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.
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.
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.
The CLM members from Lawa have now been in the program for nine months. Each has made some progress since she started, but all still have major problems to overcome.
Itala and her daughter Italène, who is also a CLM member, are working hard to build their new homes. They have completed installation of their latrine already, and they are very happy about it.
Itala’s roof and frame are up, and the builder is working on the walls, which will be woven out of sticks. She made it slightly larger than the program intended. “I have to have someplace to put visitors if people come to see me.” The program provide 22 sheets of roofing tin, and Itala bought six additional ones to cover the larger house.
The extra sheets cost her 2100 gourds, or about $23, and she explained where she got the money. “My son had a small goat he earned by taking care of a grown nanny-goat for a neighbor. I borrowed it from him.” She sold her son’s goat for 2250 gourds, which was just about enough to pay for the tin and transport it as close to her home as possible. She isn’t yet sure how she will repay her boy, but she very much thinks of the transaction as a loan from the boy to her. “The boy is my child. Everything I have is his.”
Her own goats are making progress. The two that the CLM program gave her are now five. The two mothers are healthy, and the three kids are, too. She knows what she’d like to do with them. If the kids survive, she plans to sell her two young males to buy a donkey. Such a purchase could change her life, since it would enable her to get the mangoes and avocados that grow on her land to the market for sale. “Right now they rot on the ground because I can’t get them to Gwomòn.”
She thinks that her ewe might be pregnant, but she isn’t sure. She was glad to get training on the care of sheep at the last refresher training. This initial training hadn’t included sheep because the program wasn’t then used to providing them. But the training helped her recognize when her ewe was in heat. She also learned, however, that it can be hard to tell whether a sheep is pregnant. So she’s just watching. At the very least, it seems healthy.
She has sent three children to school this year. They started in January, when the school opened after a couple of months of socio-political unrest. She hasn’t been able to pay their fees yet, however, so she’s counting for now on the principal’s patience. The school costs 250 per session per child, plus a 50-gourd registration fee and a 100-gourd entry fee. So, she owes 1200 gourds right now and will owe another 1500 by the end of the year. She’s not sure yet where that money will come from. Right now, all the household’s income still depends on the money her husband makes helping people mill their sugarcane. But there are a couple of problems with that. First, the work is irregular and both poorly and irregularly paid. Second, he has a second family to support, so Itana can’t count on even the little that he earns. What he brings in is just enough to allow her to make minimal weekly investments of 50 – 100 in her Village Savings and Loan Association.
She knows that the best solution for her is to establish her own business, and her focus on acquiring a donkey as a first larger investment shows that it is in her plans. But she is afraid to start right now. And that brings us back to her new house and a problem she’s facing.
The CLM program encourages members to recruit the builders who will work on their house. The program then is supposed to meet with the builder, negotiate a fee, sign a contract, and pay the builder. But Itana dealt with the builder by herself, and owes, as a result, 10,000 gourds, which is much more than she can think of paying right now. She and her case manager will need to figure this out. If she really has to pay all that money, especially if she has to pay it soon, it will make it hard for her to invest in other important areas of her life.
Jeanna and Nelso are also working hard on their new home. They have an advantage over Itana, because Nelso himself knew how to set up the frame and put on the roof, so the couple can receive the small stipend that the program provides to the home builders it works with. That will help because, like Itana, they decided to make their home larger than what the program foresees. Their house will eventually need 36 sheets, so they’ll have to buy 14 themselves. They’ve purchased 11 so far.
It is understandable for a couple with seven children that they’d like a little extra space, but it creates challenges. They are struggling to manage the housing-related expenses. They’ve paid 4000 gourds for the planks they need, 3850 for roofing tin with three sheets left to buy at 350 gourds each, and 3000 gourds for the support posts that hold up the roof. That’s 11,900 gourds, or about $128, which is a lot of money for them. And they’ll have additional expenses when the are ready to have the doors made and installed.
They’ve covered most of the expenses so far from two sources. They managed to sell ten coffee cans full of pwa kongo, or pigeon peas, from last year’s crop for 2000 gourds. They also got lucky. Nelso won 5000 gourds in a lottery. But that still leaves a pretty substantial balance.
For now, Nelso continues to be the source of all their income. Jeanna is an experienced business woman at a very small scale, but she still nursing their baby, and they want it to get bigger before she goes back to earning money outside the home. Making enough to feed them both and their seven children is a lot to ask, and they sent their two oldest children back to school in January, which is another big and important expense. But the couple is managing for the moment. They have some yams in their garden, and though they need to reserve some for the land’s owner, they’ve been depending on them a lot lately.
One of their goats had two kids, and though they lost one, the other seems to be doing well. The other goat lost its litter. “It was pregnant when I got it, but it was so small. It was all I could do to get it home. It miscarried after that.” It is, however, doing well now. Jeanna crossed her sheep with a male on December 8th. She remembers the day and is counting the roughly five months until the ewe should produce a lamb.
When Clotude joined the program, the supervisor in Gwomòn, Gissaint César, put her mentally on his “lis wouj,” his red list. That means that he thought of her as someone who might need extra attention to succeed. She seem to have so little, and as a widow she would not have anyone around to help her. Things are, however, turning out differently than he expected.
Part of her progress has to do with assets that we were not aware of when she joined the program. We knew that her main source of income — even of sustenance — was her own farming. But her garden had more to it than we were aware of. She is currently cutting a crop of sugarcane, a valuable cash crop. She doesn’t know how much it will bring it, but her last harvest, almost two years ago, was worth 10,000 gourds. She also harvested crops of mangoes and avocados, enough each time that it was worthwhile to a merchant to buy them from her and bring them to market. And each of those two sales was enough to allow her to buy a pig. She now owns two small ones, a male and a female. She used a harvest of pigeon peas to buy two goats to add to the ones CLM gave her, but both those goats died.
At the same time, she is not saving in her Savings and Loan Association because she says she doesn’t always have the 50 she needs each week to buy a share. So the state of her finances is a little bit mysterious. Her case manager will need to clarify things with her to make sure he is giving her all the help she could use.
Like both Jeanna and Itana, she is working hard on finishing her home. Hers, too, is larger than the 22 sheets of roofing that the program provides would permit. It needed 30 sheets. Its roof is up, and now it’s time to build up the walls. Unlike the other two women, she’s decided to have hers built with rocks and clay, rather than wood. “I don’t have anyone to help me buy the wood.” Rocks she can collect a few at a time from the ravine below her home. Still, she will have to figure out the building costs. “The frame and the roof cost 7500 gourds. I don’t know what the walls will cost.” Like Itana, she made an agreement with her builder by herself, and that will end up being expensive if her case manager can’t help her.
Like all the CLM members who live in Lawa, Jeanna has now been a part of the program for seven months. She feels as though she has already made a lot of progress, but when she speaks about what she has accomplished so far, she focuses on her new home.
“Our latrine is finished. We walled it in and installed a door. We’re gathering the wooden support posts we’ll need for the house. We’ll find them, alright. The planks to make a door will be harder.”
That’s because the door will be made of hardwood. Even if she and her partner, Nelso, have a tree they can cut down, they’ll need to pay a pair of workers to cut it into planks. If they don’t have an appropriate tree, they’ll have to find planks the can buy at a price they can afford.
She received two goats from the program, and one is pregnant. She also received a sheep, and though it appeared to be pregnant too, it turned out not to be. She’ll have to wait until it’s in heat again, then cross it with a local ram. She’s happy with the animals, though. “They’re all healthy.”
She tried to start a small business selling rice. “I bought a sack of rice, but some of it ended up feeding my children and some went to customers who bought on credit and never paid.”
She wants to start over again when she has enough money. She is waiting to harvest her pigeon peas. She expects to bring in 2500 to 3000 gourds of peas. That’s about $33, and she would like to use the money to start a new business. This time she has a different plan. She wants to buy a few sacks of something from local farmers. Charcoal, maybe. She’ll sell it retail, in small piles, in the market in Gwomòn.
She sounds as though she knows what she wants to do with money, but it isn’t quite true. She wears a cheap, metallic ring, with a large, fake diamond. The ring comes up when she tells me that she owes someone 3500 gourds, and I ask her to explain. Apparently, she recently bought the ring for 7500 gourds, but was only able to pay 4000. The person who sold it to her let her owe the rest. In a way, she knows very well that she shouldn’t have spent that money, but she doesn’t think she had a choice. “I was sick over it. Bondye te kenbe m pou li.”
This is a little hard to translate. It means that God held her for the ring, something like that God intended it for her but more. Almost as though God made it impossible for her to get away from the ring.
In the meantime, she and Nelso are keeping their family fed with whatever they can find in their own gardens. Nelso tries to contribute in other ways, too. Jeanna says that he makes potions, magical remedies based mainly on rum and herbs. “But it’s been a long time since anyone bought anything from him,” she adds.
They are also trying to figure how to send the children to school this year. Six of Jeanna’s seven children could go this year, at least in principle. The baby is still nursing. The three-year-old is probably too young to walk all the way from Lawa to the nearest school, but the other five should go. Jeanna, however, doesn’t think she’ll be able to send more than four. The five-year-old will have to wait.
All this leads to a serious question. Jeanna is only 28. Nelso is a little older, but he’s still young as well. And the couple already has seven children. They’d have eight, but they lost one. As young as she is, it is easy to imagine Jeanna having a bunch more.
She would like to use family planning, and Nelso agrees that they shouldn’t have more kids, but she’s tried the two options she knows how to access, and neither works for her. Both the pill and shots that last three months make her sick. The Partners in Health hospital we work with in Mibalè distributes ten-year IUDs as well, and with a little coordination between our nurse in Gwomòn and our nurse in Mibalè, we should be able to help Jeanna get an IUD if she decides she wants to try one. But the first step is education, so the nurse intends to see Jeanna to explain the option.
Clotude feels lucky. The cactus sap that had gotten into her eye last time I went to see her could have done lasting damage, but thanks to advice from our nurse, she was able to rinse it out thoroughly before any harm was done.
Like Jeanna, she’s focused right now on improving her home. She finished her latrine, and has begun collecting the rocks and the clay she’ll need when they are ready to build the walls of her new house. Her children have been a big help, but she’s also been grateful to other neighbors who’ve shown that they are willing to give her a hand. Cutting out a flat spot in her hillside plot of land to build the house is heavy work. It would have been very difficult for her and her girls. She doesn’t know what she would have done without neighbors, but so far they’ve come through when she needed them. It’s keeping her busy, but she doesn’t mind. “[CLM] didn’t give me building materials so that I could store them at home. I need to do my part, too.”
She thinks her two goats are pregnant. But her sheep has her a little confused. “It’s the first time I’ve had a sheep.” She explained that the sheep started breaking its cord and wandering off whenever it could. It was a neighbor who told her that that was a sign that the ewe was in heat. So, she rushed to take it to a ram, and she’s been watching it ever since. “Its udder has started to drop,” she says, so she thinks it’s pregnant.
She had planned to start a small business as well, but she decided to use the money to buy some of the lumber she needs to build her new house. She now plans to get her business started after she’s finished with her home. She’s not yet sure, however, where she’ll get the start-up capital.
Holding off on starting her business means that, since her weekly stipend ended after 24 weeks, she’s short on cash these days. But she points out that this is a good time of year to be income-free. She has stuff in her garden that she can feed her girls. “We might not have a lot, but I can make sure they get something to eat every day.”
Itana just had to take her little boy to the doctor. He had a bad fever, but he’s feeling much better.
Like the other two women, she’s excited to have a new latrine, even though she has work to do to finish walling off the last side of it. She’s also trying, like Clotude, to have a spot in her yard cut flat so her house can be built, but it’s slow going. She seems to be getting less help than Clotude is.
And one would think she’d get more. Clotude has been a widow for a long time, whereas the father of Itana’s children is still around. He could be helping her. But not only is he unwell, he isn’t around very much. He has two partners, not just Itana. He has four children with a woman who lives in another part of Moulen. According to Itana, he spends most of his time with others, rather than helping her.
Even so, she’s pushing forward. She arranged with a neighbor to buy 5000 gourds’ worth of the lumber she’d need, and the neighbor agreed to take a 2500-gourd deposit. Itana could owe the rest. But when her boy got sick, neighbors advised her to take him to a local healer first, and she spent most of the money buying the home remedies that the healer offered her. She’s hoping that her partner will be able to replace the money so she can buy the lumber. He sometimes gets work in one of the local sugarcane mills. But Itana knows she’ll need to be patient. She says the work at the mills pays very little.
She’s excited that her goats are pregnant, but like both other women, she’s a little unsure about her ewe. She’s never raised sheep, and so she isn’t familiar with the key signs.
Clotude, Jeanna, Itana, and their neighbors have been part of the CLM program for about five months. A lot has happened since they joined, for them and for Haiti. But the situation in Haiti has meant that some of the things that would normally happen in CLM members’ first months in the program have been delayed.
Two difficulties have combined to make provision of some of the supports that CLM offers families difficult. On one hand, gas has been hard to come by. In Gwomòn, it’s been expensive when available at all. As the Haitian government’s debt to international fuel suppliers has increased, the suppliers have cut deliveries to Haiti. And even after fuel arrives in Haiti, distribution is complicated. Some retailers have discovered that they can make more money by selling from gas pumps to street venders, who then sell gallons – often diluted – at inflated prices. Fuel that sells at 224 gourds per gallon – currently about $2.43 – has been selling for 700-750 gourds in Gwomòn, with occasional spikes both there and elsewhere that reach yet higher.
On the other, demonstrations and other manifestations of the political conflict have been more frequent, more sustained, and more intense in the last months. Protesters block roads, sometimes violently. Small groups of frustrated Haitians will also sometimes block the road to collect a toll before allowing travelers to pass. You don’t really know, from day to day, whether one will be able to get where one plans to go.
But after arriving in Gwomòn from Mibalè on Sunday, I went to Lawa with the CLM team there on Tuesday. They went as a group because they had scheduled a meeting with CLM members and the community leaders whom the members had selected to join the Village Assistance Committee. They would establish the committee, explaining its role in detail, and then have members vote in its leadership and set the date of its first meeting.
Though we arrived an hour before the scheduled meeting time, some of the CLM members were already there. Among them was Clotude’s oldest daughter. When we asked why she was there, she told us that Clotude wouldn’t be coming. She had had an accident that very morning, so she sent her teenage daughter in her place. Clotude had been working on the fence around her small piece of land, and something got into her eye. The team wanted to make sure she was alright, and I needed to speak with her, so we left the cockfighting ring, where the meeting would be held, and hiked the additional 20 minutes to find Clotude.
Clotude’s fencing, like much of the fencing in rural Haiti, consists of candelabra cacti. These succulents are easy to grow and easy to propagate from cuttings. In relatively short order, a family can establish a barrier that is hard to penetrate, even for wayward goats.
But the plant contains a sticky, milky liquid, which is mildly toxic and slightly corrosive. In handling her fencing, Clotude got some into her eye. It’s a dangerous situation if she doesn’t rinse it quickly and thoroughly. The liquid can form a film that could interfere with her vision permanently. Her case manager called the staff nurse, Lavila, and we gave her, on Lavila’s advice, a plastic water bottle that we had with us. We showed her and a neighbor we found with her how to pierce its cap and then squeeze the bottle to produce a forceful stream of water to rinse out her eye. We will know when the case manager, Enold, returns next week whether it worked.
She and I also had some time to chat, though she didn’t want me to take a picture. (The photo above is from an earlier visit.) We spoke first about the economic activities that she has asked Fonkoze to transfer to her. She said she chose goats, sheep, and small commerce.
We generally transfer only two different activities, and Clotude had initially requested goats and a pig. But then she had second thoughts about the pig. “If you have a pig, you have to buy feed. You have to have resources. Pig feed has gotten expensive.”
So, she asked Fonkoze to buy her a sheep instead of the pig. They run about the same price. Sheep are more like goats. Both require only minimal care. “If you struggle with them,” Clotude explained, “they’ll provide offspring quickly. You just make sure each one can find something to eat, you make sure it has water, and you keep it out of the rain.” Clotude has received one of the two goats we will be providing and the sheep, and both her animals seem to be flourishing.
Clotude’s plan for small commerce depends on the savings club that her case manager set up for her and several women who live relatively close. Each week, all the women contribute, and one of them gets the whole pot. The arrangement is called a sòl, and it is extremely popular in Haiti. Each of the members of Clotude’s sòl gets 2000 gourds, which is now a little less than $23, and Clotude’s plan is to invest her payout in groceries that she can sell out of her home.
She knows that it will be a tough business. When you sell food staples from a home in the countryside, neighbors will ask to buy on credit. “Credit means I can sell more quickly, but neighbors might not pay for a week, two weeks, even three. But you think about how you used to buy with credit to save your own kids, and it’s not as though customers don’t want to pay you.”
She hasn’t been able to start her business yet, however, and the problem is that she hasn’t yet received her sòl money. The CLM team has fallen behind with its weekly stipend payments to some of the members in Gwomòn. The problem is that there were two quick changes in case manager. The original case manager resigned. It took some time to replace her, but the team did so. The second case manager was then surprised with a job offer close to her home less than a month after she started working for CLM, so she resigned, too. She’s been replaced by an experienced case manager, but it’s taking some time to catch up with all the bookkeeping. The supervisor responsible for Gwomòn expects to work things out next week.
Jeanna also asked the program for two goats and a pig, and she too decided to take a sheep instead of the pig. She’s happy with the decision, though a little bit nervous. Neither she nor anyone in her family has ever raised sheep, so she feels as though there’s stuff she doesn’t know. She thinks that her sheep might be pregnant. She’s had neighbors tell her that it is. But she isn’t sure.
She knows her goat is pregnant. It was pregnant when she received it. But she’s almost six months into the program, and she’s only received one. She knows she is supposed to get two, and she doesn’t know when she’ll get the other one.
Distribution of assets is running behind. Protests and gas shortages have made getting transportation to make large livestock purchases difficult in the last months. In addition, protests in Pòtoprens, almost halfway across the country from Gwomòn, interfere with any of the activities in Gwomòn that depend on cash. Fonkoze’s accountants are in Pòtoprens, and if they cannot get to the office, they can’t transfer cash into the accounts that field staff can access. But the needed transfers have now been made, and the team expects to finish purchasing and distributing livestock and other assets soon.
Jeanna is excited about installing a latrine in her yard and repairing the home she shares with her husband, Nelso, and their kids. She and Nelso have been working hard to assemble the lumber they’ll need early, so the house can go up quickly. Like Clotude, she wonders when she’ll finally receive the sòl payment that she is due, though she isn’t entirely sure how she will spend it.
Itana hasn’t been feeling well. She’s been sore, she hasn’t slept well, and she’s had little appetite. Nurse Lavila, the CLM nurse in Gwomòn saw her recently and gave her some pills, which helped. But she isn’t sure what they are. Itana did said that Lavila had been coming to see her every month, and Lavila explained that Itana is on her list of members with high blood pressure. She went by to check Itana’s pressure and to give Itana her medication. She also gave her some ibuprofen. She doesn’t think Itana’s issues require anything more serious, but she’ll keep an eye on her.
Like Clotude and Jeanna, Itana asked for two goats and a sheep after initially requesting a pig. “A pig is like a child. You can’t wake up in the morning without giving it something. I don’t want a pig I’m responsible for to go hungry.” Unlike the other women, she has received all her livestock.
But she’s finding the sheep puzzling. She hasn’t raised them before, and she’s trying to make sure she mates hers if it’s in heat. “I’ve taken it to the ram two or three times already, but I’m trying to figure out whether it needs to go again. I’ll probably just go again this afternoon.”
She also is waiting to receive her sòl payment. She had planned to invest it in small commerce, but she changed her mind. “People just won’t pay you.” She’s decided instead to use the money to help buy the lumber she’ll need to build a new house. She adds that the other women have wood that they can use, but that she will have to buy all that she needs.
She wants to build one as big as she can with the 22 sheets of roofing that the CLM program will provide. When I explain that she could make things easier on herself by building a smaller house, she explains her reasoning. “If people come to see me, I want to have a place to put them.” With so many of her children living away from home, her hope as she says this is clear. She adds that once she has finished her house, she’ll look to establish a small commerce.
Once new CLM members have been selected and have received their initial six days of training, their real work in the program begins. A lot has to happen, almost all at once.
Families must prepare to install a pit latrine in their yard. Very few have previously had access to one. They need to get the correct measure for the pit that they will dig from the CLM team, dig the pit, and assemble the rocks, sand, and water that construction requires. Timing is important, because if you dig your pit before the CLM team is ready to deliver the cement and begin construction, its walls can deteriorate, especially during rainy season.
They also begin to receive their weekly stipend, and have to make quick decisions about how they will use it. Most will use the majority of the money to supplement their food budget, but most also want to start to save by joining a sòl, a form of do-it-yourself group saving common throughout Haiti. Members make a fixed contribution every week, and one of them receives the whole pot as a lump sum. Case managers help members use the sòlto learn planning, requiring them to detail what they will do with the money. They follow up to ensure they’ve done what they say they’ll do.
But the centerpiece of the CLM program continues to be helping each family establish a reliable livelihood, a way to earn a living on its own. At their six-day training, members learn about the various businesses that CLM can provide, but then they must choose the ones they want to try themselves. Case managers and CLM members go through a process called “enterprise selection,” each member deciding what sort of productive assets she would like the team to give her.
The process has changed in the past couple of years. Originally, members chose from a short menu of possible pairings: goats and commerce, goats and a pig, goats and poultry, a pig and commerce, or a pig and poultry. Occasionally options would be added, removed, or revised. We experimented with commerce and a horse. We added peanut and pepper farming. Members made their decision before the initial training, at the same moment they were offered the chance to join the program. Their decision determined what two three-day training modules they would receive.
But the CLM team eventually decided that too many members were inclined to make poor decisions. They just didn’t have enough information. And rather than let them make costly mistakes, their case managers were, too often, deciding for them, taking away members’ ability to set their course at the beginning of the program.
So, the training modules were streamlined to take just one day, and new members were offered a quick introduction to all the different assets that CLM can provide. With that information in hand, they are better positioned to decide for themselves what they would like to do. Case managers might ask pointed questions. In some cases, they might even ask a member to reconsider her initial choice. But they are trained to encourage the member to decide.
Tuesday was enterprise selection day in Lawa, in rural Gwomòn. The visits were led by the CLM team’s supervisor for Gwomòn, Gissaint César, a former case manager who was promoted to work as a supervisor in 2017. He went through the same process with each new member individually, at her home, starting by asking them to review the advantages of each of the various enterprises the challenges it presents.
Jeanna spoke at length about both poultry and small commerce. The former gives you small assets that you can sell off quickly whenever you have a small, urgent expense to manage. If a child is sick, for example, you are sure to find a neighbor willing to buy a chicken, and that will generally give you the money you need initially to get the child to a doctor. Commerce, by ensuring a stream of cash, enables you to “pay a sòl or buy a little bit of food” when you need to.
But she chose goats and a pig, the goats because they are easy to care for and require no special food and the pig because they can accumulate value quickly. She specified that she’d rather raise a boar than a sow. “Piglets get into people’s gardens, so they throw rocks at them and kill them.”
Gissaint spoke to her at length about the choice, asking her to identify her goals. Jeanna explained that she wanted to be able to sell offspring from her goats to buy a larger animal. “I want a horse so I can get into commerce again.”
She has been managing a business on and off for years, living in Senmak, where she sells drinking water and kerosene, any time she is not at home with a baby. Her husband would stay in Lawa with the kids. But when asked about her hoped-for horse, she makes it clear that she does not imagine returning to that life. “If I had a horse, I’d do my business from home. I wouldn’t have to leave my children anymore.”
Clotude sees her options as limited. Whereas Jeanna refers several times to the role that her husband, Nelso, will play with her in managing her new activities, Clotude comes back repeatedly to the fact that she is alone. Her husband is dead, and her older children live away from home. She’s alone in the house with three daughters, ages twelve, seven, and two. “I can’t leave.” At the same time, she feels a strong need to get something started. “I need to have something in my hands.”
She’d like to raise a pig. If you take good care of one and get a little lucky, your wealth can increase fast. Boars gain value quickly as they grow, and sows produce saleable offspring more quickly than goats do. But pigs are also demanding. “To manage a pig, you have to have means in hand,” Clotude explains. They need to eat well. You have to take on the labor-intensive work of foraging for them, and even then you can have to buy pig feed regularly.
So Clotude chooses goats instead. They don’t require much care beyond moving them around so that they are always tied up out of the sun and within reach of food. She says her twelve-year-old daughter Claudine can help her with that.
She also chooses small commerce. She’ll sell groceries along the main path. It is her only option until she can find a way to leave her girls for longer periods.
It is risky. Neighbors often want to buy on credit, and it can be hard to say “no.” If they don’t pay on time, you can run out of merchandise without a way to buy more. But Clotude is anxious to try. “Once it gets going, I can start buying a chicken or two now and then. Eventually, I’d like to buy farm land so I can plant sugarcane.”
Itana remembers much of what she learned at the six-day training. She has little trouble going through the advantages and disadvantages of each business with Gissaint. Goats are easy to take care of. Chickens are easy to sell quickly in a pinch. Small commerce is the one way to a steady cash income, and pig make money quickly.
Her initial reaction is to thank Gissaint for whatever he might decide to give her. “You have to take whatever falls your way.” But as Gissaint makes her understand that he is determined to leave the choice up to her, she relaxes enough to let him know what she thinks. She sees problems everywhere. Pig feed has been expensive lately. Small commerce can disappear if people buy on credit. And poultry is subject to disease and theft. So Itana asked Gissaint to give her goats, and nothing else.
At one time, this would have been a problem for the program. CLM used to insist that all members choose two different kinds of assets as a way to lessen their risk. But Itana knows what she wants, and Gissaint is willing to give it to her. Her plan is to use the first offspring from her goats to buy a pig. By then, with good management of her weekly stipend, she hopes to have the means to take good care of one.
Tuesday, February 26th, 2019. It was 9:45 when Annel Estimable, a CLM case manager, and I met in downtown Gros-Morne to head across the river that runs alongside the city. We were going to Lawa to verify a list of families who had already been tentatively selected for the CLM program.
Getting to the area was almost impossible on our motorcycle, but skill as a driver granted us the luxury of a ride halfway to our destination along an improvised path through a dry, rocky gully. After that, it was an hour’s hike to the forgotten and despised corner of Gros-Morne’s 7thcommunal section, Moulin.
At 11:20, I started my work at a household with nine members, a small, one-room house covered in straw. (See the photo above.) It’s home to a father and mother, with their children and grandchildren. At this hour, the kitchen still gives off an air of abandonment. Between the three rocks that would normally hold up the pot, there’s nothing to suggest that the fire had been lit even the previous day. Two five-year-old boys – an uncle and his nephew – play naked in the yard, covered in white powder as though from rolling in the dust. They were trying to cut up a stalk of sugarcane that they would afterwards taste instead of a breakfast.
I sit powerless in the face of this sad sight, forcing myself to interview Serena Nicolas, who, despite it all, maintains a constant smile. Maybe she does it to drown her hopelessness, or maybe she sees a glimmer of heaven-sent hope behind this visit. Though she and her husband have been living together for more than 25 years, they have no productive assets worth mentioning. The family earns its income through agricultural day-labor, but the prolonged drought gripping the area has eliminated such work for the first part of the year. No work. No hope of access to cash. Buying food on credit is the only alternative, but as mounting debt begins to harm the sellers, trouble sets in.
Her neighbor, despite her desire to share and show solidarity, typical qualities in the Haitian countryside, has her own burden to manage. A mother of three children whose father died more than 20 months ago, Clotude has had to depend on herself now. It’s a fight that’s too hard for her. Just feeding her household is a terrible challenge. She lives every day with her children’s lack of education, of healthcare, of opportunities to flourish. It has come to feel like destiny. She has just one question constantly on her mind: how to appease the hunger of the children she loves. Her 14-year-old girl has never been to school. No need to even mention the other kids. It was 1 PM, and she has given nothing more than a small stick of sugarcane to each child. She hadn’t fed them anything the previous day. She didn’t know what she would do for the rest of the day or, for that matter, for the rest of the week. As I left her home, she told me, with her generous smile, “M pa gen anyen pou m ba w.” (I have nothing to offer you.) It struck me hard that, despite her sharp and chronic deprivation, she thought of wanting to share.
At 1:34, my route brought me to the home of Tibolo, the one man working to feed a collection of families including the one he grew up in, his wife’s family, and his own family as well. His wife Jeanne, who’s been nursing their infant for ten days, hadn’t eaten anything since the previous evening. She described the families’ ways, how they all depend on the labor of a single man. Twenty-two people to feed with about five cups of rice per day. Telling me the story leaves me thinking of a similar story, the miraculous tale of Jesus multiplying five loaves of bread to feed 5000 people. Tibolo seemed to have learned the secret.
Only one of her five children goes to school. In fact, hers is the only one of the three families to have managed such a feat. The school meets in the bowels of a Roman Catholic chapel, where the classes sit in beat-up benches and desks in rooms without anything to separate them, studying in a single, great cacophony. That is where the sons and daughters of peasants have to consume the bread of instruction, risking ridicule at the hands of those who correct the entrance exams that determine whether one can go to high school, something few such children can hope to achieve.
The day was long, and the cases I saw were similar. Circumstances that elicit indignation, shame, and frustration are everywhere in rural Haiti. And the dominant class – the state and its accomplices – seem proud of it.
And what of the women in all this?
The women stay at home, while the men wander. They wander to places where they are not directly subjected to the sound of their children’s hungry whimpering. To places where luck might bring them to share a shot of local liquor, a bit or fried dough, or a little bread. But the women, despite the horrible suffering brought on by days without nourishment, suffer just as much by watching their offspring groan and cry with hunger, by watching them starve.
Facing this hideous situation, I can’t keep myself from asking certain questions: Where in the constitution, in the list of human rights, in the various treaties and conventions are the rights of this forgotten segment of the population inscribed? Aren’t they also Haitians? Should they always remain on the margins of social programs, of access to quality education? What do the slogans – and I really mean “slogans” – mean: universal rights, education for all, social justice?
The women whom I met this day, despite their helplessness and hopelessness, hold onto their desire to share. Do we live, then, in a nation where the culture of sharing is the business of the underprivileged? The state, human rights organizations, feminist movements, peasant movements: When we will arrive at a real advocacy on behalf of the majority of the population? When will the misery of peasants’ lives cease to nourish comedies in Haitian theater and films and instead find its place in the nation’s plans for the future?
To those who have positioned themselves comfortably within this sad reality, I say “Enough!” It is time to realize that on the day when the despair turns into rage, violence will be the weapon this forgotten mass takes in hand. I know that, on that day, repression will be disguised as the law, as the establishment of order, the order according to which the dominant dominate most easily. But the dominant class will be the great losers because the disinherited have nothing more to lose.