I love cultural differences, culture clashes and cultural challenges. I find it incredibly interesting because when you deal with another culture, especially if its customs are far from your own culture’s, you learn something new every day. And that is exactly what we face every day in Momentum Trust. But do not get me wrong – the challenges can be quite… well… challenging!
When we first moved to Kenya, we were aware, first of all, that we would have a lot of challenges being white – or ‘mzungu’ as they say here (mzungu – pronounced ‘muzungu’ – means ‘traveller’ and is the common word used when describing white people). When going around rural areas in particular, we experience that mzungu is rich. So imagine visiting our borrowers and letting them know that we are the ones who give them loans. Then the risk of them not paying back will be higher because “you are mzungu, you are rich, then why would I pay you back? You do not need the money.”
This is a challenge. A challenge we must not fail to handle when giving microloans in the rural areas. That is why we use local partners to mobilize our borrowers, hand them the loan and follow up when repayments need to be done.
The same challenge goes for the work that my co-workers do in Siaya. Here, they work with farmers to ensure their land, and if mzungu comes and tell you to do this and this and this – they will say, “why would I do as you tell me to? You are mzungu, you do not know my challenges here, you do not know my customs, my language”. It is tough – especially when you are not aware of these challenges at first. But luckily, you will find out along the way and then there is nothing else than to just fit in.
Mosquito nets makes you infertile
For our borrowers, the customs and hoaxes are also challenging at times. Once we had a borrower who did not want to have her picture taken. This is a problem for us as pictures are requirements for our borrowers to fulfill the goal to be 100 % transparent. But the borrower refused, and instead of saying why, she just avoided the staff of our local partner whenever they came back to finally take her picture. Eventually though, they got her to tell them what was wrong, and she explained that she thought her chickens would die if they photographed them.
And the challenges are not only different from our Danish customs here. No, in Kenya there are at least 42 tribes, and all of them have different customs and beliefs. For example, you could easily find women in the rural areas of Siaya who do not want to use mosquito nets above their beds. By doing that, they could prevent their entire family from getting malaria and save the money from the medicine they would have to buy to survive; only they do not want to. And why not? Well… Some hoax says that it is dangerous to use a mosquito net. According to their beliefs, they honestly think that the mosquito net makes the women infertile, and here in Kenya you should never risk that. So, imagine trying to help out with health issues there. Must be hard.
Another custom which we see everywhere in Kenya (at least so far) is when we take pictures of the borrowers – or any other person here in Kenya, even local people from our team. When I want to take a close-up photo of people here, their faces look like they are angry or sad. At least that is what I see over and over again. They never really smile at us like we Scandinavian people have been taught to do all our lives. “Smile at the camera. Say cheese”. In my Danish mind, I think they look angry or sad but in fact I think the aim is to look serious. I am not sure though because whenever we ask someone, they never really explain which must mean that this custom is so deeply rooted that they are not even aware of it. In fact, this might be someone they are told when they grow up; to look serious whenever someone takes their pictures because sometimes it actually does remind me of that old custom way of presenting yourself in the 17th Century. All of those old paintings and pictures have people looking… well… not happy.
But where do you set the limit? I mean… Can you tell the borrowers to smile? Or should you embrace the customs and way of doing things here? I have a Bachelor degree in communications and some of the first things they tell you is “always adapt to your target group”. This would mean that I would probably have to tell the borrowers to smile since we embrace just that in Denmark and thus would attract more lenders if the borrower smiles. But then on the other hand, I also like the fact that the lender gets to see how it is here.
What do you think? Would you rather give a loan to a smiling borrower, or would you understand the cultural aspect when looking at pictures like these?