The International Bank of Bob - exclusive excerpt from Bob Harris' new book about his microloan adventures

Bob Harris has written a number of excellent travel pieces for Boing Boing. He's also a Jeopardy champion (his book about his experience, Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! is fantastic). I met Bob a couple of years ago at the International Trivia Championship in Las Vegas and found him to be warm, funny, and wickedly good at answering trivia questions. His new book is not about trivia or game shows, but about his passion for microloans and his travels around the world to meet the people he has loaned money to through Kiva.

After the jump, an excerpt from his book, The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time.
Hired by to review some of the most luxurious accommodations on Earth, and then inspired by a chance encounter in Dubai with the impoverished workers whose backbreaking jobs create such opulence, Bob Harris had an epiphany: He would turn his own good fortune into an effort to make lives like theirs better. Bob found his way to, the leading portal through which individuals make microloans all over the world: for as little as $25-50, businesses are financed and people are uplifted. Astonishingly, the repayment rate was nearly 99%, so he re-loaned the money to others over and over again. After making hundreds of microloans online, Bob wanted to see the results first-hand, and in The International Bank of Bob he travels from Peru and Bosnia to Rwanda and Cambodia, introducing us to some of the most inspiring and enterprising people we've ever met, while illuminating day-to-day life-political and emotional-in much of the world that Americans never see. Told with humor and compassion, The International Bank of Bob brings the world to our doorstep, and makes clear that each of us can, actually, make it better.

Excerpt from The International Bank of Bob, by Bob Harris

Mohammed is a bicycle and motorcycle repairman, slight of build, shy, almost apologetic in his body language. As he first welcomes me, I am sure that he was one of the smaller kids where he grew up, and he probably still feels it sometimes.

As a forty-two-year-old adult, Mohammed now labors for eleven hours per day, six days a week, in a space smaller than many American kitchens. Mohammed's work area is crammed floor-to-ceiling with tires, wheels, cogs, chains, motor blocks, and assorted metal bits, but there's an order to the crammery, everything in its place. You can see right away that Mohammed doesn't waste time here. He works.

When our conversation concludes, I turn around from Mohammed's garage, facing a half-dozen young men in this working-class part of town.

They are staring at me and speaking to each other in a language I don't understand.

One of them is making a fist.

When I was a boy in Ohio, Morocco was faraway and alluring -- Tangier, a pulsing oasis for international spies; Marrakech, where Crosby, Stills, and Nash took the express train with the sunset in their eyes; Casablanca, a place so remote that Humphrey Bogart could try to hide from an entire world war. Even Fez, where the little red hats with tassels came from, felt enticing.

Now that I'm here, it's not quite so beguiling. Casablanca is the size of Chicago, boasting not just Africa's largest mosque but its biggest shopping mall, offering the traditional Saharan pleasures of Sunglass Hut, Pinkberry, and bowling. Tangier just got its second Marjane, the local equivalent of a Walmart Supercenter (boxed Tunisian dates, just 19.9 dirhams per kilo). Morocco's eighteen Pizza Huts are all open until midnight, seven days a week, although the pepperoni is made without pork.

As to Marrakech, express trains still arrive daily -- but so do dozens of airlines, all serving the million-plus annual tourists who come here seeking a take-home box of exotic. They wander the souks to buy leather and spices, sit in cafes smoking sweet shisha tobacco, and stroll its main square amid a whirling storm of snake charmers, fruit vendors, jugglers, and fire-eaters. Back home, I may have seen Marrakech's main square as often as the rest of Morocco combined -- from Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which a fugitive spy gets stabbed here, revealing a key secret as he dies, to The Simpsons, where it's an obvious place to buy opium or a magic animal paw. In tourist brochures and most popular media, this one city block portrays all of Morocco as soothsayers, incense, and dancing macaques.

No one would imagine that all of America looks just like Times Square. But this is the developing world that Westerners glimpse in pop culture: sensual, colorful, animal, fragrant.

I'm nowhere near any of that.

Instead, I've come to Rabat, a government city where few tourists linger -- the main attractions being a mausoleum, a necropolis, and a mosque that was never completed -- and rented a room in the medina, not far from the kasbah. I've hired a translator, made local contacts, and traveled at last to a working-class neighborhood unmapped in any guidebook, all just to visit a total stranger named Mohammed.

Now I'm standing in the street near his workplace. Arabic graffiti covers a nearby wall. Strange music pours from a window down the street. A nearby mosque has just sounded a call to prayer.

Sweat pours from my body, soaking my shirt. When I first become aware of the young men looking at me, I struggle even to glimpse faces in the glare of the North African sun.

This is the developing world that Westerners often see in the news: indecipherable, alien, menacing. In 2007, bombs were set off outside the U.S. consulate and a U.S.-run school, and the Department of State still dramatically warns that "potential targets" for Americans in public include "clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, hotels, movie theaters," and more. Even the Marrakech main square, merry tourist construct it has become, would attract an extremist response, with one popular cafe and seventeen of its customers blown to bits.

I'm nowhere near any of that, either.

Now all of the young men are making fists.

Mohammed has three children -- two girls, fifteen and seven, plus a thirteen-year-old son -- and he works these sixty-six-hour weeks to afford to send them to school, get them an education, and try to build a better life for them. That's why Mohammed stands in this small room, his hands, face, and blue overalls covered in oil and grease, for more than half of his waking hours on earth.

He has been guarded since my arrival, unsure what to make of this paunchy Midwesterner who speaks little Arabic and has no personal connection to Morocco, but has nonetheless stumbled into his tiny shop from halfway around the world, just to say hello.

Out of instinct, I start telling this total stranger about my dad.

James Robert Harris was a manual laborer for General Motors who often did overtime, second jobs, third jobs, whatever, just to put food on the table. I confess to Mohammed that I've never worked that hard in my life -- but only thanks to my dad. I also tell Mohammed that I imagine he loves his kids much the same way that Dad loved my sister and me. I understand that this is why he works so hard.

And I am honored to meet a man capable of this kind of love.

This feels like a surprisingly naked thing to say to a stranger whom I've only just met, especially one from a different culture on the other side of the world from where I grew up. But it's the truth. I am honored. I do see this densely packed tiny garage as a work of love. It's obvious. So the words just kinda come out.

The credit or blame partly belongs to my translator, Bouchra, a young mother of two, bright, strong-willed, and compassionate.

I've only known her since this morning, but we've formed an instant friendship, and as I speak, my description of my dad brings a warm smile to Bouchra's face. I catch Mohammed reading her expression, which translates my feelings before we get around to specific words.

Encouraged, I go on.

I don't notice the small crowd forming in the street behind me.

Drawn by the curious sight of a Westerner, passers-by are starting to stop, ask each other who I am and what I am doing here, and discuss how they should all react.

As Bouchra translates, I start to feel nervous. I may have screwed up. It might be presumptuous of me -- a relatively prosperous Westerner, privileged in gender and skin tone and even eye and hair color, a massive winner in the birth lottery despite my parents' poor Appalachian roots -- to compare my dad's story to Mohammed's.

It might be more conventional -- at least by my own culture's standards -- to assume that Mohammed's life must be inconceivably different, to keep things objective and impersonal, ask business questions only, to sit quietly, take notes, and move on.

Mohammed has financed his tiny business with microloans, after all, and those loans are the ostensible subject here. His first loan five years ago, used to buy equipment and tools, was for the equivalent of less than $600, repayable at the rate of about $100 per month. As his business has grown, Mohammed now borrows and repays about $1,700 each year, using the credit to upgrade his equipment, hire help, smooth his cash flow, and more. Those numbers and plans were what I'd planned to ask about first. Then we could discuss what they meant: Without microcredit, would Mohammed's life be different? Would he have to work longer hours with poorer equipment, might he be unable to afford school for his kids? But here, with this Moroccan bike tinker on one of my first trips into the field, my intuition has been to tell him about my dad, see if that connects enough to open the conversation beyond numbers, and go from there. I'm flying on instinct, however. I'll just hope for the best.

Bouchra concludes her translation. There is a pause.

Mohammad turns to me, a proud smile forming. Shukran, he says, looking me straight in the eye. This is Arabic for "thank you." I touch my heart respectfully with my right hand. We stand in silence, holding eye contact for a second. The need for a translator momentarily disappears.

The crowd behind me has grown, although I don't know that yet.

So is Mohammed's business doing well? Of course, he tells me through Bouchra, his tone gently chiding me for the silly question.

After twelve years in business, and after successfully borrowing and repaying seven cycles of small loans over the last five years, Mohammed now does more than shepherd his three kids through school: his shop has grown to employ two permanent staff members, plus several part-time helpers. He has also upgraded and diversified his equipment, enabling his staff to handle virtually any job that comes in. His eighth loan is five times larger than his first, and Mohammed hopes soon to expand his business even further, benefiting not just his own family, but his entire neighborhood.

When I was a boy, this was called the American Dream. Apparently they have something similar here, too.

We talk more about our families, and Mohammed offers to let me work with his tools, maybe spend a few minutes working with him on one of his projects. He seems to assume that since my dad was mechanically inclined, I must be, too. Oh, dear. Thank you, I'm honored. But I might break something. Possibly my own fingers.

And then Mohammed and I reach to shake hands.

The palms of Mohammed's hands are covered in grease, so instead of a regular handshake, he presses the back of his hand against mine. It's a polite and playful gesture. I nod and smile appreciatively.

Finally, Mohammad gestures behind me, and I turn, seeing for the first time the large and growing audience I've attracted. Maybe a half-dozen teenage-and-younger males, plus a few passers-by of all ages, are assessing my presence.

Holy crap.

One of the young men steps forward. Bouchra explains that I'm meeting Hamid, Mohammed's son.

Hamid's hands are also dirty, so when I extend my right hand in greeting, Hamid shyly offers the back of his hand, too, just like his father. I'm still awkward about where to put my own hand in response, so I make a joke out of it, and Hamid and I share a fun moment of goofing around, twisting our hands to mime a half dozen possible handshakes.

The other boys start to smile.

High five! I suggest, looking back at Bouchra, wondering if this will need a translation. Thanks to the Internet and the global reach of Western media, it does not. Hamid high-fives me instantly.

Small world.

His friends and I exchange a few high fives, too. Those who are unfamiliar with the technique catch on instantly and join in.

Low five! I continue, and we carry on, enjoying the unexpected novelty of knowing how to greet each other in multiple ways.

Fist bump? I ask, making a fist.

The young men's faces turn curious. Howie Mandel's preferred Deal or No Deal greeting has not yet reached this part of the Arab world.

I bump my own fists together as a demonstration, saying the American slang word dap as I do. The boys smile with a bit of bafflement -- They really do this odd gesture in America? Hokay -- and join in.

Dap, dap, dap, dap, dap. A few of us even start to giggle.

This is the developing world as experienced not through sensational news reports or pop culture stereotypes, but while I've been actually standing in it.

This is why a half-dozen young men came toward me, fists raised, in Morocco.

Because we were having so much fun saying hello.

A small business is nothing more or less than an idea for improving the future. So, numbers aside: Is your work paying off? Is there more food on the table? Are there more books in the hands of children? Does the village have more electric light in the evenings? Is the future improving? Do the loans help? For nearly one hundred million clients of microfinance institutions across the developing world, including some of the world's poorest people, these are supremely important questions.

Reprinted from The International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris. Copyright (c) 2013 by Bob Harris. Used by permission of Walker & Company, a division of Bloomsbury USA


  1. Supercut bleg : “Clean shaved North-American feeling threatened by non English speaking environment.”

  2. You know, I saw the title for this piece and was hoping for an article on how to get 30% APR on my SLACK.  Praise BOB! 

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