Breaking the Bank

Fonkoze’s Chemen Lavi Miyò, or Pathway to a Better Life, program is more than ten years old. And it’s been almost eight years since three of my Haitian colleagues and I spent a month in Bangladesh, learning the program from its creators at BRAC. That BRAC team would still recognize its work in all that we do, but the program has changed over the years as we’ve tinkered with it whenever we come upon what looks to be a way to make it stronger.

Over the last couple of years, the most important change has been the introduction of Village Savings and Loan Associations. (See: CLM members attend weekly meetings, where they can buy from one to five shares of the association. The money they buy their shares with becomes capital that members of the association can borrow. They repay the loans with interest, so the capital grows. At the end of a year-long cycle, the association breaks the bank, distributing the capital among members in accordance with the number of shares they have purchased.

This morning I attended the final meeting of the year of a VSLA in Fon Desanm, a mountain community that lies a short hike upward from the main road that leads to Savanèt. The meeting took place in a small church., really just rough timber support posts covered by a tin roof and enclosed by walls of straw. There were a handful of narrow, wooden benches fixed into the packed dirt floor along the walls of the church and a table in the front that held the various things the meeting required.

About 35 CLM members had been buying shares for 50 gourds – about 80 cents – and together had purchased 160,150 gourds, or almost $2,600, worth over the course of the year. They were very excited about the payout. The return on their investment came in several forms. Members paid 2% interest per month on their loans and penalties for late payments. An additional fund, comprised of small weekly donations to be used to help any member who confronts an emergency, like a death in the family, was folded into the total. Taking it all together, the members accumulated more than 200,000 gourds that they need to separate among them. That’s about 25% more than the value of the shares they purchased.

The pay-off meeting actually took place in two sessions on consecutive days. On the first day, the association’s leadership, along with Martinière, the CLM case manager responsible for working with the Fon Desanm VSLA, counted and recounted all the shares that had been purchased. Each member has a small booklet with a star for every share she bought, and the association’s secretary keeps a notebook that lists all the share purchases by week. The two records are compared in the presence of the entire membership so that each member know what she and her fellow members have accomplished. Members repaid outstanding debts. Those who had debts they could not repay with cash repaid them giving back shares. There were five such women, and four of the five were able to clear their debt with about half of their investment or less.

Many of the women came early to the second day’s meeting, excited to find out how much money they had made and to receive the payout. There were only a few stragglers. It was a social occasion. The room was noisy, as the women chatted with one another. Martinière and the association’s leaders first counted all the cash. The total was 203,132 gourds. They subtracted a small sum that the group will need to restart the association for another one-year cycle. They’ll purchase new savings booklets and notebooks for record-keeping. They then divided what was left by the number of shares – 3,203 – to calculate the final share price, just under 63 gourds. They then called the women up, one at a time, to receive their payout, counting the cash out carefully in front of her. VSLAs need trust to function, but that trust is built on transparency.

Marie Yolène had purchased 107 shares over the course of the year. She had also taken out two loans, each for 3,000 gourds. The first helped her pay her children’s school fees, and the second she invested in farming. Paying them back was difficult, but she managed. She plans to use her payout for farming. She has agreed with a neighbor to rent a plot of farmland, and most of her money will pay that rent. But she will have enough left over to buy the seeds – beans, pigeon peas, and corn – that she’ll plant.

She liked the VSLA, and her explanation is simple. “I like it because if you need to borrow a little money, you have a place to find it.”

Rosana was very happy about the VSLA, too. She has big plans for her money. She and her husband have a house full of children, and 2017 was difficult because when it came time to plant, they didn’t have the resources to put in any crops. They had to figure out how to feed the kids for the year with whatever cash they could earn. He did day-labor when he could find it in their neighbors’ fields, and she managed a small commerce. Part of the VSLA’s value for her was that it gave her access to credit to restart her business each time she ran through her capital.

She took out loans three times, and says she never had trouble repaying them because she always used them to invest in her business, which would earn the revenue she needed for repayments as long as she could keep it afloat. “I made the money work, and as soon as I sold my merchandise, I would a payment.”

Like Marie Yolène, she likes the VSLA because it gives her a way to borrow money. “I can get a loan without leaving my community. I would have nowhere else to go. Rich people won’t lend you money.”

Not all the members of the VSLA are CLM members, or even women. The associations would be hard to build with CLM members alone. Too few are literate enough to do the record-keeping that the associations depend upon. Our solution is to bring members of the community’s village assistance committee into its VSLA as well. We organize these committees everywhere we work. They bring community leaders into the program as volunteers. Committee members bring an additional level of personal support and supervision to program members. Adding them to our VSLAs achieves two goals. On the one hand, they can provide literate staffing of critical positions. On the other, they establish an activity that CLM members and community leaders can share that is beneficial to both.

Daniel was the president of the assistance committee, and when Martinière told him about the VSLA, he decided to join it as well. “The women chose us as their leaders. We owe it to them to help out.”

He thinks that the VSLA really helped the poorer members of his community. “It really protects them by giving them a way to save and to borrow.” He saw the way some of them struggled to repay their loans, but was pleased that they somehow managed.

He also discovered that the VSLA was as useful to him as to its other members. “If you have 50 gourds lying around, you have a place to save it. You have easy access to loans. And the payout at the end of the year gives you something to hope for.”

He and one of his sons were the group’s two leading savers. They each bought 257 shares, which was about three times the average for the 38 members. And he’s anxious to get the next cycle started. “We’d start again tomorrow if we could.” He says that a lot of his neighbors are waiting to join as soon as the group is ready.

He and the group’s leaders were not the only men present at the meeting. Wisnel came in place of his wife, who still spends most of her time at home with their infant. He took over attendance at the meetings from her as her pregnancy started to make it hard for her to get around, and continued after she gave birth.

The couple’s experience in the VSLA was mixed. They took out one 3000-gourd loan, and it did not go well. Wisnel bought an avocado crop with the money, but a passing hurricane destroyed most of the crop while it was still on the tree, and the remainder rotted before it got to market when the truck he loaded it onto broke down on the long, bad road to the main highway. He and Modeline eventually had to reach into their savings and sell a goat to pay the debt.

But Wisnel is enthusiastic about the association anyway. They were about to buy 68 shares. “We worked hard, we saved, and we reaped our profit at the end of the year.” They plan to stay in the VSLA, and they’ll continue to borrow when the see a need or an opportunity. “We can’t be afraid of credit.”

Our program, and the communities we work in, still have a lot to learn about VSLAs. To this point, we find them functioning well when case managers take a strong hand in guiding them. Martinière’s leadership was evident throughout the meeting. They have run into trouble in places whether our case managers have decided to stay farther in the background. So we don’t yet know enough about how they function once the case manager leaves, after the CLM members graduate from our program. If we discover that the associations continue to need the program’s support to function well, we’ll need to choose between figuring out a way to provide it and letting the whole promising enterprise drop.

Jeanne Brise: At Graduation

When I first met Jeanne, she had recently been selected to participate in the CLM program. I had gone to interview her, because the data we collected from the selection process made her look too wealthy to be in our program. Our spreadsheet showed that she and her husband owned a pig and two goats, and though that might not seem like a lot to someone from the States, it seemed as though it would put her, if true, in a category distinctly different from the families living in ultra-poverty whom we work to serve.

The member of our management team who had approved her for the program, Wesnel Charles, had analyzed her case with care, and he turned out to be more than right. As I wrote at the time, “. . . by the time the couple joined the program, they seemed well qualified: no assets except some money owed to them, children who are hungry and not in school, and a miserable little shack that they would not even be able to stay in much longer.” You can read the original post here.

That was almost a year and a half ago, and Thursday Jeanne graduated from the program. Though she and her husband, Chilet, are still poor, their life is nothing like it was just two years ago. They’ve made significant progress, and they have objectives in front of them and plans for obtaining those objectives that suggest that their progress could continue.

Their three older children are in school. Their parents first sent them shortly after the family joined the CLM program, and the kids are now in the midst of their second year. Jeanne had the couple’s fourth child while she was in the program. The last months of her pregnancy and her months nursing the healthy new baby forced her to shut down the small commerce she had established with her case manager’s coaching. But shortly after the birth, she went to the local Partners in Health clinic, where she received an implant that should provide contraception for the next seven years. She’d like her fourth child to be her last. “Children are expensive. School is expensive, and food is expensive too,” she explains.

She is looking to the upcoming harvest to provide the means to restart her small commerce. She’ll do so as soon as she feels that she can leave her baby for short periods. She plans to return to the business that was working for her, selling groceries in the nearby market in downtown Laskowabas. There are two principal market days there each week, but like many downtown markets, there is traffic on other days too, so she will be able to go any day but Sunday that she finds she has time.

Two of her three goats are pregnant right now. Her pig is nearly ready for sale, and she plans to use proceeds from the sale to buy another goat and to add to her savings. She eventually wants to buy a cow, so accumulating savings is important.

And her livestock is the key to the most important change in her family’s life. When we met her, the family was virtually homeless, forced to squat in a small shack on a plot of land where they were no longer welcome. With her case manager’s help, she negotiated a two-year lease on a very small plot of land, just big enough for her to put up the home that CLM helped her construct and its accompanying latrine. The rent is 3000 gourds – less than $50 – for two years, and it corresponds nicely to the price of a large, healthy goat. If she can keep her goat-rearing enterprise moving, it should be able to cover the family’s housing needs for a while. Buying a cow would then change things for the better, giving her a large asset that she’ll be able to sell if she and Chilet can find a plot of land for sale.

When she talks about the difference that CLM has made in her life, she talks first about the security that has come with her new standing in the community. “If one of my children falls sick, I can always borrow 500 gourds or so from a neighbor if I need to. They see I have the means to pay them back. If I find myself blocked in something I want to do, I can find someone to help me out.”

But her new stature has her thinking not only of herself and the progress she’s made. She also thinks of others. “I want CLM to continue. You cannot be happy if you have things and others don’t.”

Selection: More about the Gray Area

Sandra and her partner Jean Ranel live in a small rented house. It’s set just back from the main road that runs between downtown Tomond and Kas, a large rural market near the Dominican border. The couple and their children live on what Jean Ranel earns as a motorcycle taxi driver. The road is busy, especially on market days, and Jean Ranel earns just enough to keep the family fed every day, even though he only rents the motorcycle he uses.

A few years ago, the couple even started to get ahead. Jean Ranel was willing to work hard, and the couple had enough money left over after buying food and paying for school to invest in livestock. They’d buy a goat now and again.

Then disaster struck. Jean Ranel was in an accident. His leg was badly broken. And though it eventually healed enough for him to start driving again, it wasn’t the same. He lives with constant pain in his thigh and hip. He can’t carry heavier loads or multiple passengers on his motorcycle because doing so stresses his hip to the point at which he can’t bear the pain. It means both that he earns less per trip than he used to earn and also that he loses out entirely on regular clients who travel to and from the market with significant merchandise. The couple sold some of their livestock during Jean Ranel’s recovery. They sold the rest last year to send their girls to school. This year, they couldn’t afford to send the girls. When Sandra’s family offered to take their oldest girl off their hands, they felt they had no choice. They sent her away and kept the two younger ones with them.

I met Sandra during the last step of our selection process. And I was initially unsure what I should do. The couple has a small but regular income. It probably ranges between $1.50 and $2.00 per day. As a way to emphasize how much poorer most CLM members are than even those typically defined as living in “extreme poverty,” I’ve often said that we wouldn’t normally take someone who had a reliable income of $1 per day, which was the United Nations threshold for extreme poverty when our work began.

But Sandra’s case gave me pause. They have enough to eat, but of their three children two are out of school and the third is out of their home entirely. They live in a rented house, and as the annual rent payment looms, they have no idea where the money will come from.

Even so, I might have decided against taking the family had it not been for the sense of hopelessness that was strong in Sandra. It was present in the way she spoke, the way she sat, and the way she looked. She told me that more than six years ago she had tried to start a small commerce once, but when the money disappeared, she just gave up. She never thought to try again. She was certain to fail.

She doesn’t believe she is capable of anything, and that total sense of incapacity made me think I had no choice but to take her. We need to help her discover her abilities. Her livelihood will remain terribly fragile if she thinks it simply must depend on her man.

Miraclide Joseph, Three Years after Graduation

I wrote a short piece about Miraclide in early 2015, just after she graduated. At the time, she was struggling to manage her small commerce. It had grown considerably since she established it with savings from her weekly cash stipend, but she was finding it hard to get her customers, who often bought on credit, to pay what they owed. For that reason, she had decided not to join the credit program offered by our sister organization, Fonkoze Financial Services. She was afraid she’d end up unable to pay back her loans if her customers’ payments were late. (See the original post here.)

Three years later, her life has really changed. Her three daughters are in school, but not at the small community school that was once all she could afford. The youngest, in her first year of kindergarten, was just a baby when Miraclide graduated from CLM. And she decided to send all three to schools down the road in Mirebalais. “The schools there are better, and education is the most important thing you do for your kids.”

She’s a single mother, but she’s lucky. The father of the two younger children helps her out. But she still is spending a lot. Just the transportation – a contract with a motorcycle taxi driver whom she trusts – is expensive. She pays 3000 gourds, or almost $50, per month for him to take the three girls to school, and then pick them up and bring them home every day. Then there are school fees, uniforms. The money their father gives – a little more than $8.25 per week for both his girls – allows her to make sure they go with a little snack in their school bags.

She still has two goats, but she sent them to her mother’s house for her family to look after them. She worries that as closely as she lives to the main road, they would always be at risk of theft. And she admits that she was never very focused on raising livestock, even when she was part of the program. Though even now, she’s planning to buy a small pig as soon as she can.

For her, getting ahead always meant starting a small commerce. When she joined the program, she was living on the 75 gourds that her girls’ father would occasionally send. She chose to receive goats and a pig when she joined the program, and she managed to increase their value a lot over 18 months, but her business was the heart of her plan for the future. By the 12-month mark, her it was worth 2000 gourds, and just five months later, when she was evaluated for graduation, it was worth 5000, which was more than $100 at the time.

She would try selling one thing after another. “I started with milk, sugar, and soft drinks, then moved to cosmetics. Whenever something didn’t work, I tried something else.” More recently, she’s sold groceries. She put her commerce aside recently when a nearby mission started some construction work. She can earn 250 gourds, or about $4 per day, hauling the water that the builders need to mix the cement, so she’s doing that for now. She’ll start selling again soon, however. She’d like to take out a loan to re-start her business on a bigger scale, but she lost her government ID a few years ago when someone picked her pocket, and worries that she wouldn’t be able to get a loan without one.

But her biggest problem when she joined the program, and the area of her greatest progress as well, has to do with her home. When she joined the program, she was living in a rented room. She had reached the point at which she could no longer pay for it, and her landlord wanted her out. She didn’t know where she might go.

Shortly after she joined the program, she was able to find a plot of land nearby to rent. Her case manager helped her get a signed, five-year lease. The lease is critical. As we have learned from our interviews with graduates over the years, their progress is unreliable if their access to the land they live on is not assured.

Miraclide built a simple, two-room home for herself and her girls. Its walls were woven out of sticks that the builders covered with mud, but it had a good roof of new tin, so she and the kids were dry and comfortable. As her business grew after graduation, she invested more in the house, replacing the walls of sticks with more solid ones of cinder blocks and cement.

But she still wasn’t satisfied. She spoke to her landlord about his willingness to let her stay on the land long-term. Her lease is up in 2018. He told her that he wasn’t planning to sell the land and that she could continue to rent. He promised that if he does decide to sell, he’ll offer the land to her first. It’s a good plot, with two large mango trees, that provide her a saleable harvest every year. With her place secure, she started building a new, larger house. She isn’t finished yet, but the walls are almost complete, and soon she be able to add the roof.

As hard as she’s worked to get the house near to completion, she gives a lot of the credit to CLM. But she doesn’t talk about the livestock she received or the cash stipend that helped her get her business started. “Before CLM, I didn’t know how to manage what I had. That’s what I learned. I don’t know what other people say, but CLM did a lot for me.”

Final Verification: Exploring the Gray Areas

Our team is once again selecting a group of families who are living in ultra-poverty so that we can bring them through the program. The selection procedure is long and complex. It can take three months to identify a new group.

The paperwork we use has evolved quite a bit in the ten years that we’ve been implementing the program, but the final step and the criteria it depends upon have changed very little. We call it “final verification.” A member of the CLM management team visits families whom our case managers have recommended for the program, and he verifies that they qualify. We take individuals with disabilities in the program if we think they are poor enough to need us and believe we can help them, but I want to set those cases aside for a moment to consider the more usual cases: women living in ultra-poverty who have at least one dependent.

One could define “living in ultra-poverty” in various ways. One could try to estimate a family’s income or its level of consumption. Accurate analyses of either might be a good way to determine whether a family is poor enough to need our help.

But we do neither. Instead we depend on a number of inclusion and exclusion criteria. Are there school-age children in the household whom the family cannot send to school? Does the family lack the livestock, farmland, merchandise, or other productive assets that could enable it to establish a reasonable livelihood? Most importantly: does the family regularly go a day or more without a hot meal?

The criteria might seem pretty clear, even though applying them can involve challenges. The women we speak to can be reluctant, for a lot of reasons, to tell us the truth. You have to establish a comfortable conversational setting with a rural Haitian woman who has never met you. In my case, as the team’s one foreigner, she may never have met anyone like me. And you have to work through any falsehood she might present.

But the criteria themselves can be hard to apply. A woman might have productive assets, but be dealing with significant hunger if, for example, she has more children than she can manage. The children could be in school if you visit the household early in the year, but the family may not have paid their tuition, and the parents might therefore simply be waiting for the school’s principal to send the children home. Or she might have a children whose father sends them to school even though the household is hungry because the mother has no means of her own and the father provides no other help.

One of our clearer criteria is that a family should have no outside support. If children or siblings from Port au Prince or abroad are supporting a woman, then we probably shouldn’t. But the more complicated question is whether we should accept a mother into the program if she is still living at home as her parents’ dependent. We don’t generally believe we should be in the business of taking over the role that a parent plays in a child’s life. Certainly not if the parent is handling the role capably, and maybe not even if the role presents a woman’s parents with significant challenges.

A day last week spent visiting potential CLM members presented four such cases, and each case involved a set of circumstances that gave me pause for thought.

The first whom I met was Maniose. She lives in a shack on a hill overlooking the river that separates Haiti from the Dominican Republic. A thickly planted, chaotic garden of plantain, manioc, and weeds planted along the slope leading up to the shack hides it from the footpath that winds around the small hill’s base. The house is guarded by two well-fed-looking dogs, which is unusual for the homes we visit. Not that there are dogs, but that the dogs appear well-fed.

Maniose lives in the shack with her mother, her own two children, and one of her brother’s children. The brother lives and works in the Dominican Republic, and sends his mother money to support her and his child. Maniose, on the other hand, cannot her send her school-age older child to school.

She does not face severe hunger. Her mother combines what her son sends her with what she can harvest from her own garden to take care of them. Maniose has two adult sisters, who live in their own homes nearby, and they are willing and able to offer their mother, their younger sister, and the children an occasional plate of food as well.

But she has no hope of her own income at all. She has no idea what she might eventually do to support her two children, whose fathers have already abandoned them. She owns neither livestock, nor farmland, and she has no idea of a small commerce she might be able to manage. What’s worse: her mother has no land either. The shack they inhabit and the garden that surrounds it are on land that belongs to her son-in-law, the husband of one of Maniose’s older sisters.

With two children with different fathers, both out of the picture, no resources or plans of her own, and a home situation that could deteriorate quickly if her sister and brother-in-law cease to get along, Maniose’s situation is fragile, so I approve her for our program.

The decision to approve Liline was easier. Like Maniose, she is a dependent. She and her three children live in her parents’ home. The parents are farmers, and between children and grandchildren they have eleven kids to look after. Some of those kids are adults, but all depend largely on them. And Liline worries that her father is aging and, so, that the burden is falling more and more on her mother alone. As we chat in her yard, we talk about her teenage and 20-something brothers, who sit on the other side of the home. They look eminently capable of pitching in, but Liline complains that they’d rather leave things in their parents’ hands.

Like Manoise, Liline has neither resources or a plan of her own. And she is already 26, with three children from three different fathers who do not help her or their kids. If we don’t intervene, her search for a man to help her establish a livelihood may lead her into ever-deepening poverty. I give her my OK.

Roselande, too, lives in a large household. She and her two young children live with her parents and seven other kids. They depend entirely on her parents. Her father is a farmer, and her mother is a “machann lòbèy” in the nearby market in Kas. That’s a little hard to translate.

The first word is easy enough. It means “merchant.” Roselande’s mother is a businesswoman. She goes to the market two to three times a week. A “lòbèy” is a commotion or a scene. But Roselande’s mother isn’t selling disorder. She’s selling food. In the rural Central Plateau, a marchann lòbèy is a woman who sells prepared meals right in the market. Many of them – Roselande’s mother among them – buy everything they need on credit from grocery sellers early in the day. They pay what they owe at the end of the day, and take their profit home.

I could not evaluate how much the mother was bringing home each week. I wasn’t able to speak with her. But I knew something else. Roselande’s older child is already being treated for severe malnutrition at a nearby clinic. The child receives a weekly supply of super-fortified peanut butter. So whatever the mother brings in isn’t enough.

Roselande is just 19, so I could leave her for her parents to help, but her lack of any idea how she might help her children and the malnutrition that one is suffering convince me. I give her my approval.

Natacha’s situation is similar in some ways. She and her baby live with eight other kids in her parents’ home. Unlike the other women, she is an earner in the home. She helps her father in their charcoal business. They find neighbors willing to have a tree turned into charcoal, and the father cuts down the tree and processes the wood into charcoal. Natacha then sorts it and bags it. The tree’s owner gets half of all they produce. They then bring their share to market for sale. They could sell it quickly by the sack to wholesale merchants, but can make much more by taking the time to sit in the market and sell it in small quantities directly to consumers. Natacha shares in that work. The business is much too small for a household as large as theirs, and the family often goes hungry as a result, so Natacha would seem to be a good candidate for the program.

But she is only sixteen, and seems nothing like an adult. In our conversation, she seems to have no interest in setting out on her own. Instead, she tells me that she wishes she was still in school. She was a sixth-grader when she became pregnant, and wanted to start seventh grade this year, but neighbors convinced her father that he’d be wasting his money by sending her.

I give her case some thought, but I decide to reject her for CLM. She’s still a child. She has a child already, it is true, but she doesn’t even want to be an adult just yet.

Wilny is one of the case managers who recommended her for the program, and we are together for the day because he is my guide. So I ask him why they didn’t recommend Natacha’s mother for the program, rather than Natacha. I haven’t met her, but her family seems poor enough for CLM.

This is where things get complicated.

Natacha’s mother is a market woman with a small loan from our sister organization, Fonkoze Financial Services. Her having received that loan reflects their evaluation that she is capable of more than an incoming member of CLM is capable of. Someone who qualifies for an FFS loan cannot, by definition, qualify for CLM. And the very fact that she has the loan shows that she is beyond most CLM members in at least one important respect. The kind pf loan that she receives requires that she be part of a group of five women who receive their loans together. She has enough of a standing within her community that she was able to find four other women willing to take out a loan with her. She is not, in other words, as socially isolated as many CLM members are.

But we know that the family is going hungry, and we know something else as well. She has already had to borrow money from a neighbor to keep up with her repayments. That, too, reflects social capital most CLM members lack, but it may also mean that credit just isn’t working for her.

Our team will not need to complete the selection of families for this group of CLM members until January, so I suggest to Wilny that he hold onto to the file and give it some time. Natacha will not be able to join the CLM program. My decision in that respect is final. Even our director, Gauthier, will not overrule a member of his team. But if the case managers and their supervisor decide that Natacha’s mother’s effort through credit is failing, they can consider helping her get out of the credit program to join CLM instead.

This will be complicated. We cannot make our program appear to be an alternative to taking out a loan. Who wouldn’t rather get stuff they don’t have to pay back? But just as our CLM team makes mistakes in our selection process, our colleagues in the credit program can make poor evaluations, too. If Natacha’s mother is bound to fail in Fonkoze’s credit program, we need to find a way to support her. Fonkoze’s job is to leave no family behind.

Rosemitha Petit Blanc 7

Rosemitha and her husband have been unhappy ever since his mother passed away. They both feel her loss keenly. They loved having her around. To Rosemitha, she was a second mother, having accompanied her through her pregnancy while her husband was away working as a field hand in the Dominican Republic.

And their loss is more than emotional. The older woman was an important member of their household. A trusted babysitter, beloved by her grandchildren, she made it easy for Rosemitha and her husband to go off and engage in their various activities, and her willingness to share domestic chores lightened the couple’s burden of work around the house.

Her sickness and subsequent death was also expensive. The CLM program made a standard contribution of 5000 gourds to offset funeral expenses, but the couple still owes the coffin maker 7500 gourds – about $120. The coffin cost 10,000. They gave the coffin maker half of the CLM money, and used the other half to pay off the various expenses they incurred entertaining their neighbors during the wake.

Their goats have been slow to multiply. Two have had litters, but the kids did not survive. Once again, two are pregnant, but they’ve learned not to count too surely on the results. But normally, they would have their pig’s litter of piglets available to them to pay down their debt and invest in new opportunities. They’ve had good luck with their sow. But the expenses associated with the older woman’s illness cost them the opportunity to use the piglets to make progress. They had to sell the whole litter before it was even born just to manage the expenses that helped the older woman pass through her last weeks of life. So, they’re waiting for their sow to ween the piglets so that they can breed it again.

Rosemitha would like to get back into small commerce. She had felt good about her success at it, and the daily income really helped the family. It enabled her husband to focus on farming without having to worry about bringing in something every day. With the Fall bean harvest approaching, there will be opportunities for those with the cash to buy beans directly from farmers and the energy to get them to market.

Rosemitha still has savings from her cash stipend that she could use as her investment, but she’s not sure about the energy. “Ever since my mother-in-law passed away, I feel weak.” In the past, she has carried most of her merchandise on her head to the places where she can find trucks to get it to markets, but right now she doesn’t feel as though she has the strength to do so.

She doesn’t worry about her home’s immediate needs anymore. She and her husband have food enough right now from their own fields. But they will have a lot to do to get themselves back onto the path forward, and right now the steps they need to take seem to feel as though they are too great.

Idalia Bernadin 7

Idalia hasn’t been feeling well. She says she’s had a cold and a fever. She’s been coughing a lot, too. She went to the Hospital in Mirebalais to see a doctor, but did not plan her visit through our CLM nurse, and she was not able to get herself seen. The hospital sees many more people every day than it was designed to serve, and getting to see a doctor can be complicated.

It might be simpler for her if she went to the clinic in Lakolin. It too is part of the Partners in Health network, and though it lacks the range of specialists that the Mirebalais facility’s role as a teaching hospital gives it, the lines can be much shorter and the procedures simpler. But Idalia prefers Mirebalais. Her oldest son lives there, and one of her younger ones spends most of his time at his brother’s house. Going to Mirebalais gives her a chance to see them.

And now she has an exciting new reason to do so. Her daughter-in-law just gave birth to Idalia’s first grandchild. Idalia used the occasion to spend some time with the younger couple, helping out.

She and her husband are nearly finished with their small home. They need one more palm tree, though, for a last section of one of the walls and a few finished touches. And Idalia’s not sure how they’re going to buy it. She doesn’t see where the money is going to come from, so she’s planning to talk with her case manager, Titon. She hopes he’ll have some ideas.

Building her house has been a struggle. She and her husband haven’t had a lot they can invest in the project. And it’s been hard to make progress even though hers is smaller than those being built by other members. Its only full-time inhabitants are Idalia, her husband, and their youngest son, and they decided to construct only one small room. The couple doesn’t want to remain in Gwo Labou, and they see no reason to invest too much in a house there.

They moved there a couple of years ago from Jinpaye, an area of Cornillon farther into the hills above Gwo Labou. They fled Jinpaye, where they have some land and some roots, to escape accusations of theft made against her husband. He was brought up before local leaders there, accused of stealing plantains from someone’s field, and her intervention at the improvised trail only made things worse. “A wife doesn’t speak for her husband,” she was told.

But she’s not at home in Gwo Labou. The couple found a member of the CLM Village Assistance Committee willing to let her build her CLM home on a corner of his land, but she’s embarrassed by her dependence on a stranger’s goodwill. And she feels as though her situation gives her an especially low status in the community, which affects her ability to progress.

“Yon moun vini mwen ye. Mwen rèt sou tè moun,” she explains. That means, “I’m a stranger. I live on someone else’s land,” and it’s her explanation for a range of complaints, including her sense that her neighbors don’t worry about paying her money they owe her. She’s sold both goat meat and pork, but the only money she’s received out of what she is owed is what Titon has collected for her.

She has three goats, but they haven’t been productive. One is pregnant, and a second may be. It was just recently together with a buck. But the third has been with her the longest, and it’s not gotten pregnant yet. It is probably past time for her to sell it and buy a replacement.

Idalia says that she’s not going to graduate from the program. She says that others have told her that she can’t graduate without poultry, and all the chickens that she has purchased die soon after so brings them home. She just spent 600 gourds, or almost $10, to buy six young ones, but they didn’t last.

She doesn’t really have to own poultry to graduate. That is her misperception. Many CLM families have graduated without owning poultry. But we do insist that members develop at least two income-generating activities, and Idalia has only one, the goats, so far.

Isemène Pierre, Four Years After Graduating

When Isemène joined the CLM program, she was unusually poor even by the standards of a program designed for the very poorest rural families in Haiti. Her husband had recently died in Lachapèl, where they were living at the time. Isemène sold everything that the family had to pay for the funeral.

With nowhere to live and nothing to live on, she wandered to Sodo with her seven children. Sodo is home to one of the largest annual parish festivals in Haiti, and it attracts a lot of beggars. Isemène says, “M t ap mache tcheke lavi.” That’s a little hard to translate. It’s like saying she decided to take to the street to see whether she could find a way to live. While at the festival, she met a local man, a stranger, who heard her story and was willing to let her boys set up a shack for the family on a corner of his land. That’s where we found her when we went through the area.

Isemène chose goats and a pig as her two enterprises. And though her livestock never really flourished, she was able to add a small cow by the end of her time in the program. She also established a steady source of income. Using a thousand gourds that she saved during the six months of her weekly 300-gourd stipend, she started buying scrap wood and turning it into charcoal, which she would sell by the sack in Mirebalais. She also started sending her younger children to school, something she had been unable to do since her husband’s death.

Perhaps even more importantly, she bought a small piece of land in an empty area along the road to Sodo. She completed the purchase at a critical time, just as her youngest child, a boy just hitting his teens, suddenly died. When our team interviewed her, she explained that the most important thing about owning the land was that it gave her someplace to bury her son.

Four years later, her life has changed in some ways, but remained the same in others. Her livestock is gone. She had grown impatient with its slow growth, so she made the risky decision to sell it all and use the proceeds of the sale to buy a cow much larger than the one she sold. The new one grew well, and soon it was pregnant. But the areas along Sodo’s main roads see a lot of theft. The unpaved, mountainous route from Sodo to Titayen is a favorite passage for smugglers and thieves into Port au Prince. One day, Isemène’s cow disappeared. She finally found its butchered remains – including the unborn calf – in the bushes. Though she reported the theft to a justice of the peace, there was nothing he could do to make up her loss.

Her two older boys eventually moved out of her house, building their own homes on their mother’s land. One lives with his wife and two children, supporting them by farming as a sharecropper. The other learned his mother’s business, and supports the child he had with a woman from whom he is separated by selling charcoal. Isemène and the boys have planted trees in the yard, and it is beginning to feel like a lakou, the sort of the collection of homes that is the basis for Haitian rural life. Isemène glows when she speaks of how happy it makes her to know that she and her children have a place that is their own.

She still supports her younger children with the charcoal business. She’s never been able to increase it, but she makes sure it doesn’t shrink. After four years, she still depends on the same one thousand gourds of capital. She makes 1000 to 1500 gourds of profit each time to sells a load in Mirebalais. She knows she could make more if she took the time to sit in the market and sell it in small bags, rather than by sacks, but she worries that the women who buy her sacks so that they can divide them into retail portions would resent her if she took over both roles. She also believes she could grow the business if she was able to get the kind of loan she heard about before graduation. CLM members who live in areas served by Fonkoze’s microcredit operations receive training in the use of credit. But she wasn’t able to find women interested in forming a five-person solidarity group with her.

And though her income is enough to keep the family afloat, her inability to make it grow has become a problem. Tuition prices at local schools have gone up considerably over the last couple of years, and this year she could not afford to send her children. She can’t yet imagine how she might send them next year, either. Her one hope in this regard is for her teenage boy. He saved up enough money from doing chores for her and for neighbors as well that he was able to buy a small pig. If it survives, it could allow him to pay his own way to school next year.

Juslène Vixima 7

I came across Juslène in a corner of Gwo Labou different from the one I have previously found her in, a couple of hundred yards uphill from the house I’m used to. She and her toddler were sitting under a tree in a neighbor’s yard as she helped the older woman shell a small harvest of peanuts. She no longer lives in her sister-in-law’s house. Juslène and her husband have managed to complete enough work on her own home that they felt ready to move into it. All it still lacks is an internal door separating its two rooms.

Juslène is delighted. She says that her sister-in-law’s house was too cold. And it’s true that it sits in a small yard surrounded by large trees. Very little sun gets in. But the more important difference is that the new house is her own. “Ou dòmi lakay ou. Lè w vle leve, ou leve.” That means that you sleep in your own home. You get up when you want to get up. Moving to her own house has given Juslène a new measure of control over her life.

She’s also pleased because her little boy was released from the malnutrition program that the CLM team referred him to. Its medical staff judges that he no longer needs the fortified peanut butter that is the standard treatment in Haiti. And as I speak with Juslène, the boy is noticeably more playful than he has been during my previously visits.

He must be two or three, and he is getting chatty. Not yet pronouncing words clearly, but putting out one short, choppy phrase after another. Juslène repeats most of the phrases, correcting pronunciation and adding missing words. She says that talking with her boy is new for her, but she really enjoys it. She learned it from Titon, her case manager. The importance of talking to newborns and young children is one of the CLM program’s key lessons, and Juslène appears to have learned it well.

Juslène still needs to work hard to further develop her wealth. She still has just two goats, but they are both pregnant. And she has no reliable source of income. She says that she and her husband still depend on working in her neighbors’ fields, but that means income that is both small and irregular. That’s something that she and Titon will have to work on.

But Juslène has changed a lot. Her neighbors wouldn’t talk seriously to her. They looked at her as an “egare.” That means someone who’s empty-headed or lost, out to lunch. Juslène used to spend most of her time looking down when someone tried to speak with her, as though she was afraid to engage in conversation. Now she engages with people comfortably. Titon notices that difference, and so do Juslène’s neighbors.

Laumène François 7

“Things aren’t moving the way I’d like them to, but they’re moving,” Laumène explains. She’s been struggling with headaches that she still prefers to address with folk remedies, but she continues to work through it all.

Two of the children who still depend on her are in school this year. A third would be in school, but he got sick right at the beginning of the year, and he went to stay with an older sister in Port au Prince, who is helping him get treatment. Laumène plans to send him in school starting in January. Another lives in Port au Prince as well, even though his mother thinks of him as her dependent. Her real difficulty is with Elijean.

Elijean is 15, and lives with his mother in Gwo Labou. She and the boy’s father sent Elijean to preschool, and Laumène still shows off his diploma with pride. But then the father decided not to pay for the boy to go to primary school. After a couple of lost years, Laumène herself managed to send Elijean. But it was always a struggle. Sometimes she couldn’t pay fees on time, sometimes she couldn’t buy all the books he’d need, and sometimes she couldn’t afford a decent pair of shoes. He would miss time. And the more time he missed, the less interested he became.

Now that Laumène could send him he’s no longer willing to go. He prefers to hang around and make little bits of money doing odd jobs. The day I sat with Laumène, for example, I crossed paths with Elijean as I was hiking up the hill to her home. He was lugging a sack full of avocados down the mountain for a neighbor. Laumène worries that Elijean will regret his decision someday. “He’ll see the other young people and the progress they’re able to make.” But she hasn’t been able to get him to change his mind so far.

She’s unhappy that her small commerce disappeared. She thinks she was forcing it to do too much for her and her children. “Their father gives them nothing. I’m not his wife.” She started the commerce with money she borrowed from her Savings and Loan Association. She used earnings from it to buy shares at the Association’s weekly meetings. She took some of the money to register three of her kids for school, used 400 gourds to send her boy to his sister in Port au Prince, and a little over 1000 to repay the loan. She has about 500 gourds left, but that’s not enough to stay in the business she had.

“I want to set up a rum business, but it’s better if I do it with my own money.” Locally produced rum sells reliably, with a healthy profit margin, because it’s cheap. But she’s worried that if she tries to do it with another loan, she could have problems because drinkers often buy on credit, and you can lack cash when you need it to buy a new supply or make a loan payment. So, she’s waiting for her bean harvest. It should provide her plenty of money to get started.

In the meantime, she’s happy about the way that her poultry are multiplying. She has chickens, ducks, and turkeys of various sizes running around her yard. Several are sitting on eggs. She had none when she joined the program. In the absence of her commerce, they give her a reliable way to manage smaller expenses, the sort for which she wouldn’t want to sell off a goat. And the turkeys in particular can help her increase her wealth. Large ones can sell for over 1000 gourds. Selling a couple of large turkeys can bring in enough to buy good young goat.

She’s made some progress with her goats. She started with just two, and now she has four, three mature females and a kid. But the kid has been sick. The other kid from the same litter died already. Their mother hasn’t wanted to let them nurse.

Laumène is doing everything she knows how to do to save the kid. She holds its mother at times to help it nurse, and she bathes it and encourages it to start eating regular food, but she’s pessimistic about its chances. Her hopes focus instead on the other two females, both of which are pregnant.

Her larger concern related to the goats is theft. Theft of livestock in the area around Gwo Labou has become an epidemic. A gang of thieves appears to be making the rounds at night. Laumène calls me to a secluded spot in her yard, right in front of the door to her house, and she whispers that she’s started bringing the goats into her home at night. “They smell, but I’ll put up with it to protect them.” She explains that she bought some extra cleaner so she can to go over the room they spend the night in every morning, and she proudly shows me the room, asking me whether I see or smell any sign of them. She also decided to leave her goat shed in place, even though it needs repairs, so that thieves won’t come look in her home.