I've been getting lots of questions about my work. Looking at what I've written here, I realize that I've written very little about it, though it takes up a tremendous portion of my time. It's hard for me to know where to start - how to explain that I'm in charge of a lot, but not in charge of anything? How to explain "mobile banking" that doesn't include internet and cell phones?
I thought it might be best, at least to start, with a blow-by-blow of a day in the life.
One quick note for journalistic integrity: not all days are this busy. This particular sampling makes me look like a model volunteer. Which I am. Some days.
At 6am I get up. I'm the last one in my concession awake. A bucket of water sits outside my door for bathing. I start some tea on my gas stove (the Malians cook over fires), and run to shower. It's well water, and in the seventy-degree morning chill, it’s fantastically refreshing.
At 7am my bike is packed, and I step out to greet my family. Diarra greets me with the same complex set of questions and blessings as every other day (ending with my favorite, "May God find big money for us to put in our pockets"). I respond with an especially enthusiastic "Amen" to that one. I am going on collections today.
On my way out of town, I stop by my butiki (Bambara for the French "boutique") for fresh bread – I didn't have time for millet porridge on my way out. I head West, towards the Guinea border, and a small village called Bayan. The air is fresh and the sky is clear - it's going to be a hot day. In five miles of riding, I see only a couple cars. Just before getting to Bayan, I stop to put on my dress shirt. It's not quite freshly pressed, but I'll look professional when I show up.
The mobile caisse in Bayan turns three weeks old today. They have four clients, two collectors, and me. I missed their collection last week, and spend the first half-hour reviewing their books for mistakes - we have a ways to go. As I review the errors with the collectors, I congratulate myself for resisting my American impulse to push for more clients at the beginning.
Our clients each put away twenty or forty cents a day. On a weekly basis, that comes to a buck and change. My collectors diligently gather all of it, recording it in the clients' books, and in their own. Each client invites us to sit and talk. We give in once.
Collections done, we go back to do the day's accounting. With four clients it's a breeze, but I'm certain they couldn't do it with twenty. My target for them is forty (they don't know that). There are thirty dollars in the caisse. So far, so good.
They invite me to stay for tea. It's ten, and I'm not excited to go back in the heat. I agree to the first round (they always have three). They offer me peanuts, cigarettes, mangoes, and kola nuts. I refuse only the cigarette. After the second round of tea, with the sun getting high, I tell them I have to go. They lodge mild objections, but tell me they will allow it. They walk me to the street.
Back in Narena, I immediately take a bucket bath. I don't bother drying off - it's pointless. Aside from eating, the next four hours are spent avoiding the sun, and putting wet pieces of cloth over myself as I lay in my hammock. I make no attempts to work. Thinking makes my head hurt.
I have another bucket bath at three to cool down before the big ride to Solabuguda. There's a meeting at four, and I ride hard for thirty minutes in the stifling heat to get there. I've asked the Peace Corps for permission to ride a moto on these trips, and today's ride makes me curse the bureaucracy still "processing" my request. My head pounds when I get to Solabuguda. My partners, who travel by moto, were to pray at four and then leave. They make it around quarter to five.
The meeting is to explain the mobile caisse to potential clients in the villages. We already have two collectors and a dozen clients (mostly men), but after a year, the village's initial enthusiasm has not turned into people saving money. I've asked my partners in the village to make sure women are well represented at this meeting. At many village meetings they're not excluded, they're just not asked to come. Some show up. I repeat my motto “small changes” as I notice them sitting behind the circle of men, as is customary.
They ask lots of questions - about fees, withdrawals, and security; about who calls the shots, and how their collectors are compensated. All things I expected, all things that should have been clear a year ago. In a mostly illiterate society, there are no glossy brochures to advertise, only word of mouth. Misperceptions grow exponentially. I constantly repeat myself.
With the meeting over, I confirm the details of our first collection. Everyone agrees it was a good meeting, and we may have some potential clients. I'm excited for what my next visit holds.
My job there done, I hop on my bike and ride back to the main road, turning west into the setting sun. A cool breeze rushes past me as I push it into high gear, glad to have made it through another day, not at the office.