July 15, 2012

Trip to Kazan City and Arsk

Trip to Kazan City and Arsk

Last week I travelled for several days around the Republic of Tartarstan, a semi-autonomous nation located in the south of Russia, a 6 hour drive along very bumpy roads from our central office in Samara. Tartars have a very strong sense of national pride, and for good reason too – the capital city of Kazan is the self-proclaimed “third capital of Russia” and distinguishes itself from other cities in the south of Russia by its advanced infrastructure and metropolitan feel. Kazan also stands out as the crossroads of Christian and Muslim Russia. In the Kremlin there (Kremlin means fortress in Russian, there is one in almost every old city) across from the Parliament building symbolically stand a massive Orthodox Church 500 feet away from a majestic Mosque. Just outside our main office there, a sprawling market filled with merchants selling clothes and all sorts of retail merchandise took up almost two full days of interviews for me and my team.

My third and fourth days in Tartarstan took me to Arsk, a city with a population of around 50,000 about an hour and a half drive from Kazan. There I was hard pressed to find anyone who spoke Russian, a formidable obstacle for my survey team, albeit not entirely unexpected. Colleagues and friends had warned me that Tartars will pretend not to understand Russian as a matter of pride. The office there was prepared for this, and so my driver and I set off with Ilfir and Ilfat, two young local loan officers who would become our translating team for the two day. Arsk provided a glimpse into what life is like in the vast expanse in between the larger cities of Russia, with a twist because of the predominance of Islam. My conversations with clients there, as well as with my “translation team,” gave me some insight into the day to day of a FINCA office with a very dispersed client base. Both days were a success, my team and I completed around 14 surveys each day, in large part thanks to the support of the local staff and the willingness of the people there to speak with us. From the surveys we conducted, I gather that most of our clients farm in order to complement their pension or income at a job in one of the neighboring towns, as well as provide food for their family. Their use for FINCA’s money ranged from building an addition onto their house, to helping pay for an incubator for a new business raising chickens.

As a whole FINCA clients in Tartarstan are incredibly kind and hospitable, waiting, it seemed, for a wipe of the brow for the chance to offer water or tea, if not a meal (luckily we didn’t give them enough time to prepare one!). Everyone was excited by the prospect of meeting an American, and several ended up asking me more questions then I asked them! I was especially struck by how hard working the loan officers were, and how they seemed at ease talking with each and every client we visited, even though they were chosen from a random sample.