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.

Marie Yolène Saintcyr — At Graduation

Marie Yolène graduated from the CLM program on May 19th, 2020. She was born and raised near Nan Sab, a remote rural market in the mountains of southern Mayisad. That is where she had her first five children. Their father had another wife, and he had children with the other woman as well. She, and not Marie Yolène, was his principal wife, or madanm marye.

She moved from Nan Sab to the area around Tè Kann, in Tomond, about six years ago. Her youngest son was a sickly boy, always underweight. She left Nan Sab to look for care for him. The area around Nan Sab has no medical facilities, only traditional healers. Marie Yolène had spent everything she had on the folk remedies they offered, so she decided to try to see a doctor. Tè Kann is much closer to clinics than Nan Sab.

She eventually moved in with her current partner. They have a child together — her sixth — and they’ve adopted one of her grandchildren as well. As was the case with her first relationship, she is this new partner’s second wife. But she doesn’t complain about it. “He built me a shack on land that belongs to one of his older children. He didn’t want me to have to live on his wife’s land. She’s okay most of the time, but sometimes she refuses to speak to me. Lately she’s been saying that he’s started to spend two or three days with me at a time because he’s sees that I have something to offer now.”

When Marie Yolène joined the CLM program, things were difficult. She and her children weren’t able to eat even a single meal every day. She couldn’t send them to school. Her older children’s father wouldn’t send her food or money. If the kids wanted anything from him, they had to make the long hike from Tè Kann to Nan Sab to see him in person, and they didn’t like to go because his wife could be unkind. It was when she joined CLM that she was able to start sending them. Her 13-year-old boy was in 2nd grade when the school year was interrupted by COVID-19. “He loves school and he does well. He could be so much farther along if I had been able to send him when he was younger.”

She chose goats and a pig her two enterprises, and she has managed to grow both. The two goats CLM gave her are now five. She chose to fatten a boar rather than raising a sow for the piglets it would bear her, and her boar has flourished. She was even able to buy a second small one. And though that second one died, she was able to make enough from the sale of the meat to rent a plot of farm land for two years. She’s already planted her first crop of pigeon peas and spring beans, and she’s preparing the rest of the land to plant millet. Millet was a staple in the region until a couple of years ago, when two consecutive crops were destroyed by disease. But she sees neighbors cautiously trying to plant it again, so she plans on trying as well.

Like all CLM members, she is part of a Village Savings and Loan Association. It allows her to make weekly deposits over the course of a year and then collect the total as a lump sum. Just as importantly, it gives her access to small loans. She borrowed 5000 gourds to establish a small business. She buys charcoal from the farmers who make it in the mountains around where she lives, and then she carries it by the sack down to lowland markets in Difayi and Domon. It has been a success. She was able to repay her loan and then continue, and even grow, the business with her own funds.

She is happy too about the new way that her neighbors look at her. Few would speak to her when she first moved into the area. Even borrowing small sums was hard back then. “They’d always ask me where I was going to get the money to pay them back. Now they will lend me anything I ask for because they see what I’m capable of. CLM has helped me become a big deal.”

Her plan right now is to work hard in her fields, keep up her commerce, and take good care of her livestock. “The animals are important. They’re the club I can use to defend myself. They can help me send the children too school every year.”

Itana — Twelve months into the program

Itana is excited about having finished building her new home. “It does me good. In my old house, when it rained, I didn’t know where to stand.”

The process was, however, expensive: 7500 gourds for planks, 1700 for nails, 2000 gourds of wooden posts. She agreed to pay the builder 9000 gourds, of which she’s only paid 4000 so far. That’s more than 20,000 gourds, or about $200, and Itana had almost nothing when she joined the program. A lot of that money, like what she owes the builder, is debt. Though the CLM team’s supervisor for Gwomòn still hopes to get the local village committee to convince the builder to reduce his charge, it’s a lot of money. Itala’s husband has been paying the builder 500 gourds at a time whenever he earns some money milling cane for someone the neighborhood, and for now Itana says that the builder seems satisfied.

All this begs an important question, however. Itala contributed more to the house than Fonkoze did — by quite a bit, actually — and she was able to access much of what she needed by taking on debt. She didn’t have to have the money in hand. So, why didn’t she do it years ago? Why did it take CLM to get her started?

Itala has an answer. “CLM pushed me. I never thought I would be able to build a house until they gave me the roofing tin.”

She finished at a good time. Her little family was joined by her nephew, her late sister’s 17-year-old. He had been living and working in the Dominican Republic. But he never got comfortable there, so he showed up at his aunt’s house and moved right in. He now lives in her old house. Itala is glad he came. She likes him and her kids seem to like him too. And having a teenager who is willing to pitch in around the house helps her a lot. When we strolled up on Tuesday, he was digging up the small patch on the slope behind Itana’s home with a pick. It would have been a lot harder for Itana or her little girls, and her husband’s not around very much.

She hasn’t had much luck so far with her goats. Her two goats had a total of three kids, but all three died shortly after their birth. Worse yet, one of the adult females died as well. The CLM program tries to replace livestock that dies in the first three months after it has transferred the animals to the CLM member, so Itana’s case manager helped her collect what she could from selling the meat of the goat that died, and he then used that money, plus program funds, to buy her another goat. Her sheep and her pig are doing reasonably well considering the challenging situation that the long drought presents.

Now that Itana has completed work on her home, she is anxious to begin a small commerce. “I want to sell laundry soap and detergent. Things like that.” But she thinks she needs about 3000 gourds to get started, and she doesn’t have that money lying around. She could easily borrow the money from the Village Savings and Loan Association that the program established for her and the other CLM members in the area, but she is reluctant to add to her debt.

While I am with Itana and her case manager, they work on writing her name. On her legal documents, the name is Serana, so that’s what she is learning to write. The problem is that S is the letter that CLM members find most difficult. The case manager, Enold, spent some time asking her to copy one, but she can’t seem to see its shape clearly. I try drawing a big one, covering about a quarter-page of her notebook, and she’s able to trace it and then copy it. Enold will have to continue to work with her, but coming to understand the shape of an S by making giant ones may give them a way to start.

I ask Enold why they are working on the first letter in her name 12 months into the program. It turns out that when he first started working with her, he would give her the entire name to copy. He then would return the next week to find her homework done and done well. But he never took the time to make her do it in front of him, and it turns out she was so intimidated by the process that she was letting her children do it for her. Once Enold figured that out, they were able to start once again from the beginning.

Clotude — About a year into the program

When we got to Clotude’s home Tuesday morning, eight young boys were sitting in the shade cast by the house. A couple of hoes and pick-axes were strewn on the ground next to them. Clotude was in her kitchen, a small straw shack next to her pre-CLM home. She rushed out for a moment to greet us and to explain.

She had hired the eight-boy team to work in her fields. The current rate for a day of an adult man’s field labor is 250 gourds, she said, or about $2.50. But boys work for 150. So by hiring the boys, she was saving $8. The boys had just come in from their morning shift, and they were waiting for Clotude to provide their meal. She would feed them large bowls of low-grade white rice with two sauces: one made of pigeon peas and the second a thin tomato sauce seasoned with leeks and garlic and enriched with spaghetti. Then, the boys would take a long midday break before heading back into the fields for the second half of their day’s work.

It’s a lot of money for Clotude, but she’s willing to spend it. Her part of Lawa recently had its first rain in six months, and there are signs that the rainy season is ready to start. Though Lawa just had one afternoon’s rain, neighboring areas had already had several. So Clotude is in a hurry. If she plants her crops too late, they could fail to develop in time to weather the next dry spell, which is usually in June or July, and that would mean a poor harvest.

And her farming has not been the only area of her life where she’s needed cash recently. She has completed construction of her new home, and it’s been expensive. Part of the reason that it has been so expensive is that the CLM team made procedural mistakes that affected her. Case managers are supposed to guide home-construction planning closely, and they are the ones who are supposed to negotiate agreements with local builders. But in Lawa, some families were left to negotiate on their own, and builders were able to charge relatively high fees. Clotude says she agreed to pay her builder 7500 gourds, or $75, and she still owes him $45.

The house she chose to build is also larger than the CLM program was designed to support. She still owes a balance on some of the construction materials she purchased: for rocks and lumber. And because she chose to have the house built with multiple windows and doors she incurred a lot of extra expense. Windows and doors require hardwood planks and then someone to make and install them.

Clotude has made some progress through her investment in livestock, but not much. The two goats that Fonkoze gave her are now three. She still has just one sheep. Its first lamb died. But it has grown some. She also has a pig, but it isn’t doing well. There has been too little grazing because of the drought. She has a small donkey, too, which is important because she can get any fruit she can harvest to market. Buy right now she hasn’t anything to sell. She cannot establish a small commerce because she lacks cash.

All this begs a question. Where is the cash she has coming from? She has some charcoal burning in her yard, across from her old house. She’ll be able to dig it out and sell it in the next days, but it isn’t much. Certainly not enough to pay her debts. When I ask her how she makes her weekly contributions to her savings and loan association — from 50 to 250 gourds, but Clotude says she usually contributes 100 or 200 — she says she depends on gifts from friends. It is all a little hard to believe. She may have things going on that we don’t know about. It is not clear that our team has earned her trust.

Clotude’s new house.

Jeanna — After almost a year.

Jeanna wasn’t home when we got to her yard on Tuesday morning. One of her older daughters was sitting in front of the house, holding the baby. She explained that her parents had gone off to their field to plant. It had rained in the past days for the first time in six months — an unusually long dry season — and Jeanna and Nelso didn’t feel they could wait to get they first crops planted.

The drought has been a problem in much of Haiti, and it’s been especially severe in the area around Gwomòn. It has become difficult to find grazing for livestock. Most of the wild plants that would normally make up the diets of goats and sheep have dried up. One of the principal advantages that goats and sheep hold over pigs is that they normally find their own food. This year, however, folks in some neighborhoods have resorted to buying pig feed for them. In others, they’ve just resigned themselves to the fact that their animals will be hungrier, and consequently less healthy, than they usually are. Livestock gains have been minimal so far for the women in Lawa, and though one cannot be certain that that is because of the drought, it is a natural assumption to make.

Jeanna’s case manager and I ended up meeting up with her towards the end of the day. We were ready to head back to downtown Gwomòn, and we passed by the meeting of the local Village Savings and Loan Association on our way. Jeanna was there. She had run from her home to get there early, having heard that she missed our visit to her home. She wanted to make sure she saw us before we left.

It is hard to convey how much effort it involved for her to hurry to meet with us. She left the hillside plot she and Nelso were planting when a neighbor yelled to her that her case manager and I were there. She then descended the slope, hiked up the steep ravine opposite it, hiked down into a second ravine, and then up to her home. She then retraced her steps, hiking up and then down a steep hill once more to come back towards the meeting, which was between their field and their home. And the hike was especially hard because, unfortunately, Jeanna is pregnant again.

She is a young woman, not yet 30, and she and Nelso have seven children already. They would have eighth, but they lost one. She was hoping that her current baby would be her last child, but during the CLM team’s early talks with her about family planning, she complained that the three-month shots that are commonly available to women in the area make her feel sick. We began speaking with her about other types of planning that she could use months ago, but she always put us off. Now we know why. She was pregnant already.

Her livestock has increased its value a little bit since she received it. Her sheep had a lamb, and one of her two goats had a kid. But her most important progress has been completion of her home. Nelso himself was able to do much of the work. That meant not only that she and he were able to avoid the debt that some of her neighbors have accumulated through expensive deals with builders but also that they themselves received the stipend that the program offers to the builders who work on members’ homes. They used that money to buy extra roofing tin, which enabled them to build a larger home — a fact of considerable importance for a family as large as theirs.

Jeanna’s plan had been to go into small commerce as soon as possible. She does not want to return to her old business, which involved spending months at a time in Senmak, away from her husband and children. But she also knows that any business she tries to run out of her home is likely to struggle with the expectation that she’ll sell to her neighbors on credit. She knows that that could easily kill any business she attempts. So her plan had been to set up a commerce that she could sell in the local markets. The market in nearby Moulen is once-a-week. The larger market in downtown Gwomòn is farther away, but is held several times a week. But at seven months pregnant, it will be a while before she starts hiking back and forth with a load of merchandise on her head.

With Jeanna lacking any sort of commerce, the couple’s opportunities for cash income are limited. And that’s important right now because the extended drought means that there is no harvest to count on. Their best-case scenario would be a good crop of corn in about three months. For now, they buy what they eat, and Nelso must find the cash to pay for it. Jeanna generally buys groceries on credit, and then the couple pays when Nelso earns some cash. He works some in neighbors’ fields, but he tries to earn his main income by selling natural remedies that he makes from local ingredients. He is a “medsen fèy,” or an herb doctor, though Jeanna says he’s not a very successful one yet.

Jeanna’s new home. The colored flags mark it as the home of an herb doctor.