Assorted Field Notes

The heart of our case managers’ work unfolds in the visits they make every week to our members. Each case manager is responsible for fifty families, and these visits are our best chance to track and to facilitate their progress. Our job is not simply to give them the assets they need to change their lives, but to ensure those lives change. The assets we give them are important, but would not be enough because most of our members lack the knowledge and the mindset to make something out of their assets. They need close accompaniment, and that’s what our case managers offer.

And we want the accompaniment to be as regular as possible. We try not to let things interfere with our seeing each member every week. So if Martinière, for example, has to be someplace else, we prefer to have someone cover for him. Wednesday, he was helping us distribute goats to some new members who hadn’t received theirs yet, so he couldn’t make his regular rounds of Manwa, Ti Deniza, and Gapi. So I set off early in the morning to make his rounds for him. These notes about my hike through the hills can serve as a survey of the different sorts of problems that our members face.

The first member I met with was Manie. She’s an older widow, with three children. Only the youngest still depends on her entirely. Her oldest daughter is married and has children of her own. She too qualified for CLM, but her husband forbid her from entering the program. As much as we tried to convince them, we failed. Her second child is a son in his early twenties. He comes and goes, staying with her for days or even weeks at a time, but then disappearing to work odd jobs in Port au Prince, Ponsonde or whatever else he might find them. Her third child is Jackson, whom I’ve written about before. (See: Jackson At School.)

We talked about a number of things but a couple stuck out. First, she has a problem with one of her goats. It’s important that she keeps them tied up. If one of them gets into someone’s garden they could just kill it. If garden’s owner is gentler, they’ll confiscate it until Manie pays damages. She might be able to afford to pay, but she certainly has better things to do with her money. So she’s conscientious about keeping them tied. But if you tie them, you need to keep an eye on them, because if they get themselves twisted in the rope, they can panic and do themselves harm.

The first thing Manie said when we sat down together was that she had something to confess. One of her goats had gotten one of its legs twisted in its rope and panicked until it got cut. She had run to the local veterinary worker, and he had dressed the wound, but it hadn’t completely healed. She was following the veterinarian’s instructions, treating the wound with ashes from her cooking fire, and she was hopeful, though upset at what she sensed as her own negligence.

The other thing that stuck out was something she said about her sòl. That’s a kind of savings club that is very popular in Haiti. A group gets together and agrees to contribute a certain amount every day, every week, or every month. They then take turns receiving the whole pot. If, for example, there are ten of us contributing 100 gourds each week, every week one of us will get 1000 gourds. Manie and the other members from Manwa and vicinity have a  sòl. Martinière organized it for them. Each week the ten of them give him 100 gourds from their 300-gourd subsistence allowance and he gives one of them 1000 gourds.

But last time Martinière had visited the area, he had distributed two weeks’ worth of subsistence allowance to each member, so they paid two weeks’ worth of contribution to their  sòl. Manie had gone along with it, because she looks at Martinière, who’s managing the  sòl as an authority figure, but it turns out that she hadn’t really understood why she was paying 200 gourds. So when I gave her the 300-gourd subsistence allowance, and asked her to give me back her  sòl contribution, she tried to give me 200 gourds. She insisted that Martinière had taken that much.

When I refused to take more than 100, she accepted that just as she had accepted the fact that Martinière had taken twice as much. Since I didn’t really understand the problem until later in the day, when I had spoken to another member, I couldn’t really explain things well to her. But I passed the word to Martinière so that he knows he’ll need to talk with her about it next Wednesday.

It was Rose Marthe’s turn to receive the  sòl, so she and I spent most of our time talking about how she wanted to invest it. She had her two CLM goats, but wanted to buy a third with the  sòl money. It’s not really a great investment, because the goat that she’s likely to buy for only 1000 gourds will be too young to get pregnant. It will take some time for her to make much from this. But she had her heart set on it. She likes taking care of the animals, and doesn’t feel pressed to make money more quickly because she and her husband have enough food coming in from the fields right now that they are able to keep themselves and their children fed.

Omène lives with her husband and their children in a home in her in-laws’ yard. And that has become a problem. Her husband comes and goes. He sometimes leaves for weeks at a time when he can find agricultural work in the fields of Ponsonde or Lascahobas. When he’s not there, his folks are nasty to his wife, treating her like a child that they can boss around and even punish. When she said that she would go to spend a few days visiting her own parents, they forbid it, threatening to beat her if she disobeyed. It was the last straw. Martinière had heard this from her. She had explained to him that she would be moving out of the house to get beyond their reach. He had asked her to have her husband there for his next visit. He wanted to hear the husband’s side of things. He was committed to taking Omène’s side come what may. That’s his job. But the problem has a very different look depending on whether the husband is with her or against her. He wanted to make sure he had the full picture.

It turns out that he’s with her. 100%. He’s ashamed of the way his parents treat her, and anxious to get her into a new house as quickly as possible. He’s already cleared a piece of land in the corner of a small field that he’s been farming for years, and he’s begun to collect the materials he’ll need for construction: rocks, sand, support poles, and the palm seedpods that the poorest peasants use as roofing material. I asked him and Omène to be sure to coordinate the move with Martinière. On one hand, that will help ensure that Omène continues to receive our support. On the other, Martinière will be able to provide construction materials – a little cement and some tin roofing – that will make a small house better than it would otherwise be.

Marie is the last member I saw on the way out of Manwa before descending into Deniza. She’s an older woman, but when I arrived at her home she had an infant on her lap. Haitian say, ”lè w pa gen manman, ou tete grann.” It’s a way of saying that you make the best of things: “If you have no mother, you nurse at your grandmother’s breast.” I had always thought that it was just a saying, but there was Marie, nursing her grandson. One of her older children had abandoned two young children to her care.

Marie is doing well by a number of criteria. She’s been managing her subsistence allowance carefully, and has been able to buy several animals – beyond the ones we have given her – already. But there’s a problem: When I arrived at her home at about 2:00, she hadn’t made food yet that day. She was waiting for her subsistence allowance to go to the market. She wouldn’t have any food prepared to early evening. Her youngest son – a boy about ten – was getting ready to grill some hard kernels of corn over a fire for himself and some friends just to ward off the hunger pangs.

Marie seems to feel so much pressure to augment her assets that she is using the money we give her to feed herself and her kids right now to plan for a better future. While that’s admirable in a way, it leaves her children and grandchildren suffering needlessly in the short term. We are in a hurry to see her make progress, just as she’s in a hurry to move forward, because we all know that 18 months is not a lot of time to change a life for good. But 18 months is still 18 months, not 18 days. If we can convince her to trust the process, she could spend a little more money now to improve her children’s lives right away. That’s something for her to talk about with Martinière.

The last woman I’ll mention is Gertha. She’s one of our poorest members. She has no home at all, having to live with her son in the corner of another CLM members home. She had to leave her own home because every time she would accumulate any sort of possessions of value, they would be stolen. Her children’s father had abandoned her, but his family continued to feel free to take anything she had. She met Oranie at the training session we held in December for new members, and moved in with her and her husband.

She’s starting to make some progress. Her goats are pregnant, and she bought a turkey with savings from her subsistence allowance.

But turkeys like to wander, and hers made it into a neighbor’s yard. The neighbor’s kids were chasing it off by throwing rocks, and hit it in the head. So it died.

Unfortunately, Gertha is only too accustomed to losses. And the truth is that there’s no use crying over spilled milk. So we talked about how she can keep anything like that from happening again. For now, she’ll put savings into her bank account instead and use the money to set up a small commerce when it’s enough. She might have to wait until it’s her turn to receive the  sòl.