Author Archives: Steven Werlin

About Steven Werlin

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

Just Getting Started in Kapab

Kapab is close enough to downtown Laskawobas that older children from Kapab can hike to Laskawobas for school every day. But it is, even so, a little out of the way. It is inaccessible by car and even by motorcycle. You can get there with one of the canoes that are used as a taxi around the Artibonit River and its flood plain, or you can hike uphill, to the top of the ridge that cuts it off from the nearest road. and then down into the valley, towards the river.

Jeannette St. Fort was born and raised in Kapab, and that’s where she lives with five of her six children and a grandchild. The sixth child, the grandchild’s mother, lives in Port au Prince, where she works as a maid. Jeannette’s husband died about four years ago, after a long illness.

Even before the man passed away, the life that he and Jeannette shared was difficult. He would find work as a day-laborer in neighbors’ fields, and Jeannette would walk to Laskawobas to do laundry for families there. Neither had a steady income, but both would work as many days as they could. It was enough to keep their children in school, but just barely. The children would frequently be sent home because of unpaid tuition.

Things only got harder when Jeannette’s husband died. She spent what little she had on the funeral. And it would not have been enough, but one of her regular laundry clients bought a casket for her. She continued to do laundry in Laskawobas, sometimes staying overnight to eliminate the constant back-and-forth. She has been able to keep her children in school, mostly through occasional gifts from clients who could tell that she needed help, but she will owe money when the new school year begins in November, and she doesn’t know where it will come from.

She’s excited to be part of the CLM program now. “They said they would help me fix my house. It’s falling apart. When it rains, we all get wet.” And she looks forward to raising livestock. She wants goats and a pig. “If you are careful and don’t waste what you get, the livestock will increase and you’ll be able to buy a cow.”

Leodile After Fifteen Months

Leodile Marcelin is a 31-year-old mother of three. She lives in Kanifis, a wide area of northern Gwomòn. Each of her children has a different father, and she’s not together with any of the men. Two of the three live with her, but the third lives in Leyogann, halfway across Haiti from Leodile’s home. “I was having trouble taking care of the kids, so his father took our child and sent her away to live with his sister.”

When she joined the CLM program, she was really struggling. She had finally given up a business buying produce by the sack and selling it in smaller quantities because she spent all of her business capital trying to take care of her health. “I had been sick for a long time. I kept going to healers, spending money wherever I heard there was good treatment, but nothing helped.” The word she used for “healers,” “papa ti chèz,” or “little-chair-fathers,” is a way to indicate practitioners of vodoun. It plays off of the tendency of many to sit on low stools when they practice.

Without her own income, she came to depend on a man, but not the father of any of her children. He made money as a motorcycle driver, bringing some of his earnings to her. He also rented a room for her to live in.

But he wasn’t faithful. Leodile says that he was with a lot of women, so she decided to move out. Without her own place, she and her kids could only move into a family member’s home. That situation might have worked out, but the earthquake that struck Gwomòn in 2018 leveled the house she was living in. She then moved in with another family member, but it wasn’t a good situation. She was constantly feeling humiliated. “They made a big deal if I made food for my kids, and they laughed at me when I had nothing to give the kids, too.”

She joined the program, and chose goats and a sheep as her assets. Her livestock developed slowly because Kanifis was in the midst of a long drought when she received them, but both the sheep and one of the goats eventually produced young, and both are once again pregnant. Leodile wants to sell the other goat and buy another. “It has been mounted by a buck a couple of times and nothing happened.”

She eventually found a place to build her home. Her cousin Estelia is an older women who has a house on family land. She saw the difficulties that Leodile was facing, and she offered her a corner of her yard to build her house on. One of Estelia’s daughters had a home on the plot as well, and she was also willing to have Leodile join them. “They are really good people,” Leodile explains.

Leodile used money from her stipend to restart her business, but it didn’t last. She spent the business capital to start construction of her new home.

But then she ran into a problem. Estelia’s grown son, a man who lives in Pòtoprens, contacted her, ordering her to take down the home she had started to build. He was unwilling to have her on the land. And his word meant a lot. Estelia depends on him entirely. Though the land is more hers than his, his financial importance makes him the power in the family. Estelia had no choice but to stop building.

When the CLM learned about her problem, they went with her to talk to the local Village Committee. The program sets up these committees of local volunteers to support the program and its members in various. Leodile went with the program’s Gwomòn supervisor, Gissaint, to speak with the committee’s president, Cétoute. As the principal of the local primary school, he is widely respected. He listened to the situation and agreed to talk to the man in Pòtoprens. It wasn’t long before than man had changed his mind. Once he really understood the situation, he said he’d be happy to have Leodile build on their land. He let her know that by phone, and when he next visited his mother, he made certain to see her personally.

So Leodile was able to get back to work. She is now almost finished. She’s behind most of the 200 families who joined the program with her, but she’s confident she’ll be able to finish in time to graduate in November. Her partner moved in for a while, and that helped with expenses, but when she saw that he was still seeing other women, too, she kicked him out.

But she’s got a long road ahead of her otherwise. She is in debt to two local savings group. She took out the first loan to help her then-partner pay the owner of his motorcycle when political unrest decreased his income so much that he was unable to pay. She borrowed from a second savings group to buy the building materials she needs to complete her home. “One thing’s for sure, I won’t ever leave my savings group. When I think of what it help me do!”

But with two debts and only, for the time being, the barest trace of an income, she has some problem-solving ahead of her. For the time being, she depends on friends who lend her small amounts that she uses to buy little bits of merchandise. She sells quickly, and repays the money right away. The CLM team knows her former partner and has a good relationship with him, and we hope to make him recognize that that debt is really his. The leaders of the savings group have agreed to show special patience. But she will, at the very least, have to find the money to pay 5400 gourds plus interest and penalties on her second loan.

It might make sense for her to sell an animal to do so, especially if it leaves her with a little something to restart her business with as well. That’s something that she and her case manager will need to work out.

Starting in Ramye

Laskawobas commune straddles the Artibonit River in the southeastern part of the Central Plateau. A word like “straddles” misleads, however, if it suggests two pieces of the commune, one on either side of the water. The layout is much more complex, with multiple strands of the river and small lagoons cutting much of the center of the commune into odd-shaped pieces. The mountains and hills that run through the area only further complicated that landscape.

The CLM team has been working off-and-on in the commune for several years, serving hundreds of families, mostly in the north and the west. We had hit some of the harder-to-access stretches, but we had heard over the last few years of a pocket in the midst of areas we had worked in that we had not yet reached. The region is called “Wòch Milat,” and we completed selection of 100 families there earlier this month. Yesterday was the first day of initial training for almost half of the families.

The training is being held in Ramye, one of Wòch Milat’s larger neighborhoods. It’s a short motorcycle ride north from downtown Laskawobas, but the motorcycle only takes you to a canoe landing. Most of the year, you have to take a canoe across a dirty lagoon to reach the area. The training site is then a short, upward hike to the top of the hill.

Saintilia is a widowed mother of nine. She lives in Bisent, a smaller neighborhood next to Ramye. Her children are grown, and they no longer live with her. But she has two grandsons with her, one twelve and one ten, and she is fully responsible for both.

Her husband passed away just seven months ago, but she had been struggling with his bad health for a long time. She supported herself and her grandchildren as a weaver. She would buy latanye, a fibrous leaf, at the market in Kas, to the north, on Mondays, and spend the week weaving makout, a bag with a shoulder strap that many rural Haitians use. She’d sell them on Saturdays, at the market in downtown Laskawobas. She might make as much as 150 gourds for each one in good times. It wouldn’t amount to much, however, because the weaving was time consuming. She couldn’t do more than five in a week. But it was income.

But as her husband’s health deteriorated, her own strength suffered. She would support his weight with her right arm, and doing so awkwardly over the course of months left her arm so sore that she couldn’t weave any more. A friend saw her situation and lent her money to do small commerce, but that didn’t last long. The friend no longer has extra money she can let Saincilia use.

So she’s back to weaving, though it is hard with the constant pain in her arm.

Aniolie is from Ramye itself. She and her husband have six children, though one lives in Port au Prince with a family friend. “I keep in touch with him.” Her friend sends the boy to school, but Aniolie imakes an effort to contribute. “I don’t want to have to feel ashamed.”

She and her husband, Jean Ermane, have struggled to support their children by selling charcoal. They buy a sack from a neighbor, then Aniolie carries it to downtown Laskawobas for sale. “If I can get a good price for the sack, I sell it in one shot. Otherwise, I sit and sell it by the small pile.” Sometimes they buy a small tree and Jean Ermane turns it into charcoal for her to sell.

Occasionally, she sells fish. That depends on her finding a fisher willing to sell his catch on credit.

The area around Ramye is lush. The land looks fertile. So, one would expect the couple to be farming. But, as Aniolie explains, “It’s a good area to farm, but you have to have land. We don’t have anything you could call a garden, just the small plot our house is on.”

At the moment, the family is really struggling. Her boy in Port au Prince will go to school this year, and the oldest of her children and home, but she can’t yet see anything she can do for the other four.

Mimose — Seven Months into CLM

After seven months in the CLM program, Mimose somehow looks younger. She complains about her health, and has been get care at a local clinic, but somehow her changing circumstances seem to be changing her.

Her biggest problem when she joined the program was the lack of a place to live. A well-meaning landowner had let her and her partner, Dieulifaite, build a small shack on his land for themselves and their five children, but he had begun pressuring them to give him back his property. One of her case manager’s first interventions was to help her negotiate a five-year lease on the land. The lease cost her just 5000 gourds, which is only a little more than $40 these days, but it would have cost twice as much without her case manager’s hard negotiating. And that is if the landowner would have been willing to rent it at all.

And she didn’t have 5000 gourds, much less 10,000, until she joined the program. Much of the initial payment came from money she received from a foreigner visitor, who had come to see the CLM program and was moved by her story, but she just completed paying off the lease, using savings from her weekly cash stipend to make the last two payments.

As Dieumanuel went over Mimose’s weekly stipend with her, he was initially concerned. She seemed confused, and he worried that “li pa konn kòb” or “she does’t know money.” This is a way Haitians talk about two different, challenging issues. We come across women who, for whatever reason, have trouble distinguishing between different bills, though Haitian denominations differ by color. The expression also covers, however, people who can’t make change because they cannot do simple addition and subtraction.

So Dieumanuel slowed things down. Counting out the money Mimose was due bill by bill, and making all the relevant calculations extra-clearly. He eventually was able to determine that Mimose understands money perfectly well, but that she was confused because, while he was purchasing livestock for her and other members, he missed some visits and had to give her two weeks’ worth of her stipend at once on a couple of occasions. Once they both understood what had happened, they were able to move forward.

The landowner’s friends and family still give Mimose problems. They resent the fact that she’s rented the plot, and are happy to let her know it, telling her and Dieulifaite that they should go away, that they shouldn’t forget that the land isn’t theirs. Dieulifaite’s explanation is simple, “They don’t like seeing us make progress.” But these people cannot dispute the family’s right to stay where they are, at least for now. She, Dieulifaite, and their case manager will need to work together over the coming months to figure out how the couple can accumulate enough wealth to be able, eventually, to buy land they can settle on more permanently.

The case manager, Dieumanuel, is excited about the progress she is making with her livestock. He bought her two goats, and one was already pregnant. It has since given birth, and that brought her to three. She bought an additional goat with savings from her stipend. Finally, she was given two goats by an international NGO that works in the area. Their arrangement stipulates that she must give the organization two small female offspring before the nanny-goats become fully hers, but it means that her two goats are now six.

She also received a pig, and Dieumanuel reports that she was taking good care of it, just as she has been caring for her goats, but it died suddenly over the weekend.

She and Dieulifaite prepared it immediately to sell to a butcher. Such transactions are common. Butchers in such circumstances won’t pay cash. You have to sell to them on credit. But it is the one way to extract at least some value out of a dead animal.

None of the local butchers were willing to purchase it at all, however. Here, too, Dieumanuel was able to help. Part of his job is to use the time he spends in her community building strong personal relationships with people who might be useful to the members he’s responsible for serving, and when he called one of the butchers, he got a different answer than Dieulifaite did. He walks around with social capital that Mimose and Dieulifaite can not yet dream of.

Another key area of her success has been her farming. According to Dieumanuel, Dieulifaite doesn’t help her as much as he should, but Mimose has worked hard and has planted much of the land they have rented with sweet potatoes, manioc, black-eyed peas, pigeon peas, pumpkins, and corn. She should have crops both to feed her family and to sell, and as harvest approaches Dieumanuel with need to talk with her about what she will sell and how she wants to use the money. Helping her learning to make such decisions is one of the important parts of his job.

The couple is clearly close to their kids. The five of them are dressed up as if to go out somewhere when Dieumanuel and I arrive. Dieumanuel lets me know that it’s always like that. “Ever since I began talking to Mimose about the importance of good hygiene, she’s made sure that the kids are clean whenever I come.” It isn’t yet clear, however, whether this is something she does to please Dieumanuel or something she has come to value. Time will tell, but it’s a good start.

If you look carefully, you can see a belt in the youngest girl’s right hand. She seems to give her parents and siblings a lot to put up with. She was whacking older brothers and sisters with the belt, eliciting mostly laughter, through much of the visit.

Dieumanuel and Mimose have a lot of work still to do. After seven months, Mimose can not yet write her name. Most CLM members learn to do so quickly — except for those with vision problems and a few who may be dyslexic — but Mimose hasn’t even been motivated enough to buy a copybook and a pencil. Dieumanuel finally decided to buy her one, and they had a lesson during our visit.

Dieumanuel prints “Mimose” at the top of the page in clear block letters. Mimose’s job is then to fill the page by copying what she sees.

The other area in which they are behind is home repair. This requires a lot of work on their part. The CLM program provides much less than what they need to complete the job. And it is more than Mimose could easily do by herself. Most women who have partners rely heavily on their partner for this part if the work, which involves assembling the construction materials that the program does not provide and doing other related chores. But Dieumanuel is not seeing much willingness to work in Dieulifaite. Their latrine is built, but it is not yet walled off. And part of the new home’s frame is up, but much is left o be done. Dieumanuel will need to work with the family on this, too.

Their current home on the left and the beginning f the new one on the right.

More from Urban Jeremi

Manoucheka Dossou lives with her husband, Kesny, and their son, Woodjerry, in a small house in Makandal, one of the neighborhoods of urban Jeremi. Compared to almost all of her fellow CLM members, Manoucheka is in a great situation as far as her housing goes. She and Kesny own both their home and the small parcel of land it’s on, and the home is in excellent condition. It was built for her by a charity that built a number of homes in urban Jeremi. It’s a solid, two-room house with a poured-concrete floor on a raised foundation and a corrugated roof. As small as her family is, Manoucheka and Kesny have blocked off the inner door that connects the two rooms, and they’ve rented the one on the back.

Manoucheka used to depend entirely on Kesny for their income. He’s a motorcycle taxi driver. He doesn’t own his own motorcycle, but works on one through a kind of rent-to-own arrangement common in Haiti. He pays the owner a fixed sum every week, and will gain ownership of the motorcycle after an agreed-upon number of payments.

Unfortunately, he was involved in an accident a few months ago and was injured badly enough that he has been unable to drive. It’s meant an enormous loss of income for the couple and it involved a lot of expense. On one hand, however, the couple is lucky. Kesny is recovering well, and the motorcycle’s owner is willing to wait until he can start driving again. Manoucheka explains that he likes the way Kesny drives. “He takes good care of the motorcycle.” On the other hand, however, it means that they’ll have a lot of debt when Kesny is finally able to start driving again later this month, because he’ll still have to make up the missed payments.

Building up her own business is challenging for Manoucheka. Years ago, she was struck by an illness that robbed her of the use of her legs and left her nearly blind. Though the CLM team was able to help her get a wheelchair from the Haitian government, she rarely goes out. The narrow path from the street to her front entry, and the step up onto her floor makes getting in and out a nuisance.

She started a small business with funds that Fonkoze made available. She sells cleaning products — detergent, laundry soap, etc. — out of her home. She keeps her merchandise locked in a cabinet, and removes it as she makes sales. She is limited, however, because she doesn’t feel she can make sales at all unless someone is with her. That usually means Woodjerry, but sometime it’s another neighborhood child. Sometimes Kesny, if he’s available. She has some ideas for growing the business, too. She wants to start adding related products until she can display them on a table, rather then selling them out of her cupboard. It will be difficult, though. Maneuvering around the table to make sales will not be easy, even with her wheelchair. The space she lives in is too cramped. But it is a promising sign of her optimism that she wants to try.

She has also started a second business selling charcoal for cooking. She can buy two sacks of charcoal at a time, separate it into retail-sized bags, and sell out the bags within a few days. She makes a couple hundred gourds on each sack.

Marie Oxiane François is a widow who lives in Lapwent. She has seven daughters, but no sons. The older ones are off on their own, but they live nearby and she and they count on one another. A couple of the grandchildren live mainly with her. The house belongs to her, though the land it sits on does not. She’s been paying 2500 gourds-per-year as rental, but the landowner has informed her that he plans to increase it to 5000. 

She used to be a successful fish and conch merchant, buying from fishers each morning. She had 15,000 to 20,000 in capital to work with. But when her husband died, expenses dried her business up. She tried to keep it going for a while by borrowing the money she needed, but the interest on her loans was too much for her.

When she joined the CLM program, she took some of the money the program provided as business capital and invested it in a new business, cooking meals. Prepared meals of beans and rice with meat or fish sauce sell well in urban slums like the one she lives in. But she cannot work hard or consistently, because her blood pressure runs extremely high. So she can miss days of work unless one of her daughters is available to cover for her. 

Her second business is important, therefore, because it requires less consistent physical effort. She has begun buying fish again. It’s on a much small scale than her business was when she was younger, and rather than buying and selling the fish fresh, she now dries it. When it’s ready, one of her daughters carries it around town to sell it. Salting and drying fish is a skill, and she has customers who like to buy from her. The sales, therefore, are reliable. She plans to continue to build it up as much as she can. It’s good for her, and it’s good for her daughter as well.

Marie and her son, Tcheve.

Marie Ducarp Nazaire lives in Makandal. She’s a single mother with six children. Only three live with her now, though. A friend found a place for the other three in a children’s home in Dichiti, a small town on the road from Jeremi back to Okay. Marie felt she had to give the children up because she not only had trouble keeping them fed, she didn’t even have a place to live with them. She had been moving from friend’s home to friend’s home, counting on each to give her a corner of their space, but not wanting to impose on any of them for too long. “I never had the money to pay any rent.” She plans to visit the children soon. “If I see that they look good, I’ll leave them where they are. Where I live is too free.”

The program provided funds she could use to rent her own place. It is just for a year, and she will have to plan for next year and the years that follow, but it takes away some of the stress that comes from homelessness.

Because she’s now in her own space, where she can store merchandise securely, she’s been able to start some businesses, and she’s doing very well. She began to buy salt and corn, both by the sack. She sells them by the cupful. Both sell reliably, and though the profit is small, she can count on it.

She also has been buying used clothing, a few pieces at a time, and strolling around the neighborhood with it, trying to find someone to buy a piece here or there. There is not much money in the business. It depends on choosing pieces that are attractive and negotiating good prices. She’s hoping to save up enough to start buying used clothing from wholesalers. It is risky business, because you never know what will be inside the packages of clothes you buy, but it can be very profitable if you get lucky.

She also has a plan for August. That’s when the seasonal fishing gets especially busy, and she plans to start making prepared food to sell to fishers at the wharf.

Darline and Eveline Joseph: Five Months into the Program

Eveline Joseph is one of two sisters who live in neighboring yards in Savann Plat, a broad area of extreme southern Ench that stretches out east of the national road through the Central Plateau. It’s where they were born and raised, and where they found two brothers to share their lives with. They are part of a cohort of 400 families who joined the CLM program in January.

Eveline lives in a small shack thrown together out of tach, the tough pods that palm seeds grow in. Tach is the most common roofing material for poor Haitians in the Central Plateau, but Eveline’s house is enclosed by walls of tach as well. She uses the few sheets of roofing that she has as the house’s front wall.

It’s a full house. She and her husband have two children, and the four were recently joined by her younger brother and his pregnant girlfriend. “He has other sisters, but I guess he decided he feels most comfortable with me.”

She’s excited to be part of CLM, because things have been so hard. “I didn’t have anything, and neither did my husband. Even if we needed just 50 gourds for something, we would have find a day’s work in a neighbor’s field.” The two would spend their days looking for someone who might need help in the field. Occasionally, her partner would make kayèt, tubes formed out of the same palm-seed pods that most of their house was made from. He’d sell them to makers of rapadou, an unrefined sugar popular across Central Haiti. The sugar is sold in cylinders about two feet long and three-four across. The kayèt are easy to sell, but bring in very little return.

She’s gotten off to a strong start, especially with construction, but she’s encountered problems, too. When they started to dig a latrine pit in her yard, it filled with with water right away. So they tried on the other side of the yard, and they were able to complete a pit, but it too filled with water within a few days. So they started a third pit, and were able to finish it and to cover it with a concrete slab and install the seat, but then it, too, started flooding. She isn’t yet certain what the best solution is, but she’s frustrated. “The other women don’t have this problem.”

She’s also started work on a new house. It will have two rooms and a porch. She got a builder to begin even before the CLM program provided building materials. The frame is already up, and the walls are going up as well. They are made of palm-wood planks. She started by purchasing 2000 gourds of planks. She got them at a good price because she had family members willing to sell them to her. She collected the money by contributing a portion of her weekly stipend to a savings club. “When it was my turn [to collect the pot] I used it all to buy wood for the house.”

She chose livestock for both her businesses — two goats and a pig — and she has an easy time explaining her choice. “When they start having young, I can sell the young to buy other things.”

She’s never had a small commerce, but she’d like to start one. The problem is that she isn’t sure how to get started, because she doesn’t yet see where she’ll find the means. One thing she feels certain about is that she doesn’t want to borrow money to establish a new business. “When you have children, it doesn’t make sense. Any time they are hungry, you’re going to reach into the business to feed them, so the business will dry up fast.”

Eveline’s current home on the right, and her new one, under construction, on the left.
Darline and her son, Venelson.

Eveline’s older sister Darline lives with her partner and their two kids in a wooden home within a hundred yards of Eveline’s. “The land belongs to our husbands’ uncle. He lets us live here.”

Like Eveline, she had nothing when she first joined the program, but unlike her sister, for Darline things had not always been that way. She had had her own small business selling snacks: peanut butter on bread or a Haitian flatbread made of manioc called “kasav.” Sometimes she’ll sell cookies, crackers, or candy, too. She would buy her provisions on Tuesdays, at the nearby market at Nan Pòs, spending from 1500 to 10,000 gourds, depending on what she had. She made sales on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Sundays at local cockfighting rings. “It was a good business. I could always find a little money when I needed it.”

She lost the business because of an accident. She and her husband had planted a small crop of sugarcane in a field next to their house. They harvested it themselves, and rented a local mill to turn it into molasses. While they were milling the cane, a neighbor’s child, who was playing at the mill, was injured badly. He was in the hospital for months recovering, and all the costs fell on Eveline and her husband. They burned through all the money they had. Eveline was left looking to her neighbors for income. She would go out mornings asking whether anyone needed someone to do laundry or to shell their peanut crop.

Like Eveline, she chose goats and a pig as her two enterprises, and both goats are now pregnant. And Darline’s hopes are high. Both goats are showing four distinct nipples on their udders. This is often taken as a sign that they will give birth to multiple kids — three or even four. “I want to sell the kids to buy a larger animal, like a cow. I’ll be able to use them to pay for school, too.”

She’d like to get back into business, but she doesn’t want to return to the same one she’s had in the past. “I am a Christian now. I don’t want to go to cockfights.” She’s thinking of used clothing or basic groceries, which she would sell in the markets. There are four major markets — Nan Po, Nan Kas, Tomond, and Ench — reasonably close to her house. She thinks she’ll need about 10,000 gourds to start.

Louimène — Five and a Half Years after Graduation

I’ve written about Louimène before. (See: Louimène.) Her paths into and through the CLM program were both unusual. She initially missed out on the program, not because the CLM team missed her when they passed through her neighborhood in Labasti, nor because they mistakenly thought that she didn’t qualify, but because she temporarily moved from her own home to her mother’s between the time she was selected for CLM and the time she was slated to begin. The older woman was sick, and Louimène had gone back to Bouli to care for her.

It was unfortunate because Louimène, her partner Lucner, and their two boys really needed CLM. They were living in a straw tent-like structure on land they neither owned nor rented. Someone who used Lucner to help him do his farming let them use a corner of a field to live on. They had been driven away from Lucner’s family’s land by some of his relatives. They could hardly have been poorer.

They got a second chance when another CLM member abandoned the program almost nine months after it started. That left Louimène, Lucner, and their case manager half the usual time to work together, but thanks to the couple’s willingness to work especially hard, she graduated nonetheless.

They didn’t receive the full complement of livestock that members normally receive, only what could be recuperated from the woman Louimène replaced. But they took good care of their animals, and they flourished. Lucner took any work he could find in neighbors’ fields, and Louimène started a small business. She invested 1000 gourds she received from the program into a small commerce, buying spaghetti and canned milk. She carried it on her head five miles into Mirebalais, selling it on the way. She’d restock when she got to town.

They continued to struggle some after Louimène graduated. Lucner went through a long period of bad health. He was weak. He couldn’t work the way he was used to working. It turned out to be H. Pylori, a bacterial infection that can be hard to cure. Louimène went through two pregnancies, and their small family of four became a family of six.

Worst of all, the man who had given them land to squat on began to resent their presence. He made things difficult for them, showing them that he didn’t want them there any more. Initially, they had to put up with his humiliations because they had no place to go, but eventually they found a very small plot of land they could buy by selling the cow they had bought at the end of their experience with CLM. They took the tin roofing off their house and built a new shack on their own land. They also went to the trouble of installing a latrine.

Things improved some for the couple and their children after they moved. Lucner returned to health, and though the couple had no farmland of their own to work, they were able to rent a plot. Lucner farmed that plot and worked a second as a sharecropper. Until last year, they continued to count on his harvests, but the prolonged drought that struck Haiti last year ended up destroying their fall crops. It then extended far enough into this year’s customary planting season that Lucner’s been reluctant to invest much into new crops.

Louimène continues to earn money through small commerce, however. She sells basic groceries. She’s currently the principal earner, bringing in enough to feed the family and make weekly contributions to her savings club, or “sòl,” Every week, members of the sòl make a set contribution, and one of them receives the whole pot. When it’s Louimène’s turn to receive the pot, she usually invests it right into her business. So her business grows and shrinks cyclically as the date of her receipt of the pot is nearer or farther away. At times, it is nothing more than garlic and bouillon cubes. At other times, she sells rice, oil, and other staples as well. Its value can shrink to as little as 1500 or 2000 gourds, but it can grow to 10,000 gourds as well.

But though their income has grown only slowly since Louimène graduated, their lives have changed in important ways. Despite their struggles, they recently bought a small pig, their first investment in new livestock in a couple of years.

And Louimène is quick to talk about another, more important change. She and Lucner married in December. “We got married, and started going to church.” They can’t attend services during the coronavirus crisis, but they can pray with their fellow congregants. “I visit neighbors’ homes every morning so that we can pray with them.” Louimène no longer carries her merchandise all the way into Mibalè on her head. On Thursdays, she sets up her business at the market. On other days, she sells right out of her home.

Between her business and Lucner’s farm income, they’ve also managed to create a different sort of home. They tore down the walls of their shack, which had made of thin sticks that were woven and then covered with mud. In their place, they covered the two sides of their home and its back with palm-wood planks, which they painted a creamy orange. They built a new front wall of stone masonry. It is much more solid and attractive than the house it replaced. They also enclosed what had been a covered porch-like area in the front, so the inside of the house is about a third larger.

And they continue to make plans. The children lost out on school this year, but they are already focused on sending the two boys in the fall. They aren’t sure about their third child, the older girl. The baby isn’t ready. Louimène plans to continue her business, and Lucner is thinking of starting in commerce, too. He has experience in it from his years living in Pòtoprens, and he thinks it might be a safer investment than farming, especially for someone without their own farmland.

Louimène and the kids.

Carmelle Jean — Four Years Later

Carmelle is in her mid-60s. She has had some trouble using at least one of her feet for as long as she can remember, but in the last dozen years the problem has grown much worse. After a stroke, she was left unable to stand without great difficulty, and though she once made her living serving prepared meals at the market in Ti Fon, which is just a few meters from her front door, she lost enough of the use of her hands that it became dangerous for her to work near a fire. She came to depend on charity from family members, neighbors, and friends.

She was part of the pilot that Fonkoze undertook with the office of Haiti’s Secretary of State for the Integration of Persons with Disabilities, which concluded in 2016. By the end of the program’s eighteen months, she had made substantial progress. She and the boy who lived with her were eating 1-2 hot meals every day, and she had her own livestock: chickens, goats, and a cow.

None of that, however, is what she points to as the most important changes the program helped her make. “Nothing the program did was unimportant,” she says. But she quickly lists the three things that helped her most: the latrine, the savings lockbox, and the wheelchair.

She cites the latrine first, and she talks about it most, sharing embarrassing incidents she experienced before she had one. The difficulty she has moving her body around meant daily humiliation as long as she needed to find someplace in a field to defecate.

Before she received the CLM lockbox, she had never saved. The lockboxes were a unique feature of CLM pilot for persons was with disabilities. It was a way to encourage savings for folks whose mobility might be quite limited. The program’s participants each received a lockbox, but their case manager kept the key until the program’s end. Each week, he would open the box and give the member the chance to put some savings in.

Participants also receiving training in savings that was based on an approach created by Dawn Elliott, a professor at Texas Christian University, which provided most of the funding for the pilot. Members received bonuses for hitting specific targets at twelve and then eighteen months. Carmelle hit both.

Carmelle became a motivated saver. Though her main source of income continued to be gifts, she learned not to spend everything she received. “I still like to save when I can. The grandkids sometimes ask me for money, and I like to give them a few gourds. They take it to buy lollipops.”

The wheelchair and the walker she received made an enormous difference. In the countryside, the walker was more useful. Though she could use the wheelchair within her own yard, their is no paving anywhere near her neighborhood, so it was the walker that enabled her to get up and around.

Her life changed dramatically three years ago, just a year after she completed the program. She moved from her own small house in Ti Fon to her daughter’s house in Bonrepo, a thickly populated area on the northernmost edge of the plain that stretches north from Pòtoprens.

The decision to move related to two changing circumstances. On one hand, her daughter, Guerda, really wanted he to come. “As long as my husband and I were renting a room, we didn’t feel we had space. But as soon as we finished our own house, we asked her to move in. We built it with a place for her in mind.”

On the other hand, life in Ti Fon was about to get harder. For years, she had depended on her friendship with Kervenson, her neighbor’s young boy. But he was ready for secondary school, so he would be moving to downtown Laskawobas. There were no secondary schools in Ti Fon. He’d still come home on the weekends, but wouldn’t be around the rest of the week.

Kervenson had been sleeping in Carmelle’s home with her for years. Rural Haitians are very reluctant to sleep alone in a house. But it was more than that. “Kervenson is not a relative. His family’s name is neither my mother’s nor my father’s. But now he’s more than family to me.” Get Carmelle onto the subject and she tells story after story of things that the boy would do for her, from simple chores like helping her take care of her livestock and preparing meals, to more difficult and intimate things, like helping her keep herself clean. She tells stories of instances where he undertook tasks that one associates with nurses and their aides, and the only thing that she says ever brought him to complain are the times when she hesitated to ask him for help.

Carmelle is happy to be with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, now, but she misses Kervenson and she misses her home. “We talk on the phone, and he comes to see me when he can.” She’d like the chance to visit Ti Fon, too, but she feels settled where she is.

And that’s true even though things have gotten more difficult for the family. Carmelle still has her cow. It is under a neighbor’s care. But she has no income where she now lives. Guerda and her husband both worked for a manufacturing company, he as a driver and she as part of the crew. But stable employment ended when the company moved its main facility to the DR. Guerda was let go, and her husband’s position turned from full-time employment to occasional odd jobs. So, the family is struggling.

Jonise Damars at Graduation

Jonise graduated from the CLM program yesterday. She is a single mother of an eleven-year-old boy. The two share a home with some of her nieces and nephews. The other children only sleep with them, though. They go to their nearby home to spend their days. Their own parents support them. Jonise only has Kedji to support.

And she works hard to take care of him, though the care is mutual. Jonise was born without sight, and Kedji is her guide. He leads her anywhere she needs to go. And her impaired vision is not her only physical problem. She was born with severely malformed hands. Without palms to speak of, a single finger extends directly from each wrist. Her feet are misshapen, too, though she walks without difficulty.

Before she joined the program, she lived principally from charity. She would stroll through her neighborhood, and friends and neighbors would give her small gifts. She says, however, that on days when no one gave her anything, she and Kedji just wouldn’t eat. That’s what Kedji remembers most about their life before CLM, too. “Sometimes we had to go to bed without supper.”

Occasional hunger is not, however, what Jonise lists as the biggest problem she used to have. She didn’t have a latrine, so finding someplace to defecate was a constant source of shame. “CLM helped me build a latrine, so I don’t bother my neighbors anymore.”

She chose goats and a pig as her two enterprises, and her goats flourished. Kedji does a lot of the work taking care of them, but Jonise has to keep after him. “He helps I lot, but he’s a child. If I don’t tell him, he will forget to move them out of the sun. Sometimes I just move them myself.” Unlike most CLM members, she already had a goat when she joined the program, and the program gave her two more. But by the time graduation was drawing near, her three goats had become ten. She would have had more, but one of her goats died. “It was pregnant, too, almost ready to give birth.”

Her luck with pigs was much worse. CLM gave her a first pig, but it died, so the program helped her replace it. When the second pig died as well, she decided that pig-raising wasn’t for her. So she took what she could make by selling the meat, added savings from her weekly stipend, and sold three of her ten goats. She used the money to buy a small heifer. She likes having a cow. “If we take care of it, it will give me a calf, and then maybe we can use it to buy land, too.”

She hopes to use her goats to buy another cow soon, and could do so already if she wanted to. But keeping goats is important too. “Goats are important because I can sell one if we have a problem. And I won’t need charity to send Kedji to school anymore. I can sell a goat to buy him whatever he needs.”

As successful as she’s been with her goats, they don’t provide a daily income. At first, she established a small commerce. A larger merchant sold her rice and a few other groceries on credit. She’d pay when she sold out, and then she’d take credit for another purchase. The business brought in enough for her to feed herself and Kedji and also to make weekly deposits into her Village Savings and Loan Association. But it became difficult to manage. She sold out of her home, and merchants who sell staples like rice out of their homes are under constant pressure to sell on credit. Neighbors can be slow to pay, however, so Jonise sometimes had trouble paying her debt as well. Eventually she had to take out a loan from her VSLA to pay what she owed. She was able to repay that loan on time, but she decided not to run a business on credit anymore. “I want to go back into business soon, but I’ll wait until I can do it with my own money.”

She could have the chance to do so by early June. Her VSLA’s one-year cycle will end then, and she will receive all she’s saved along with her share of the interest the association has earned through its loans. She may use that money to go back into business, but she’s not sure. She thinks her pay-out will be over 10,000 gourds. She smiles shyly when she explains that she’d really like to buy another cow. But 10,000 gourds won’t be enough, and she’ll have to see whether it makes sense to sell enough goats to make up the difference.

Graduation in the Time of COVID-19

It has been eighteen months since 250 families in Cabral, the communal section that cuts north to south through the middle of Tomond, joined the CLM program. It is time for these families to graduate.

A 2019 Graduation in Tomond

CLM graduations are normally big celebrations. We have had single ceremonies for over 300 graduates, inviting each to bring two members of her family. We invite community leaders, members of Fonkoze’s central office staff, and as many members of the CLM staff as we can muster. We sometimes have delegations of foreign visitors as well. The ceremonies can take several hours, and they include prayers, speeches, songs, skits, and the distribution of certificates. Many graduates choose godparents for the occasion, and these men and women bring and distribute beautifully-wrapped gifts. The events close with a hearty meal. Some are held in communities that would rarely see such large gatherings, and so they draw numerous onlookers, and most if not all of these also join the meal.

A 2017 Graduation in Mibalè

But since early March, when COVID-19 first appeared in Haiti, the Haitian government has forbidden gatherings of more than 10 people. Schools and churches have been closed. It established social-distancing guidelines for any meetings that would nevertheless be held.

The CLM team faced a challenge. We could not hold the kind of graduation we like to organize for the families in Cabral, the sort of festivity they deserve. At the same time, we didn’t feel comfortable doing nothing to acknowledge the eighteen months we spent with them. They worked hard to make the progress that they made, and we thought it important to honor them for their efforts.

So, over the course of two weeks, the team is organizing 25 micro-graduations, at a half-dozen different sites, to make sure that all the graduates experience at least a little bit of a celebration. The women are gathering in three to five small groups per day to receive their certificates and a modest amount of recognition.

The event’s program is a little different than the one we’ve used in the past. It starts with hand-washing. Each site is equipped with a bucket of treated water and some soap. The women then receive their Fonkoze jerseys and a mask.

Dieunèl St. Fleury, a case manager, has one of the graduates in Bwajoli sign into the attendance sheet.

The program then turns to training about the coronavirus. The women have been hearing about the disease during their weekly home visits for over a month, but bringing them together in small groups seemed like an important chance to reinforce what their case manager has been telling them. They learn about the dangers that COVID-19 presents to them and their families and the measures they can take to mitigate their risk.

CLM Regional Director Wilson Ozil talks to graduates about coronavirus at a graduation in Bwajoli.
Elvoit Miracle talks about Coronavirus at a graduation near Ranp Solda

Then the graduation proper begins. A member of the CLM staff explains the program’s decision to hold multiple small graduations. We describe it as part of the need we feel to honor eighteen months of the women’s hard work and the progress they have made. But then we open the floor, asking each woman to talk about her experience. Everyone talks. This would be impossible at our usual graduations, where only five to ten women have the chance to share their stories.

None of the women speaks for long, and most speak quietly, staring thoughtfully at the ground as they mention the changes they’ve seen in their lives. Two sisters, Rosemarie and Rosemanie, shared different perspectives on their progress. Rosemarie spoke of the ways local merchants now offer her credit no questions asked. “They see that I’m able to pay.” Rosemanie was grateful for lessons she’d learned. “I know better now than to sell animals to cover small expenses. I’m better off selling a day of fieldwork to earn the cash.”

Many of the women talk about the houses they have built with the program’s help. Monique described how she used to have to move pots and pans around in her home to catch the rain. “Now if it starts raining after I’ve gone to sleep, I don’t know until the morning.” Mimose talked about how she no longer has to bring all her children to her sister’s house when it rains. Leziane said she likes the fact that she doesn’t have to scrape a layer of fresh mud from her floor after each storm passes.

Most also talk about how little they had when the program began and about the modicum of wealth they were able to accumulate. We hear inventories of goats, pigs, turkeys, and other livestock. They talk about the small businesses they created. They talk about investments they became capable of making in their farming.

Wilson listens as women share their stories.
Women in Bwajoli take turns speaking.

A few women talk about their changed social status. Michou said she won’t work as a maid anymore. “I will not work for someone else. I’ll work for myself.” Odette described how people who never wanted to know her are happy to help her now. “Now people will help me because they see that I am able to help people, too.”

One women, Nicole, couldn’t speak. Too moved by the occasion, she simply wept.

We then distribute the certificates, reading the text aloud, and handing one to each woman. We close with short speeches of advice. We encourage the women to keep up their hard work and to look back at their certificate at discouraging moments, taking it as a reminder of their ability to succeed despite challenges.

The next step in the process is unique to these COVID-19 graduations. As the virus was first threatening Haiti, we thought of all the measures the government might take and about those we might have to take. We wanted a way to ensure we would be able to keep in touch with families even if we we could no longer send staff into the field. So we bought a small cellphone for every member who didn’t already have one and a solar charger for each family. As it turned out, our home visits went on through to the end of the cohort, but we had purchased the cellphones and solar panels, so we distributed them as gifts at the graduation ceremonies.

Our present to the graduates: a cellphone and a solar charger.

At that point, nothing remains but the meal. Each graduate gets a large plate of beans and rice, with meat sauce, fried plantain, and beet salad. It isn’t exactly festive, because we cannot encourage the women to stick around and eat their meal together. We need the space for the next group of graduates. But a meal like that makes the difference between a mere meeting and a celebration, and the women enjoy it.

We look forward to the day when we will be able to go back to our more traditional graduation. They are joyous occasions despite marking the end of close contact between the staff and the graduates. These adapted ceremonies are, by contrast, quite somber. In the meantime, however, we have a way to show the graduates how much we believe they’ve accomplished and to give them each an opportunity to speak.