Category Archives: Life in Haiti

Plan, Fonkoze, and Jezimèn

When we arrived at Jezimèn’s home, she was finishing some ironing. A large wooden case was open on her front porch. It was filled with snacks – crackers, lollipops, and cookies – that she was selling. She put away the shirt she had finished, and welcomed Judith and me. She had been expecting us. Judith had called her to let her know we’d be stopping by, and she had arranged three comfortable chairs in a shady corner of the same porch.

Jezimèn lives in a neighborhood of Peredò, a coastal town east of Jacmel, the main city in the Haitian southeast. Earlier in the day, I had arrived at the nearby Fonkoze office in Marigò after a long morning’s travel and work. I had begun the day at home, then spent the morning interviewing Fonkoze members in Lavale, an area served by a very large branch in the mountains outside of Jacmel. I then hurried over to Marigò to conduct more interviews, hoping to be able to get back to Port au Prince that same day.

Judith is Fonkoze’s education coordinator at the Marigò branch, and she was coordinating the Marigò part of my day. I do field interviews now and again, in part because Fonkoze’s major funders insist upon it. Fonkoze will eventually be able to pay for education programs through the revenues its various programs generate. But it isn’t there yet. For now, the programs are financed through grants we submit to a range of organizations. We send those organizations reports about how their funds were spent, with lots of financial data and information on the number of participants that their funds reached and the programs those participants were offered.

The funders, however, want and need more. They like to have profiles of participants. They want to hear about the programs from the participants themselves. They can use such profiles to gain a richer sense of the effect the education programs have. Participants speak eloquently of the importance they attach to them. One hears all sorts of powerful testimonials:

“Before I started with Fonkoze, if I said ‘A’ it was because an insect bit me. Now I can sign my name to receive new credit. I don’t have to leave meetings with a ink stain on my thumb.”

“I’m not ashamed to attend parents’ meetings at my child’s school anymore because I can sign the attendance sheet just like everyone else.”

“I thought I knew how to run my business, but Fonkoze taught me that I didn’t even know whether I was making or losing money. Now I keep track of all my income and all my expenses.”

And the funders can then pass on the profiles, and the lessons they learn from them, to their supporters and funders. After all, the organizations that finance Fonkoze don’t print their own money. They have to find it somewhere as well. Good participant profiles can strengthen a case for support.

The organization looking for stories from Marigò is a particularly strong Fonkoze partner named Plan International. Plan is an NGO devoted to combating the various effects that poverty has on the young. It became interested in microfinance when it concluded that one good way to help the young is to help their mothers earn the money they need to care for them.

Its microfinance partner in Haiti is Fonkoze. Plan provided the start-up costs for the branch in Marigò – and has funded other branches as well – it provides a couple of hundred thousand dollars each year to the education unit, and it has underwritten, almost single-handedly thus far, Fonkoze’s research and evaluation unit, called “Social Performance Management.” So assuring the Plan gets the information it needs is a priority for Fonkoze.

Jezimèn has a business that depends on its location in the southeast. The little business I saw on her front porch is just a little aside. One of her adult daughters keeps a one-room house in Ansapit, a Haitian port on the Dominican border with a large bi-national market. It’s an overnight trip, by sailboat, from Marigò. Jezimèn buys things in Jacmel that she can sell in Ansapit, and brings them to her daughter, who does the selling. She also takes merchandise that her daughter buys at the market in Ansapit, and brings it back to Marigò and Jacmel.

She’s had the business for a long time, since before she joined Fonkoze and before her daughter could be much help. She joined Fonkoze because her business was starting to shrink, as her children grew older. Paying for their educations was getting more and more expensive, so much so that it was eating into her capital. She joined Fonkoze figuring that the money she could borrow would put her business back on sound footing.

When she found out that Fonkoze would offer literacy classes in her credit center, she was excited. Her mother had tried to send her to school, but in her first year one of her classmates had become pregnant. Her father blamed the school, and when her mother insisted that she continue to go, the father gave them each a beating and threw them out. They eventually moved in with her mother’s older sister, but the two women had no way to send Jezimèn to school. Thanks to a couple of months in her Fonkoze literacy program, she can now sign her name, and looks forward to learning more. She wants to take advantage of any opportunity her credit center might offer.

I asked Jezimèn how long she’s been with Fonkoze. “I would have about four or five years, but I took some time off after my son died. It was about seven months. I just didn’t want to do anything.”



Judith and I asked her about the boy. It turns out he wasn’t a boy at all, but a 22-year-old young man, in his second-to-last year of school. He was ready to take the rhéto exam, a national entrance examination for the final year of school, when he died in a car accident.

“He was a really big kid,” Jezimèn said.

“Oh, really?” Judith replied.

“Yes. Just look at his shirt.” She pulled out the last shirt she had been ironing when we arrived, a very large short-sleeved shirt with a colorful floral print. “Whenever I miss him, I take out his clothes and iron them.”

She has five other children, the youngest a teenage girl who’s still with her. Fonkoze helps her ensure that she has a way to support them. Plan’s partnership with Fonkoze means that she gets not only credit to help her business grow, but also educational programs that she wants and needs.

New Structure

One of the surprising realities of the microfinance world is the rate at which clients typically repay their loans. The industry standard is something like 97%. And this is true even though the borrowers are poor and even though they usually offer no collateral beyond a small savings account. The guarantees that a microfinance institution (MFI) relies upon are its members’ sense of honor, their continuing need for credit, and the solidarity that develops among them.

And such guarantees are enough as long as borrowers can repay. That is to say: as long as the profits they make using the money they borrow and invest are sufficient to help them support their families and to pay back their loans. As the father of the international microfinance movement, Muhammad Yunus, has said, “the poor always repay.”

But good repayment is not simply a matter of goodwill. Sometimes, despite their need for ongoing access to credit, and despite their desire to repay, they simply can’t do it. Poor families are, of course, much more susceptible to mishaps that other families are. The minimal livelihoods they manage are fragile. A single accident immediately pushes them to or even over the edge. A child is sick. Bad weather ruins merchandise, a crop, or a house. A thief walks away with one’s cash or property.

Add to those accidents the mistakes that an MFI can make that undermine repayment. For example, inexperienced borrowers can believe that it’s in their interest to borrow as much as a lender will give them, and a lender with inexperienced field staff can end up making loans in excess of what a borrower’s business can absorb. Borrowers are left with extra cash on hand or extra merchandise they can’t sell. Suddenly they’re responsible for interest on money that’s not working for them, earning profit. Their reimbursements then are bound to exceed what their business can produce.

Until now, Fonkoze, like many MFIs, has had a single way to help borrowers face such problems: Solidarity. What that means in this context is that borrowers do not take their loans out individually, but in groups of five. Five women form a “solidarity group.” They take out their loans and make their repayments together. If one member is struggling, other members are expected to pick up the slack. They pitch in to help one another make scheduled repayments, and settle up on their own. Ideally, Fonkoze never even knows that one of its members was short. The women simple handle such instances among themselves. And this ideal case is reality often enough.

But that single and simple approach to repayment problems has been proving less and less satisfactory. The economic situation in Haiti has been deteriorating, and so it’s been harder to get members to help one another repay. It’s not for lack of good will. They simply can’t do it. Food and other living costs are spiraling upward, so running their own households is getting more and more expensive. In addition, those who earn their living selling things other than food are making less and less money because their customers have less cash on hand to spend.

The traditional structure of solidarity group microfinance then multiplies the problem. The loans really are group loans, and cannot be disbursed individually. If I can’t repay my part of the loan, my friend Anne can’t get a new loan either, even if she’s repaid her part of our loan on time. So, quickly enough, Anne’s livelihood is threatened just as mine already was. Borrowers become frustrated and repayment rates tumble. Some who would otherwise want to repay can even choose not too if they foresee that their fellow members’ inability to repay will mean that they won’t be able to get another loan. They can feel as though they have no choice but to hold on to the cash that they would normally be using to pay back their loan just to have something on hand.

Seeing its repayment rate decline over the last year, Fonkoze knew it had to take aggressive action. Too many of its borrowers were simply frozen. Some have debts they do not know how to face. Some are prevented from taking out new loans by their fellow borrowers’ delinquency.

Fonkoze decided to try an experiment. It would go to some of the branches that are having the most trouble, and fundamentally change the way it makes loans. It would send teams out into the field to speak with both delinquent borrowers and borrowers prevented from getting new loans. The news for the former would be that Fonkoze is ready to renegotiate repayment calendars to make repayment possible. The news for the latter would be that, for the first time ever, Fonkoze was now willing to offer them new loans whether or not the other members of their solidarity groups had finished repaying their share.

In effect, Fonkoze would be experimenting with a shift from the classic form of solidarity-group microfinance that has been its hallmark – with all the useful simplicity that its rigidity provides – to something more flexible and complex, something we hope can help Fonkoze members with the very real impediments they face.

So for the past couple of weeks, one of the jobs I’ve taken on is that of a loan officer, restructuring delinquent loans and giving out new credit at two Fonkoze branches in the Artibonite Valley, in northern Haiti.

Senmichèl is a small city well off the main road that leads between the major coastal city of Gonayiv and Okap, Haiti’s largest city in the north. It sits in the midst of what is, to all appearances, a fertile agricultural region, rich with sugarcane and small distilleries that convert the cane to rum. Though Senmichèl feels out of the way, there are a surprising number of large, fancy houses, a sign that there is money in the town.

The Fonkoze office in Senmichèl is about three years old. It’s an offshoot of the very large office down the road, in Gonayiv. Credit agents used to travel several hours by motorcycle from Gonayiv to get there, and they eventually developed a pretty good-sized portfolio, one large enough that Fonkoze decided it should establish a separate Senmichèl office. The office has had its ups and downs ever since. Right now, it is struggling, so choosing it to be one of the offices that would attempt the experiment was easy.

I went to Senmichèl with Thomas Prophil, a Fonkoze regional director of credit and operations. He already has one branch turn-around to his credit: He took over a struggling branch in Pòmago, and led it to profitability and eventual transfer to Fonkoze’s commercial sister, Fonkoze Financial Services, within a few months.

Our goal in Senmichèl would be to meet with as many Fonkoze borrowers as quickly as we could, working with them until they see how they can get unstuck, how they can get themselves moving forward again. We would offer new credit to those who were ready, and restructured credit for those who have fallen behind.

But our first discovery would be that there could be nothing quick about the work. On one hand, just getting word to all the members we wanted to see would be a challenge. One of the difficulties at the Senmichèl office is that communication has been poor, both between the office management and its credit agents and between the credit agents and the members they serve. We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, worried that we were late for a meeting with nearby members that had been scheduled since the previous Friday. When we arrived, however, we discovered that the meeting hadn’t even been arranged. Somehow, word never got from the branch manager to the credit agents.

So Thomas pitched a fit. He told the credit agents that he was holding the meeting in 30 minutes and that their clients had better be there. It was a good piece of theatre: an unspecified threat that managed to feel very real. Within an hour we were meeting with a handful of Fonkoze members, and the work had begun.

It wasn’t surprising that borrowers didn’t respond to the invitation in droves. Exactly the members we most needed to see were the ones initially least motivated to talk with us, some because they were behind and thought they had no prospect of catching up, others because they were up-to-date but thought they could get no new credit. But several representatives of several different solidarity groups came. We knew that once we started working more flexibly with a first few, word would get out and others would come, hoping that we could help them as well.

On the other hand, even once borrowers were assembled, the work would still be slow. We needed to talk to each client individually and at some length about her situation. We needed to know, for example, how borrowers had fallen into delinquency. We needed to know how viable their businesses still were. We needed to know what sources of repayment, however small, might be available to them. All that would take time. And explaining our new approach would be time-consuming as well. Members very much accustomed to Fonkoze’s one way of doing things would be excited once they heard what we were offering, but it would generally take some time to sink in.

Thomas and I were the only ones at the office who knew enough about the experiment to hold those conversations, and Thomas needed to concentrate on planning an overall approach for the office. So I drew the job of meeting with women as they came in.

Most who came had fallen behind in the reimbursements. And the stories they told were varied and, mostly, sad. Children or parents had been sick or had died. Or the women themselves had been sick. Or they had been robbed on business trips to Pòtoprens or Dajabón, a market town just across the Dominican border, where many of them go to buy. Some of them had very nearly repaid their loans, and some had a long way to go. All of them seemed pleased just to have the chance to tell their stories and even more pleased to see a way to get themselves back on track.

Mariella can serve as a case in point. She’s a widowed mother with three kids, girls age twelve and sixteen and a boy age ten. She’s a long-time borrower, a sandal merchant who used to buy her merchandise in Okap and sell it in the markets in and around Senmichèl. But her little boy was sick, and needed to be hospitalized. She lost time from her work while she was caring for him, and the expenses she incurred ate up her capital. Fortunately, the boy is now well, but her sandal business no longer exists. She was left with a debt of 5200 gourds, about $135.

She used the last of her cash to buy a barrel of cane syrup. She knew she could distill it, and repay her loan from the sale. Once she had repaid her loan, she would see about getting her business back on its feet. But somehow the rum was spoiled. I don’t know enough about the distilling process to really explain what happened. But she said, “It turned to water.”

Mariella and I spoke for about an hour. She has a plan to get herself moving forward again. Hopelessness is not an option for a widowed mother of three. One of her late husband’s brothers is willing to lend her a barrel of syrup. Apparently, if she mixes a good barrel with her spoiled barrel, and distills them together, she can produce rum she can sell. But the timing of this enterprise will be hard. Once the rainy season starts in earnest, the local roads turn to mud, and she won’t be able to transport the barrel her brother-in-law is offering.

We established a conservative repayment schedule for her, but here the timing is tight as well. She needs to be able to get new credit in time to buy merchandise for back-to-school sales. It’s a time when lots of money is being spent, and getting her business up and running by then could be key to ensuring that she can send her own children to school next year. For all her problems this past year, her kids did not lose a year at school.

Restructuring a handful of loans for clients in trouble is time-consuming, but not really hard. Fonkoze’s real challenge will come if the experiment succeeds. Turning upper-level management – and middle-aged foreign volunteers – into loan officers is not a long-term solution. The loan officers themselves – and there are a couple hundred of them – will need to be retrained and the tools they use – forms, contracts and the like – will have to be redesigned from scratch.

But it will be more than worth the effort if it can transform Fonkoze into an institution fundamentally more powerful as a servant of the poor.

What Does and Doesn’t Matter

I won first prize.

It was at the airport in Okap. As I was getting onto a plane to return to Pòtoprens, the ground crew that was sending us off drew the number of my boarding pass from a small dish of folded scraps of paper. The prize was a new cell phone.

I already have a cell phone. I dislike it. Not because of its look or the features it offers. Sometimes I just wish I didn’t have one at all. Often enough, I just turn it off. Until recently I had two, one for each of the major carriers in Haiti, but I finally gave one of them away because I was sick of carrying both. So I didn’t need another. But I was glad that I won because I thought right away of Ti Kèl.

He’s the 18-year-old who does chores around my house. If I’m expecting company, he cleans. If I run out of propane, he lugs my empty tank down in Pètyonvil and lugs the full one back up. If I need sugar or candles or kerosene or anything else, and I don’t want to go get it myself, I can always send him. He also studies math with me on Sunday mornings, at least whenever I’m home.

Ti Kèl has wanted a phone for the longest time. They are quite the rage in Haiti. There only are about 8.5 million Haitians, and about 1.8 million households, but there are well over a million cell phones. And the number just seems to be increasing. Not too long ago, when President Préval was asked about increasing poverty here, he’s reported to have answered that he hears about hunger, but then sees that every household has five cell phones and that people find the money to buy minutes for all of them.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of that claim, but I did think of Ti Kèl when I heard it. He’s wanted a phone, even though his household already has other phones and even though he has all sorts of more important needs.

Including figuring out how to pay for school in September. He’ll graduate from the local public primary school in June, and will have to go to private school in the fall if he wants to continue. He’s too old for public high school.

But he’s wanted a phone, and I had one I didn’t want, so I gave it to him. I did threaten that, if he wastes a lot of money buying phone cards, I’ll take it away. But he knows it’s not true, and he’s not foolish enough to make that kind of mistake with the little money he has anyway.

He was delighted. He thanked me a half-dozen times in the first three minutes of our conversation Saturday morning. Then we kept on talking. We hadn’t seen each other all week. I had been near Okap, and the week had been eventful, especially in the Pòtoprens area, where there had been lots of political unrest around rising food prices. We had lots to talk about.

I asked him how the week had been, and his answer was stunning. “I’m just glad,” he said, “that my father didn’t raise us to eat a lot. Most little kids, if they got only coffee in the morning and nothing the rest of the day, would be making a lot of noise, but my little brothers and sisters haven’t complained.”

Ti Kèl’s father, Decéus, is an aging mason at a time when construction is slow. His mother, Adelcia, is a market women when there is produce from their garden to sell, but it’s the end of the dry season, so she has little to work with. In other words, even if things were otherwise better in Haiti, this would be a hard financial moment for them.

The two of them have six children together: Boubout, Ti Kèl, Ti Fanm, Da, Wolan, and Fara. All of them still live at home. Decéus’s older daughter, Natacha, lives in her own place. Adelcia has four children from her previous relationship, and though the two oldest, Kale and Titi, live elsewhere, the two younger ones, Bèn and Boul, live with Adelcia and Decéus. Bèn is a young woman with two very small children of her own.

So the household is thickly populated. And lately, it seems, there are days when it goes entirely without food.

Though Ti Kèl’s answer took me off guard, hunger in Haiti is not as surprising as one would like it to be. It is increasing. Haiti is very much a part of the worldwide food crisis. Prices for the basics here – rice, beans, oil, corn, sorghum, flour, sugar – have been rising quickly, and incomes have not. Since Haiti was already a country where most people do little better than get by – more than half the population lives on less than $1 a day, and more than 70% on less than $2 – dramatic inflation necessarily has an immediate impact. And that impact does not affect whether one buys a new car or a house, or whether one takes a needed vacation or goes out to a nice restaurant. It affects how much, and even whether, one eats. Hunger here is common enough these days to have earned a new nickname, “//klòwoks//”, or “clorox”, for the way it burns your insides.

Ti Kèl and I arranged right away with Ti Fanm to make a big Saturday lunch. The two of them must have worked together much of the morning, between the shopping and the cooking. My own share of the enterprise was limited to finance – it cost me about $5.20 – and eating.

It was just one meal, but it gave me lots to think about. Whenever I go past Ti Kèl’s house, Adelcia and Ti Fanm offer me coffee. My fondness for the stuff is well known in Kaglo. I had long known that theirs is a family that does not have a lot, but I hadn’t really considered that the little snack they offer me might sometimes be all they consume all day.

It’s hard for me to know where I’m going with this. I must admit that I don’t want to shift the emphasis of my activities in Haiti to charity. I don’t want to spend a lot of time and energy giving what I can to Ti Kèl’s family and to other neighbors or, for that matter, to strangers, whose needs come to my attention. Nor do I want to spend more time finding resources that I can merely funnel towards them.

But I am around urgent needs all the time. I don’t think it would be right to pretend that I’m not or that I don’t notice them or that there’s nothing I can do.

It’s tempting to dilute the impulse to act – the call to conscience—by reminding myself that I can’t help everyone, by reminding myself that the needs here exceed what I’m able to give. It’s likewise tempting to remind myself that charity only encourages dependence. Both arguments are true, but they ring hollow when you’re thinking of children who might have nothing but coffee to keep them going throughout the day.

As I said, I don’t know where this is leading. I don’t see any conclusion that would seem true. Nor does it seem right to let things stand on a truism like, “There is no right answer.”

The knowledge that Ti Kèl, for example, is hungry a lot of the time ought to change my life. And, through me, it ought to change his. That does not mean that I’m ready to take responsibility for ensuring that he has all he needs to eat. But I cannot pretend that there’s nothing I can do.

Haitians Have My Back

I left the office today at about noon. It had been hard to get from Pétion-Ville down to Fonkoze’s office in Port au Prince in the morning, and I was afraid I would have to walk home – three hours, uphill, in the midday sun – so I left early.

What made it hard to get to Fonkoze in the morning, and promised to make the trip home even worse, were street demonstrations. Inflation has been getting steadily worse, particularly with respect to food, and people are really feeling it.

Early in the morning, I had walked from Kaglo to Pétion-Ville. Once there, I had had to weave my way through the downtown streets before I eventually found a pick-up truck headed down the hill to Port au Prince. I was the last on to get a place on the truck, standing on the step up to the bed. I hung onto the roof, as we headed off.

It took some time to get started, because the driver wanted to explain that he couldn’t promise to get us all the way to Port au Prince. Word was that demonstrators were blocking the main road, Bourdon, and if they cut off the secondary route that he planned to descend, he’d have to turn around. But we made it down the hill without incident, and I was at the Fonkoze office before 7:00.

I heard demonstrators in the streets on and off through the morning as I worked.

When I left the office, I walked across Avenue Christophe to Bourdon. I figured that I could walk up Bourdon in any case, and that I should at least see whether there were trucks heading up the hill. When I got there, I thought I was in luck. I saw a flatbed truck barreling uphill, overloaded with passengers. Though it was much too full for me to get a place, it gave me hope. I decided to walk down Bourdon to get closer to where the trucks start loading for the trip uphill. It seemed like the wisest course.

But I had gotten about a block and a half further down the hill, when I saw something that surprised me: A couple of minibuses and a pick-up truck that were heading down the hill made quick u-turns in front of me. Then I saw a couple of pedestrians doing the same thing. I looked up, and I saw why: Several hundred demonstrators were marching up Bourdon. They were still a couple of blocks away, but they were headed in my direction.

I’m not afraid of Haitian demonstrations. It’s not that I’m brave or reckless. It’s that experience has shown me I have no reason to fear them. I’ve been caught in the midst of them before, and have never suffered even a scratch. They make a lot of noise, but are generally peaceful, even cheerful. I know that’s not always the case, but it has been my experience.

But most of those experiences are of happier times, the times around René Préval’s election as president. He replaced the unpopular government that had been imposed by Haiti’s “allies” after President Aristide had been swept away in a coup d’état. Very many Haitians were excited by his election, optimistic that the country was taking a good turn.

But that optimism is gone. I can’t evaluate whether it is rightly gone. There is visible progress in Haiti, but not enough for a people that has been living in some of the worst poverty in the world.

So I turned quickly back up the hill. I see no reason to look for a first bad experience. I had resigned myself to what I then expected would be the long walk home, when I saw a pick-up truck making a u-turn right in front of me to head up the hill. I jumped on as it passed – it slowed to turn even if it didn’t stop – and got a tight grip on its roof.

Within seconds, however, it had come to a stop. Passengers were pouring out. They themselves were, I expected, headed downhill, and so wanted to get off a truck that I assumed to be heading back up.

But I was wrong. When the truck took off, it turned and headed back along Avenue Christophe, the cross street I had walked. At first I thought this meant that the driver was, prudently, taking a secondary road back up the hill. But when he got to the main road leading to and from Champs de Mars, he turned downhill again. He was still trying to get downtown. I asked him to stop, and jumped off. His assistant asked me why I wasn’t paying, and I answered that I was headed uphill, not down. He explained to the driver, and then told me to get back in. They would let me ride with them until they turned around, then they’d take me up the hill. “We can’t leave you here when the streets are like this,” he explained.

So I jumped back on.

Champs de Mars is the main park in downtown Port au Prince. It stretches uphill from in front of the presidential palace. There are trees and statues and benches. There’s the national history museum in the middle of it, and swings and slides for kids. There are a fountain or two and even a stage for concerts. It’s nice.

When the pick-up got to Champs de Mars, it stopped. I wasn’t sure why. Neither was the other guy sitting in back, a teenager amusing himself with questions about the slightly ragged-looking blan in the truck with him. The driver’s assistant signaled with his hand that we should be patient. Then he got out of the truck, and came back to talk with us. A woman who had been sitting in the front seat, between him and the driver, got out as well. She walked off into the crowd.

As it turned out, she was going after her son, a first grader at a private downtown school. She had convinced the driver to wait for her. This is what the assistant explained. They could not, he said, “leave the boy downtown . . .” So we parked in a corner of the park and waited.

By the time that the woman got back with her boy, it was too late to drive off. The demonstration was approaching us from two directions. Most of the shouting was against hunger. “Down with hunger!” “We won’t die of hunger!” Not much to argue with there. There was also music and dancing. Several demonstrators asked me what I was doing there as they marched by, but no one did anything more violent than tugging on the loop of my denim painter’s shorts. Thanks to Papouch, Madan Anténor’s 18-year-old son, I had a belt on, so the shorts stayed right where they belonged. The driver’s assistant had his eye on me the whole time.

The demonstration continued past us, down towards the palace, and we jumped on the truck and sped off. The driver wound through back streets, until he emerged onto Bourdon, well uphill of the excitement. As soon as he pulled over, his truck filled up. There were 18 adults in the back, six on each of two benches, three standing in the space between the benches, and three sitting on other passengers’ laps. The assistant was as bossy and hard-nosed about collecting fares as people in his position usually are, but every passenger seemed just glad to have found a space. Both sides of Bourdon were crowded all the way up the hill with those who hadn’t been as lucky, those who had had to walk.

I will probably never see the driver or his assistant again. There are so many in this city of more than two million people. But who knows? I gave them a little something more than the fare because I appreciated the way they took an interest in my safety, but they had not had any reason to expect that I would. Their interest appeared to be the kind of simple good will I’ve seen so much of in Haiti over the years.

Short and Sad

I’ll call her “Ellen.” She’s eighteen, from Upper Glo, the poorer side of the community where I’ve been living on and off for over ten years.

I little over three years ago, she was at the center of a great scandal. Great, at least, by the standards of this very small community. She was pregnant, and she claimed that there could be no doubt as to who the father was. She said that she had only ever been with one boy. I’ll call him “Mark.” Like Ellen, her was about fifteen at the time. She and an older sister appeared at the boy’s house – his father is a prominent member of the community – one Sunday afternoon. It caused quite a stir.

Mark admitted that he had been with her once, but his family was not willing to simply accept that Mark was the prospective father. So his mother agreed to take full but temporary financial responsibility for Ellen. All through her pregnancy, she would ensure that she ate well and got good prenatal care. But the family also arranged to have a DNA test done as soon as the baby was born.

That test was conclusive. Mark was not the father. So, his family ceased supporting Ellen and her child, leaving her on her own and her father’s hands. She and her family continued to insist that the baby could only be his, that she has never been with anyone else. They claimed that the laboratory had been bribed. I have very good reason to believe that such was not the case.

Ellen was young, but she took motherhood very seriously. As soon as she was able, she started a very small business to support herself and her child. She sold crackers, hard candy, and cheese puffs at the side of the road, under the mapou tree in front of my house.

These are all inexpensive items, and her profit could not have been much to speak of, but she persevered. She sat there all day, every day, making a few pennies at a time. The only time she ever left her post was to do her buying down in Pétion-Ville or to look in on her little boy. She would get one of her little brothers to watch the business for her, but she had to be careful. If she left them for too long, they were a little inclined to help themselves. Not a lot. But every penny counted because she was working for her boy.

She kept at it consistently over the last three years, and had reason to be proud of what she had achieved. Her boy was a big, healthy-looking baby, and she had set aside enough money to send him to kindergarten in the fall.

That would be impressive enough, but it means more when you know something about her family situation. Her mother’s been dead for years. And her father has shown no interest over the years in sending his kids to school. Her teenage younger brothers, for example, are only now in the second grade, because they didn’t stat until they were able to pay for their own school expenses. She got, perhaps, advice and encouragement from adult women around her. She has, for example, a wonderful relationship with the fried snacks merchant whose business is next to her. But this is something she did entirely on her own.

Last Sunday, she and an older neighbor brought the boy to Madan Anténor, who is, among other things, the closest thing Ka Glo has to a nurse. She’s a trained midwife and a health-extension worker. She does vaccinations and basic first aide.

I was with her at the time. The child was struggling terribly, taking short, shallow, rapid breaths. He had a high fever, and looked weak. Madan Anténor gave the boy some children’s medicine to reduce the fever, but told the girl to take him down to Pétion-Ville. She feared pneumonia and, therefore, the worst.

Ellen got her boy down to Pétion-Ville to see a doctor as quickly as she could. It’s a half-hour hike, a long way with a sick three-year-old on your hands, no doubt. Apparently, she didn’t get him down the hill quickly enough. When I return to Ka Glo today, a week after it all happened, Ellen’s youngest brother told me that the little boy was dead.

I went to see Ellen, and we had a long talk. I wanted to tell how impressed I had been by what an attentive, caring mother she had been. It’s not as though I expected to be able to cheer her up. Nothing but time could possibly help with that. But I thought it was important to say something to her.

She’s thinking of using some of the money she saved for her boy’s first year of school so that she can go back to school herself. Pregnancy forced her to drop out of fifth grade. Mainly, she’s just sad.

I have had to read and write about various mortality and morbidity statistics since I came to Haiti. There’s plenty of data to show that bad things happen to the poor. But even though there are poor all around me here in Haiti, it’s not every day that those statistics strike so close to home.

A Pleasant Little Tale

Monday was an unusually hard day of travel. It started at about 2:00 AM in Hinche, a city in the middle of Haiti’s Upper Central Plateau. Job and I boarded a pick-up truck to head back towards Port au Prince. I had come to Hinche Saturday to attend a friend’s baptism. Job had been in nearby Cerca Carvajal, planning some work he had to do there. I had wanted to leave Sunday afternoon, but it was Easter Sunday, so no transportation was available.

The truck had found us on our way to the station. It was roaming the streets, beeping its horn and revving its engine, looking for passengers. It wouldn’t leave for Port au Prince until it was full. Job and I got seats, but they were on the roof rack above the cab. In some ways, they were good seats. You get less dust up there. But you have to hang on tight. The truck left at about 3:00.

Job was going all the way to Port au Prince, but I had to get off in Mirebalais, about halfway there. I met the manager of Fonkoze’s office in Belladère. He spends weekends with his wife in Mirebalais, but then heads to his office on Monday. I had some work to do in his branch, so I got on the back of his motorcycle and made the hour-and-a-half long trip with him.

When I got there, I found out that they wanted me to do my work in Baptiste, a mountain community outside of Belladère. It’s another hour or more away on motorcycle, up a hard, mostly-unpaved road. Worse than unpaved, it’s formerly paved. Chunks of pavement combine with rough gaps to make the ride especially bad.

A Fonkoze credit agent drove me up the hill, and accompanied me as I did my work. We got back down to Belladère mid-afternoon, and I finished what I needed to do by about 4:00.

I had planned to spend the night in Belladère, but it’s really better not to. The first trucks don’t leave the city until after 8:00 AM, so you don’t get to Port au Prince until noon. Half your day is shot. Usually, however, trucks don’t leave Belladère late either. The last ones load for neighboring Lascahobas in early afternoon. Belladère is on the Dominican border, and so it’s not that oriented towards Port au Prince. There just isn’t a lot of traffic in that direction.

But I was in luck. Monday is market day in Elias Piña, Belladère’s Dominican neighbor, so there are more passengers looking to head back towards the rest of Haiti on Monday afternoons. I was on the back of a pick-up, headed to Lascahobas by 4:30, and it was loaded and ready to go by 5:30. I had another long wait in Lascahobas, waiting for a truck towards Mirebalais to fill, and by the time I got to Mirebalais it was 8:00. I was tired and hungry, so I slept well.

I left early Tuesday morning on the back of a pick-up headed on the very dusty road back to Port au Prince. The other passengers and I joked that we’d all be the same color by the time we arrived.

We got to Croix des Bouquets by 7:30, but the driver stopped there instead of going all the way to the downtown station. It was a nuisance, and my fellow passengers were furious, but he was not going to change his mind. I walked 20 minutes to an intersection where I thought I would find a pick-up or a bus headed downtown, but I didn’t see any. I settled for one headed to the Shada intersection. There I knew I’d find one.

Or I thought I knew. I had no luck. I started strolling, looking over my shoulder to see whether I’d find the ride I needed.

When I got to Croix des Mission, I came across a familiar smile. It was Marie Ange, one of the women from the KOFAVIV group that I met with regularly over the course of about two years. KOFAVIV is the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, an organization of rape victims who offer support to other rape victims. I no longer meet with them, though I see some of them now and again. I hear about them often enough because a couple of them have gotten jobs with Fonkoze as the agents that offer Fonkoze credit to the others.

We each spoke some about our work. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time. She too no longer attends the KOFAVIV meetings, but she still works with victims in her neighborhood. She was curious to know about the various parts of Haiti that my work takes me to and about the different groups I see.

She asked me what I doing, and said I looked kind of lost. I explained that I was trying to catch a ride downtown.

I was tired and dusty. I must have looked pretty ragged even by my own, rather low standards. But I had no idea how ragged until she reached into her purse and gave me 50 gourds. It was an event entirely without precedent in all my years here. She must have thought that I lacked even the ten gourds for bus fare, though I told her I did not.

I’m not used to thinking of myself as a charity case, and part of me was sorry to be taking her money. She can’t have much to give. But, for what is, I think, the better part of me, her generosity simply made my day.

Intervening Is Awkward

I was pretty pleased with my plan. Léon had just finished putting a roof on his new house. He, one of his sons, and some neighbors had built cinder-block walls around the previous house, a structure that had been made of sheets of corrugated steel roofing material. They then took the used sheets and made it the roof of the new, larger home. (See: HomeImprovement.)

His son Mackenson spoke to me about his excitement. “Now,” he said, “I have a home I can receive friends in.” And they really are ready to welcome guests. Even if there’s still work to be done.

There is, for example, no door. They simply use a leftover piece of the roofing. They block the doorway with it, and move it back and forth as they need to go in or out.

I learned that a door could be purchased for about 2000 gourds, less than $55. So I decided to help them buy one. Mackenson is one of the kids who does math with me, and he helps me around the house all the time. Léon is a great guy, always doing people favors. So I knew it would feel like a treat to do something for him. I was a little short on funds, so I had to wait until payday. But wait I did. Then I organized the cash so that I could go up to Kaglo with it on my first trip home after an extended period of work in the field. I thought it would make for a nice surprise for them both.

Before I could get up to see him, Léon stopped by to say “hi”. He came by while I was unpacking. It’s not something he ever does. He’s too busy. He’s out doing farm work well before sunrise every day, and he rarely takes a break before nightfall. But he had just finished some work for a neighbor of mine, and was on his way up the hill to water his own field. He happened to see me step in, so he decided to stop by. He looked tired, and a little thin, but otherwise all right.

As it turned out, he had a problem. A few days earlier, he had finished some farm work in the fields below where I live. He was ready to head home to tend his own fields when he found he simply couldn’t. His home is a short but steep uphill walk from the road I live along, and he just didn’t have the strength to climb that hill. He sat down next to the footpath, and called to a passing neighbor. She’s a cousin of his, and she quickly put him to bed in her home. Then she sent for his wife.

Léon and his wife live separately, each with a couple of their younger kids. She’s with their daughters, and he’s with their sons. They don’t seem to be separated in our sense of the word. They maintain, to all appearances, close and good relations. Visits, in one direction or the other, are frequent, often daily. They are close business partners: He grows produce, and she takes it to market. And Mackenson has told me a lot that suggests they work together to raise their kids. They just live in two different houses, in two neighboring communities.

It was about noon when she got to him and, according to the account he gave me when I asked him about it, it was well after 3:00 before he knew what was going on around him. Eventually, he was helped home. He was back working the next day, but Mackenson says that his mother has been spending more time with them ever since.

Now I don’t know what was wrong with Léon. I hope he sees a doctor soon. My friend Dr. Job plans to visit over the weekend, and I’ve already asked him to bring his black bag.

I do know this: Though Mackenson appears to be a healthy, well-fed young man, Léon cannot be getting three square meals a day. In the best of times, he would have nothing but a cup of coffee and a roll before he leaves in the morning, and then nothing more until he gets home after dark. I asked him about that cup of coffee, and he told me that it’s been up and down. As the price of sugar has increased, he’s found himself going without at least some of the time. Thanks to the price of flour, the roll has become a rare thing too.

So here I am, handing him cash to buy a front door. His poor health is probably related to hunger, hunger directly connected to lack of funds. He rarely has much money to buy food with. This time of year, at the end of the dry season, with his main harvest still a long time away, his cash would typically be especially low. Normally, his staple right now would be the yams he grows and can dig up whenever he wants. But for reasons he can’t explain, this year’s crop didn’t amount to much.

So he should probably just buy some food, but the money in his hands is for a front door. I wish there was away for me to ensure that the door is really his priority, but it’s too late for that.


Mackenson’s partner in the schoolwork we do together is Ti Kèl. They’ve been bench mates in class after class for the last few years, two 18-year-old sixth graders. They both started school late, but have been making good progress since. They’re business partners as well: They farm together and split the profits. They’re also great friends. One other thing they have in common is that, since last year, I’m the adult who signs their report cards. Their parents can’t. Before they first asked me to do this, they had been signing the report cards themselves. I was reluctant initially, but eventually agreed. Now, at the end of each term, I meet with their parents – usually, with Léon and with Ti Kèl’s mom – and we talk about how about how they’re doing. I tell the parents what grades the guys have earned, where their strengths have been and where they are weak. I suggest what we might do to help them. After that, I sign. About a week ago, they brought me their third term report cards. Mackenson had done wonderfully. He was first in their class with an average of 7.2 out of ten. It was a great sign. He’ been first most of the time for several years, but earlier this year he wasn’t working as hard as he always had, and his grades slipped. This term’s grades showed that he had gotten himself back on track. Ti Kèl’s card was marked 6.7, very good as well by standards here. When I looked at the “6”, however, I immediately saw something was wrong. The left side of it looked as though it had been written over. I looked at the actual totals, and saw that he had scored 114 out of 200, or 5.7. He had doctored the “5” so that it would appear to be a “6”. It took my breath away. I confronted him right away with the strange appearance of the “6”, and he tried to claim that that’s the way the teacher had written it. When I explained the way that I could calculate his actual average, and that I had done so, he immediately confessed. He had changed his grade because he felt that 5.7 wasn’t good enough. Before proceeding, I want to say two things. First, 5.7 is good enough, at least in a general sense. It’s much better than a passing grade, which is 5.0. What’s more, his teacher cribbed the exam from a previous year’s national sixth grade graduation exam, so Ti Kèl’s score gives reason to hope that he will pass this summer. Second, Ti Kèl has shown over and over that he is generally a trustworthy and reliable young man, both generous and considerate. I trust him with a lot when he does chores for me, and he’s never shown the least sign that he doesn’t deserve that trust. In other words, changing his report card seems to be an aberration. The obvious question is “Why?” What pushed a generally honest young man to try changing an acceptable grade so that it would appear even better? When I asked Ti Kèl this very question, he gave the obvious answer: He didn’t think the grade he had earned was good enough. I knew what he meant. Like Mackenson, his grades had dipped considerably from last spring to this past fall. They had not dropped below passing, but they were much above it either. I had made a big deal about it in a couple of ways. On one had, I worked harder to make myself available for our little math class. On the other, I bought some Haitian, young-person’s novels in French. Both guys have particular trouble in French, and I thought it would help if they had something to read. I also talked about the difficult position they both are in: It will be hard, and may even be impossible, for them to get into the public secondary school in Pétion-Ville, but neither of them comes from a family that will be able to afford to pay for their school. The best chance they might have is if they can keep their grades very high so that, against all odds, they can continue in public school nonetheless. I must have gone too far. Somehow, I gave Ti Kèl the impression that he must have excellent grades come what may. I am glad that he’s come to take achievement in school seriously. It could end up making a difference for him. But obviously I overdid it. I led him to create so strong an expectation for himself that, when he saw that he hadn’t achieved what he thought he was supposed to achieve, lying appeared to be his one way out.

Mackenson, Ti Kèl, and I are going to keep doing things together. Math, for one thing. But there will be other things as well. Our latest project is animal husbandry. We bought a couple of female goats. We all know that, if they want to stay in school after this year, they’ll need to find a source of income beyond the farming they already do. We’re hoping that goats might be at least part of the answer.

But it’s hard to be very sure. When you intervene as an outsider in someone’s life, it’s much easier to get things wrong than to get them right. The beginning of the Hippocratic Oath is “First do no harm.” It’s a good principle, but not as easy as it sounds.

The Graduation Speech


I recently wrote about a group of women who were graduating from Fonkoze’s Ti Kredi program into its standard Solidarity Group credit. (See: Boukankare Graduation.) What follows is the full text of the speech that one of the graduates made that day.

Good morning everyone. Good morning everyone.

I’m Lorise Viergella, from Pajès. I’m the leader of a solidarity group called “Canaan”. My heart is full of joy because of the help Fonkoze is giving us. Fonkoze is helping us free ourselves from the humiliation we suffer from the men in our lives.

Men look down on us. The say they have to buy even the gas for our lamps. They have to buy even the salt and the oil for our food. But we want to move forward. If the men provide beans, we want to buy the rice. If they buy us our panties, we want to buy their briefs. And we will do it.

When Fonkoze first showed up, it frightened me. I was a little bit afraid. But little by little, as I would go around, the women who were already members spoke with me. They shared what they had already learned. I said to myself, well, I want to make progress so that if my husband gives me the beans, I can buy the okra.

So I joined. And Fonkoze began to do a lot for me. Today, I am raising a small pig at the edge of the field. And it’s thanks to Fonkoze.

I’m making profit. I sell candy. I sell cold drinks. I buy my sodas for six gourds, and I sell them for ten. I buy my Cokes for 15 gourds, and I sell them for 20. I buy my King Colas for fifteen gourds, and I sell them for twenty. I buy my Maltas for fifteen gourds and I sell them for twenty. Now I’ve bought a little pig and a few little chickens. I pay into my savings club and I make deposits into my account. That’s just to say, I want to move forward. I want to become fat.

If my husband gives me 100 gourds for our household, I can reach into my candy box and add another hundred gourds, thanks to Fonkoze’s Ti Kredi program. Thanks to Ti Kredi Fonkoze.

Our Fonkoze credit agent, Doudou, would talk with us. He would say, “Don’t just go off and spend the money you make. Don’t just spend on pretty new clothes. Don’t make other purchases that could wreck your business.”

He never told us not to eat, but said we should eat economically. If we prepare food with just a little inexpensive fish seasoning one day, we can prepare meat the next. Then we should go back to the fish seasoning again.

All that makes me want to thank Fonkoze and its leadership, the folks that are helping us move forward. I thank them because now I can buy things like little notebooks for my kids.

Thanks to Fonkoze, we can buy a book or two as well. If dad buys a book, we can buy a notebook. If dad buys a pen, we can buy a pencil.

I thank everyone who’s graduating with me today, and those who aren’t yet graduating as well. We’ll pray with you so that tomorrow you can stand where we now stand. That’s all I want to say.

Fonkoze in Lalomas

Michèl, Jilmèn, and Madanm Lisyen are residents of Lalomas. They are members of a solidarity group called Bondyè Bon, or “God is good,” that’s served by Fonkoze’s Senmichèl branch. They’ve been with Fonkoze since 2003, and are on their fourth loan. Their most recent ones were for 15,000 gourds each, or about $400.

Belonging to a solidarity groups means more than just taking out loans and making repayments together – though it means that, too. It means sticking up for one another. That’s what Madanm Lisyen likes most about her Fonkoze credit. “There’s someone there,” she says, “to help you out if you need it.”

Her group had need of the principle when fellow member Jilmèn ran into trouble. She had used profits from her business to help her husband by a small motorcycle. It was a big investment, but it allowed him to earn another income for them as a taxi driver.

But then the motorcycle broke down. It had tied up enough of her money that repaying her loan became a serious problem. She talked to her credit agent, Brunel, about her plan to sell it, but he advised her to wait. “I told her to talk to her group instead,” he said. “The motorcycle was a good investment. I knew it would be better for her family if she could hold onto it.” She did talk to the group, and they were willing to lend her the money she would need to keep up her repayments. The motorcycle is almost fixed, and once her husband gets back to work repaying her friends should be no trouble.

Jilmèn is excited about her Fonkoze credit because it has really helped her business grow. She’s a butcher, buying livestock in the countryside that she sells as meat in Sanrafayèl, a small city nearby. She has five young children, and though they had started school before she joined Fonkoze, they had had to stop going. Tuition was more than she could afford. Now all five of them are in school, and she couldn’t be happier. “My business helps me care for my children. That’s what matters to me.”

Madanm Lisyen is an older woman. She’s given birth to sixteen children, though only six survived childhood. The youngest is now a 21-year-old eleventh-grader. She has seventeen grandchildren as well. She travels to Okap, Wanament, or Pòtoprens every two weeks or so to buy merchandise that she sells in front of her home in Lalomas. “I sell everything someone could need: food, cosmetics, sandals, underwear . . . everything.”

She used to sell from a stall in the middle of the busy market in Piyon, a regional center, but starting feeling as though she was too old to spend all that time away from home. “It was getting too hard. I decided to sell from my home instead.” But that hurt her business badly. She had to start over, without a client base, and so the business that had been so successful shrunk considerably. “My business got really small. Thanks to Fonkoze, it’s growing again.”

And it’s not just the credit she’s grateful for. She’s part of the literacy class Fonkoze offers free of charge in her center. “I’m old, and so it’s hard for me to learn, but I can already write my name. I’m a little slow, but with a little help I can now sign my name when we get our loans.” She’s not the only one who’s pleased. Her grandchildren love to watch her practice writing her name, and the older ones are quick to offer help and encouragement.

Madanm Lisyen buys in the cities and sells from her home. Michèl’s business works the other way around. She buys charcoal from peasants in and around Lalomas, and sells it in Pòtoprens. With the money she earns, she buys sacks of flour and sugar to sell when she returns home. When she’s busy, she can make the trip as often as once a week. It’s hard, but it’s good business. “It’s helped me raise my children and send them to school.” And that’s no inconsiderable feat. She has twelve of them.

Fonkoze’s credit has helped her expand her business and diversify it all well. “I’ve started buying livestock. I bought a bull a few months ago, and it’s grown so much that I wouldn’t sell it now for 10,000 gourds.” That’s about $265.

“The credit has also helped me do some things just for me. I always set the money I need for reimbursement and for purchasing aside, and I set aside what I need for my household, too. But I had wanted a cabinet to hold my dishes for a long time, and last week I saw one I liked. I told my husband I wanted to buy it, and that’s what I did.”

Michèl, Jilmèn, and Madanm Lisyen with their Credit Agent, Brunel

Elimàn belongs to another credit center, one that meets just down the road. She’s on her fourth loan as well. Hers is for 10,000 gourds. Some women may travel occasionally, even frequently, away from Lalomas to buy or sell. Elimàn spends most of her time away from Lalomas because she does both. She buys cosmetics and other odds and ends in Pòtoprens and then sells them in the large market towns of Ponsonde and Lestè. She comes home once a month to see her family and repay her loan.

It’s a hard life that’s been hers since she was a young girl. “My mother’s business was away from home, and I used to go with her when I was little. When she passed away, I continued the same kind of work.”

Her four children live in Senmichèl with an aunt so they can go to school. Her husband is a farmer in Lalomas, who keeps an eye on the kids and on their home.

“I’d like to sell at home, but my business isn’t big enough. You can’t go back and forth from Lalomas to Pòtoprens unless you have a lot of money to buy with. The transportation costs too much. But Ponsonde is much closer. I can go to Pòtoprens to buy with any little bit of money I have.”

Her business makes it hard for her to take advantage of the opportunities that Fonkoze might offer. She isn’t around to benefit from educational services or even to attend all of the required center meetings. So far, she’s been able to maintain a good repayment record, but her inability to attend meetings or to see her credit agent regularly entails risk. For Elimàn and the women in Lalomas who are like her the challenge is to grow within a system that wasn’t quite designed with a business like theirs in mind.

That’s a challenge for Fonkoze as well. The realities of Lalomas and its remote location won’t allow the problem to be ignored.


Home Improvement

I didn’t get back to Kaglo until mid-morning on Sunday. I had been working in the Central Plateau Saturday morning, and by the time I was finished it was too let to get public transportation back to Pòtoprens. So I decided to get a spot on a truck that would leave at 3:00 AM on Sunday. I’d be in Pòtoprens before 8:00, and would have some of my Sunday to myself.

As soon as I got home and changed, I walked up the hill to Mackenson’s house. It’s across the road from where I live, in Upper Glo, about a five-minute walk away.

The house really belongs to Mackenson’s father, Léon. I had been there any number of times, but I remember my first visit well. Mackenson had asked me to become the signer on his report card. His parents can’t read or write, and ever since Mackenson started working with me regularly at math, he began to view me as a reasonable alternative to his signing the cards himself. I told him that I’d be happy to do so, but would have to talk to his mother or father about his grades before I did. I wanted it to be clear that I was signing for them.

So I went to talk to Léon. He’s an older man, though his age would be hard to guess. Mackenson is 18, and has four older siblings. The oldest is about thirty, so Léon is probably in his 50s, though he looks like he could be much older. He’s a farmer and a day laborer. I guess it’s a hard life. His wife lives just up the hill, in Ba Osya, with their unmarried daughters.

What I remember so well is how surprised I was to discover that Léon was living with Mackenson and another younger son in a single-room house, no more than ten feet long and ten feet wide, made entirely out of rough wooden support posts and tin roofing material. A cloth hung over the front entrance in place of a door.

I had seen such houses often enough in Haiti. They are quite common in Cité Soleil, for example. But I didn’t know there were any in Kaglo. The houses I had visited in Kaglo, where I’ve sent much of the last ten years or so, are nice concrete structures. Those that some of the poorer families live in may be a little worse for wear, and I know of one with a straw roof, but they have solid walls and offer real protection against the cool night air and the heavy summer rain. Léon’s house took me by surprise.

Over the course of the past year, though, the house began to change. Four concrete walls went up around it. Léon and his boys stilled lived in the tin structure, but it was like a mollusk growing a newer, larger, harder shell around its existing one. It’s not that Léon’s financial position had changed very much, but he was getting some help from a neighbor, who had decided to help him build a new house.

In any case, when I got to their house on Sunday, work was in progress. The roofing material that formerly was the inner shell was arranged in piles in front of the completed cement structure, and neighbors were helping to arrange the beams they would be nailed to. Mackenson had told me earlier in the week that they were finally ready to put on the roof, and I said I’d come by to give an unskilled hand.

It turned out that “giving a hand” meant sitting and drinking coffee with the older men, whose role was to provide advice while the ones doing the work would try to pretend they were listening to it. There simply wasn’t enough work to go around. The project was too small. Two men were balancing on roof beams, nailing them in place then attaching the roofing, and they couldn’t have more then one or two others passing them what they needed. Mackenson’s married oldest sister was preparing a large pot of beans and rice to share later.

I was happy with my very limited role. I had to head back down the mountain that morning to spend the afternoon working in Cité Soleil, where I would also sleep. Conserving my energy seemed like a good idea. And I was glad to be reminded that Léon likes his coffee strong.

The house isn’t exactly finished. The floor is packed dirt, and it still lacks a door, but it’s a big improvement over what they had. And Mackenson is pleased. He told me that now he has a home where he can receive his friends.