peanuts she sells to schoolchildren. Before I leave she insists on giving me ten bags and a brick of baye-baye, a native delicacy made of young coconut milk, sugar, and ground rice. Her son, who has just graduated from college, wants to friend me on Facebook, so I give him my name (I’ve yet to get a request). We say goodbye to everyone and move to the next client.
The woman who is showing us around is another NWTF client. She knows the village and the homes of the clients, so she acts as our guide. We walk down the street and up a gravel road to literally the foot of the volcano. This is a barangay called Manghanoy, and it is 2.7 km from the main road. At the end of the road is an elementary school – “The Environment Friendly School” – which is just getting out for lunch. The client we are here to see, Luzminda, lives two doors away, but she is at the barangay hall fulfilling her duties as the treasurer. So, we wait. Sheila and I sit on the roots of a tree with three other women from the village and talk about nothing in particular. I am used to being a novelty here. People wave and stare, and ask me questions. The kids look at me like I am from outer space. It is nice to be the minority for once.
After an hour, Luzminda arrives and we head to her house for the interview. She has been a member for a number of years, and hopes to one day buy a bit of land for herself. She’d like to have her own rice farm eventually, but for now she makes her living buying and selling sacks of palay, or unmilled rice. Once we are finished, she takes me to her backyard to show me her piggery, which she purchased with the help of a loan from Project Dungganon. I take her picture in front of the pigs, wish her the best, and leave. Sheila calls a motorbike over and tells me to wait for her at the highway. I head off down the mountain, while she stays with our guide, chatting with the other women.
The rest of the day was more of the same – traveling from barangay to barangay, meeting with Kiva clients and talking about their business. We take buses, tricycles, trisikads, and motorbikes. At the end of the day, I take the bus home to Bacolod, exhausted from the trip. The next morning, I get up and do it all over again.