When we arrived the whole family was waiting for us. Laura Isabel Luque, her sister Karina Luque, and Marina Eliza were in the kitchen cooking. The smell of cooked steak, with its herbs and spices, filled the air. As we approached several children greeted us, a lady sitting outside on her sewing machine got up to shake my hand. The three women in the kitchen quickly stopped what they were doing to greet us at the door.
Ana Lucia Galo, Eduar Isidro Reyes and I had lunch at Karina’s house on Saturday, September 21st. We are the La Ceiba team in Honduras. Laura and Karina invited us for lunch a week earlier. When I received the invitation, I was excited but skeptical. Part of me thought the lunch was planned with another motive. I thought perhaps the women wanted to receive larger loans than we had given.
Walking into the house, one cant help but feel comfortable despite its cement composition. The first room in the house is a large one that acts as the living room, the kitchen and the dining room. The walls are decorated with Winnie the Pooh pictures with Spanish sayings. The sayings contain a message of love and family. “What would you like to drink?” Laura offered us water, Pepsi, coffee or juice. “Coffee please.” Ana and Eduar asked for Pepsi.
Laura has worked with La Ceiba since January of 2013. She is a close neighbor of Elizabeth Discua, Maria Carcamo, and Tania Carcamo, all successful La Ceiba clients. Laura is a single mom with an eight-year-old boy. She has a L 1,250 ($62.50) loan with La Ceiba. In nine months, La Ceiba never asked how Laura pays her loans, and in that time, Laura received 11 loans and paid all of them back ahead of time. I was concerned because she originally asked for a larger loan than we could give her. Why does she want a larger loan? What kind of income does she have? Why does she keep inviting me to lunch?
“Lunch is ready.” We sat around the small wooden table adjacent to the living space and the kitchen. Despite its size, the table accommodated the six of us comfortably. Karina served us. We were having mini baleadas. On our plate we had four small handmade flour tortillas placed under diced steak, onions, tomatoes, lime and cilantro. It was a colorful display and a modest serving. We bid “salud” to the food and to our hosts and enjoyed the rich taste of the fresh ingredients.
Karina is a new La Ceiba client. I knew very little about Karina and her finances. Despite my efforts not to do so, I couldn’t help but observe Karina’s house from a lenders perspective. That is, the material things in her house served as indicators of economic wealth. Karina has a television and a fully furnished home. These are signs that Karina and her family have a high economic status. I didn’t want to take advantage of the invitation into Karinas home so I put those thoughts at bay.
“Santisima madre!” Everyone in the room chuckled at Ana’s outcries. We sat down to watch the movie of the day on TV: Blade: Vampire Hunter with Wesley Snipes and Jessica Biel. It was a bloody and violent movie. Every time a vampire was mercilessly decapitated, Ana would yell out in shock. “How is your family?” Laura asked in between decapitations. “Fine,” I responded. Where is your mom from? How did you learn to speak Spanish so well? Did you enjoy the food? Laura and Karina kept asking questions about me. They wanted to learn about me and my family.
Microfinance institutions (MFI’s) are taught not to trust clients. Its never stated explicitly but our operations, our products, our requirements all function under the assumption that clients, poor clients, are risky investments. And, since they often are not included into a formal credit scoring system, the MFI has to gather that information on its own. To do so, loan officers employ methods that seek “accurate information.” For example, loan officers might show up 30 minutes early to a meeting just to catch a client and their business off guard. A loan officer might show up unannounced to see how things are run when a client isn’t expecting her lender to visit. Loan officers will ask research-tested questions that seek to reveal the character of a client and afterwards will ask neighbors questions to verify information.
Eduar told the room a story. One day he was dropping off Laura’s loan. They met in front of Laura’s house. Eduar read the loan contract to Laura and handed her the check. In the exchange, Laura mishandled the check and dropped it in the mud. Eduar poked fun at Laura for being careless to which Laura responded, “I remember the first time you gave me my loan, you were so nervous you couldn’t speak!” Everyone laughed at the friendly banter. I felt as though I was in a locker room with my team, exchanging inside jokes after a hard fought game. “How are your friends at the University?” Laura already knew several of our La Ceiba students. Laura told me to tell the students hello and to invite them to baleadas.
“Santi, you all are invited to baleadas next week too!” Laura made sure to invite us all back to her sisters house. It was our cue to leave but I still hadn’t gotten asked about a larger loan or for a favor. In fact, for the duration of the reunion, we never once talked seriously about loans or finances. The topics of conversation were focused on friends and family. We were getting to know each other simultaneously. We were learning about each other’s history, our customs, our likes and dislikes, we were becoming friends. For that afternoon, for two hours on that Saturday, Laura, Karina and Marina were my friends and not my clients. They fed me, they cleaned up after me, they took care of me and I had nothing to offer them accept my good graces and my friendship. It was a genuinely good time, and I didn’t need to ask a neighbor to verify that.
La Ceiba MFI
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