publishing for little people

adventures in Mongolia

Creating journals for Kiva

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I am convinced that my borrower videos have been lost in the abyss which is the Kiva journal tab (which currently has 5224 unsearchable pages), so I had to find another platform for their airing.

One of my better journals:

Gantuya Narmandah

The process:

1) Finding a translator
Unlike Kiva fellows who are placed in countries where they know the local language, I do not know how to speak Mongolian… even though locals frequently speak it to me. (Apparently I look Mongolian…) Hence finding a translator is necessary, especially since the Kiva coordinator here is too busy to visit borrowers with me. It took me awhile to find translators who would work for free, but finally on my 3rd week here, by acquaintances of friends of friends, as well as XacBank’s HR department, I managed to find… THREE translators!

My translators are quite an odd mix. One came in 6th for Ms. Mongolia last year, and was a catalog model for Gobi Cashmere (THE premier brand of cashmere in Mongolia); another was a former tour guide who has a ton of expat friends; and the last one is a university kid who is purportedly quite wealthy – he managed to get out of mandatory national military service through a combination of bribery and connections.

2) Coordinating logistics
The first is making sure one translator is free, then asking when one of XacBank’s branches can spare a loan officer and car to come visit borrowers with me (a rather infrequent event). A car is a precious commodity as branches only have one car each, and use it heavily for their day-to-day operations – loan officers constantly need to visit borrowers in the field to verify their information for the loan approval process.

The problem is that working with free labor (aside from Kiva Fellows) has its perils, and all 3 of my translators have been flakey at some point. One dropped out within a week, another bailed out on me 3 hours before we were going to visit borrowers, and another is frequently late. On days when they cancel on me, I have to cancel with the branch, and incur their ire.

3) Journey to the borrowers
Travelling to visit borrowers is always an experience, especially when I’m going to their homes. (Many of them work from home, especially those which make products for sale – think gloves, boots, crafts, etc.) All borrowers I’ve visited live in ger districts, which are basically districts surrounding downtown Ulaanbaatar, composed of a haphazard mass of wooden fences, within which you can find a ger or two, and sometimes a house. Most gers burn coal in their stove to keep warm, as a result, pollution in Ulaanbaatar is absolutely awful in the winter. (In addition to being the coldest capital in the world, UB is also the most polluted one.)

Ger districts don’t have proper roads (let alone addresses), and borrowers frequently draw makeshift maps to let the MFI know where they are located. Sometimes we spend more than 1 hour in the car, circling the same few roads, trying to find a particular borrower.

The terrain in ger districts is also rather varied. Travelling on dirt roads aside, I have been driven over a frozen river bed, a bumpy field that is used to grow crops in the summer, and precarious hill slopes.

On the road
(Music credit: Jenny M)

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Written by j

December 1, 2009 at 11:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

the coldest I’ve ever been

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I’ll remember this year’s Friday the 13th because of a spade of bad news, but I’ll remember the day after too. Went hiking on the Bogd Khan mountain (one of 4 mountains surrounding UB) for 5 hours in minus 30 degree C weather.

Snow flowers on Bogd Khan

on a very interesting sidenote, Mongolians play Mafia too! albeit a slightly different version. played it on the bus ride there… and it was one of my 2 contributions to moments of general hilarity.

i was the only foreigner/native english speaker on the trip, and happened to be the police for one round of Mafia. the narrator, while trying to get my attention during the “night session” of the game, when everyone else’s eyes are closed except for the police’s said – “Look at me!” in English. which of course was a dead giveaway for who exactly was the policeman…

the second moment is summed up below.

c’est moi

i was shivering like crazy on the mountain top, and this documents how my colleagues bundled me up with a sleeping bag and an extra jacket. didn’t help that much though! cold is cold.

Written by j

November 17, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Mongolia

the people who borrow

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today my envy of other kiva fellows faded because i finally, finally got to meet kiva borrowers.

there is a certain sadness that most of these borrowers have. for some it’s buried deep beneath stoicism and the victories of subsequent success, but for others it’s brimming at the surface, and you get the feeling that one more slight push would send them into the chasm. when i take their photos, they never smile – and i thought of asking them to, but i don’t want to if there’s nothing to smile about. the truth is, life has been hard for them.

kiva lenders may think they are doing a great thing (and they are doing a good thing of course), but these borrowers don’t get the benefit of the 0% interest rate, and to them, they aren’t being done any favors – because who knows what they had to get through to make those repayments back in full and on time, with interest added. they certainly don’t owe anyone anything, and because of that, when i intrude on their lives with a video and a huge camera, i feel somewhat ashamed.

but it’s not all grey of course. so many in the microfinance industry are in it because they hope, as do i. and the borrowers i met, they do laugh, but don’t necessarily dream. the reality is that for many, loans are required for survival or working capital, not necessarily to step up or make a significant game-changing investment. consequently, default rates in the microfinance world are lower than those in the mainstream commercial world, because these borrowers need to repay to get the next loan, and the next, and the next. and perhaps that’s why some of them are willing to go on video, get their photographs taken, answer questions… even though they might not necessarily want to – because they don’t want to risk losing their line of credit.

i realize this post sounds a bit morose, only because one particular borrower made such an impression on me.  soft-spoken, it isn’t in her nature to fight. but she has to, because she has two young sons to feed – a little red-faced baby was sleeping soundly on the single bed she had, and her other son, no more than 6, was watching a dubbed version of LOTR while doing homework. the downfall of socialism 20 years ago meant the closure of a lot of government-run factories, and she lost her job. so now she sits in her dimly lit ger, sewing grey gloves, hoping to find a mass buyer.

hers is the sadness that threatens to overflow.


where i went today: the Chingeltey ger district

lastly, a bit about my translator. when we came to this region he said, “you never want to come here. this is where all the poor people live.” he also came 40 minutes late to our appointment with the branch manager and staff… because he was having lunch after class. there’s also a certain smugness that he has, because he speaks English and is apparently rich and well-connected. all his family work in the government, and he roundly (he is round) tells me that he is able to get out of mandatory national service (army) because of connections and bribery. to top it off, he is very proud of the fact that most of what he wears or owns was bought overseas. can you tell what i’m thinking?? nevertheless, he is helping me for free (albeit receiving internship credit)… so i shall leave it at that.

Written by j

November 4, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Kiva, Mongolia


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has finally hit Mongolia. the first case was discovered shortly after i arrived here, and now there are 7 people dead to date. not an understatement to say that this country, with a population of just 2.9M with ~1M in the capital (Ulaanbaatar) is in paranoia about it.

measures taken so far:

  • all bars, restaurants and public places are to close at 9pm. i have heard the wry comment more than once – “what, swine flu only starts spreading after 9pm?”
  • handles of doors are being wrapped with damp pieces of cloth soaked in bleach
  • xacbank is providing 5 masks to each employee, with the masks to be replaced every 2 hours
  • xacbank is also providing two very traditional drinks a day to boost immune systems – a sour-smelling, sour-tasting, starch-like drink which i believe is Kourmiss, and seabuckthorn juice.  i have drank both.

Written by j

November 3, 2009 at 2:54 pm

Posted in h1n1

leap into the void

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leap into the void

Written by j

November 2, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Posted in words

thursdays are for the bizarre

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the thursday that just passed has got to be the surreal day here so far.

it started out with meeting one of 3 people who will be translating for me for free as i interview borrowers. i first thought she was a regular university student, but she came in 6th in Ms. Mongolia, and after meeting with me she was on her way to shoot a mascara ad. the odd thing is that she wasn’t even particularly pretty (in all objectiveness). she also really wants a white boyfriend and does not differentiate between europeans, americans or canadians. but she says no italians, because they are too amorous. haha. interested parties, let me know.

at lunch in a large restaurant with only 3 occupied tables, there was a singaporean! (note that the probability of this happening is very low.) he of course recognized my accent and same over to say hi. let’s call him x. i met his friends later on for drinks, and the whole thing was highly, highly bizarre.

friend 1: 40+ yr old man who was highly drunk by the time i got there. was extremely belligerent, kept calling himself an asshole, and kept referring to spinsters as hags.
friend 2: 50 yr old man who just opened a restaurant and is apparently very well connected with Mongolian high society. i remember a children’s tale long ago with the character Mr. Lizard. this man is it’s personification.
friend 3: normal 30+ mongolian guy

x, friend 3 and i left fairly quickly to meet friend 3’s other girl friends. hurray for normalcy. 1 of the girls (a stunner) was from the Buryat Republic – never knew that existed! in simple terms, Buryats are Mongols who live in an area that is subject to Russia.

the last conversation of the night had friend 3 trying to convince x that if bribing border officials doesn’t work, (they are in the export business), then threaten them with violence.

apparently it worked for him.

i ended up going to a halloween party last night. like other fellows, i had a pretty pathetic get-up… nevertheless, i ended up turning from librarian (work clothes + black glasses) to a chimney sweeper – got painted black strokes on my face and i snagged a newspaper-boy-cap and a garden rake (which was meant to pass off as a sweep). only one person at the party got my costume ;P

Written by j

November 1, 2009 at 4:24 pm

Posted in words

green eggs and spam

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if you are ever in Mongolia and are shopping for eggs, buy the brown ones instead of the white ones. brown ones tend to be Mongolian, whereas white ones are likely imported from Russia. a general rule of thumb is that chickens with white earlobes will lay white eggs, and those with red earlobes will lay brown eggs (who knew!).

there also exist natural green and blue chicken eggs.

blue green eggs

Written by j

October 31, 2009 at 4:57 pm

Posted in food