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Helping a Small Business By (Literally) Blowing Things Up

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I'm about to help a new friend blow up some stuff in Nicaragua.

This really isn't what I originally set out to do when I came to this country. But it seems like a good idea now. Mostly because Luis Alberto is so pleased about it.

Luis Alberto and I are standing on a deserted rural road flanked by barbed wire, marking the edges of dry empty fields. Just a 20-minute ride from the bustling streets of León, the only sounds here are the rustling of leaves, the occasional bark of a distant dog, and metallic hammering from a nearby tin-roofed work site.

This quiet strip of pavement is a perfect place to light a fuse, plug our ears and giggle.

Luis Alberto blows things up for a living. He and his employees make fireworks, and his business has been financed in part by Fundación León 2000, a local microlending institution. They've loaned Luis the equivalent of $850 to buy gunpowder, coal, sulfur, nitrate and his other kablowie needs. Fundación León 2000, in turn, has financed Luis's loan through the non-profit charity Kiva.org, the leading platform for online microlending, where I chipped in $25 here.

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Meanwhile, I've spent sizable chunks of the last few years traveling around the world to visit clients in Bosnia, Lebanon, Cambodia, and so on, writing a book about Kiva and microfinance while meeting as many clients as I can. That's why I'm here. (You can find more about the book by clicking on my nose, above, if you're interested.)

Here in Nicaragua, a Fundación León 2000 loan officer has kindly led me to Luis Alberto's door in a working-class quarter of León, and Luis's family has immediately welcomed us with cold drinks, family photos, wedding pictures, and stories.*

We've talked about business as well: the fireworks trade has high periods around holidays, so depending on the calendar, Luis Alberto may have eight, 10, maybe a dozen men working for him. (Knock-on job creation like this can be a positive side effect of microloans, one not always obvious in a Kiva profile.) At the time of my visit, he employs about a half a dozen men, all at a work site safely far from any residential area. Would I like to see it?

So now, trying to return his trusting spirit, I've followed Luis Alberto to his outdoor explosives-making workshop along this rural Nicaraguan road. As he places a single three-walnut-sized firework on the ground, my inner Cub Scout kicks in, compelling me to check the wind direction, raise my arms to warn nonexistent traffic, and scan the ground worriedly for some kind of makeshift ear protection (Look! Two squirrels! That should work!).

I'm also hoping that this one demonstration will be the only explosion I hear. The manufacturing work is all done by hand, sitting between bins filled with various powders, fuses, and kaboom-containers, creation each firework with assembly-line repetition: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, mash it down with this metal thing and repeat. In skilled hands, each firework takes about 45 seconds to make. The guys are friendly and eager to demonstrate the process for their skittish American visitor. Tengo miedo un poco, I manage to summon from my gringo-watching-telenovelas Spanish. I'm a little afraid. This brings only friendly laughter -- it's perfectly safe, they tell me. I should try it myself and see. Um... okay.

The results, in my hands: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, drop that thing by accident, spill the powder back into the bin, get some of it on my pants, grab one of these again, and so on. Five minutes later: one firework and all 10 fingers -- a moral victory.

Now I'm dripping in sweat from the heat. And I've only been out here for maybe an hour, tops. These men work up to 10 hours a day, but they have dreams and families to work for, so there it is.

As with nearly every client and business I've visited in these travels, I can barely imagine the patience and physical endurance involved. All I can map it to: when I was growing up in Ohio, my dad spent his entire adult life doing manual labor to support our family. He'd work in a warehouse, take third shift, lay sod in the hot sun, whatever was necessary. It's hard to look at these workers in Nicaragua -- or anywhere I've visited -- and not see at least some resemblance. And my dad obviously had things a lot easier, given a minimum wage, occupational health and safety regulations, and so on.

One of the cruelest stereotypes about economic struggle is that it's caused by a lack of hard work. Just one day in the field with microlending clients should be enough to convince anyone otherwise.

Finally, out in the street, ready to demonstrate the results of all the handiwork, Luis Alberto has the happy grin of a teenager. He's 63 years old, mind you, and he speaks to his employees more as a father than as a boss. But when he's about to light a fuse, he has the same smile he must have had when he was a kid.

Finally: match, fuse, ba-BAMM! We giggle like 10-year-olds. For one gorgeous instant, language, age, religion, and nationality disappear. It's only one moment, sadly, and a Beavis and Butthead one at that. But this was hardly the only such moment of connection.

On my arrival at Luis Alberto's home, recall, the discussion was immediately of things that matter everywhere: work, love, marriage, age, death, hope for the children, pride in small victories. I bet you feel connected to all of that, too, even through a computer, wherever you are.

I can't change the birth lottery, any government, nor the slightest whim of the global economy. I don't pretend for one second that my $25 loan or the afternoon I spent counting and re-counting my fingers (10? Yes!) with Luis Alberto, by themselves, had any great effect on his life.

But I can and do feel grateful to be able to help this gentle, funny man to create great effects in his own life, to provide a home for his family and employment for those around him.

And after visiting clients from Kenya to the Philippines, when I look at the Kiva website and scan through the thousands of photos and stories, I can only feel excited for more.

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* Incidentally, I don't volunteer to clients that I'm a lender. An indebtedness vibe would be not only feel kinda gross, but factually inappropriate, what with pre-disbursed funds and the likelihood that some other Kiva lender would have invested in the loan if I hadn't. I'll admit that I'm a lender if anybody asks, but almost nobody does, and it seems a lot friendlier, simpler, and more accurate just to say that I'm an American interested in their lives. This is certainly true.

(Note: a similar version of this entry has also been posted here at the Kiva blog.)