Able To Work

One of the fundamental criteria for selection for the CLM program is that a household must include an adult woman who is capable of working. We can stretch the meaning of “adult” so that it can include mothers as young as fifteen or so and, in certain unfortunate instances, older sisters who are even younger than that.

It’s harder for us to compromise on the question of ability to work. The key to CLM is that its members work their own and their families’ ways out of poverty. We have very few women who have minor handicaps of various sorts but who have families that can do their work, under their supervision, for them. But we also come across households that turn out to be, in a sense, poorer than the poorest of the poor because they depend on a woman who is too old, too sick, or too handicapped to earn a living. We can do nothing for them.

But it is not always easy to evaluate who will be able to work. The distinctions are more fluid than the straightforward yes-or-no form of the question might suggest. Some of the most difficult cases we deal with are women whom we think to be able to work but who for various reasons find working very, very hard.

Lemène Louis is from Regalis. That’s an important market in rural Hinche, just over the Hinche – Thomonde border from Bay Tourib. From our residence, it’s less than an hour’s hike. And hike you must, because there are no roads of any kind leading to the market. As large a market as it is, everyone who comes to buy or sell arrives on foot. Larger merchants have pack animals, but most carry their merchandise or their purchases on their head.

When we met Lemène during the CLM selection process, she was living in Koray, the corner of Bay Tourib closest to Regalis. One hears the saddest stories during selection, stories of families stuck in extreme poverty and of the miserable circumstances they endure. But few of those sad, sad stories are sadder than Lemène’s.

She is a small woman, perhaps around fifty. She and her first husband had ten children. She lost the first nine. Only the tenth survived. He is with her still, a ten-year-old boy named Leyonel. She lost Leyonel’s father, her first husband, when Leyonel was just learning to crawl. About a year and a half later, she got together with her current husband, Mèsidye.

They lived together for a time, but he eventually decided to take another woman because Lemène did not have a child with him. He built a small straw shack in the back of their yard, and moved Lemène and Leyonel into it so that his new wife could move into his house. Lemène wanted to leave Mèsidye – Who could blame her? – but when she tried to return to her family, they sent her back. They said they could do nothing for her and that Mèsidye would at least help her take care of her boy.

So she returned to Koray, and settled into the shack. She would earn a few dollars now and then by working in other people’s fields. Mèsidye also continued to provide some help. But the two together were not earning enough for her to do more than barely survive. She and her boy were hungry almost all the time, regularly going for days with nothing to eat but what they could forage, lighting a fire in their kitchen no more than once or twice each week.

When she joined CLM, she chose goats and poultry as her two enterprises. We gave her two young female goats. She took care of them, but they never produced for her. Each pregnancy ended in miscarriage. We’re not sure why. Eventually, she sold the goats and bought replacements. One of those new goats became pregnant, but the other was killed by Hurricane Sandy.

When it came to buying poultry, she was reluctant to take all that we wanted to offer her in birds. She asked us to buy her a small pig and several chickens. She’s taken good care of the pig and it is growing. She still has some chickens, but she can’t keep their numbers up. Partly because she sells them whenever she needs cash to cover a pressing expense, partly because they are stolen by neighbors or eaten by local predators. She always seems to have a few around the yard, but not as many as she would need to use them as the basis for strong progress.

She was careful with the weekly food stipend she received for the first six months. She managed to save over 2000 gourds, and that money is still in her savings account. In addition, she participated in a savings club with other CLM members in her neighborhood. Each week, the women would contribute 100 gourds, and one would get the whole pot. When it was Lemène’s turn, she used the money to buy another pig, one larger that what she already had. But that pig died of Teschen disease.

So Lemène is really struggling. She is managing, more or less, with her animals. She hasn’t made great progress, but she and Leyonel are in a nice little house with a good tin roof and, even more importantly, Leyonel has started to attend school.

But it is hard for her to earn a steady income because it is very hard for her to work. She’s asthmatic. She rarely suffers real attacks, but her breathing is labored almost all the time. Heavy farm labor is out of the question. Small commerce would be difficult because she can’t count on her ability to walk to the markets in the region. If her goats would produce for her, she could sell some young and add the proceeds to her savings to buy a horse. That would make it easier for her to go to market, but it isn’t clear whether, given her asthma, it would really become easy enough.

But buying a horse or another large animal is not really her priority. She wants to buy land. She doesn’t own the land that her CLM house was built on. She has no land of her own. It was built, instead, on land that belongs to Mèsidye. He has offered to sell her the land cheaply, but she isn’t interested. She is worried for her boy, and he is the one thing that really matters to her. Mèsidye has other children, both young ones with the woman who replaced her and adult children from a previous relationship. Her boy, however, is not his son. She worries that if anything should happen to her, Mèsidye’s children could drive him away with nothing. She doesn’t believe in Mèsidye’s ability to sell her the land in a way that will convince other interested parties that it is definitively hers.

So we need to find her a way to start earning a steady income, be it ever so small, that is not physically taxing. That will relieve the pressure on her livestock so that she can wait for them to increase. Perhaps it will make it possible for her to realize her dream.

Jonise Decaillon presents another sort of problem. She is a young, single mother of two. Her first boy, Abèy, is about four years old. Then this summer she had twin girls, though one died suddenly just this week.

I’ve written about Jonise before. (See: Jonise Decaillon.) She seems to have developmental issues. Her case manager, Benson, spent considerable time when he first started working with her just teaching her to add and subtract. Almost all the women we deal with, whether or not they are literate, can do numbers in their heads. But Jonise couldn’t do even the simplest subtraction. Benson would take small rocks and move them from pile to pile to help Jonise understand.

We began to feel as though she was doing better. She had been living in a corner of another CLM member’s home. Abèy’s father had thrown her out of his house. But Benson was able to pressure him into building a house for Jonise on land that a cousin of hers offered. She began to look better, healthier, less lost.

But then she became pregnant. She was already hard-pressed to take care of her boy, but things became much harder when she was with child. She never was especially good at finding the forage she needed to feed her pig. She seemed to have trouble really focusing on the task. It began losing weight. She had two goats, and one had a kid. But the other goat died. She just couldn’t take care of it. And as excited as we had been for her about her home, it created a problem as well. It was a little out of the way. She was more-or-less alone, without another adult around to give her the help – really the direction – that she needs every day.

When she gave birth, and she turned out to have been carrying twins, we could only groan. We doubted her ability to manage them without much more help than she knew how to organize. Within a month, they were losing weight. Our partner, Partners in Health, was willing to send her some infant formula to supplement the breast milk she gave them, but I suppose it was not enough. I do not know if the baby died of malnutrition, but I know that she had very little chance to prosper.

Even for Jonise, there is hope. She has come to realize that her current home isn’t good for her. She feels too alone. And she has spoken to one of her older sisters about moving her house to the sister’s yard. Abèy’s father likes the idea. He is only interested in his son, but he sees it as a good thing for the boy. Benson was able to convince him to take responsibility for moving the house once the sisters have agreed. We don’t yet know the sister, but have heard well of her. We hope that she is willing and able to be much more than a neighbor. Jonise needs close supervision all the time, and we’re not sure where else she’ll find it if this plan doesn’t work out.


We certainly do not regret the decisions we made to invite Lemène and Jonise into the program. Neither Lemène’s asthma nor Jonise’s inability to focus on the task before her presents an obvious enough handicap to justify excluding them, especially when one considers that there is currently no alternative for those we cannot take. We have to hope that they can learn to do enough to improve their lives, and then try to create a situation that makes lasting improvement possible.

If during the few months that remain before graduation, we can get Lemène into a simple small commerce that she can manage without much reliable physical strength, we will have put her on the way towards caring for Leyonel as she would like to do. She regularly gets offers from people who would like to take Leyonel for her. “He’s such a good child,” she likes to explain. He has an older sister, Lemène’s stepdaughter, who has pressed the point often, thinking that’s she’d be helping both her brother and Lemène. But Lemène can’t bear to part with him. “He’s all that I have.”

If we can get Jonise into a house of her own in her sister’s yard before her pig and her last goat die, she may be able to turn things around. We’ll still need to help her find a reliable source of income – we have some ideas – but the presence of a strong, guiding, sisterly hand might be what she needs to ensure that she succeeds.

To have prejudged that either woman would be certain to fail in CLM would have been almost understandable from an administrative point of view. Each started the program with special barriers that were more or less evident from the start. Neither has shown herself capable of the work she needs to do.

But we must go through the selection process assuming that the chance we offer is the very last chance that our members will have to live a different life. We have no reason to think that there are other programs out there that will work with those whom we can’t help. Under the circumstances, the only reasonable, the only human thing for us to do is to take on any family that might possibly succeed, and then do anything we can to make sure that they do.