Oikocredit USA’s Leah Gage has headed to Eastern Bulgaria to spend the week with our Bulgaria Country Office staff and spend time at the agricultural and credit cooperatives Oikocredit funds there. Follow her as she posts her findings from the field! @OikocreditUSA #OikoinBulgaria
On the plane from London to Sofia, Bulgaria
I’m most likely the only person on the plane who doesn’t speak a word of Bulgarian. It’s nice, in a way, to get lost in the totally new sounds and play the game of blending in with nods and mumbles. But it also feels rather lonely rather quickly to be so isolated.
This is the 21st country I’ve ever traveled to, and it’s certainly not the first time I’ve arrived somewhere alone not speaking the language. Trips like this remind me always of two very important things, almost simultaneously.
The first is a wholly embarassing experience I had crossing the Ukranian / Hungarian border by train late one night. I was alone and spoke not a word of Ukranian, only some Russian learned during my 3 months spent working in Russian-speaking Zaporozhye with HOPE Ukraine, the largest MFI in Ukraine*. It had just been discovered that I had overstayed my 90 day visa by 3 days and was being escorted off the train at 3 am through a series of border-guard bureaucracy hoola-hoops before I was eventually allowed to cross into Hungary. By the end of the ordeal, I had almost befriended a very cool border guard whose job it was to escort me through these procedures. He didn’t let on immediately, but actually he spoke impeccable English and during our last 15 minutes together as the sun is rising in Chop, he finally asks: “So what are you doing here anyway?” Fair enough – I appeared to be the unseasoned American traveler who had just spent 3 months in Ukraine and picked up zero words from the national tongue and couldn’t accurately count to 90. I explained that I had been part of a funding project for Ukrainian small entrepreneurs, market workers, and greenhouse farmers aiming to spur sustainable economic development. “But, why?” I offered that I believed all people deserved opportunity for growth, and this work was in an effort to help the entire world community, of which we are all a part. My guy was not convinced. “But what do you care about Ukrainian farmers? What business is that of yours?” I felt lost. Not to mention unwelcome – I was in the process of being kicked out of the country. What was I doing there?
The second most important thing I’ve learned is the humbling & motivating factor of this question – “why do you care?” Traveling to 21 countries teaches you that all people are basically the same. Cultures are rich and diverse and vibrant, languages can be isolating and frustrating, and national borders are certainly nothing to be taken lightly. But all people basically are united by similar objectives, we can all communicate with smiles and eye contact and hand gestures, we all want to provide safety and security for ourselves and our families. It’s important – essential – to be humble, to learn as much as you can in a new place, to observe and assimilate as unobtrusively as possible. That gives integrity to my work as a representative of Oikocredit USA’s investors. And in my line of work, capital speaks a fairly universal language. Some people have more; many have less – much less. Most Oikocredit investors seem concerned with balancing out that inequity simply because we are all one people, responsible for looking out for one another because the natural market does not.
That’s really why I’m here. And the more we all learn about the reality and complexity of poverty in many different places, the more humbled and motivated we can all be to arrive at dynamic solutions to alleviate it. To be continued!
Tomorrow I visit our field partner Doverie in Dobrich, Bulgaria. I’ll tell you about why the Bulgarian cooperative model is so unique and why Oikocredit is one of the leading supporters of sustainable agricultural development in this struggling East European Country.
*At the time I was serving as a Kiva Fellow in Ukraine, prior to my position with Oikocredit.