Category Archives: Life in Haiti

More about the Earthquake

In Haitian cities and towns, construction methods are fairly uniform. The standard building material is cinder blocks, made locally, often by men with no more equipment than a metal form and a shovel. People with the means will then cover the blocks with cement. They might even paint over that surface. Poured concrete support posts, with metal bars bent into something of a frame, are more or less plentiful depending on the builder’s means. Roofs are poured concrete, with various degrees of metal support, or corrugated tin. None of this is earthquake-proof, it turns out.

We opened my Fonkoze office in Marigo for a couple of hours Thursday morning, just to let locals have access to some cash. Staff members in particular needed to make withdrawals since they don’t normally bother to keep much cash on hand.

After opening, I went to Port au Prince. The main route passes by Jacmel. It’s a winding mountain road that sits right over the quake’s epicenter, so cars and trucks can no longer make the trip. Motorcycles work, at least for now, while there’s gas. There are a couple of places, however, that require the driver to have two men hold on to the cycle to prevent it from sliding down a sleep hill as they walk it across damaged terrain.

I went with Naël, a member of the Marigo staff, and when we got to Leyogann, we found a bus loading for the capital. The trip has cost 20 gourds for several years. The conductor was asking for 50 gourds, and no one was blinking. Everyone was anxious to get to Port au Prince, too anxious to argue about the price.

But something interesting happened. The driver got on the bus, and saw what was happening. He announced in a loud voice that he was very sorry, that he had been away from the bus for a few minutes. He didn’t know what the conductor was up to. He gave everyone a 25-gourd refund.

Leyogann itself was in ruins. It’s said that 90% of structures were destroyed. And the damage done along the rest of the road to Port au Prince was considerable. Naël was rushing to the city with me because his younger brother, a student of linguistics, was trapped underneath a collapsed classroom building. As of Thursday, members of the family who were waiting outside the building could still speak to him. As of Monday, he was still buried, but they could no longer hear his voice.

When we reached Port au Prince, we went our separate ways. I was anxious to get to Kaglo, because I had no news. Normally, it’s a bus and then a pick-up truck from Port au Prince to get to Malik, just 30 minutes by foot below Kaglo, but there was no transportation available, so I hiked up the hill from Port au Prince. I passed by the Fonkoze central office, and knocked politely at the closed front gate. When I got no response, I went around the back to discover a big gap in the wall. No one was there. The building was standing, but the cracks were so severe that to this non-engineer it appeared unusable.

The folks in Kaglo were fine. There were houses in upper Glo, the poorer half of the community, that had been completely or partially destroyed. But the people were almost entirely unhurt.

Early Friday morning, I hiked downhill to Metivier to see Elie and his brothers. After waiting for a day in front of their brother’s school as corpses were removed, they were able to identify Apocalypse on Thursday by the clothes he was wearing. His head had been crushed beyond recognition. They put what was left of him onto a plank, carried him to the closest cemetery, and bribed the attendants to put him in an available grave. Their father’s funeral would have to wait a few more days.

I spent the rest of Friday and all day Saturday walking around Port au Prince, trying to find people I needed to see. Telephone communication was and still is so poor that, even if one could be satisfied by just hearing someone’s voice, one wouldn’t most likely be able to do so. Searching the city to find the people I needed seemed like the only thing to do.

The destruction is hard to convey. Whole blocks entirely leveled. A second or third floor, or both, sitting neatly or not so neatly on the crushed floor or floors below. So much for the buildings. The air in Port au Prince is bad at all times, but the dust of wrecked buildings and the stench of rotting corpses and burning debris now combine to make it much worse than it usually is.

Every corpse one sees is a shock. I began to see them from the bus as we entered Port au Prince. They had been arranged on the median in the middle of the express road through Kafou, the capital’s main suburb to the south. Most were covered by sheets or curtains or whatever cloth was handy. But even so, one could discern in the shape of the now-stiff arms the terror they must have felt as they raised their hands towards the roofs that descended upon them. On Saturday, as I walked down and then up Delmas, one of the main roads between Port au Prince and Pétion-Ville, I was still seeing them here and there. And many more yet remain under rubble that is a long way from being cleared away.

Estimates of the dead go as high as 200,000. It’s hard to imagine how anyone will get an accurate count. Many of the buildings that fell – not just homes, but schools, churches, offices, and everything else one can imagine – were full of young or old at the time. Even so, many people are saying that we were lucky in a sense. It struck during afternoon rush hour. Had it been earlier or later in the day, many more people who were in the streets would have been indoors and, so, would have died as well.

Some, like Naël’s brother were still hoping for help. As I walked up Bois Patate on Thursday, I heard a strange bark from underneath the rubble of one fallen home. What appeared to be a family was gathered in front, trying to figure how to free its trapped dog. The scene was a reminder that the worst of the suffering was not at all over.

I knew I would need to be in Marigo on Monday to open our office. We needed to do the little we could to help Marigo lift itself up again. If nothing else, we needed to give our clients access to their savings and make remittances available to those whose friends and family abroad could send them.

Not knowing how easy transportation back over the Jacmel road would be, I chose the shorter, harder, but more certain road through the mountains. It meant spending a full day hiking across a beautiful, very rural path that leads from Kenskof, above Port au Prince, to Kajak and Segen, which are above Marigo. I spent much of the walk thinking about all the times I had made the hike for fun. This time I just wanted to get to my office.

Our whole staff met Sunday evening at 7:00 to plan our approach to the coming days. Monday we opened as scheduled. Everyone had lost a brother, a sister, a cousin, a number of friends. But everyone was willing to get back to work.

The Earthquake

It was hard, at first, to take the whole thing seriously. We were violently shaken in the office as we closed for the day. One or two members of the staff fled outside. But when the first shock of it was over, we quickly checked the building for major damage. (We found none.) We called our supervisor, who is based nearby in Jakmèl, and we proceeded through the regular step-by-step process we follow to close our office at the end of the day. More like a carnival attraction than an act of god. It never occurred to me to contact anyone at home to let them know I was alright. Of course I was. I always am.

But then we started to hear things. There had been damage in Jakmèl and Port au Prince. When we tried to call people on the phone, we discovered that it was hard, very hard, to get through. And rumors kept sounding more and more serious.

Job finally reached me at 10:15 PM. He lives in Delmas, the populous suburb north of Port au Prince. He said there had been a lot of damage. He was fine, and asked me how I was. Then he gave me the news: Elie and his brothers had not heard from Apocalypse since the latter had left for classes earlier in the day.

Elie has been my neighbor in Kaglo since 1998. That was the year his mother died. His aunt, Madan Jean Claude, who lives in Kaglo, went down the mountain to Metivier and took him away from his father, Bòs St. Martin. She claimed that the boy’s mother had told her that if Elie did not go away with his aunt, his mother would return from the grave to take him herself. So she and her husband raised Elie from that time, and she credits herself with saving his life. Meanwhile, his three older brothers – Maxène, Josue, and Apocalypse – stayed with their father. The brothers remained very close, even though Elie would see them only every few weeks.

A few years ago, Elie graduated from high school and decided to study medicine. It would have been very hard for him to succeed commuting every day from Kaglo. The travel would have left him little time to study. So I introduced him to Job, who was already in medical school and was living in an apartment in Delmas with his sisters, also students. They hit it off, and Elie moved in.

Since then, they’ve all become very close. So when Job’s older brother Ronal was to be married in Ench, Elie was invited. He brought Josue and one of their cousins as well.

The wedding was Saturday, and Saturday night Maxène, the oldest brother, called them to tell them their father had died. He had been sick for a long time, and had been deteriorating rapidly in recent weeks, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise, but sad nonetheless. Bòs St. Martin was a warm, loving father and a friendly and charming man. The guys left Ench early Sunday morning to rush back to Port au Prince.

Tuesday, they had a lot of work to do arranging things for the funeral, so they were in the streets of Port au Prince together. Except for the third brother, Apocalypse. He’s an architecture student, and he just couldn’t afford to miss class. So he went his own way.

The earthquake leveled the college he attends. When I spoke to Elie at almost 11:30 PM, he and his other brothers had no news. All through yesterday, I had no news, but when Job was finally able to reach me this morning, he let me know that Apocalypse’s body had been found.

So the gravity of circumstances began to weigh on me over the course of what seemed like a very long night, and when I went to the office the next morning, thinking less of opening than of figuring out how things stood, I was able to get on the internet and discover how very bad things are. The worst Caribbean earthquake in 200 years. Thousands dead. Ten of thousands homeless.

Just walking through Marigo at midday was enough to give the beginnings of a concrete sense of the devastation. Young people were gathered in small groups here and there around the town, listing friends who were away at school in Port au Prince and were either missing or confirmed as dead. Marigo is a small town, yet if you count only its Port au Prince college students, the death toll would have to be at least a dozen. And “college students from Marigo” is a very small subset of the population of Port au Prince. Even on our small Marigo staff, we have two who may have lost siblings.

And then I went to Jakmèl. It’s one of Haiti’s larger cities, about ten miles west of Marigo. Though it’s no closer to where the quake’s epicenter is said to have been, the impact could not have been more different. Jakmèl was devastated. Whole neighborhoods had been turned into rubble. My driver and I saw schools and hospitals that had collapsed with heavy casualties. Here and there we saw corpses in the streets or the rubble, most of them covered by sheets, but some still in whatever position the earthquake, which had struck about 24 hours earlier, had left them in. We saw what had once been an old man, one his hands grasping the railing of his front porch and one of his feet stepping into the street when the roof pinned where he was and where he will remain until someone moves him to his grave.

The enormity of the disaster here will only emerge slowly in the coming days. I have no news of most of my Port au Prince friends, and may have to go there to get any. Part of me is afraid to find out.

A Little Bit of Family Life

Several Haitian families have drawn me into their circles, but two have drawn me in especially deeply. One is the family of Anténor and Bernadette Camille, who have been my hosts in Haiti since I first arrived in 1997. They have watched over me as I’ve discovered more and more about Haiti, I’ve seen their three children grow, and I was with them in the days after their oldest child, Cassandra, died suddenly at the end of December.

The other is the family of my godson, Givens. His parents, Jidit and Saül, and their three young children gave me a home in Port au Prince until they moved to Ench last summer. I’m friends with Givens’ three surviving grandparents and was close to his grandmother before she passed away. i know and like his uncles, aunts, and cousins. His youngest uncle, Dr. Job, looks after my health — at least as much as I will let him. The apartment Job shares with his sisters Vivi and Nannan and my friend Elie is one of my homes in Port au Prince.

Saül grew up in Colladere, a village north of Ench, as the oldest of seven siblings. He left school before he even became a teenager in order to work, but his mother, who couldn’t read a letter herself, pushed his younger siblings’ education very hard, and Saül helped her and them with both encouragement and financial support. What he hadn’t be able to accomplish himself he wanted very much for his brothers and sisters. When the younger children started to advance into higher grades, their mother moved with them to Ench, a big city with better schools. The father, Marino, remained in Colladere to work their land.

With his wife and children gone, Marino needed help running his household and his farm, so he did what many Haitians do. He took in children from very poor families around him. He fed and clothed them and sent them to school, and they helped him by doing household chores and farm work. As these children grew up, they would join his wife in Ench, where they could continue their education and help her run her house.

The last two of these children still live in Ench with Saül’s brother Ronald. Their names are Jacquelin and Koko. They are 20 and 19 now, and each has been part of the family since he was three or four years old. The family is especially attached to Jacquelin because he was their mother’s constant companion and helper as breast cancer took her life, but they are fond of Koko too. Both are good in school, and as they approach high school graduation, the family is wondering how they will be able to help them continue to move forward. Jacquelin’s education was their mother’s particular deathbed charge.

A few months ago, I was with the family in Ench when Koko approached me. He wanted to invite me to his baptism in March. I thought it was a nice gesture. I had been at Jacquelin’s the previous year in the large church that most of Saül’s family attends. Koko told me that his would be at their home church in Colladere, rather than in Ench, and I was pleased at the thought of attending. It would give me an excuse to go there, where I have a number of friends I rarely see.

Chief among them is Marino, whom I was especially anxious to visit because I wanted to meet his new wife. He remarried in August, to the delight of his children, who had been concerned that, at 70, he was living in the countryside, more or less alone, and wasn’t taking good enough care of himself or his home. Marino had told me about his plan to get married a few months before that on a long walk we took together. He explained his desire memorably. “Steve,” he said, “young people fall in love. Old people come to an understanding.” He had come to an understanding with a mature widow who has her own two children, and I couldn’t wait to meet her.

So I immediately agreed to attend the baptism. I was a little surprised, though, when Koko asked me not just to attend, but to be his godfather.

Haitians acquire godparents on all sorts of occasions. The first ones are named at their birth, and they retain them as secondary parental figures throughout their lives. They acquire more at the various graduation ceremonies they are part of, and another pair when they are married. I have friends here who address me as “parenn” or “godfather” for all of these reasons. What I now know is that Haitian Protestants add two more when they are baptized as well.

I wasn’t sure what my responsibilities would be, but I wasn’t really worried. I knew I could count on Jacquelin. He’s a year older than Koko, and had just been baptized the previous year. He’s outgoing and very competent. Saül calls him “A.D.M.,” short for “administrator,” because of how well he can be counted on to manage whatever responsibilities come his way.

Jacquelin took immediate control of the situation, explaining all my duties and how I should carry them out. My first job would be to help Koko prepare for the day by buying him the new clothes he would wear. I would also buy a small gift ,a Bible and a hymnal at least. When I asked Jacquelin about getting Koko a watch, he didn’t exactly say “no,” but pointed out that young Haitians tell time by looking at cell phones. I knew that Koko didn’t have a phone, so Jacquelin’s polite instructions were clear. Most importantly, I would stand with Koko on the day of the baptism, waiting for him as he emerged from the water with a sheet to wrap him in and lead him away to help him dry himself off and change his clothes.

But Jaquelin was more than an consultant. He was a real A.D.M. He took over management of my responsibilities, walking Koko and me through all the preparations. He decided which clothes would be purchased where, chose a tailor for the things that needed to be made, helped Koko deal with the tailor, negotiated prices, and kept me updated as to the progress they were making and the expenses it all involved. Ench is a long way from Port au Orince, and even farther from many of the places I go to do my work, so the whole think would have been difficcult to manage without him. The evening of the baptism, he led me around the church, making sure I was just where I belonged, waiting to welcome Koko as he stepped out of the water.

Koko now calls me nothing but “godfather,” and he sends me regular text messages on his new phone to let me know what he and Jacquelin are up to. Now that I am in Marigo, I’m even farther from Ench than I was. I will be passing through in a couple of weeks, and will see both Givens and him, but after that, I just don’t know. I may have to wait until he’s out of school this summer, and have him come to visit me.

But feeling myself being woven into the fabric of family lives here, with a clear role other than the foreigner or even the guest is an important part of what has made remaining here desirable over the long haul. It feels like an extraordinary privilege, and learning to appreciate it is one of the real challenges I face every day.


Standard Haitian chemistry textbooks include an explanation of the electrolysis of water. Typically, a simple black-and-white diagram accompanies the explanation, showing a rectangular container in which two test tubes are suspended upside-down. Lines are drawn to represent two wires. Each wire has an end reaching into one of the test tubes. The other end is attached to something representing a battery. The accompanying description explains that the battery’s current separates the water into the oxygen and hydrogen it consists of. The equations that describe the steps in that process are also included. Students memorize the explanation and the equations.

Most students, however, lack these textbooks. Without the books, they are left to copy what a teacher writes on a blackboard or dictates. They may get a diagram, but not necessarily. Since their objective is merely to memorize the text, the diagram can seem only marginally relevant.

For more than a decade, the Matènwa Community Learning Center has been trying to do things differently, making education concrete and student-centered. Students are not asked to memorize, but are encouraged to understand. Students learn reading and writing by creating books in which they tell their stories and explain issues important to them. They learn math by working with blocks and other objects they can manipulate. And they study science by managing the same school garden that provides them with the meals they eat.

But though the Center has a middle school to go with the primary school, much less progress has been made in these more advanced classes.

There are good reasons for this. For one thing, the school’s co-founders – and Haitian and an American – are both primary school teachers. For another, primary school teachers in Haiti are much more stable than secondary school teachers. The former, much like their American counterparts, generally teach a single group of students all or almost all of their classes. They are, therefore, full-time in one school. Their secondary school colleagues, on the other hand, tend to specialize in one or two subjects, traveling from school to school, working perhaps just a few hours per week in each. Developing them as a faculty, integrating them into a particular school’s way of doing things, is much harder. The Learning Center has been able to spend years teaching its primary school faculty a particular approach to education that’s almost unique in Haiti, but has not had nearly as much time to devote to the middle school staff.

This year, the school decided to face this problem head-on. The most important change in this regard was to convince one of the most experienced primary school teachers to move up to take over the seventh-graders, teaching them almost all the subjects they learn. His name is Enel. I’ve written about his wife Millienne before, the school’s excellent second-grade teacher. Enel has been spending the last years teaching fourth, fifth, or sixth grade. This year, he’s been developing his own approach, having set it as his particular goal to help the kids prepare themselves for the more independent style of learning that secondary school requires. I’ve spoken several times with his students, and they seem happy with the way it’s working so far.

But they’ve also been looking for ways to make the upper school curriculum more concrete. So, for example, I spent a couple of days in January with the seventh-graders making citrus fruit batteries. And this week, in the midst of the days off that the school had for Kanaval, I worked with three of the teachers on the electrolysis of water. We did the experiment twice over the course of three days, and got somewhat different, though similar, results.

We started with an old plastic CD case, about eight inches tall. It was the kind of case that they sell stacks of blank CDs in. We filled it with saltwater. We then inverted two small pill bottles in it, filling them with water and taping them to the side of the CD case. We took two wires – actually two of the alligator-clip-tipped wires I brought into the country for the citrus battery experiment – and snaked each of them through the water so that its tip – that is, the alligator clip – would rise into one of the inverted pill bottles. Then we connected each of the wires to one of the poles of a battery. The battery we used was the size of a car battery, but is actually designed to be used as part of a solar electrical system.

Almost instantly, we saw bubbles start to accumulate on the alligator clip in one, but only one, of the inverted bottles. We continued to watch these bubbles for awhile, and then went off to do other things.

We returned several hours later to a striking sight. One of the pill bottles was about a third full of gas. The other had no gas in it at all. The alligator clip in that second bottle, however, was covered with a rust-colored film, and the water in the bottom inch or so of the CD case was the same rust color.

We immediately knew we had a lot to talk about. First, we had to consider why we were collecting gas in only one of the pill bottles. We were all taught that water is hydrogen and oxygen, and if we were breaking it apart, we needed to know why we were getting only one of the expected products.

What the textbooks don’t tell you is that it’s hard to actually produce the oxygen that theory calls for. That oxygen will tend instead to combine with most of the metals you might use for the wires. We weren’t sure what the alligator clips we made of, but whatever it was was reacting strongly with the oxygen that the reaction was supposed to be generating.

Second, we had to consider the identity of the gas we were collecting. How were we to convince ourselves that it was any different than the air we breath? We removed the pill bottle, and inserted a lighted match. We got a significant, though not violent, little “pop” as the hydrogen ignited: Nothing like that would happen if you stuck a match into a tube full of air.

We still wanted to see, however, whether we could get any oxygen. So we re-started the experiment with a different sort of wire. I knew that copper wire would react with the oxygen as well, but we hoped that, even if the oxidation of copper would use up some of the gas, some would nevertheless collect in the tube.

We were wrong. The hydrogen in this second experiment collected much more quickly than it did in the first experiment, but we still got no oxygen. What we did get was a layer of bright, aquamarine-colored dust suspended in the bottom quarter of the CD case. The color was stunningly different from the first color we got, and the reaction was so strong that the stripped end of the copper wire fell off and sunk to the bottom of the tank, stopping the electrolysis. We re-stripped the end of the wire twice, and found each stripped end at the bottom of the tank after only a few hours. When we removed the pill bottles from the water, and ignited the gas that we had collected in the one bottle, we got the same stunning little “pop” we had gotten the first time.

So the four of us talked about the results: Abner, Benaja, Robert, and I. We talked about the lack of oxygen, about the vigor of the hydrogen production, about how that production was tied to the availability of a metal on the end of the other wire to react with oxygen. More generally, we talked about how different it felt to see the reaction that they had only heard about. The conversation was wide-ranging.

But the most striking comment came from Abner, one of the school’s founding principals. He talked about how electrical appliances work when you plug them in. They each have a particular structure that is designed so that electricity can make them do their thing. He pointed out that seeing the electrolysis showed him, in a way he had never imagined, that water too must have a structure all its own. “Even water,” he concluded, “is not just simple stuff.”

It was the kind of statement that one could write down on a blackboard or into a book. And kids could learn to mouth those words. But Abner’s deducing as much from a partly dysfunctional experiment that he helped to undertake gave him a sense of the truth and an interest in it that no mere words or pictures could have offered.

Various Bailouts

Joli is beautiful. It’s a rural area outside of Pilat, a small town in northern Haiti. Joli is a lush, green mountainous region, known for plantain, coffee, and yams. It was about two hours by motorcycle from Fonkoze’s Lenbe office. We then left the motorcycle at a crossroads, and hiked up the hill. It was almost an hour later that we arrived.

I had arranged with the staff in Lenbe to interview some Fonkoze members in their homes. I wanted to talk to some members who are participating in Fonkoze’s hurricane recovery credit. Wilfix, the loan officer who was accompanying me to Joli, wanted to see Cemerite anyway because that morning he had gotten word that her long-ill husband had passed away during the night. He wanted to pay a condolence call, and was happy to have me along.

Cemerite greeted us with one of her little boys clinging to her side. There were a couple dozen neighbors on benches arranged in front of a new-looking one-room house. A couple of sheets were tied to the trees around them for shade. Off in a corner, the domino game, a constant at Haitian wakes, was proceeding loudly.

In talking to Cemerite, we learned that house was indeed new. Her old one had been washed away by the hurricanes that hit Haiti in September. In fact, she lost more than just her house, but she and her children were unharmed. Her husband had already been bedridden, so when her house collapsed, her friends and neighbors put their meager resources together, and they built her a new one. It’s small and very basic, but she and her children are mostly safe from the elements.

It was a great example of solidarity, the principle that drives Fonkoze’s microcredit. Groups of five women, good friends, take and repay loans together. They are called a “solidarity group,” and though each woman has her own separate business, they make a commitment to helping one another out.

And they work together. The women of Cemerite’s group can serve as an example. The group is called “Santinèl,” which can mean “sentinel” or watchtower.” It’s a fitting name for women whose homes are nestled around a small peak overlooking a river far below. As a group, they are entirely up-to-date with their repayments, but it’s not because they lack problems. At their last reimbursement meeting, two of the five women were short. So the other three simply made up the difference, and Wilfix has been working with the five of them to help them take care of this internal debt.

But it goes further. A few months ago, Wilfix was talking with them about how they manage their businesses. Most of them buy sacks of rice or sugar or flour down in Pilat, and then they sell the stuff in small quantities in front of their homes. They told Wilfix that one of their problems was mules. It normally takes a mule to bring the sack up the hill, and they don’t have enough of them. The end up having to rent. Wilfix suggested that they pitch in and buy one together. The cost would not be that great if split five ways. Each time one of them needs it, she would pay the usual rental fee to the group. They would split the proceeds. The mule would end up paying for itself quickly enough, especially if they could get outsiders to rent it occasionally as well. They took his suggestion, and the idea took off.

That same principle of solidarity has driven Fonkoze’s response to the hurricanes, which have been disastrous for Fonkoze because they were disastrous for its members. Around 18,000 of Fonkoze’s 54,000 borrowers suffered significant losses. These women would not be in any position to repay the loans they had taken out before the storms. many lost their businesses, their homes, and even more.
Fonkoze depends on its members’ repayments for its daily bread, so it recognizes that its own interest requires it to look to their well-being. It must act in solidarity with its members if it is to survive.

And it’s functioning in an increasingly difficult environment. This was true even before the hurricanes. The global food crisis has sent prices up 40% or more in developing countries like Haiti. And the poor in those countries can spend as much as 80% of their income on food. For Fonkoze members, this has meant less consumption, depletion of savings, less money available for even essential non-food expenses like education and health care, and poorer health. For Fonkoze, this has meant lower repayment rates and less savings to use as loan capital, both serious threats to sustainability. And all this, again, was before the hurricanes.

So Fonkoze knew it would need to do something for those affected by the hurricanes just to protect itself. It canceled the interest due on their outstanding balances and added a new, interest-free loan in the amount of their previous loan. It’s a way to help the women reestablish their businesses so that they can set themselves back on course. If they can pull themselves through, they and Fonkoze will emerge together stronger than they’ve ever been.

Elirène is the leader of Cemerite’s solidarity group. She lives with her husband, Mondyè, and their eight children in a larger, more solid home next door to Cemerite’s. Though her family and her merchandise were protected during the storm because of their more solid home, they lost all their livestock and all the crops they had planted. The crops are especially important, because they provide both sustenance and a second source of income. The yams they grow are purchased by traders who sell them in Port au Prince. Without the crops, they have to depend entirely on Elirène’s little business for all their cash needs, and they must buy all the food they eat as well. It is a perilous situation.

Her situation may be roughly typical, though there are many more serious cases as well. I had started the day all the way on the other side of the Lenbe branch, with another credit agent, a guy named Wendy, and his borrowers, and I saw some of the problems. The area I was in is called Ba Lenbe, or Lower Lenbe, a low-lying agricultural plain between Lenbe and the sea. It was ravaged by winds and floodwaters both.

One of the first things that strikes you in Ba Lenbe is the eerie lack of livestock. The Haitian countryside is generally littered with chickens, pigs, goats, cattle, sheep, turkeys, guinea fowls, horses, donkeys, mules, and ducks. You see, hear, and smell them everywhere. Ba Lenbe in particular was cattle country, a major milk-producing region.

But not now. All the livestock drowned. Nerly is a Fonkoze member in the area. She lost some goats and a cow and her calf. She also lost all the crops she had planted. Her house was ruined, and since that is where she keeps her merchandise, her business was destroyed as well. It wasn’t all washed away at once, but since she had nowhere dry to set it down — she sold mostly sugar, flour, beans, and rice — she had to watch as it slowly went bad. it was a total loss. She really didn’t know how she was going to get by.

But a small remittance from abroad enabled her to rent a room in the back of her neighbor’s house for herself and her four kids, and hurricane recovery credit enabled her to buy merchandise to start her business again. She sells foodstuffs from a table in front of her door, but she also buys second hand sneakers that she washes and resells at the market in Okap, Haiti’s major city on the northern coast. The two businesses together can hardly be worth more than $175, and with neither produce nor livestock, the profit she makes with them must suffice to keep herself and her children alive.

Fonkoze is not the only finance institution in the world to be at risk these days. And insofar as it has received grants to provide the capital it needs to make hurricane recovery loans and to cover the interest it cannot collect, it has received a sort of bailout, just as many larger institutions have. But there is a striking difference among the bailouts. The US congressional panel overseeing the American bank bailout says it has no idea what the banks have done with the $350 billion+ that the treasury department has given them. The banks, it seems, feel no obligation to give any sort of report. Fonkoze’s resources have, by contrast, gone straight into its borrowers’ hands, something like $3 million of interest-free credit in the last months.

And it’s probably a good investment. Elirène explains: Her crop of yams, her farmland itself, was destroyed by an landslide in the last hurricane. She won’t be able to plant again any time soon. When I asked her whether the land was lost for good, however, this is how she answered: “The land always grows back eventually. It’s just like us.”

Another New Year

New Year’s Day is probably the most important holiday in Haiti. It’s not because of the advent of the new year. It’s because of Haitian Independence Day, the celebration of the 1804 victory over Napoleon’s French. January 1st and 2nd are both national holidays, and people spend them at home with their families.

January 1st, in particular, has a well-defined pattern. Women get up especially early — by three or four A.M. — to make pumpkin soup. By six or seven, children are carrying bowls of it to neighbors’ homes to give and receive New Year’s wishes. Each household makes the soup slightly differently, and by mid-morning each family might have bowls of a half-dozen or more different batches on its table. I love the day because I love pumpkin soup and also because I admire both the Haitians’ commitment to remembering a shared history and their devotion to sharing their soup.

Madan Anténor and I had been talking about the celebration almost since I arrived in December. Perhaps uniquely among Haitians, she prepares her soup initially without meat. She takes out my serving — I’m a long-time vegetarian — and then adds meat, which she has prepared separately. I’m sure it’s a nuisance for her.

This year looked like it might be a little harder. One of the less important of the effects of the hurricanes that ravaged Haiti in August and September was the destruction in many areas of the country of the pumpkin crop, and the mountain we live on was one of those areas. But I made a trip to the Central Plateau last week, and found a good-sized pumpkin in the marketplace. Madan Anténor received a second as a gift from the farmer who works some land that her father left her. As I left for some end-of-year work at a new Fonkoze office in northern Haiti, she said she was all set.

Her one concern was that her pot wasn’t big enough. Her younger sister had already announced that she, would come up to Kaglo with her husband and kids so the two families could have their soup together, and between the two families, me, and all the households she would be sending bowls to, she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to make enough.

Then on Tuesday night everything changed. Early in the evening, Cassandra, her 21-year-old oldest child, got suddenly sick. She had a fever and could not stand up under her own power. I’m told she was chatty and lucid as the family took her down to a hospital in Pétion-Ville even if she could not hold her head up straight. She didn’t, apparently, think things were very serious. But by 11:00 that night, she was dead. It’s very hard to figure.

I had spoken with her on Sunday. She seemed fine. It had been a hard couple of years for her. She was not able to pass the first half of the national high school graduation exam. She tried a couple of times, but never quite could. She hadn’t ever been really good in school, and the enormous amount of housework she was always doing either at home or in her aunt’s house, where she spent a couple of years, only made things harder. With perseverance she had worked her way to the second-to-last year, but couldn’t pass the test. And without passing she wasn’t able to enter 13th grade, the last year of high school in Haiti. She was hurt, and spent a couple of nights crying about it, but she shook off the disappointment soon enough. She started a class in accounting, and moved forward.

On Sunday, she was in an especially good mood. She was telling me about a cooking class she attended during the fall while I was in the States. She had learned to make a number of things that she wanted me to try, and was just waiting until her mother decided to fill the propane tank for her indoor oven. Gas prices have been coming down of late, so she hoped her mother would fill it soon. She seemed really happy with what she had achieved. We talked a little about her boy friend, as well. He’s a nice young university student from a nearby community. Her little siblings enjoy the joke when I refer to him as my brother-in-law.

And now she’s gone. “Just like that,” as we sometimes say.

So today is not a happy New Year’s Day. Madam Anténor’s yard is full of visitors, even more than she had anticipated, but their mission is not at all what anyone hoped, or even imagined. It’s terrible.

She is the second young woman to die in Kaglo in December. A couple of weeks earlier, Youyout, the granddaughter of a farmer who lives about a hundred yards down the hill, died as well. She had, I am told, been sick for just about a week. I know that there are young people whom diseases carry away quite suddenly in the States, but it sure seems like a very rarely thing. Blessedly rare.

So to be in a community that loses two such wonderful people so quickly leaves one wondering. These are not Haitians dying of poverty-related malnutrition. There are too many such people in this country, but these were children of households that could afford to feed them well. They were both strong, vibrant, hardworking young women, women whose families were already accustomed to depending on them for a lot. There will be no autopsies, so I can wonder all I want, but it won’t make me any smarter. Nor will it do me any other sort of good.

Most of my adult neighbors seem pretty hard-nosed in their sympathies. In this country, children are the only safety net that people have as they grow old. And in that context, these awful losses cannot help but seem like investments gone awry. I’ve heard several people say that losing such a child is like preparing a wonderful meal, setting it out on a table, and then having it disappear before you can taste it. I’ll add that none of these very practical comments have come from the two girls’ families.

I can’t speak of Youyout’s family, but only last week Madan Anténor was sharing with me some thoughts that she had regarding a couple of last things she was thinking of doing for Cassandra, things that might send Cassandra towards the brightest future that a mother’s resources and wit could offer. Madan Anténor and her husband are not be poor by Haitian standards, but they’re not wealthy either, nor even solidly middle-class, but she was planning some extraordinary expenses because she couldn’t rest easy without giving Cassandra everything she could. She may need to spend almost as much now just to send her daughter to a decent grave.

For the moment, though, Madan Anténor seems to have very little on her mind beyond the pain of loss. The funeral won’t happen for a couple of days, and there’s very little likelihood of things improving for her before then. Anténor himself is doing most of its planning, with help from his brothers and brothers-in-law. But eventually Madan Anténor will force herself to pull herself together. She has no choice. She has two younger children, and each has both a present and a future for her to guide.


It is easy enough to explain why walking is so appealing in Haiti. The motorized transport that’s available has so little to recommend it. One finds oneself both shaken and stirred while jammed into crowded vehicles that bounce along roads miserably dusty in the dry season, deeply rutted when it has rained. The one reward is the pleasant company. Shared misery is food for conversation, and traveling Haitians love to chat.

But whenever circumstances allow, I walk instead. I think it saves me considerable wear and tear. And I’ve spent much of my first days back in Haiti walking around Port au Prince.

My walking actually started a couple of weeks before I return to Haiti. In my last weeks in Chicago, I wanted to take in the city, really look around. So although December weather in Chicago did not really encourage casual strolling, I bundled up and made due as best I could. I made the thirty-block walk downtime a couple of times, up Halsted or State Street. I went most of the way to the north side once as well. You see much more walking than you do on a bus or the El.

Some of the differences between the two very different cities are too ubiquitous to even attract attention. Chicago has so many more cars, but traffic flows much more smoothly because the streets are so much better. It would be unusual for a car in Port au Prince to be able to pick up a head of steam. Chicago has much more trash, but it obtrudes less because it’s better managed. I once had the thought that an interesting satire would be a grant proposal to the Corleone Foundation that would request support to bring the Soprano Family to Haiti to train Port au Prince’s criminal gangs in the waste management industry. I thought it could take them out of the kidnapping business and clean the city’s streets. Probably not in the best of taste.

But the most dramatic difference between streets in Chicago and Port au Prince is the level and types of activity they sustain. There are, of course, busy streets in Chicago, the major shopping districts along North Michigan Avenue and State Street in the Loop preeminent among them. On the Saturdays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I did most of my walking, they are especially crowded.

But for most of the cold winter walk from Bridgeport, the south side neighborhood where I live, towards downtown, the sidewalks are clear. Here and there I cross paths with another pedestrian or two. Every block or so, I pass a bus station where a handful of people wait.

It’s nothing like the streets of Port au Prince, however, especially the busier ones. A trip through rue du Centre, in the heart of downtown, makes that clear enough. The street is wide enough for four lanes of traffic, but even one lane can do no more than crawl. Men and women buying and selling flood from the sidewalks into the middle of the road. Each car or truck that passes must wait as individual merchants drag and push their wares this way and that. It involves a lot of honking, a lot of yelling, and a fair amount of swearing as well.

Everyone is selling and everyone is buying, and all manner of things are available. Young men wander around carrying long poles, with five or six or seven rods fixed to them. On these rods they display cheap sunglasses and watches. Others walking around with sacks, cardboard boxes, or small thermos tubs on their heads, offering water or soft drinks. Or they have platters loaded with meat pies or cupcakes or plantain chips. Women have baskets in front of them, displaying fruits and vegetables or spices or plastic sandals or canned goods or shampoos or soaps. There are shopping carts rigged as hardware stores, with flashlights, bug sprays, padlocks, hand tools, rolls of tape, and bottles of glue. Small, jury-rigged wooden stands line the roads. They hold clothes and shoes and auto parts and house wares of all descriptions. And amidst it all are crowds of people shouting, arguing, negotiating, swearing, making deals, and failing to do so. Even the city’s less crowded streets are liberally populated with street merchants and their customers.

The levels of economic activity that is everywhere evident in Port au Prince is especially striking during these days of economic distress both in Haiti and in the States. These days in the States we no longer avoid saying “recession.” It’s been months since we euphemized by referring to the “r-word” instead. We are all well enough aware that unemployment is up and economic activity is down. The new euphemism is the “d-word,” and I’ve seen it used several times already.

But what exactly is this economic distress? It’s not that I want to take it too lightly. I know people are struggling. People are losing their jobs, their homes, and the savings their retirements depend on. Even many people who would not describe themselves as “struggling” feel a lot worse off than they were just a year ago. But as I walked up Halsted Street, through downtown Chicago, onto Clarke Street, and continued onward north from the Loop, one thing I noticed was an abundance of expensive-looking hair salons and day spas. And many of them looked busy. So as we are entering a recession, there are plenty of us who can choose to spend $25 or $50 or $100 in a day to look and feel a little better than we otherwise would. The stores – like the enormous Target I passed – are full of shoppers, buying a range of things they might or might not need.

Unemployment is miserably high for us: around 10% nationally, I think, and much, much higher in places. My just-out-of-college roommate has been working admirably hard since September to find a job, and he’s had no luck so far, even though he has an admirable range of skills. But in Haiti, employment, not unemployment is sometimes said to be as low as 5%. That is to say that only about 5% of Haitians have jobs in the formal sector. Maybe it’s more. Maybe it’s 15%, or even 20%. But in any case, the 90% employment we still have in the States is something Haiti can only dream of.

But I don’t want my message to be that we in the States are better off than we normally think we are. There is something to that morale, but it misses too much of what is important in people’s lives.

I don’t really want to suggest a message, or morale, at all. I’m much more interested in the way the sights one sees when strolling through two very different cities reflect the very different lives that very different economic situations impose on the people who live within them.

In Port au Prince, little bits of economic activity are everywhere because the Haitians that live here teeter so close, each day, to losing or lacking the most basic things they need to survive. Its streets have a liveliness, their activities have a a sense of urgency, that Chicago, for all its broad shoulders, fundamentally lacks.

As Leadership Grows

Fonkoze does not aim to lift poor Haitian families out of poverty. It aims, rather, to help the women who lead those families lift them out. This distinction is important. Fonkoze is not an aid agency, but a micro finance institution, one that helps its members assemble the skills, habits, and resources they need to carry their families forward.

Fonkoze offers access to credit to the women who are its members. This credit enables them to invest in their businesses and make them grow, along with educational programs that develop crucial life and business skills – like literacy and business skills, for example. Fonkoze is also beginning to facilitate access to health care, helping members learn to use the resources available to them in their home communities. These three kinds of services – financial, educational, and health – form a stable, triangular base, a strong foundation that women can build on.

But lifting their families out of poverty requires more than laying that foundation. A foundation is not a house. Building up a house – what we’re really talking about is building up a better life – requires leadership as well. And though we like to refer to people as “born leaders”, and though some of Fonkoze’s members surely deserve that label, most do not. Developing leadership among its members remains, and must remain, one of Fonkoze’s core objectives.

This simple fact is rich with implications for the design of Fonkoze’s programs. Though, for example, Fonkoze could hire qualified and experienced educators to teach its literacy classes, calling on the same ones year after year and thus minimizing its training costs and maximizing the competence of its team, it does not do so. Instead, it hires literate members, borrowers who do think of themselves as market women, not as educators, and helps them learn to share their knowledge with others around them. That may mean that teaching reading and writing is a little less efficient than it might otherwise be, but the chance to invite Fonkoze members to accept leadership positions, and to nurture their growth as they do so, is an opportunity too important to lose.

The results of that emphasis were on display in two separate meetings over the last couple of weeks. One was for credit center chiefs at Fonkoze’s Active Learning Center, in Lenbe. The other was a gathering of Fonkoze’s most successful borrowers in Kafou, the sprawling suburb south of the capital.

Fonkoze’s office in Lenbe is designed to promote learning in a number of respects. First, it is a fully functioning model branch office, with a staff specially selected from among Fonkoze’s best. With its attached residence hall, the branch becomes a convenient place to train new staff and to provide professional development to staff from other branches. Second, it has a staff trained to do field research, with a social impact monitor, who collects information about the effect of Fonkoze’s programs on its members, and an economic analyst, who studies the relative effectiveness of the different types of businesses that Fonkoze members engage in. Finally, it’s set up to manage experiments that test new ways for Fonkoze to serve its members.

The meeting at Lenbe brought together nine Fonkoze credit center chiefs to discuss a new approach to creating Fonkoze credit centers like the ones that they are part of. A credit center is, in some ways, the basic unit in solidarity group credit. It’s a collection of five-eight groups of five women. Centers meet regularly for disbursements and reimbursements of loans, and for educational programs. They are important because even with 36 offices throughout Haiti, Fonkoze isn’t close enough to where its members live and do business. The credit centers allow Fonkoze to serve members, even ones in very rural areas, in their own neighborhoods by sending credit agents on motorcycles to center meetings as far as two hours from the nearest Fonkoze office.

The keys to these centers are the women elected to lead them, the center chiefs. They are chosen by their fellow borrowers and have several important responsibilities. They advocate for borrowers, presenting their concerns at regional assemblies and, if elected from those assemblies, at the annual general assembly in Port au Prince as well. They are their credit agents’ primary means of contacting other center members. They even approve the size of the loans that each member of their center receives.

Center chief is a volunteer position, but it has its rewards. Marie Edel, a center chief from Lenbe put it well. “I’m a businesswomen. If the people around me have more money to spend, that’s good for more. Anything I can do to help my neighbors helps me too.” As a center chief, she is a force building the economy that surrounds her.

Our experiment involved asking selected center chiefs to expand their roles and offered them, for the first time, the chance to earn some money for their work for Fonkoze. We were asking them to take substantial responsibility for recruiting new members, not by encouraging women to join the credit centers that they already lead. This is something that they already do. We asking them instead to create whole new credit centers by recruiting women in groups of 25-40 at a time.

This would be a major shift for Fonkoze. New centers are currently opened by credit agents, and the way they tend to do it is not without substantial risks. What they tend to do is take their motorcycle to a new area that doesn’t have a credit center yet. They contact a community leader – a priest or pastor or a local politician – and ask him to help them organize a meeting of people that might be interested in credit. The credit agent introduces Fonkoze to those who attend the meeting, and uses follow-up visits to sign up new members in groups of five.

This entails two sorts of problems. On one hand, it’s a problem for the credit centers themselves. They can remain beholden in various ways to the man whom they think of as having brought Fonkoze to them. This hampers the women’s development as leaders. It weakens their position within their communities as it reinforces the position of the men who already have a lot of control. On the other hand, it’s a problem for Fonkoze as well. It feeds the credit agents’ tendency to move farther and farther from their bases, recruiting just the smallest percentage of potential members everywhere they go, rather than working to penetrate the potential market for Fonkoze credit. This maximizes Fonkoze’s costs per loan, already necessarily high. And there are other problems as well.

So we thought we’d see what credit center chiefs could do, without motorcycles, in the paces where they already live and work. They would get a cash payment for every complete center of 5-8 groups of five women they were able to recruit. This would tend to push a denser penetration of areas that Fonkoze already serves, and it would do so without bringing in interference from community leaders who can never be part of these centers. The program started in April, and our meeting at the end of July was a chance to talk about how things were going.

The data is clear enough. So far, 130 new members have been recruited, and two of the center chiefs have earned payments. But our meeting enabled us to go much deeper than such data.

The women were vocal in their excitement about the program, but also about the barriers they’re encountering to making it work. They spoke of competition from another micro finance institution, one that offers an approach that can seem, at first look, to be better for market women. They spoke of aspects of Fonkoze’s approach that can turn potential members off. And they spoke of reasons some market women give for avoiding any formal credit program at all.

What was most striking was that they were the ones that spoke. They did not come to a meeting at Fonkoze’s branch office looking for Fonkoze staff to answer their questions, but for an opportunity for dialogue with one another. In fact, the one time that they got an extended explanation from Fonkoze staff – I gave them a detailed account of where Fonkoze gets the capital it lends them – they complained that I was talking too much, that they could work things out on their own.

Those that had struggled with the new competition shared the problems they had discovered in its method of offering credit, problems that had convinced some women to choose Fonkoze instead. They talked about the realities behind some of the things that new members can dislike about Fonkoze’s method – why Fonkoze asks personal questions, why Fonkoze is relatively slow to get its credit to new borrowers, why Fonkoze’s first loans are relatively small – and brought up explanations for each that they think can be convincing.

And they defended their own interests as well. The criteria that determine whether they can be paid were poorly designed, and they negotiated a revision of them with the branch manager that will work better for them and, perhaps, for Fonkoze as well.

Not everything was purely positive. Of the fourteen women who were initially invited to participate in the program, only nine came to the meeting, and only two of them had succeeded in earning a payment thus far. But it’s a start, and they are confident that, within a couple of months, the numbers will look very different.

The meeting in Kafou was much larger and very different. It was a weekend gathering of almost 50 of Fonkoze’s most successful members. These are women who started with solidarity group loans of 1500 – 3000 gourds and are now managing individual loans of 50,000 – 100,000 gourds or more. (The current exchange rate is about 40 gourds to the dollars.)

We had invited them to the Kafou meeting to celebrate their success in a particular way. We wanted to talk with them about how one might be able to meet with a business women who’s not succeeding and help her understand how to turn her business around. We would then have a large group of struggling solidarity group borrowers come to Kafou for a half-day’s work with the more successful women. The more successful women would, in other words, become unpaid business consultants.

What was initially most striking was seeing how the women relished the opportunity we were offering them. They are rightly and vocally proud of what they have accomplished, and they’re not too shy to admit that they’re good at what they do. They were excited about an invitation to share their know-how.

In a sense, that’s not surprising. Why wouldn’t they be glad for the recognition? At the same time, they were very clear about the thought that I quoted Marie Edel as expressing. These women, when asked what the barriers to their own further success are, listed their neighbors’ ability to run their businesses well as one of the more important ones. They know that they can move farther if their neighbors are moving forward too.

So when we welcomed twenty-five struggling market women to join us Saturday afternoon, they all got right to work. We paired one or two of the successful women with each of the struggling women, choosing women from the same part of Haiti, and they spent the rest of the day talking. They spoke of how they were managing their businesses and their households. They talked about how they partnered with the men in their lives, or how they managed if they had no stable partner. They exchanged thoughts about the particular businesses they are in or about special challenges they are facing of whatever sort.

Fonkoze staff stayed out of these conversations. We wanted to create an environment in which the women would look to one another, and I think we succeeded well.

There’s much more work left to do. The successful women said they would be willing to serve as consultants for women in their home communities, and Fonkoze will need to follow up to make sure the opportunities arise. We’ll also want to check to see whether the advice that the women give actually helps the women who receive it. But the heart of the matter, that Fonkoze women are willing and able to take the lead as they do their work, is in pretty good shape.

Evident Progress

“Concentrated Language Encounter” (CLE) is a fancy name for what can be a pretty straightforward, but very interesting, way to teach basic reading and writing. It makes writing primary, inviting learners to write and illustrate books about subjects that are on their mind. The IDEAL school in Cité Soleil has been learning the process with help from the staff of the Matènwa Community Learning Center.

It’s an interesting partnership: Experienced teachers from a school well out in the Haitian countryside given their time and energy to support a group of young people creating a start-up in Haiti’s most notorious urban slum. The Matènwa school’s excellent first grade teacher spent almost a week in Belekou when the school opened, and during that stay he led the children through the creation of a book about their first day. That was back in January, and here’s the book: firstbook

On the last day of school, I met with the same kids, and we made a second book. The difference between where they were in January and where they are now was plain and very encouraging. The first book was simply a summary of the first day’s activities. For the second book, they wrote about what they like about school.

“We enjoyed making pretty pictures.”

“We love to draw.”

Here are the two pages created by Lovely. The one above is the first one she did the second day of school, and the one below is the page she did six months later. Although the most obvious difference might be that, in June, she was able to write her own name and included letters in her illustration, the quality of the drawing is also quite distinct. She uses much more detail. She seems to have put much more time and care into her work.

Next are the two pages by Marie. Again, the upper one is the one she did in January, and lower one is what she did in June.

“We need to know how to write.”

It’s much the same story: more detail, more effort to give her figures shape. She writes her name well.

Reginal’s two pages follow. A very small boy, one of a couple of kids that started in January at the right age for a first grader and without any school experience behind him, his progress has been especially striking.

My photography, unfortunately, cut off the texts. The upper one says, “We made rules for the class.” It refers to the way Robert led the children through the creation of classroom rules on the first day of school. The text for the second picture was, “We love the IDEAL school,” but Reginal added quite a bit to it. He wrote, “I made the IDEAL school. I made two children. This school belongs to Reginal.” He didn’t know a single letter of the alphabet in January, but now he writes short sentences.

And the differences between the two drawings is just as impressive. The time and effort he put into drawing a school that fills up the page, and in coloring the school in brightly, suggest that he really is happy to be there.

The last two drawings are by Bebeto. I know him well. He’s a somewhat older boy, the nephew of a member of IDEAL. His uncle, Picard, is a guy in his early 20s, who left primary school before graduating in order to fend for his widowed mother. He supports Bebeto because the boy’s mother and father – Picard’s older brother – are too sick to work.

Bebeto had been to schools before, even to free ones, but never stayed for more than a few months. His history of dropping out had already marked him with a reputation as a //vakabòn//, or bum. And that before his twelfth birthday.

But the IDEAL school really worked for him. The teachers made him feel welcome, and he responded. He barely missed a day, and participated enthusiastically in all the school’s activities.

“We met our teachers.”

“We love doing subtraction.”

There was a major auto accident about a long block away from the school right around when we were doing the second book, and it made an impression on Bebeto. I asked him why he had drawn a child apparently killing an adult, he just shrugged his shoulders and smiled.

As striking as the violence in his second drawing is, however, so is the improved detail. He took the time to give the people and things he drew shape. And the dramatic shift in the size relation between adult and child from one picture to the next might reflect his growing sense of his own power.

The school itself has a ways to go. The children made two books this year, and both were made with visitors’ help: Robert was there to lead them the first time, and I led the second. The IDEAL team will need to develop the confidence in themselves that’s necessary for them to lead such activities on their own.

But seeing the two books is helping them develop that confidence. They see more clearly than ever the difference they are making in the lives of the neighbors’ kids. And they feel good about that and good about the recognition it leads to. One of the confided to me, for example, that he likes the fact that his neighbors no longer address him by name but instead call him “mèt”, the title that Haitians give to the men who teach.

New Structure, Part 2

Fonkoze’s efforts to redefine the way it works with its member-borrowers have been forced by a simple observation: An increasing number of those borrowers are having trouble repaying their loans. Some are falling into delinquency, some so seriously that Fonkoze is forced to consider writing their loans off. That’s bad both for the borrowers and for Fonkoze.

It’s bad for Fonkoze because it damages its financial bottom line. Though profitability is not Fonkoze’s central goal, it is part of its sustainability strategy. The more its work can be financed through the revenue it generates, the more its leadership can focus on just doing that work well, rather than raising money, and the more durable the institution will be over the long haul.

For the borrowers, it threatens a downward economic spiral through which any gains they’ve made as businesswomen could disappear. Women and their families could even end up worse off than they started. Their businesses can evaporate, and they can be left with no way to access the credit they would need to start over again without turning to loan sharks.

And just to be clear: The issue in Haiti is not whether someone might be forced to declare bankruptcy. It’s whether they will have a way to feed their children and themselves.

Finally, the fact that the borrowers in question, as delinquent as they might be, are members of Fonkoze, and not merely its borrowers, means something too. It would be bad enough if Fonkoze were just being forced to write off loans to the women it was founded to serve. But those women belong to Fonkoze as members, not just clients. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Fonkoze belongs to them. Writing them off has an aspect of self-immolation. Writing them off feels like tearing away a piece of the living fabric that Fonkoze is made of.

So it is imperative that Fonkoze develop an approach that can serve women who are on the verge of failure. Fortunately, a detailed blueprint for such an approach is available.

It should surprise no one that the blue print was developed by the Grameen Bank, in Bangladesh. Grameen is the source of the worldwide microfinance movement. It’s the institution founded by Nobel-prize-winner Muhammad Yunus, and the microfinance support organization that it established in the United States, Grameen USA, is probably Fonkoze’s most important source of technical advice.

About a decade ago, the Grameen Bank was having some of the same problems Fonkoze is having now. Its inflexible approach to lending, which served as a model for Fonkoze’s standard approach, was failing more and more of its borrowers.

Grameen reinvented itself with a strategy that has come to be called “Grameen Two”, and that strategy could serve as a model for the new Fonkoze. Grameen Two loan periods changed from six months to variable. Grameen Two borrowers who fell behind had the option to negotiate extensions. Most importantly, access to Grameen Two credit no longer depended entirely on the performance of the entire five-women solidarity group that a borrower belongs to. Instead, each borrower became eligible for credit as soon as she finished repaying her loan.

For over a month now, Fonkoze has been trying to make its way through the tracks Grameen Two left in the snow, experimenting in a handful of branches with ways to make the credit it offers more adaptable to each particular member-borrower’s needs and abilities. (See: NewStructure). It’s hard work.

And giving Fonkoze’s programs a new form means more than just restructuring delinquent loans. It means offering credit to strong re-payers who would otherwise be blocked. The easy part of doing this is to take women who are up-to-date but who belong to delinquent groups and offering them new credit before their fellow group members are ready. The more difficult piece is finding strong re-payers whose loans have already been written off because their fellow group members have failed to repay.

These women are harder to reach because it’s harder to establish contact with them at all. For understandable reasons, they aren’t that excited about talking with Fonkoze. They feel as though we’ve cut them off. And our information about them can be dated as well.

But we can find them. I was with Naël, a Fonkoze Social Performance Monitor in Marigo as we spoke with several.

“Social Performance Monitor” may be an awkward title, but the function it represents at a Fonkoze branch office is easy to understand and obviously important. The monitors are field researchers. They are the ones who enable Fonkoze to track the impact of programs on its members’ lives. Every time a new group of five women signs up to receive a loan, their loan officer fills out a detailed survey with each woman that allows Fonkoze to evaluate the economic aspects of her family’s quality of life. We learn how many people live in her household, how often they eat and at meat, what kind of house they have, how much land they own: there is a whole array of quality of life indicators we capture. We capture this information for every new borrower in the Fonkoze network.

But in offices where there is a monitor, we are able to do much more. The monitor both verifies the information already taken from 20% of new borrowers, and takes two additional surveys. They then re-do the same three surveys with the same women at the end of every other loan they take, or approximately once a year. Monitors thus provide Fonkoze with good data that closely tracks life improvements for 20% of its members, a large enough sample permit detailed conclusions to be drawn.

Though Fonkoze is only beginning to see the results of this new initiative, the initial data is exciting. Though the sample we are already able to report on is small, the results are clear: After one year in the program, the 2006 entering cohort showed an 8% reduction in the percentage living below $1/day and a 9% reduction in those living below $2/day.

In addition to track such trends, the monitors do member-satisfaction focus groups and exit interviews with members who decide to leave Fonkoze. They thus become the most important way that Fonkoze has of judging whether it’s doing its job.

Naël had interviewed a group of members who had been written off three-six months ago. They were angry with Fonkoze because they felt they had been treated unfairly. They had, they said, always repaid their loans on time. They belonged, however, to solidarity groups that included other members who hadn’t been able to repay.

He and I spoke to one woman who can serve as an example: She told us that she and three of the other members had always repaid on time. In fact, until their most recent loan, which was written off in December 2007, all five of them had managed well enough.

But one of her friends took her part of their last loan to Miragwann, a major port on the coast south of Port au Prince. She invested her whole loan in a shipment of used clothing. When she got the shipment back to Marigo, she discovered that the clothes she believed she had purchased had been exchanged for stuff with a much lower value. She lost a very high percent of her investment, and could not repay her share of her loan. Normally, her fellow group members would pick up the slack, but with the economic situation in Haiti deteriorating, and their own sense that she would not be able to pay them back, they did not feel that they could.

From what was Fonkoze’s perspective at the time, all the members of such a group were delinquent. Fonkoze had not offered individual loans to any of them, but had offered loans to groups of five. Each woman had signed a loan agreement stipulating that she was part of a group loan, sharing with the group’s other members the responsibility for ensuring that the whole loan was repaid.

Thanks to Naël’s work, Fonkoze had re-established contact with women who wanted to be considered for new loans. But the decision to offer credit to a woman who’s been written off once needs to be made with care. Fonkoze needs to talk with her, to hear her story. It needs to check her repayment history. It needs to be able to assure itself that it makes sense to put new credit in her hands.

So Naël had taken me to see the group together with Domerson Millien, Fonkoze’s Regional Director for Credit and Operations in the southeast. It took the three of us almost the whole day to meet with three members, if you count the amount of time we spent getting to their village outside of Marigo, waiting for them in yard where their credit center meets, and walking back and forth between that village and a market about 45 minutes away in Peredò.

It’s a lot of staff time to commit to three or four out of 54,000 borrowers, and Domerson isn’t finshed working with those women yet. He will have some work to do going through records to confirm that a new loan makes sense, and then he’ll have to meet with the women again to explain what he thinks he can offer them. But right now Fonkoze’s situation simply requires such efforts.