Author Archives: Steven Werlin

About Steven Werlin

I moved to Haiti in January 2005. I’ve been writing regular essays since then about the various projects that my colleagues and I work on and about our lives in Haiti.

Emania Sidues — After Four Months

Emania’s first four months in the CLM program have been eventful, almost disastrous.

One day in late February, her baby was sick and she arranged through the CLM nurse, Lavila, to take him to the hospital in Gwomòn, just down the road from where they live. Partners in Health does not have a facility in the area, and the local hospital charges fees for most services. Fonkoze will cover those fees if Lavila informs the hospital that the member’s visit is covered. The hospital then bills Fonkoze. The baby saw a doctor, received medication, and Emania took him home.

That evening, her mother was preparing a meal by the light of a kerosene lamp, and the baby fell backward into the lamp. He was badly burned. Emania rushed him to the hospital. The hospital staff then called Lavila, to confirm payment for services. Once Lavila confirmed payment, staff at the hospital could get to work, but they quickly saw that the case was beyond them anyway, so they referred the child to the larger hospital in Gonayiv, the much bigger city down the road.

But in Gonayiv, doctors had to say that they didn’t have the facilities to treat a serious burn either, so they put the baby and his mother in an ambulance and sent them to the Partners in Health hospital in Mibalè, a good three hours or more away. Even Mibalè, however, lacks a burn center, so after offering a little basic first aide staff there put the pair in another ambulance. This time they were sent to the Doctors without Borders burn center in Port au Prince.

Emania and the boy spent more than a month at the facility. He received a couple of skin grafts. But he also needed blood. With Emania’s most likely donors, her family, a long way off in Gwomòn, CLM staff travelled to the hospital from Mibalè to donate. The boy is now at home and recovering well.

And despite the interruption in her work, Emania is moving forward. She completed construction of her latrine and the repair of her home. This latter task was made easier by the fact that she merely fixed up her mother’s home, which was severely damaged in the earthquake of 2018. The two single women live together. “The walls had holes so big that you could have walked by and stolen one of the kids right through them.”

Her biggest challenge right now is building an income. She asked the program for two goats and a sheep, and has received the goats. But none of that livestock will bring in regular income anytime soon. And things are only going to get harder for her and her mom. Her sister recently moved into to a room in the house with her kids after splitting up with the children’s father. It isn’t yet clear to the CLM team what resources that other sister brings to the household, or whether she brings any.

And Emania presents challenges to her case manager, Pétion, and to the CLM team as well. He and the team did nothing for her that they would not have done for any CLM member. But Emania appears to believe that she is able to get special treatment by pursuing help vigorously. Pétion’s heard other CLM members say that she told them that they can get what they want from Pétion if the “fè l cho.” That means “if they make him hot,” which is a way of saying, “by nagging.” Emania is apparently telling CLM members to nag Pétion to get what they want.

The attitude is positive in the sense that it shows she credits herself for the help that she’s getting. We want CLM members to see themselves as agents. But it is hard to Pétion to find out that a member looks at him that way. Though perhaps he can take comfort in the attitude displayed by the members who told him what Emania has said.

Marie Joseph — Just Getting Started

Marie is a 35-year-old mother of two girls, age 18 and 16. They live in Tyera Miskadi with Marie’s husband, Honora, and the older daughter’s baby boy, who was abandoned by his father before he was born.

A cohort that included families from Tyera graduated in August of last year. And in a simpler world Marie and her family would have been part of that cohort. The CLM team’s plan, after all, is to pass from one community to another, always identifying everyone in the community who belongs in the program.

The reality, however, is more complex. Fonkoze depends on grant money to implement CLM, and grants always come with a number of families attached to them. We might receive funds to serve 50, 200, or even a thousand families at a time. But once we’ve selected the number we have funds for, we have to stop. Even if we are in the middle of a community. Tyera was the last community we entered during the prior cohort’s selection process, and we hit our limit before we completed work there. So Marie, her family, and other families as well were out of luck.

Neither Marie nor Honora are from the area. Marie is from Tomasik. She moved to Tyera with her mother when the older woman came to care for a grown daughter, Marie’s sister, who was sick. “My mother brought me along, and we just stayed.” Honora is from Senmichèl, a large town northwest of the Central Plateau. “He’s a field worker. He came to work in someone’s field, and he saw me.”

They have a house on a piece of land that they don’t own. “We stayed with various people for a while, but when you’re staying with people, now and again they make you feel ashamed. So someone said we could build our house on this piece of land.” The family doesn’t, however, live in the house any more. Its roof has deteriorated so badly that even the mildest rain gets through. So they took a single room in a nearby house. Its roof isn’t great either, but they are partly protected from at least the lighter rains.

Before they joined the CLM program, the couple really struggled to feed themselves and their kids. Honora earned all of their income. At first, he just did field work. Then he got a job substituting for the man who is supposed sweep the yard of the local school every day. That job would have paid very little, even in principle. But the school’s principal hasn’t been around for months, so Honora hasn’t been getting paid at all. He also takes care of someone’s cow, and the cow’s owner helps him occasionally. “When he sees we are going through a bad moment, he sometimes gives us something.”

The couple also takes care of three goats for their owners, who live in the Dominican Republic, and that should be a source of capital. Normally, the person caring for a female goat will be paid in offspring. But everything the couple has made through this arrangement has disappeared. “Some of the kids died, and some had to be sold to take care of our daughter.”

Their younger girl has a badly swollen foot, and it has been that way for years. Though they have taken her to see doctors, and spent a lot of money in the process, they’ve never found a solution.

Marie already sees possibilities in the program she’s entered. “I really liked the training. We learned a lot about keeping things clean. My daughters are still pretty lax, but I am keeping after them, and it’s starting to work.” She refused to spend the transportation stipend that the program provides during the initial training. Six days brought in 450 gourds — a little less than $5 — and she used the money to buy a pair of ducks. She thinks the female is ready to start laying eggs.

She chose goats and a pig as the enterprises for the program to transfer to her. She knows that small commerce could help her in ways that the livestock cannot. Only small commerce has a chance of providing steady income. But she doesn’t think that small commerce is possible right now. “There is no commerce these days.” She feels as though the local economy has slowed down so much in the last year or so that she’d have no way to make money.

Her ambition for her time in the program is straightforward. “I’d like to live differently.” But her explanation is unusual. Normally, new members talk of becoming wealthier, about acquiring things that they don’t have. Marie says nothing of the kind. “I want to apply what they said in the training and keep me and my daughters from being careless.”

Sophonie Duclaire — Almost Ready to Graduate

Sophonie Duclaire lives with her husband and three of their five children near the little market at the Palmis Tanpe intersection, where merchants sell seasonal fruit and charcoal to motorists passing along the national highway through Savanèt Kabral, in Tomond. Her two oldest kids were taken by members of her family when they reached secondary school and Sophonie could no longer afford school fees. The more advanced classes are more expensive, and Sophonie couldn’t hope to pay.

Sophonie had been sick, and she and her husband had sold everything to try to get her well again. When CLM staff members first met her, she was sitting in the yard in front of her shack, across from a pile of the filthy clothes and bedsheets that she had used during a short hospital stay. She couldn’t lay her hands on the ten gourds she needed to buy laundry soap to wash them. That’s less than 15 cents. And she had nothing to eat in the house. She couldn’t take her medications without food.

When she joined the program, she and her husband had nothing except a small garden on family land, but they supported the family as best they could. He would help out in neighbors’ fields whenever he could find the work. He’d get 100 gourds per day, just over a dollar right now. Sophonie did laundry for neighbors. They wouldn’t pay her, but they would give her food that she could take home to her family. “Back then, you wouldn’t have accepted a drink of water from me.” It is her way of saying that she was so downtrodden that nobody would have wanted to associate with her at all. “I was living in such a broken-down shack. I had to bend over to walk in, and everything we had was drenched by every rain. And we were, too.”

The couple continued to make an effort to keep the younger children in school, but just this year they were running out of ways to pay. Sophonie became part of a CLM savings club when she joined the program, but she had to receive her payout out of turn. The principal had already sent her children home because she hadn’t paid any of the tuition. She used her second turn at the savings-club pot to buy the lumber she needed for her home. “I’m not living under water anymore.”

She chose two goats and a pig as her enterprises, and she and her husband have been taking great care of them. The pig is growing and pregnant.

But the progress she’s made with her goats is remarkable. Her collection has gone from two to ten in just over a year. The original two both provided kids, so that brought her to four. But a couple of different neighbors offered her the chance to buy mature nanny-goats. That really showed how her life was changing. “Before, no one would have offered me the chance to buy a goat. They wouldn’t have thought of me.” Before long, each of those nannies had delivered a pair of kids.

She made the purchases by borrowing money from her Village Savings and Loan Association. She and her fellow members gather every week, and at each meeting every member buys from one to five shares. The association makes interest-bearing loans to its members out of the funds it collects, so the shares’ value grows.

Sophonie has quickly learned to use her association’s loans well. After paying back the money she used to buy the goats, she took another loan and used it to buy wood to make charcoal. She’s been selling 4-5 bags a week at the little market in nearby. At current prices, that’s almost 3000 gourds. She hasn’t yet been able to set enough aside to run her business without loans, but she’s made a lot of progress nonetheless.

She’s saving up as much of the profit as she can, though, because she has a plan. She’d like to use it along with money from the sale of a goat or two to buy a cow. “Things can happen — like a death in the family — that just a goat can’t help you with. When the CLM program leave us, I don’t want to be forced backward.”

Dieumercie Alexandre — Almost Ready to Graduate

Dieumercie lives in Palmarik, a small neighborhood within Kay Epen, a minor population center in a remote corner of southern Tomond. She’s lived in the area all her life, and now shares a home with her partner and their five children.

When she joined the CLM program, she had nothing. She describes regular seizures she suffered over the course of years and how she spent all her money on doctors and traditional practitioners, looking for a solution. She supported her children with the little bit of farming she could manage. Her husband was never much help. “Msye a mòl.” That means that the guy is lazy. She even left him for a time, returning to her mother’s home in frustration. But they have five children, so it’s hard to stay away for good.

When she joined the program, she chose two goats and a pig. But further conversation with her case manager, Ricot, led her to change her decision. At the time, disease was killing of many of the pigs in her neighborhood, and she didn’t want to acquire one just to watch it die. So she asked Ricot to buy a third goat instead. They agreed that when the epidemic had passed she would sell one of the goats to buy a pig.

But once she has resources in her hands, Dieumercie is good at managing them. Using savings from her weekly stipend, she bought a small pig without having to sell a goat. Meanwhile, the goats gave her two kids.

She took good care of her pig, but even so it began to show signs of sickness. So she sold it and a goat and used the money to buy a cow still in its mother’s womb. This way of buying a cow entails some risk, but it is much less expensive than buying a calf would be. When a healthy bull was born shortly after her purchase, Dieumercie knew that the risk had been worth it.

And she managed to save up to buy the pig even while she was contributing to her savings club, or sòl, every week. When her turn came, it paid out 2100 gourds, which she used to buy trees to make charcoal. She began a cycle of buying wood and selling charcoal that quickly increased the value of her investment. Before long, she sold out the business and bought a second unborn calf. When its mother gave birth, she had a small heifer to go with her bull. “It used to be that I couldn’t have gotten even a small loan if I needed one. Now plenty of people are ready to lend me money. They see I can pay it back.”

Though her status in the community has changed, however, and she has begun to accumulate valuable assets, other parts of her life are still a struggle. Her very status can worry her. Her calves aren’t ready to be weaned yet, but when they are she’ll have to figure out how to take care of them. She’s afraid to keep them in her neighborhood. “There’s a lot of jealousy. People hate to see you get ahead.”

She still depends largely on her farming to feed her children. The obvious alternative would be to get into small commerce. Her experience with charcoal at least suggests that she’d be good at it. But she’s hesitant. “It’s hard to maintain small commerce because the children require so many little expenses.” And school expenses are increasing. Not only do the prices rise every year, but each new, higher class is more expensive than the previous one. Her costs would thus be increasing even without inflation. “I’ll just have to keep seeing how I can handle it.”

And she’s not sure she wants to stay with her husband, who still isn’t helping out. She used the resources CLM provided to repair her mother’s house. That’s where she was staying at the time the repairs we made. And she made sure to turn the two-room house into a three-room one, so she would always have a place there. Her oldest boy is 15, and he is starting to understand the situation between his parents well. “He says he’ll support me whatever I decide.”

Despite her struggles, Dieumercie is now confident. “I’ve learned that I can take care of my children as long as I can stay healthy.”

Roselène Bernadine — Almost Ready to Graduate

When Roselène’s father died, her mother gave her up to be raised by an aunt and an uncle. She just couldn’t support all her children, so she let the couple take Roselène.

Roselène left them to make a life with a man when she was still young, and she and her first partner had five children. But she and her kids eventually left the man. His infidelities were bad enough. He took up with a series of women while he and Roselène were together. But worse than that was that he wouldn’t help her support the kids.

She met another man, and they had three children together. He, however, eventually left her. They had begun to build a small measure of wealth together, but the man took it all with him to move in with another woman. Roselène was left with nothing she could use to support her kids, so she had to let him take them, too.

By then, her first set of children were older. She was left with only the youngest boy, a teenager. The two lived together in a small shack, depending on occasional gifts from neighbors or from her three oldest children, who had left Haiti to work in the Dominican Republic. Without a regular source of income, the two were often hungry, and with hunger came humiliation. “I remember I had a couple of cups of kabesik” — that’s low-grade rice that Dominicans use as feed for livestock — “but I couldn’t prepare it because I had no oil or beans. I sent my boy to a neighbor’s to ask her for a couple of spoonfuls of oil, but she just sent him home. ‘What I have to eat, I’ve eaten. What’s left is for sale,’ she told him.”

That was shortly before Roselène joined CLM. She chose goats and poultry as the enterprises for the program to give her, and she received two goats and a range of birds. The larger of the two goats has been disappointing so far. It’s been pregnant twice with a total of three kids, by all three were stillborn. The smaller one, however, finally had its first litter, and its single kid is healthy.

Her poultry has struggled as well. Her turkeys and ducks have both laid eggs, but the young haven’t developed. She remains hopeful, however, about the ducks’ latest clutch of eggs.

She has, though, made good use of her savings club, or “sòl.” Each week, she and her nine fellow members make a contribution and one of them takes the whole pot. The first round, the contribution was 100 gourds, so the pot was 1000. She deposited the whole sum in her savings account. When the second round started, they decided to raise the weekly contribution to 200 gourds. When she received the 2000-gourd pot, it was enough for her to buy a small pig. And shortly after that, one of her older children sent her some money that she was able to use to buy a second pig. Keeping two pigs fed is a struggle. Pigs are demanding. “I buy feed when I can, but sometimes I just have to scavenge in my neighbors’ fields.” She is excited nonetheless about the potential for progress that they represent.

And her life has changed in other ways, too. Last year, she met a man. They fell in love and were married in December. She moved into a small, new house with her husband. He’s a hard-working older man. He makes the tubes out of palm-seed-pods that residents of Haiti’s Central Plateau use to package the unrefined brown sugar called rapadou,” which is popular in that part of the country. He is an older man, and the couple is agreed that they will not have children together.

She had to leave her teenage boy to stay in the house nearby that she built with the CLM program’s help. She lives quite close to him, and they see each other every day, but she wanted an adult to be with him all the time. So she rented one of the house’s two rooms to an older woman. “She keeps an eye on him for me.”

The Women of Lawa — Nine Months into the Program

The CLM members from Lawa have now been in the program for nine months. Each has made some progress since she started, but all still have major problems to overcome.

Itala

Itala and her daughter Italène, who is also a CLM member, are working hard to build their new homes. They have completed installation of their latrine already, and they are very happy about it.

Itala’s roof and frame are up, and the builder is working on the walls, which will be woven out of sticks. She made it slightly larger than the program intended. “I have to have someplace to put visitors if people come to see me.” The program provide 22 sheets of roofing tin, and Itala bought six additional ones to cover the larger house.

The extra sheets cost her 2100 gourds, or about $23, and she explained where she got the money. “My son had a small goat he earned by taking care of a grown nanny-goat for a neighbor. I borrowed it from him.” She sold her son’s goat for 2250 gourds, which was just about enough to pay for the tin and transport it as close to her home as possible. She isn’t yet sure how she will repay her boy, but she very much thinks of the transaction as a loan from the boy to her. “The boy is my child. Everything I have is his.”

Itala’s home. Italène’s is in the background.

Her own goats are making progress. The two that the CLM program gave her are now five. The two mothers are healthy, and the three kids are, too. She knows what she’d like to do with them. If the kids survive, she plans to sell her two young males to buy a donkey. Such a purchase could change her life, since it would enable her to get the mangoes and avocados that grow on her land to the market for sale. “Right now they rot on the ground because I can’t get them to Gwomòn.”

She thinks that her ewe might be pregnant, but she isn’t sure. She was glad to get training on the care of sheep at the last refresher training. This initial training hadn’t included sheep because the program wasn’t then used to providing them. But the training helped her recognize when her ewe was in heat. She also learned, however, that it can be hard to tell whether a sheep is pregnant. So she’s just watching. At the very least, it seems healthy.

She has sent three children to school this year. They started in January, when the school opened after a couple of months of socio-political unrest. She hasn’t been able to pay their fees yet, however, so she’s counting for now on the principal’s patience. The school costs 250 per session per child, plus a 50-gourd registration fee and a 100-gourd entry fee. So, she owes 1200 gourds right now and will owe another 1500 by the end of the year. She’s not sure yet where that money will come from. Right now, all the household’s income still depends on the money her husband makes helping people mill their sugarcane. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, the work is irregular and both poorly and irregularly paid. Second, he has a second family to support, so Itana can’t count on even the little that he earns. What he brings in is just enough to allow her to make minimal weekly investments of 50 – 100 in her Village Savings and Loan Association.

She knows that the best solution for her is to establish her own business, and her focus on acquiring a donkey as a first larger investment shows that it is in her plans. But she is afraid to start right now. And that brings us back to her new house and a problem she’s facing.

The CLM program encourages members to recruit the builders who will work on their house. The program then is supposed to meet with the builder, negotiate a fee, sign a contract, and pay the builder. But Itana dealt with the builder by herself, and owes, as a result, 10,000 gourds, which is much more than she can think of paying right now. She and her case manager will need to figure this out. If she really has to pay all that money, especially if she has to pay it soon, it will make it hard for her to invest in other important areas of her life.

Jeanna and her husband, Nelso.

Jeanna and Nelso are also working hard on their new home. They have an advantage over Itana, because Nelso himself knew how to set up the frame and put on the roof, so the couple can receive the small stipend that the program provides to the home builders it works with. That will help because, like Itana, they decided to make their home larger than what the program foresees. Their house will eventually need 36 sheets, so they’ll have to buy 14 themselves. They’ve purchased 11 so far.

It is understandable for a couple with seven children that they’d like a little extra space, but it creates challenges. They are struggling to manage the housing-related expenses. They’ve paid 4000 gourds for the planks they need, 3850 for roofing tin with three sheets left to buy at 350 gourds each, and 3000 gourds for the support posts that hold up the roof. That’s 11,900 gourds, or about $128, which is a lot of money for them. And they’ll have additional expenses when the are ready to have the doors made and installed.

They’ve covered most of the expenses so far from two sources. They managed to sell ten coffee cans full of pwa kongo, or pigeon peas, from last year’s crop for 2000 gourds. They also got lucky. Nelso won 5000 gourds in a lottery. But that still leaves a pretty substantial balance.

For now, Nelso continues to be the source of all their income. Jeanna is an experienced business woman at a very small scale, but she still nursing their baby, and they want it to get bigger before she goes back to earning money outside the home. Making enough to feed them both and their seven children is a lot to ask, and they sent their two oldest children back to school in January, which is another big and important expense. But the couple is managing for the moment. They have some yams in their garden, and though they need to reserve some for the land’s owner, they’ve been depending on them a lot lately.

One of their goats had two kids, and though they lost one, the other seems to be doing well. The other goat lost its litter. “It was pregnant when I got it, but it was so small. It was all I could do to get it home. It miscarried after that.” It is, however, doing well now. Jeanna crossed her sheep with a male on December 8th. She remembers the day and is counting the roughly five months until the ewe should produce a lamb.

Clotude

When Clotude joined the program, the supervisor in Gwomòn, Gissaint César, put her mentally on his “lis wouj,” his red list. That means that he thought of her as someone who might need extra attention to succeed. She seem to have so little, and as a widow she would not have anyone around to help her. Things are, however, turning out differently than he expected.

Part of her progress has to do with assets that we were not aware of when she joined the program. We knew that her main source of income — even of sustenance — was her own farming. But her garden had more to it than we were aware of. She is currently cutting a crop of sugarcane, a valuable cash crop. She doesn’t know how much it will bring it, but her last harvest, almost two years ago, was worth 10,000 gourds. She also harvested crops of mangoes and avocados, enough each time that it was worthwhile to a merchant to buy them from her and bring them to market. And each of those two sales was enough to allow her to buy a pig. She now owns two small ones, a male and a female. She used a harvest of pigeon peas to buy two goats to add to the ones CLM gave her, but both those goats died.

At the same time, she is not saving in her Savings and Loan Association because she says she doesn’t always have the 50 she needs each week to buy a share. So the state of her finances is a little bit mysterious. Her case manager will need to clarify things with her to make sure he is giving her all the help she could use.

Clotude’s new home.

Like both Jeanna and Itana, she is working hard on finishing her home. Hers, too, is larger than the 22 sheets of roofing that the program provides would permit. It needed 30 sheets. Its roof is up, and now it’s time to build up the walls. Unlike the other two women, she’s decided to have hers built with rocks and clay, rather than wood. “I don’t have anyone to help me buy the wood.” Rocks she can collect a few at a time from the ravine below her home. Still, she will have to figure out the building costs. “The frame and the roof cost 7500 gourds. I don’t know what the walls will cost.” Like Itana, she made an agreement with her builder by herself, and that will end up being expensive if her case manager can’t help her.

Itana’s house on the left. Jeanna’s yard is above, on the right.

Loralda and Meloya after Three Months.

Loralda

Gauthier Dieudonné, the CLM program’s founding director, likes to say that it takes about three months for CLM families to begin to really trust the CLM team. Early in our engagement with them, we cannot know how much they believe of what we tell them, nor can we know whether they are telling us the truth.

Loralda is a case in point. She has been really struggling since she joined the program. One of her problems involves her housing. She and her partner have been living with their children in a house that doesn’t belong to them. The owner, who doesn’t live in the area anymore, was just letting Loralda use a room. But even before Loralda joined CLM, the homeowner had informed her that she’d have to leave. The house was being sold.

Loralda did what she could. She talked with her extended family, and convinced her aunt and uncle to let her have the use of a small piece of the extended family’s land. It wasn’t much — a rocky, almost-soil-less piece of a slope that no one else seemed to want. But it would be just big enough for her to build her new home on. Digging her latrine is turning out very challenging because the land is so hard. But she and her husband recruited a couple of friends to help them cut a level space, and they found someone willing to give them construction sand. That’s progress. The sand isn’t really close to the new home, though, so she’s still got to figure how she’ll get it delivered. Then she’ll have to organize money to acquire the lumber she’ll need.

Then a distant relative told her that her aunt had no right to put her on the land she’s now on, that she’d have to move somewhere else. Such difficulties are common enough for CLM members. People can be particular about land, even an abandoned plot that no one seemed to be interested in. But Loralda’s problem was harder for her to face because she didn’t mention it to her case manager, Pétion. Fortunately, he heard about the situation from a local committee leader who had been helping him in the area, and he was able to get Loralda’s perspective on it by bringing it up with her. He thinks that he and Loralda will be able to work something out.

She’s also having troubling with her children’s school. Her older brother sent her the 1000 gourds that she needed to send her younger sister, who lives with her, to school, but she also sent her two older children as soon as the schools opened in January, and she hasn’t been able to pay their fees yet. The principal said that, starting Monday, he will no longer accept children from families who haven’t paid. Loralda still doesn’t have that money.

With her still nursing her baby, her husband’s income is the only money they have. And though Loralda says he works hard, she also says that he has trouble finding work to do. Lately, all he’s be able to do is hang around the market, loading produce onto trucks. The change he earns helps them feed themselves and their kids, though they are not yet eating every day, but doesn’t leave much left over to pay other bills. Pétion can talk to the principal. Often they are willing to trust CLM staff to help members manage a payment plan. But Loralda hadn’t told Pétion what she was up against.

And those were not the only problems that she decided against sharing with him. She is very worried about a threat she received from a woman she owes money to. She bought an aluminum wash basin on credit from a merchant for 600 gourds, or about $6.50. She doesn’t have the basin anymore, but she hasn’t been able to pay the bill. The merchant threatened to call her before a judge, which is well within her rights, and Loralda knows that she could be hit with court costs. And the shame of having to appear before a judge.

All this came out at a conversation with Loralda during her first refresher training. She and all the other members of her cohort were together for three days to talk about their experiences in the program so far and to review the lessons they learned at their initial six-day training. When it was clear how upset she was about her situation, we called Pétion over and explained it to him. He took the name of the merchant, along with information about the neighborhood she lives in, and promised to try to see her that day. I asked Loralda why she had never mentioned it to Pétion, and she explained that she was embarrassed. I told her that that is easy to understand but that his only job is to help her in any way she needs him to, but that he can’t help her with a problem he doesn’t know about.

Pétion was, in fact, able to find the merchant. He went by right after the training session ended early in the afternoon. He learned that the debt was an old one, from all the way back in 2017. The woman told him that she had been on her way to see a judge when he showed up. He explained that he was now working with Loralda and that he could guarantee that the debt would be paid, and the merchant agreed to show a little more patience. It was an easy problem to solve, and an easy way to help Loralda see that she can count on Pétion.

Like Loralda, Meloya too is still struggling after three months in the program. She’s been sick on and off since late November. Only recently has she begun to feel better.

She’s pleased with the initial progress she’s made towards repairing her home. It was badly damaged in the earthquake that struck Gwomòn in October of 2018. She’s been working on the latrine first, and she says that the pit’s been dug and the rocks and sand are ready. “Tout bagay ap prepare.” Everything is in the works.

She had started to develop a very small business when she first entered the program. The gift of a first small sack or water bags, worth less than a dollar, had set her on her way. She had already more than quadrupled her investment. A neighbor saw how hard she was working, and lent her 2,000 gourds to start a larger business, and that’s when disaster struck. She took the money to the market to make her purchase, but after slipping through the crowd, she found that her bag had been slit open and the money was gone. “The only reason I still have 350 gourds is that I left that money at home that day.” The neighbor that lent her the money was shocked by the loss, but is also understanding. Meloya will have to repay the money, but the woman isn’t pressing her too hard just yet.

The loss shocked Meloya, too. She considered going back to begging, which is the way got by for the years between when her own children died and she returned to her husband to take care of the ones he had with his late second wife. When you beg, she explains, “People either give you money or they don’t, but you have nothing to lose.”

But she’d rather try business again. She wants to sell peanuts. She would buy them in the shell. She’d then sell them shelled. She thinks she could turn a profit with 2000 – 2500. She just needs to figure out, with Pétion, where she should take the money. She has more than that in savings already, so she could start as soon as she thinks she’s ready. For now, however, she’d rather focus on the work repairing her home.

Ezione François — Two Years after Graduation

Ezione François lives in Bwa Kabrit, a small rural neighborhood just outside of downtown Laskawobas. When she joined the CLM program in 2016, things were really hard. “I didn’t even have a chicken. I had to depend on what my husband’s family occasionally sent to pay for the children’ school.”

It hadn’t always been that way for her. Early in her marriage, she and her husband were doing well. He’s a professional baker. He worked for a bakery owner six days a week. On Sundays, the owner allowed him to use the bakery to make his own bread, which Ezione would come sell. Roving bread merchants would take a supply fresh out of the oven early Sunday morning on credit, and they’d come back to pay for the bread in the afternoon. Ezione and her family were making progress.

Then her husband left her and their children to take up with another woman. He would occasionally send Ezione small sums to support the kids, but they didn’t amount to much. She depended on them entirely, however, and on sporadic gifts from others until she was hired to manage meals for her local branch of a network of community organizations. She had been a faithful member of her organization for years, and as its leadership saw her struggle, they decided to do what they could. She made 1000 gourds per month – about $20 at the time – and was allowed to take extra food home to her children.

The job enabled her to take care of her children until she had to give it up to take another. She had a dream in which she was confronted by a crowd of young children. When she told her pastor about it, he explained that he had been thinking of establish a community school in her neighborhood. She took the dream as a sign that she should be working for the school. So she started as a recruiter for the school before it opened, going around the neighborhood to get parents to sign their children up. Once the school opened, she became a teacher’s aide in the preschool. That became a long-term commitment, and she was working in the school when the CLM program selected families in her area. The problem was that the school couldn’t pay because parents didn’t pay fees. Ezione continued to work because she felt committed to the children, but it only made it harder to make ends meet.

By that time, her husband had returned to her. But he and his other woman had, Ezione says, “wasted everything they had.” Her husband had gone back to making bread, but he could no longer get a regular job at a bakery, much less his own day to work the equipment. Ezione began selling bread when she could, paying the bakery at the end of the day as her customers had paid her.

When she joined, she chose two goats and a pig as her enterprises, and she was able to make some progress with each. Her pig eventually had two litters. The first she sold to buy a cow, and though she lost most of the second litter to disease, she used proceeds from the sale of the two survivors to pay her children’s school expenses. Her goats never took off, but she has been able to sell one now and again for school expenses.

She used savings from her cash stipend, however, to add to her small commerce. She began to sell sugar together with the bread. It doesn’t bring in much, but it enables her to buy shares in her Village Savings and Loan Associations every week.

The VSLA that CLM established is into its fourth year, and she liked the activity so much that she established a second one at her church. “I like the way the VSLA brings us together every week. If neighbors have problems with one another, we can help them work them out. We pool what we have, and we work together.” The VSLAs like her, too. She was just elected as its new president.

Ezione has plans for the future. She used proceeds from the sale of her cow to send her husband to Chile. He hasn’t been sending back much so far, but she says it’s because he only recently got working papers. She’s ready to take a loan from her VSLA to start a small business selling coffee and hot chocolate in addition to her bread and sugar. And she already knows how she wants to spend her money the next time the VSLA’s cycle ends. She’s planning to invest in a pig.

When you ask her what she values about her experience in CLM, her response is quick and clear. “I liked all the training. You learn so much you didn’t know.”

Improving Village Savings and Loan Associations

When Fonkoze first established the CLM program, it expected it to be just the first of the series of services the institution would provide as it accompanied families living in ultra-poverty on their way forward. CLM families would graduate from the program into Fonkoze’s credit programs, starting small and then moving on to higher levels. Fonkoze sometimes referred to the progression as the “Staircase out of Poverty.”

The problem was that it didn’t always happen that way. Many CLM graduates either could not or did not choose to go on to credit programs. Among other things, the CLM team’s commitment to going into the farthest reaches of each region to find the poorest families wherever they live meant that it would work in places that its sister organization’s credit teams could not serve. CLM members were spending 18 months in the program, building up initial livelihoods, and then losing access to accompaniment. The CLM team felt strongly that members needed to be graduating from CLM into some structure, but it didn’t at first know what kind of structure might be useful.

In 2015 and 2016, the program started experimenting with Village Savings and Loan Associations. (See: www.vsla.net.) It was felt that by grouping members into associations that push them to save while providing access to small loans, the program could help them support themselves and one another for the long term. The CLM team now organizes VSLAs in all the neighborhoods it works in. The associations have proven extremely popular among CLM members, and the CLM field staff has found them to be a useful teaching tool.

But they are not without challenges. Even though they are designed to require only minimal skills of their members, they depend on having a small leadership group that has skills beyond what almost any CLM members possesses. In order to establish them in all neighborhoods, the team was forced to integrate a few community leaders into each. But this can have the effect of reinforcing the community’s traditional power relationships.

And this is no mere theoretical problem. Since the good functioning of the associations depends on members’ oversight over a transparent process, reinforcing traditional power relationships can leave members lacking the confidence that they would need to feel entitled to criticize their leaders, and so the leaders can feel enabled to act without constraint. Some leaders end up taking advantage of their position to turn the VSLA’s resources to their own benefit, preventing CLM members from benefiting as much as they should.

And the associations are victims of their own popularity, too. They are designed to function for a year, and at the end of the year all members receive their savings and their share of any interest the association earns. Then a new cycle starts. But community members who are not part of the program like what they see, and they decide to join. Since details of each association’s rules are determined by vote, CLM members can be priced out. VSLAs can survive for several year-long cycles, but CLM-member participation can tend to decrease. Some existing associations no longer serve the population they were implemented to serve.

And the turnover brings another problem as well. The changes in membership that go with each cycle means a shared understanding of the process continually decreases. And as participants understand less about their associations, the associations function less well.

Martinière Jasmin

In the fall, the CLM team appointed a full-time VSLA specialist with a dual mission: 1. to assess individual VSLAs and help them resolve any problems and 2. to lead the CLM team’s development of a strategy to provide VSLAs with sustainable, long-term support. His name is Martinière Jasmin, and he brings nine years of experience as a CLM case manager and a track record of success at helping the members he has served make good use of their VSLAs.

He and I went together to a VSLA meeting in Pak Kabrit, near downtown Laskawobas. The association there is, in a sense, a well-established VSLA. The day we attended they were closing their third cycle, so they’ve been at for three years. The day’s work was to calculate and make the appropriate pay-out to each member.

But there were problems. Of 68 members, 44 owed the association money. They had loans they hadn’t finished repaying. Calculating pay-outs involved subtracting each person’s balance from their savings. That was difficult work, but it was, in a way, straightforward. The association’s records, however, showed that not all members had paid interest on their loans, and almost none had been charged penalties for late payments. All this is central to how the associations are supposed to earn money that can be paid out as profit to members.

And it was hard to be sure since the VSLA’s secretary had changed since the association was established, and the current one had received no training at all. The leader who had maintained continuity was the president, and he was part of the problem. He owed a lot of money, and didn’t even attend the pay-out meeting. Worse than that, he had been using his prestige to convince other VSLA members to borrow money for him on their accounts, and several of the members who had debt reported that, in fact, the money was in his hands.

Martinière worked patiently and forcefully for over six hours as the he, the secretary, and the other members went through mixed-up, incomplete bookkeeping to audit each person’s account, eliminating as much as their debt as possible and figuring out what pay-out they were entitled to. They studied written records, but also depended on participants’ memories about transactions, both their own transactions and those of their fellow members. Since all transactions are made publicly, someone would usually remember. As members realized that Martinière was in no hurry, that he’d take all the time they needed to get things right, they joined a spirited collaboration. They started well before noon and finished early in the evening, by the light of a couple of cell-phones.

Remarkably, most of the group wants to participate in the next cycle. The chance to feel pressured to save continually and the opportunity to take out small loans now and again make it worth it to them, even if they are finding themselves defrauded out of some or all of the profit they should make. They are especially excited about the new training that Martinière will provide, ensuring that the upcoming cycle gets off to a good start. He wants them to understand how critical some of the VSLAs basic principles are: regular, attentive attendance; careful adherence to the basic recording keeping practices; and the willingness to pay all the charges the group’s own rules call for.

Martinière is determined to succeed. “VSLAs are just too useful to our members for us to give them up. And the members see that, too. When I think about what they put up with without losing their desire to continue, that motivates me to help them clear things up.”

Byeneme: Eight Years After Graduation

Byeneme is a small community in Sodo, one of the communes along the southern border of Haiti’s Central Plateau. It sits near the ridge that divides the commune from the plain that encompasses Pòtoprens, and offers a panoramic view of the valley to the north, which includes downtown Sodo and downtown Mibalè, too. The road into Byeneme does not pass through Sodo. The only direct route to the downtown area is a footpath straight down the hill. The road in runs, instead, along the ridge from National Route 3, in Fon Cheval.

The CLM program launched in Byenmeme in 2011, as part of its initial scale-up. The single case manager assigned to the area worked there one day a week with about a dozen families. It was a separate little population of members, disconnected geographically from the rest of their cohort. They graduated as part of a group of 300 families in downtown Sodo in March 2012.

Joisimène and one of her daughters.

Joisimène Bernard was a member of the cohort. At the time, she, her husband, and their children were really struggling. She wasn’t able to send the kids to school consistently, and the family lived in a shack covered only with a tarp.

The couple was excited to be able to build a new house. They received roofing tin, cement, and money to hire a builder from Fonkoze, but they wanted a larger house, so her husband went off to Delma, the populous residential suburb just north of Pòtoprens, and found whatever odd jobs he could so that they could double the amount of roofing tin they had to work with and, so, build an additional room.

Joisimène received goats and small commerce from the program. The goats never really prospered, but her commerce took off. She would buy produce — anything in season — at three different local markets: Dalon, Ti Sekèy, and Labasti. She kept 2000 gourds or so in the business. Then she’d haul her merchandise for sale in the large, residential areas near the capital. It was a reliable business, and it allowed her to grow. She saved some of her profit in her Fonkoze savings account until she had enough to buy a small cow. The cow grew and eventually had a calf. Then it got sick and died, leaving her with a healthy heifer. She’s hoping that, with patient care, it will eventually take its mother’s place and provide her calves.

The commerce was working well until the political troubles that developed in Haiti over the past year made it difficult. Prices for the kind of merchandise she would buy increased more quickly than her capital did, and at the same time transportation strikes and blockages increased the cost and the difficulty of getting merchandise to Pòtoprens.

So she gave it up. She saw that she needed to keep working, however, so she came up with another plan. With as little as 500 gourds — less than $5 — she can go down to Mibalè and buy bread, which sells well in her community. She can sell it for 1200 to 1300 gourds. So it’s profitable, even when she pays 250 for transportation. She doesn’t make a lot of money, but it’s enough to send her kids to school and keep them fed. “Children are different from adults. If they get nothing to eat, they complain.”

Louinèl and his older girls.

Wideline Pierre and her husband, Louinèl Maxi, were part of the cohort as well. They, too, chose goats and small commerce, but Wideline’s business was less successful than Joisimène’s. She sold basic groceries in Byeneme. Things like rice, oil, seasoning, etc. But such businesses are extremely hard to sustain. Neighbors buy on credit, and they don’t always pay. Eventually Wideline gave up. The capital she had left wasn’t enough to continue.

But in a sense, it wasn’t important to the couple. They have a strong partnership, and were used to depending more on what Louinèl could bring in. He would travel from Byeneme to Delma every Sunday afternoon and work there until Saturday, when he’d return home with his earnings. He would do construction jobs when he could find them, but he was never very particular. When he couldn’t find a job, he would hang out at the stations where riders get on and off the pick-up trucks that provide most of Pòtoprens’s public transportation, and hire himself out as a porter.

But in the last couple of years, things have gotten harder. Louinèl hasn’t been well. He’s had stomach problems that he hasn’t been able to shake. He can’t eat much of anything. His family makes him a watery soup out of stale bread and greens. For someone in his line of work, nothing is more important than physical strength, and he hasn’t been able to keep his strength up.

So Louinèl and Wideline had to change the way they do things. Wideline and the youngest of their six children moved to Pòtoprens to live principally with the child’s godmother. Wideline found work as a maid. She gets paid at the end of every month, and come up to Byeneme for a couple of days at home.

The new way of life works for the couple in a sense. Their children are healthy and well-fed, and they attend school, things the were a struggle before Wideline joined CLM. But their life isn’t what they’d like it to be. Louinèl explains, “You’re never really doing well when you’re working for someone else.”

Beauvilus and one of his girls.

Like Wideline, Marie Lourde Ciléus is hard to find in Byeneme. Her husband, Beauvilus, is more stable there. But her story is quite different from Wideline’s. Marie Lourde is a merchant.

Every Monday, she travels north from Byeneme to a large rural market in Difayi. Farmers come to Difayi from all across the mountains of northern Boukankare, and Marie Lourde buys their produce. Then she hauls whatever she’s purchased south for sale in the large produce market at Kwabosal, below Pòtoprens. She spends a night at home on the way.

It’s a hard life, but life was harder before she joined the program. Beauvilus reports that their children would get sent home from school because the couple couldn’t pay school fees. They had a hard time even feeding them, and the children sometimes missed school because there was nothing to eat at home. “We wouldn’t even bother to light the fire,” he explains.

Even now, life has its ups and down. Their sixth child had to be delivered by Caesarean section, and the expense ate up all the money Marie Lourde had in her business.

Beauvilus himself had always been a farmer. “When I was young, my parents didn’t think it was important for me to learn a trade.” But farming in Byeneme has been increasingly difficult. Water is scarce in the area, and millet, which had long been the most important staple in the region, was eliminated by the same disease that eliminated it throughout Haiti. Beauvilus now plants a little corn, and a few pigeon peas, but it’s not a living.

Marie Lourdes success as a business women, however, comes with advantages. When she was ready to go back to work after having their child, she talked to a merchant she travels with. The women who run such businesses in Haiti are called “Madan Sara.” It’s a name they share with a highly social species of bird known especially for making a lot of noise as they chatter with one another.

Marie Lourdes and the other Madan Sara talked, and the woman agreed to lend her the money she would need to return to business. Some weeks it’s 5000 gourds, sometimes it’s 10,000. It depends on what the other woman has available. But for the other woman, it’s worth it to be traveling in business with a trusted friend. It has meant that Marie Lourdes, Beauvilus, and their kids can get by as Marie Lourdes rebuilds her own capital.