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Carmelia

Carmelia Jarbath became a Fonkoze member in 2009, when she joined a newly forming center for its Ti Kredi program, in Madival, a small community on the road that rises eastward out of the coastal city of Marigo. Fonkoze had established Ti Kredi as a way to help women who were not yet in business. The women would receive and repay three small loans in six months, while participating in tailored education programs. During those six months, they would save up to pay their one-time registration fee and the balance they would be required to have in their savings account to secure their first standard solidarity-group loan.

Carmelia had been aware of Fonkoze credit programs for some time. In fact, she played an important role in the credit center in Madival. The center had been flourishing long before the Fonkoze branch in Marigo that serves it was, having been established by credit agents working out of the branch in Jakmèl, farther west along the southern coast.

When Fonkoze decided to offer education programs in Madival– basic literacy and business skills classes at first – it tried to recruit one of the borrowers to teach them. For Fonkoze, recruiting teachers from among its borrowers – rather than from local educators, who were mostly men – was an important part of building leadership and solidarity.

But the center in Madival had no one among its members with the education that teaching literacy would require. So, its elected chief, Iliamène, recruited Carmelia to be their teacher. She was then in high school. She taught basic literacy and business skills, and she really liked the work. She felt that the training and the experience made her better at communicating.

When she eventually joined Fonkoze as a borrower, it was almost by accident. A neighbor had asked to use her picture ID. She wasn’t sure why. One day, Carmelia went to the Fonkoze branch in Marigo to collect the small stipend she was receiving for teaching the classes. She was surprised when the branch’s teller said that she could not pay her. There was a hold on her stipend because she was behind on her loan repayment. But she hadn’t ever taken out a loan.

It turned out that her neighbor had used her ID to take out her own loan. She hadn’t had ill intentions. She just wanted to join the credit program, and didn’t have her own ID. At first, she repaid regularly, and the situation didn’t come to light. But when Fonkoze’s branch staff saw Carmelia’s account blocked, and knew that she hadn’t borrowed anything, they corrected things immediately.

At the time, Fonkoze was in the process of establishing a Ti Kredi center in Madival for women too poor to join the existing credit center, and Iliamène was helping out. “The women they were signing up really were much poorer than the ones in Iliamène’s center. They were too ashamed even to asked for credit there.” Carmelia asked Iliamène for advice, and decided to join.

Her first loan was for 1000 gourds, which was worth about $25 at the time. “I bought some things I thought I’d be able to sell quickly: some girl’s underwear and pens and pencils for kids in school. When I sold everything, I had 1500 gourds.” Since she was still living with her parents, she didn’t have to spend her profits, so she just reinvested them in her business. And after six months she was ready to graduate from Ti Kredi: She had a small but steady business, and was ready to move forward with standard solidarity-group credit.
From the start, the other women even chose her as their center chief. She would be responsible for representing their interests within the institution, but she would also work at center meetings alongside the credit agent to ensure that his recording keeping and the receipts he gave members – of whom many were unable to read – were correct. She liked being a center chief. It made her feel respected in her community. The women in the center listened to her and they showed that they trusted her. She received training from Fonkoze on center management: how to organize reimbursements, how to lead discussions, how credit works. “It was training I would have paid for, but I got it for nothing as part of the work.”

She continued with Fonkoze, as a borrower within a five-person solidarity group and the elected chief of her center. She would vary her commerce by the season. Sometimes she’d sell school books and supplies. Sometimes it was cosmetics. When nothing else was selling, she’d turn to groceries: rice, sugar, flour, oil, etc. She took larger loans as her business grew, but smaller ones occasionally when business would slow down. Even if she reduced the size of her loans, however, she never dropped out entirely. “The women who joined with me, the members of my group, never wanted me to drop out. They didn’t want to take loans without me. If I wouldn’t sign, they wouldn’t sign.”

Each year, Fonkoze holds an assembly for the center chiefs for each branch. Since Carmelia and Iliamène each led their own center, they would attend these meetings together. Those local assemblies would elect representatives to attend the annual general assembly in Port au Prince, and Iliamène was frequently sent from Marigo. After the general assembly, Iliamène would give a report to Fonkoze members back in Marigo. Carmelia liked to hear the news.

Once Carmelia asked whether she could go along. Iliamène was delighted. Still unable to read and write well, she could leave it for Carmelia to take notes. And Carmelia was just anxious for the experience, even though since Fonkoze would only cover the expenses for the women who were elected, she would have to pay her own way.

When they got back to Marigo, she listened to Iliamène’s report, but she had a lot to add. She had extensive notes to work from. The next year, she nominated herself to be a representative and was elected easily. In the following years, she went to three national assemblies as a representative for Marigo, and she always enjoyed them. “I liked hearing what other women would say. We were all there together, and we all had the same goals. The meetings made me feel independent. They made me feel like an adult.”

The assemblies discuss issues that are important to the women as Haitians, as businesspeople, and as Fonkoze clients. But they also elect members of Fonkoze’s governing board. Carmelia was nominated a first time by the manager of the Marigo branch, but she lost that election. The next year, however, she tried again and was elected. She’s into her second year on the board, and loves the opportunities it has offered her. “I’ve met all sorts of people and been to places I never would have gone. And I’ve gotten so much training.”

Through it all, Carmelia has kept up her business, using profits to start building her own house just downhill from her parents’. She’s continued to take out loans as well, but when she finishes her home, she’ll be ready to take her business to another level. It will include a storeroom for merchandise, and she plans to start selling groceries wholesale to smaller businesses in the area around where she lives. Right now, they have to send down the mountain to Peredo and Marigo to buy what they need. “I think I’ll find plenty of customers.”

She plans to continue as part of the credit center she was part of starting, but wants to shift to an individual loan. “I’m ready to take out my loan on my own.”

Solène Louis

Solène lives with her partner and their three children in a house that belongs to her mother-in-law. The older woman gave it to her son to live in with his family.

She grew up in Port au Prince, in a slum called Tokyo, where she lived with her aunt. Her parents were from Jeremie, in far southwestern Haiti, and they died when she was very young. She looks back fondly on her years with her aunt. She says she never was made to feel like anything but her aunt’s own child.

She first came to Kolonbyè as a teenager, when she and a friend from the area passed through on their way to look for work in the Dominican Republic. The other girl, however, abandoned her in Kolonbyè, running off with everything she brought with her. Solène had no choice but to stay with the girls mother. She knew no one else in the area, and had no way to get back to Port au Prince.

She stayed there until her first partner took her into his home. She lived with him for a while, but he was abusive. So she left him and moved in with her current partner.

She says that she was chosen for the program because the team saw that she was less capable than her neighbors. “Mwen pa gen lavni. Mwen pat ka pouse timoun yo.” “They saw that I have no future, that I didn’t have a way to push my children forward.”

She and her husband support their children with agricultural day labor when they can find the work. But it makes it hard to do much more than eat, when they can even afford food. “You have to find a way to help your children go to school so that they want to help you in the future, too.”

She listens carefully as we speak, and responds clearly, without difficulty.

Her hope is to buy a plot of land. She wants one of her own because she’s afraid that if something happens to her, her children will have trouble maintaining their claim to the land they’re on now.

First Trip to Kolonbyè

Getting to and from Chito is challenging, at least during the rainy season. Chito is a small community in Kolonbyè, the westernmost section of Savanette. It’s the section where our team is looking for qualified families for a new cohort of CLM.

Even just getting to Kafou Debriga, the point from which we set off for Kolonbyè and Chito, requires you to cross a river a couple of feet deep. I’m told that, during the dry season, one can get all the way to Kolonbyè on motorcycle, but we left ours in Kafou Debriga because the main river, the Fer à Cheval, looked dangerous. It was challenging enough to ford it on foot. The quickly rushing water was well over knee-high. Trying on a motorcycle would have been needlessly risky.

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When we got across the river, we split into two teams. Most of us went to the left, towards the area around the Kolonbyè market. Wilson and I went with a couple of case managers to the right, towards Chito. The area had about 23 families whom our case managers had already recommended for inclusion in the program. Wilson and I would be responsible for making the final determinations.

Chito is a fertile, green area that rises from the river towards a mountain to its south. It’s mango season, and there were mangos, and children eating mangos, everywhere, but also trees of many other kinds. Chito shows little sign of the ravages that charcoal production is responsible for in most of rural Haiti.

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And its homes seem more-or-less evenly sprinkled throughout the trees in clusters of two, three, or four. They were of various sorts, all if them small – just one to four rooms – but some had decent tin roofs and well-made cinderblock walls. The ones we were visiting though were mostly of a kind: one or two rooms enclosed by palm planks and covered by tach, the thick, fibrous sheets taken from a palm tree’s seedpods.

The first woman I met was Nadia, a 22-year-old mother. She had been sent to Port au Prince as a young girl because her mother could not support her, and there she lived as a domestic servant in another family’s home. She eventually ran away from that family and found a paying job as a maid.

When she became pregnant, she thought about her options, but she decided to move back in with her mother. By then, her mother was partially paralyzed, unable to care for herself, and Nadia thought she’d have a friendly roof over her head and an opportunity to help her childless older sister care for their mom.

Nadia was clearly without means. On the section of her poverty scorecard that describes her assets, she scored a perfect zero: no livestock or productive assets of any sort. She scored another zero in the section measuring income. Her total score was less than one-third of an average result, and most of her score came from points she earned by having only one child and having access to good drinking water.

But despite her dire and obvious poverty, it wasn’t immediately clear whether to accept Nadia into CLM. She was living as a young dependent in her family’s home. Her older sister was the one providing the little food that they had. She was dating a man who’d occasionally make her gifts of money, and those gifts were the household’s one form of support.

But neither the older sister nor the mother qualified for the program. Neither had a child. And we had to do something. So we decided to take Nadia. We figured that we couldn’t count on her sister’s income. The guy could move on to the next woman at any time. And even if he didn’t, he and the sister could decide to focus on themselves.

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Micheline lives farther into Chito from Kolonbyè and slightly closer to the river. A mother of seven, her current partner is father only to the youngest. The man comes to see her and his son once in a while, but he has another family where he spends most of his time. The father of the first six children died years ago. Micheline now lives in a house with the youngest four children. The older children are living in other people’s homes. It’s mango season, so the children aren’t as hungry as they are most of the year. But scavenging ripe mangos and washing the mangos that neighbors are preparing to send to market are not reliable ways to feed a household. Approving Micheline for the program was an easy decision.

I also met Julienne. She was the only woman I met during the course of the day who was my age. She lives in a house with three children and a grandchild. Her two daughters are the earners. One has a boyfriend who pays to send her to school and occasionally gives her some cash that she can use to help her family. The other does neighbors’ laundry. They pay her either with food or a little bit of money. The third child is a teenage boy. He’s not in school, and he more or less fends for himself by doing chores for neighbors who give him a meal.

If I had used our original criteria for CLM, I wouldn’t have been able to take Julienne. She has no children who depend on her. But she’s partially paralyzed. She depends completely on her kids because her arms are no use to her. So we can take her as a disabled person. The Kolonbyè cohort is our first attempt to integrate all the persons with disabilities we come across into our program. So after a short chat with Julienne, I approve her for our program as well.

Wilson and I saw about 20 potential members in Chito during the day. We finished mid-afternoon, and we could see the rain approaching from farther east as we were preparing to cross the river once more. By the time we got to the water’s edge, we were caught in a downpour. Fording the now swelling current was a chore. We were already drenched by the time we got near our motorcycles, so there wasn’t much point in trying to wait out the rain. We hopped on and rode away.

Return to Zaboka

I last visited the village of Zaboka in March 2013. That was nine months after we celebrated graduation for the CLM families in Tit Montay, the mountainous region of northwestern Boucan Carré that includes Zaboka. It is hard to get to. No paths that even a motorcycle can manage reach anywhere within a long hike. Since that visit, I had tried to arrange some time to hike up on a couple of occasions, but it had never worked out.

So I was wondering what I’d find as I headed towards the waterfall that divides eastern Tit Montay from Central Boucan Carré on Christmas Eve’s Day. I had left CLM headquarters in Mirebalais the morning, and I had taken my time, so it was midafternoon by the time I got to the old CLM base in Zaboka, at Nava’s house. Nava was off in western Tit Montay, visiting a sick farmer. He is the closest thing to a doctor within a long hike of Zaboka. He’s been a Partners in Health community health worker for a long time, and is a learned practitioner of traditional rural healing arts.

But his wife and Fona, one of his sons, were at home. Madan Nava put water for coffee on the fire, and started planning an evening meal for her unexpected guest. Fona made ready the room that the CLM team had rented for almost two years. It had become his since we left, but it would be mine for the next few days.

The CLM team does not have any organized way to follow the lives of our graduates after they leave the program. After eighteen months with the families, we have to move on. Some members enter Fonkoze’s credit programs, but then they are more connected to our commercial partner, Fonkoze Financial Services and its credit staff, than to the CLM team. We are always happy to come across such as we bump into now and again, because they almost always confirm our belief that the improvements they’ve made in their lives are lasting. Even those we find who have slipped back into hard financial difficulties generally show an understanding of the possibilities before them and an optimism which has its roots in their ability to plan a return to better times. So I was looking forward to the chance to see some remote members more than three years after graduation.

A place like Zaboka is especially interesting to us. Programs like CLM are generally called “graduation programs.” The idea is that the participants need very intense accompaniment to overcome the extreme poverty they face, but that even after they complete our program, they’ll be well served to continue in other programs that an institution like Fonkoze can offer. They “graduate” from one kind of accompaniment to another. In Fonkoze, a series of differently designed programs make up what we call the “staircase out of poverty,” with CLM as the first step. Typically we have encouraged members to join Fonkoze’s credit programs after they finish with us. It gives them a good way to continue their progress after we’ve helped them start.

But Fonkoze Financial Services has struggled to provide credit in especially remote areas like Zaboka. It hasn’t worked well, and it isn’t clear whether it can work at a cost that’s sustainable. So the former CLM members there had been on their own since we’d left them. Seeing them continue to prosper would encourage us greatly.

On Christmas day, I went on a long hike. I would visit Chipen, in north central Tit Montay, a two-hour hike up from our base. Then I would climb up to the top of Do Zoranj, the ridge that separates Tit Montay from Hinche and Maïssade, to the north. That would allow me to cross over to Bwawouj. From there, I’d descend the rocky, twisting path back to Zaboka. I’d be back by late afternoon if I left early enough and be ready to return to Mirebalais the next day.

Edithe

Edithe

When I got to Chipen, I went straight to Edithe’s house. I had seen her on my last trip, and she had been doing well. Her children were healthy, and all but the oldest girl had been in school. Before she joined CLM she hadn’t been able to send any of them. She told me about her livestock – she had suffered some losses, but they had increased on the whole – and about her future plans.

I again found Edithe at home. The last time I had come it would have been more accurate to say that she found me, running up when she saw me starting up the slope after I had crossed the mountain stream that separates Chipen from Labòd. But this time, she didn’t see me until I turned into her yard. She was doing chores together with her kids.

Her oldest girl was visiting. In the years since my last visit, she had married a young man from the other side of Do Zoranj, near the market in Nan Sab. Edithe was happy about the marriage. She both liked and trusted her son-in-law. Her goats and her cow had gotten healthier since he began to care for them for her. There is more and better forage around Nan Sab than Chipen. Her cow had had a calf, and both were doing well, as were her goats.

She did talk about one problem: Her children weren’t in school anymore. It wasn’t that she was unwilling or unable to send them. The problem was that there was no school. The one nearby in Labòd had closed. This happens often enough in areas where too few parents can pay enough to enable a school’s owner to keep the teachers paid. Edithe had tried hiring a teacher to give her children private lessons, but he had taken her money and left the area after a month. She wasn’t sure yet what she would do. The nearest functioning schools were farther than the smaller children could walk every day.

When it was time for me to move on, she told her children that she’d be going off for a while and that they should see to finishing their chores. She wanted to lead me most of the way to Bwawouj. They way I had planned to take was much too long. There was a shorter route, but she’d have a hard time explaining it to me. She’d rather just lead me along.

It was a straight uphill hike. Her house in Chipen is about 3200 feet high, but Do Zoranj is at over 5500 feet. The route she chose was much shorter than the one I knew, but much steeper, too. When we got to the ridge, she sent me on my way, asking when I’d see her again. I told her I didn’t know, but that I would just appear sometime. “Just like I did today.” She smiled and headed back to her kids.

I followed the path along Do Zoranj to Bwawouj. I was especially anxious to see Mirlène and Orelès, a young couple who lived at the top of the ridge,m with a view of Regalis over 3000 feet below..

Orelès, Marlène, and their boy

Orelès, Marlène, and their boy

While the family was in the program, Mirlène had given birth to their second child. Then both she and the child had grown sick. The couple believed it was because Orelès had been unable to pay their midwife’s bill. Though Mirlène eventually recovered, they lost the child shortly before Mirlène graduated. And the day I first met Orelès was when he came down to Domon so that I could give him some money out of our CLM emergency fund to offset the cost of the funeral. It was a way for us to help them protect the assets they’d begun to accumulate.

When I saw them in 2013, things had reversed. Mirlène was taking care of Orelès, who had spent more than two weeks too sick even to get out of bed. They had sent their older daughter to Mirlène’s mother so that Mirlène could focus on giving her husband the care he needed.

They were getting by. Orelès’s brother and sister-in-law were helping them out. But Orelès seemed afraid. They had been on my mind frequently in the interval, but it is so hard to get to Bwawouj that I could never learn how things had turned out.

I walked past their house as I looked down towards the rest of Bwawouj. It turns out that I didn’t remember exactly which house was theirs. But Mirlène saw me and yelled. Even from a distance, she was pretty sure she knew it was me. As I walked back into their front yard from behind the house she greeted me with a big smile and a respectful peck on the cheek. Orelès strolled in from their field almost immediately after that. I didn’t even have to ask the biggest question on my mind. He was clearly in the very best of health.

He’s a thin slip of a man, especially compared to his powerfully built wife. But he’s a farmer in a non-mechanized culture, who has spent his life hiking up to his home at the top of a 5500-foot hill. So when things are right, you can see that he’s healthy and strong. Like Mirlène, he was smiling broadly. He slipped inside their small house, and brought a couple of plates of tchaka – a hearty stew of beans and whole kernels of corn. He asked whether I could eat peasant food, and smiled as I took a plate. We began to chat as we ate.

Mirlène went inside too, but she fetched their little boy, whom she wanted me to see. He wasn’t yet a year old. He had been born some time after Orlelès regain his health. And the boy looked great. As she held him in her lap, she told me that they had taken her oldest girl back from her mother, too. The family was together again.

Orelès added some explanation. They were doing well, and he was in a mood almost to boast. Thanks to his mother-in-law, his brother, and his brother’s wife, they had made it through his sickness without selling off the livestock that we gave them. He had then been able to go back to his farming, and his crops had been good, especially the beans. He had been able to add a cow to the animals they already owned, and they had purchased some additional farmland as well.

I couldn’t stay long. So we said our goodbyes. But I had plenty to feel encouraged about as a headed down the winding, treacherously rocky path back from Bwawouj to Zaboka and to Nava’s house.

There was one more person I wanted to talk to when I got back to Zaboka. Ytelet didn’t live there anymore. She had moved to Regalis. But I was lucky. She had come back for a couple of days to see her parents and attend a wedding.

Ytelet

Ytelet

Early in her experience with us, Ytelet and her younger brother, Dieulonet, had been near to death. They hadn’t had much but high fevers complicated by malnutrition, but their family had given up on them. They wouldn’t bother to carry them down to the hospital in Central Boucan Carré because local healers had told the family that there was no use. Ytelet’s case manager, Martinière, had his own opinion, and he mobilized some assistance to get them down to the hospital, where they received the care they needed. They had recovered, more or less, within a week.

Ytelet and Martinière then got to work developing a way for Ytelet to earn an income. Her children’s father had a wife and more kids on the other side of Tit Montay, so he wasn’t doing much for them. Ytelet had been farming land as a sharecropper, using seeds that she would borrow, paying back in kind with interest at 100%. It was what she knew how to do, but it was also a cycle of poverty that appeared to have no escape.

But Martinière showed her how to start a small business in beans with cash that we gave her, and she eventually earned enough to both rent farmland and provide her own seeds. It was a business model that worked. The net return on her first harvest was nearly ten times what her return on her last sharecropped land had been.

She continued both her year-round bean business and her seasonal farming, and her modest wealth grew. She purchased additional livestock, including a cow, and was eventually able to send her children to a school down in Central Boucan Carré, one much better than anything they could attend in Zaboka.

I had been looking for her in Central Boucan Carré since the start of the school year, but had never come across her. As we talked in Zaboka, I learned why.

Her children’s father had cheated her. He had agreed to take care of her cow. Her bean business took her away so much that she couldn’t do it herself. But he had sold the cow without telling her and taken the money himself.

She didn’t want to take him to court. He is her children’s father. But she didn’t want to have anything more to do with him, either. So she dumped him. She knew she could do very well without him.

But a young, healthy, and successful woman certainly wouldn’t lack suitors, and Ytelet had plenty of them almost right away. She decided to get together with a successful farmer from Regalis. She saw her children liked the man, and he seemed to like her kids as well. He was willing to take her with the three of them, and promised to send them to school at his own expense. So she moved to Regalis. It was a good move for business, too. The Regalis market is a good place to buy and sell beans.

Now she hikes back and forth between Zaboka and Regalis to work her farmland in Zaboka and buy beans from local farmers. And she has a plan. She is saving up to buy a mule. Owning one will help her take her business to another level because she’ll be able to take beans to sell at the larger markets down in towns like Thomonde and Hinche, where the prices are higher.

The CLM team worked with 109 families in and around Zaboka, and with over 360 across all of Tit Montay. Talking to three of them isn’t enough to draw any conclusions. But their work and the work of their case managers seems to have enabled them to succeed on their own.