Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I Have No Dignity, But I Have My Costume…

After a successful Friday working with Microfinance West and vendors in Lautoka and Veisese, we decided to spend another day learning from entrepreneurs at the Lautoka market.

This time Dr. Sharma, our new friend and dean of the UniFiji business school, escorted us there and helped us track down a man called the Market Master. Before today, we weren’t really aware that the market had a master, but apparently all the Fijian town markets have them; Lautoka’s Market Master is Ponsamy Mudaliar. He was kind enough to spend about an hour talking to us, explaining his role and his perspective on how the market operates. As the master, his primary responsibility is to collect daily market fees, but he also sees himself as the person who the vendors can come to for help with whatever needs they may have. (Luckily for the market vendors, he’s a benevolent master.) As yet, he hasn’t been involved with any of the microfinance companies in operation, but given his prominent position in the market he is definitely a useful connection for anyone wanting to work with small business owners who sell at the Lautoka market.

Mr. Mudaliar introduced us to an amazing woman named Makareta Rika, who has worked in the market for 41 years, and who currently serves as President of the Lautoka Market Vendors Association (an organization comprised of about 1,200 small business owners). She is a gracious and kind woman, and she knows just about everything about anything that goes on or has gone on in the market. She introduced us to several handicraft vendors who we then interviewed for our microfinance study.

After we put in a few hours speaking to women in the Lautoka market (we’ve spoken to about 40 women so far), our driver Ravin took us to a beach he knew about on the west side of the island. It was down a long dirt road and there weren’t many people there, but we did run across a group of boys who were busy burying one of their friends in the sand. They claimed they had killed him, but his breathing betrayed their story. Since they weren’t killers, we talked to them for a while, and Melanie in passing asked if they could climb the trees by the beach. Not only could they climb the trees, as it turned out, but they could also throw down coconuts, produce machetes seemingly out of thin air, and cut the coconuts open for us to drink. When we finished drinking coconut milk, they cut the coconuts open, fashioned spoons out of the coconut shells, and gave them to us to eat. I felt pretty silly and useless as a sheltered American at that moment, but it didn’t stop me from enjoying the coconut.

Walking back along the beach, we met a group of young men who called us over to where they were sitting. We told them what we were doing in Fiji, and, taking us to be business experts, they asked us a lot of questions about how credit cards work. The idea that a person could take out a loan with a card and instantly use it to pay for something like a vacation was fascinating to them. We tried to warn them about the dangers of consumer debt, so hopefully they won’t fall into the trap that most of America fell into.

As we were leaving, one of them got the idea to trade T-shirts with me. I have no idea where he got the shirt he offered me (he wasn’t wearing it himself, and it was purple with pink lettering), but I went ahead with the trade. The exchange might have been Fijian “kari kari” in action, but I’m not really sure. In any case, now he’s got a Kelley School of Business t-shirt and I’ve got a T-shirt that is about two sizes too small and says, “I have no costume, but I have my dignity.” In a nice pretty script. Wearing the shirt back to the hotel, I doubted if either of those assertions was true. In fact, the opposite was probably more a lot more accurate.

I plan to present the T-shirt to Dr. Powell as evidence of our Fijian cultural immersion, so feel free to stop by his office and check it out. We’ll write more soon!

Guest blog post provided by Jacob Hiatt, Kelley MBA 2011

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