We Deal in Fragments; It’s Impossible to Get It All

“Just the way he looks at you,” she told him, practically bounding in her chair. “The feeling of his eyes on you, like he’s staring directly into your soul.”

They were sitting next to each other in the blanch-white classroom, under the incandescent lights that shone starkly against the still dusk just beyond the windows. They were close, close enough even to touch. But their arms remained folded in their laps, abating any attempt at more courageous resolve.

“Sure,” he acquiesced, only halfheartedly, “it must be pretty incredible.”

“You mean you don't feel it?” she asked, as if in disbelief.

"I'm not sure I quite grab his attention," he replied, more dejected than coy. She brushed a radiant blonde curl from her face and it settled in a crescent moon behind her ear.

“Well, haven’t you ever felt that way?” He could almost see her heart, soft and buoyant, fluttering in the air above her chest. Then, she added, with her eyes still fixed on his: “Hasn't anyone ever made you feel like you are the only person in the world?”

Just then, the professor approached the podium and the room began to quiet. She composed herself—readying for his world-narrowing gaze—and turned to the front of the class with an almost possessive focus. The corners of her eyes prickled like soft fern, tiny translucent threads that blow quixotically in the wind.

He straightened up in his chair, himself immune to the professor’s scrutiny. But he knew the feeling well—to be held in someone’s favor—exactly as she described. And the other feeling, too, just after she looks away.


The title of this post is borrowed from the eminently quotable Wendell Berry, who gave a talk at Yale on Saturday, December 7th, 2013.

I Want to Know (What Love Is)

On the first below freezing night in New Haven, I biked to Stop & Shop to do my weekly grocery run. I have always enjoyed the guise of a supermarket on a winter evening, the way the automatic doors hum when you enter, the squeak of your feet across the linoleum floor. It dates back to the trips I used to take to the 24-hour Walmart in Oberlin; always to escape something, always in the dead of night. There was something immensely comforting about a place where you didn’t know a soul, and where no one would ask you any questions.

When I walked into Stop & Shop, I felt like I was looking at the world in slow motion. The supply in the store had changed slightly to reflect the season—overstock Halloween candy was marked down and acorn squash was poised near the entrance—but I found myself paralyzed for a different reason. As I sifted haltingly through the aisles, it occurred to me that the food choices I used to make with such utter regularity now seemed beyond my deepest comprehension.

For the first time since I’d lived in New Haven, I wasn’t thinking about cooking for anyone else. There were no more weekend meals to plan, because there was no longer anyone with whom to cook them. There was no one to walk arm-in-arm with, no one to send news about my day, no one to wrap myself against at night.

For the first time in as many years as I’d been a student here, I was alone. And the hulking reality of it hit me at the checkout aisle – a string of purchases so paltry I could fit them in a tote bag that I kept looped around my neck on the bike ride home, like a missing dog still wearing its collar.


When I caught myself in the mirror half-naked and screaming the lyrics to “I Want to Know What Love Is,” I was suddenly grateful that I didn’t have more destructive coping habits. The way some people drink or gamble or fight to deal with sadness has always eluded me. It’s not to say that I’m not temped by those approaches, but they’ve always felt antithetical to who I am. It would be like watching a gangster movie and then going out to rob a bank. The zealot in me might hedge toward the door, but the practicalist starts writing.

Junot Diaz, one of my biggest writer idols, gave a talk at a New Haven Catholic church yesterday. It was a large crowd, and to Diaz’s chagrin, almost all Yale students. He spent much of the hour criticizing the institution of creative writing, lamenting that “you would think we were going to war with books as combatants the way we’re funding MFA programs.” But he also extolled the innate humanness of writing, that “you can be deliberate and contemplative in writing in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”

After a few questions from the audience, he paused and addressed the room. The questions up until that point had hovered around how to quantify good writing and how Diaz was able to succeed professionally as a writer – if it was something he had planned to do all his life. “What I sense from the room is an enormous anxiety,” he said, silencing the crowd. “Here I am at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and all of you are living in fear.”

The truth of his words was undeniable. There are manifestations of it everywhere, from the nervous student on his way to an interview to the girl fiendishly filling out applications in the library. I had never put it together until he said it. The great irony of our society is that the people who should be least worried about where they will land in life are the most afraid of failing.

It dawned on me just how much of my own life I spend being afraid – afraid of what I’ll do when I leave here, afraid of never amounting to anything. And now, recently, an even more virulent fear has taken hold – what if I never find happiness, what if I stay lonely forever, what if I never truly love again? It may sound melodramatic, but it’s just like the Foreigner song: you know deep-down that things will be fine; you just wish someone would show you.

The Good Nurses of Busia County

When Aditi and I arrived in Busia, dust-splayed and weather-beaten on the shared backseat of a boda boda, we did not look like your average tourists.

The midday sun was at its height, and as we throttled down miles of dusty country roads, the wind kicked up streaks of earth that colored my clothes red and coursed through my hair. Sitting on the very back of the motorbike, with Aditi sandwiched in-between me and the driver, I grasped for the metal bar behind me with one hand, and with the other, waved at an ever-evolving panorama of fruit sellers, truck drivers and playing children. The looks I got in return were bewildered at best -- no one was quite sure how to place me.

Up to that point, I had been living in Kenya’s foreigner-saturated capital city of Nairobi for three weeks and had gotten used to a certain indifference at my presence. Few, if any, passerby on the street stopped to take a second look, and there was hardly any uproar at my belabored crawling into a crowded matatu with a cabin-full of locals. But out in Western Kenya -- a stone’s throw from the Ugandan border -- in a place that sees a negligible share of foreign visitors, Aditi and I were the only other mzungu that we saw during our two days in Busia.

The four women that we had traveled over 300 miles to visit in the border town were all registered community nurses who own and operate their own clinics. All of them were recipients of Kiva Zip loans, small loans of $125 lent by individuals from around the world that the nurses used to grow their businesses. But the reason that Aditi and I were in Busia was not to disperse the loans, nor was it to collect repayments. We weren’t educating on Kiva policies or training new borrowers on the Zip model. In fact, it was quite the opposite; we were the ones taking notes.

“When the government hospitals run out of malaria drugs, we are the only place people can go,” Fosca told me, a mother of seven and a widow of twenty years. I was sitting in the reception area of her clinic in the small rural town of Funyula, filling out a borrower verification form and talking fast so as not to take too much time away from her patients. Fosca was soft-spoken and amazingly resilient; she runs two businesses in addition to her clinic, a farm where she sells beans and corn and a brickmaking kiln. More impressive still, she singlehandedly put all seven of her kids through college. (“My last one is in university now,” she corrected me, “so don’t congratulate me just yet.”).

Fosca holding the visitor's book we would later sign.

Like many of the nurses I spoke with, Fosca used the Zip loan to stock up on extra supplies for her clinic. One of her competitive advantages has recently been in stockpiling malaria drugs. They are becoming increasingly scarce in the town and she builds her customer base by ensuring that sick patients can come to her and get the drugs that they need when they are not available elsewhere. She said, however, that this would not have been possible without a loan from Kiva.

“Without the loan, things would be like they were before,” she said, “slow.” Her patient base has increased from five a day to close to ten, and she has hired a new nurse to support the growing business. She estimates that profits have increased four-fold since taking out the loan.

But microfinance loans, for many of the nurses I met, were nothing revolutionary. Almost all of them had some experience with borrowing, whether it was through banks, relatives, or informal groups. But not all of them would do it again.

“I had a bad experience with a bank loan,” Janet told me, a nurse in the town of Nambale who began her clinic out of her home back in 2006. “The interest rates are just too high.” At upwards of 40% interest, bank loans in Kenya are a huge barrier for small business owners, especially for those at the bottom of the pyramid. Kiva Zip specifically targets individuals who are deemed “too risky” for traditional microfinance and provides them with capital that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

Janet at her clinic in Nambale.

With the help of a loan from her family, Janet was able to rent out a space for her clinic and, six years later, her business is thriving. The Zip loan she took out one month ago enabled Janet to buy more chairs for her reception area and a fridge that allows her to store sensitive vaccinations longer.

“I was happy to get the loan because I no longer have to ask my children for money to buy items for my clinic,” she told Aditi and me. She said that after she finishes repaying her current loan, she wants to use her next loan to expand the physical capacity of her clinic with an extension. But this was not just a future pipedream.

Janet led us out of her clinic and took us into the newly vacant adjacent building, which she had recently put a down payment on. She had already started converting it, outfitting the walls with large floor-to-ceiling shelves and installing a large glass counter in the front.

“This will be the pharmacy,” she told me. Her dream is to eventually own the entire property on which her clinic sits – not simply rent it – to ensure that the clinic will live on beyond her, and that the government won’t be able to take it away from the community after she is gone. Janet, like many of the Kenyans I’ve met – and like many of the Americans I know too – doesn’t entirely trust her government.

But it’s not just trust in the government; trust in one’s community is tricky too. On one hand, it is risky to depend on other people, but on the other, it is sometimes the only option that entrepreneurs have. Elizabeth, who used her loan to buy a glucometer to expand the services that her clinic offers, takes part in what is known as “table banking” with three women’s groups in her community.

“They fund better than bank loans and only charge 10% interest,” she insisted. But she also acknowledged the dangers. In table banking, a large group of individuals pools its money and each week rotates who it is sent home with. It is a useful system, but the model only works if members consistently contribute to the pool even after they’ve cashed out their large sum. “If someone doesn’t pay up, everyone is responsible,” Elizabeth told me. “And that’s trouble for everyone.”

Elizabeth with the glucometer that she bought with her Kiva loan.

One of the reasons that Kiva Zip is so different from traditional microfinance is that it provides loans at 0% interest – a rate unthinkable in almost any other context. Another is that it does not depend on intermediaries—microfinance institutions (MFIs), money collectors, or informal groups—in order to deliver loans. Individual borrowers receive and pay back their loans over a mobile banking platform called M-Pesa, and money can be accessed instantly at any one of thousands of kiosks across the country.

But as I talked with the nurses about their experience with Kiva, one nagging question still remained. Not only were Aditi and I clearly outsiders to the town, we were also foreigners. If distrust is already so pervasive among Kenyan nationals, locals within the community, and even close confidantes, than what reason whatsoever did these women have to trust us?

The answer came to me at lunch at a local restaurant in the town of Bumala, where Aditi and I visited Mary, the first of the nurses in Busia to take out a Kiva loan. She bore the risk for the loan and it was only through her diligence and ability to pay it back on time that the other nurses could be endorsed as borrowers. At the heart of Kiva’s model is an underlying philosophy of trust – new borrowers must depend on the reliability of their predecessors to have the opportunity to take out a new loan, and in turn, those predecessors are able to graduate to higher loan amounts. When we went to visit Mary, she was already paying back her second loan, this one for $250.

Mary with her daughter and granddaughter at their home in Bumala.

At lunch, Aditi and I were served two huge plates of roasted chicken and potatoes ladled in tomato chutney and paired with a side of leafy greens. As the bill came and we got ready to see Mary, I took out my wallet. I paid for that meal out of my own pocket, the same as I had with every meal I’d eaten since being in Kenya. But more than that, I paid for all of my own expenses in Kenya. It was true of all Kiva Fellows everywhere – none of us received a dime from Kiva for the entire length of our fellowships. And that’s when it struck me.

As volunteers, what we lose in credibility due to not being salaried employees we gain by the very nature of our presence – our commitment to this experience means that we believe in Kiva’s mission, and more importantly, that we care deeply about the people that Kiva supports. In that way, we embody that philosophy of trust, establishing a crucial link between lenders and borrowers who may never meet in person, but in some small way can learn more about each other through us. More than anything else, it was the visit to see those nurses, to see first-hand how the Zip loan had changed their lives, that really convinced me of that.

When I saw Mary, I showed her the profiles of all the lenders that had contributed to her loan, and her face lit up. I was surprised to learn that none of the nurses I visited had ever seen their public profile online. None of them had regular access to the internet and on average they only checked their personal emails about once a month. But messages from Kiva, like the loans themselves, are delivered right to the borrower’s phones, and Mary was sent a message every time a new lender contributed to her loan. Likewise, borrowers are able to communicate directly with lenders by sending a text.

“I remember sending Trevor a message when he funded my loan,” Mary said. “I was so grateful for that.”

Many of the nurses were amazed at the fact that we had self-financed our own experience as volunteers with Kiva to make visits to places like Busia. I asked Mary if she thought it was strange that we had come to visit her – that despite having already received two loans from Kiva, we were the first representatives from the organization that she had physically met.

“It’s just like the lenders,” she responded, still staring at the faces of the thirteen individuals who trusted her to repay her loan. “But seeing your faces in person is like an added bonus.”

Near the end of our visit, Mary quickly shuffled us into her office and closed the door. Her eyes widened and she lowered her voice, like we were fifth-graders at a sleepover, and she was about to tell us a secret.

“My kids will never believe you came here,” Mary said, flashing a wide grin. “You’ll have to sign my visitor’s book for proof.” At that point it had become a familiar routine; Aditi and I signed the visitor’s book of each of the four nurses that we came to visit. Each time I tried to write something different. During the visit, I asked them countless questions about how the Zip loan impacted their lives that, when I left, I wanted to let them know how much they had made an impact on me.

When I handed the book back to Mary and turned toward the boda boda driver waiting outside, I thought about leaving Kenya in six weeks, about the stories I would tell friends back home of the nurses I had met in Busia. I wondered if they would believe me either.


This post is cross-listed on the Kiva Fellows Blog.

I Bleed Lilac and Heartache

“Your arm will look very bad,” the nurse declared, her head turned toward the door of the consultation room. It had been five days since my spectacular fall from a moving bus, and my body tensed at the mention of any lasting damage. I wanted to believe I didn’t hear her right.

“My arm,” I asked weakly, having propped it up awkwardly on the operating tray. My palm was flat against the aluminum pan and my punctured elbow was suspended lopsidedly in the air like a grizzled old flag.

“Your arm will look very bad after I apply this,” she said, alluding to a small vial in her hand. “It will turn the color of your shirt.”

I breathed out slightly. I was wearing a maroon dress shirt over a pair of gray slacks and nodded as she turned to face me. "At least it will match.”

Christine, my nurse, approached the table holding a wad of gauze the color of fresh lavender. She wore her hair twisted back in two thick braids and had a dark birthmark over her right eye that looked almost like a bruise. It reminded me of my ex-stepmom who had a birthmark in nearly the same place, and my dad, who lamented having to constantly face down stares from strangers who assumed he had hit her. Christine’s face looked young—not much older than my own—and had a sweetness to it, like she had trained to become a nurse because she genuinely liked people. Her smile, when I got her to laugh, was broad and unashamed.

It was the second time I had met her. The first was just hours after the accident, when I ambled into the university medical center after lunch, my arm held together loosely with a sheet of cling wrap and some adhesive. She flushed out the wound with peroxide and bandaged it in a cloth brace that gave my forearm the appearance of a taut bicep.

The medicine she prescribed was called Gentian Violet. When I asked her, she said she didn’t know about the ingredients of GV so much as she did its effect: it stains everything purple. Using the lavender gauze, she pressed down on my exposed skin. Each pulse sent a surge of pain through my arm but it was tempered by the restraint she showed, like she knew exactly how much pressure to administer. Her hands, when she was through soaking the wound, adopted the same amethyst glow as my forearm, like we had been through something together.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” I said, staring at the fresco with water lilies painted across my lower arm.

“The GV will help the wound scab,” Christine replied, washing her hands in the sink. “Or did you want to look that tough forever?”

I admitted to her that I half-liked the feeling of having a big open gash on my arm. It wasn't bravado so much as it was stating a fact. On a crowded street, at any time of day, I was confident that no one was going to give me trouble.  

Next, she drew her attention to my shoulder. “And now for your tetanus shot.”

I was already pushing a week since the date of the injury and it was the last time I could get the shot for it to still be effective. In a few hours, I would board a night bus to Busia, a small town bordering Uganda in the west of the country and would not be back in Nairobi for five more days. It was a combination of work and time off, culminating with a full day of white water rafting on the Nile. I thought about my arm and how it would fare being tossed around and roughed up by Class 5 rapids, and then, just as quickly, about how much worse I would feel if I didn’t go.

Unable to roll the sleeve of my shirt up past my shoulder, I began unbuttoning it, slowly at first, because I wasn’t familiar with the cultural norms, and, moreover, because I wasn’t sure if Christine would object to my getting undressed in her office. With the door closed and my eyes fixed on Christine, I unbuttoned my still-tucked shirt to the waist and hoisted the fabric over my left shoulder so that the entire left half of my torso was exposed. She didn’t bat an eye the entire time.

I waited as she unsealed a package of the vaccination and walked over to my left side. “This will feel a little funny,” Christine said, before piercing the needle into my shoulder and pushing down on the plunger.

When she was done, I asked her if she could log the shot in the yellow book that I used to record all of my immunizations, the very same one I had been given at the travel clinic in Elyria when I first got my vaccinations for China. She wrote it down in the blank directly below the previous entry—a tetanus shot dated just over two years ago. I remembered the incident almost immediately—having to get seven stitches in my chin at a county hospital in China after doing something even more illogical than jumping out of a moving vehicle. I looked over at her signature and the one next to my shot from China, and imagined that every two years I might record another tetanus shot from a new far-flung destination – like a repository of my misadventures.

“You know, I told you to buy the GV two days ago,” Christine said as she handed the yellow book back to me and saw me to the door. “Your arm would have already scabbed by now. Why haven’t you bought it yet?” She had a teasing quality to her voice, but I could tell she asked me the question in earnest.

“I couldn’t find any chemists,” I replied back, the East African equivalent of pharmacies, which was a lie, since I pass more than three on my walk home from work every day.

She scoffed and crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Why do I even bother with you,” she spouted, a bit of her Swahili accent coming out. And I could already see a smile forming at the creases of her mouth.

“I’m the worst kind of patient,” I admitted, rising to my feet. “But that’s why I need your help even more.”

On the overnight trip to Busia, I woke up every time our bus came to a screeching, juddering stop, or the woman next to me bumped her elbow against my arm. I never thought it was intentional but the roads for nearly all ten hours were atrocious and for most of the ride we couldn’t help colliding into each other. At times I felt like we were intentionally off-roading, that there was a perfectly smooth highway running parallel to the dirt road, but that our headlong driver insisted on using the bumpy, eroded path, the bus itself throbbing with African music blaring out of the overhead speakers. In the moments when I was jolted awake, I looked out the tinny glass windows and saw a dense fog encompassing my entire field of view, ours the single pair of headlights cutting through the haze.

At other times, I looked over at the woman to my right. She had a small frame and folded up neatly in the reclining chair; her entire body fit effortlessly into her seat. She had remarkably cool features: round oval eyes, wavy black hair, skin as dark and smooth as dawn. And irrationally, I kept thinking about how nice it would be to edge up to her, to bury my head in her shoulder, to wrap my arms tightly around her and not let go. I missed Alexandra, missed the bus trips we took together while traveling, and how at certain points she would just slump her body against mine and I would hold her there for as long as it took to get to wherever we were going. I thought back to the afternoon at Christine’s office and how before her it had been a long time since anyone had applied me with even the slightest touch.

It was almost 3:00 in the morning when our bus pulled into a rest stop. The bus stopped perhaps ten or twelve times before our eventual arrival in Busia at 5:30, sometimes just to let a person on or off, and at other times to idle in a lot while passengers went inside to get food, stretch their legs, or use the bathroom. Not knowing when we would arrive, I crawled off the bus, my body aching from being pounded and jostled against the seat, and my arm on fire.

The rest area was a cavernous den replete with a few lopsided restaurants and a bar still pumping music well into the early morning. It was nearly pitch black inside and my vision was still fuzzy from the bus ride. In an almost ethereal state, I walked along a checker-tiled floor and saw a group of four men sitting to a candlelit dinner at a table outside of a closed restaurant, their hands joined and their faces bowed so that I couldn’t make out any of their expressions.

When I reached the bathroom, my eyes first settled on my arm in the mirror. The GV had set in and, as promised, the wound began to scab, taking on the flat, crispy texture of a Terra chip cut from blue potatoes. Then, instinctively, my eyes settled on the center of my chest, where there was a gaping space in my shirt where a button should have been fastened. I rubbed my eyes and stared again. Sure enough, the buttons to my shirt were mismatched. I wondered how I could have possibly let this detail escape me, and then it dawned on me.

Standing in the rest stop bathroom, I remembered buttoning up my shirt in Christine's office, giving pause at the last thing she told me before I left. “You should come back and visit me,” she said, “even after your arm is healed.”

Lesser Acts of Daring

My stunt fall could use more work. Though in my defense, I hadn’t exactly planned for it.

The objective: jump out of a moving bus on the way to work. This bus won’t be going to Silver Springs, the conductor said, of the route I had been commuting on for close to a week with no such discrepancy. You’ll have to get off here. “Here,” as it happened, was less a definable location than it was any number of points along a dusty city road. Despite it being morning, the bus was careening down at a pace I thought only reserved for the midday traffic lull in Nairobi. It slowed as we approached a roundabout, but we were still going about 25 MPH when the conductor opened the front door and beckoned me onto the steps. Now.

Two years ago, I learned the best way to jump out of a moving vehicle. A retired stuntman was being interviewed on a radio show, and when asked about such a situation, he replied that the best thing to do is to jump at an angle away from the vehicle, to try and land in a soft spot away from the pavement, to avoid obstructions if at all possible, to tuck your body into a ball, hit the ground with your shoulder, and roll.

It’s hard to say whether I was pushed or if I jumped out willingly, like there was some deviant inner force spurring me on. It reminded me of when I went gorge jumping in Ithaca, how my body felt when it touched off the ground, the seconds of free-fall where time stood still, the almost-relief of finally plunging into the water 70 feet below. There was that initial terror of running to the cliff edge, of defying my mind’s desperate, incessant pleas to stop, and of feeling the earth leave my bare feet.

I saw a gruesome accident on my last day in New York. It was midday, sweltering, and at the intersection of Houston and Broadway a cab clipped the side of a motorcycle. The motorcyclist lost control and fell, his bike skidding on hot asphalt across the median. A group of stunned onlookers—myself included—stood paralyzed until one man came forward and helped the driver to his feet. The man had a long scrape down his right arm, red and ashen like volcanic ash, but did not look terribly shaken. The two of them guided the bike back to the stoplight, and the driver, with beleaguered breath, pushed the helmet back over his head, revved up the engine, and sped off.

By the time I got to my feet, I actually felt a little relieved that the bus I was riding on had not stopped, but rather, had continued circling the roundabout and disappeared out of sight. At a bar last night, two Kenyan MCs were hosting a talent night, a raucous and wildly entertaining affair that saw scores of young East African men and women singing, dancing, and performing stand-up comedy. At one point, the MCs started giving away free tickets to an event to be held the following week, but only to foreigners, seemingly only on account of their whiteness. This treatment was nothing startling. In China, you could get away with almost anything as a foreigner. Evidently perhaps, that preferential treatment was true here as well.

At the side of the road, there were only a handful of stares from passengers in approaching buses, and no pedestrians on the street stopped to confront me. I dusted myself off and set off in the direction of a nearby gas station. There was a gash in my sweatshirt where my elbow had made contact with the ground and a long scrape down my right arm. I thought about the motorcyclist on Houston Street. I was just another person in a traffic accident. I could have been anyone.