Clermicile — Eight Years After Graduating

The years Clermicile spent growing up were complicated. When her father passed away, she moved from the area around Labasti, in southern Mibalè, where she had been living, to Doko, on the top of the hill that separates the Central Plateau from the area around Pòtoprens.

Her mother really struggled. Clermicile was her only daughter, and she was able to pay for Clermicile to attend only one year of school. Not once, but twice, she sent Clermicile to live as domestic help in wealthier families because she couldn’t take care of her. But Clermicile felt she was being mistreated, so she ran away, returning to her mother’s home.

But the mother still had difficulty taking care of her daughter, and was alarmed as she notice boys beginning to flirt with her. A neighbor suggested she encourage Clermicile to return to Pòtoprens and find paying work as a housemaid to get her away from the boys, and the mother agreed. Clerimicile moved in with the neighbor’s daughter in Kwadeboukè and spent her days working at a job they found for her. She went through several such jobs this way. Women liked employing her. “They called me ‘Seliwòz‘ because they said I was always cheerful.”

Se li woz” is hard to translate. “Woz” means pink, but the phrase means something like “she’s the pretty one.”

Clermicile continued to work in Pòtoprens until she became pregnant. Then she returned to Mibalè and her mother, but she met her current partner, Jolicoeur, almost immediately. They moved in together when she was still pregnant with that first child, a boy named Lovensky.

Clermicile was never able to earn a steady living. Lovensky was a very unhealthy child, requiring lots of care in his early years. He was born with a fused rectum and required emergency surgery as a new born before he could defecate. She had trouble sustaining all the medical follow-up he needed, and he spent the first seven years of his life with a colostomy bag. Lovensky was admitted to the hospital frequently, and Clermicile would stay with him. But it not only prevented her from earning a living, but led to lots of expense. The medical care itself was nearly free of charge thanks to Partners in Health, but Clermicile had to eat while she stayed at the hospital with her boy, and the costs of purchasing meals every day from vendors in the street in front of the hospital added up.

Lovensky was six when Clermicile joined CLM in 2013. One of the first things the team did with her is assist her through the steps of follow-up that Lovensky needed. It took some maneuvering, but she was able to arrange surgery for Lovensky at Partners in Health’s University Hospital in Mibalè, which had just opened. Jolicoeur had to earn most of what the small family needed in their day-to-day lives. He would work for the drivers of the pick-up trucks used for public transportation between Mibalè and Kwadeboukè, the northernmost suburb of Pòtoprens. He’d earn tips for collecting passengers’ fees when he could find a driver willing to take him on.

By then the couple had another boy, an infant. Clermicile chose goats and a pig as the enterprises she would receive from Fonkoze. With an infant in her arms, it was too difficult to start a small commerce.

She was able to keep her pig healthy. That was before the epidemic of Teschen disease that has made pig-rearing in Haiti even riskier than it already was. But her real success came with her goats. “I had a lot of luck with them.” The program gave her two, and by the time she graduated, she had eight.

When asked how she uses her goats, she explains that she has always used them mainly as savings. She sells one or two or more when she needs to manage an expense, whether it is school fees or costs connected to sickness in the family or just to cover regular household expenses when the couple is struggling. Once she sold four of them to pay a lawyer to help get Jolicoeur out of legal trouble. The number of goats she keeps at any time varies, but each time it has gotten down to zero, she’s been able to get started again by purchasing new ones out of what they can save from Jolicoeur’s earnings by selling a bunch of plantains or two from her garden.

When she graduated from the program, Clermicile decided that she wanted to start a small business. She had always managed one on-and-off, whenever Lovensky’s health permitted it. Friends would lend her 500 gourds or so, and she’d buy something she could sell at Labasti, the large weekly market just a short walk from her home. In the last weeks of her time in CLM, the CLM team introduced her and her fellow members to staff from SFF, the Fonkoze Foundation’s sister organization in Haiti, which is the country’s largest microfinance institution. So, just after graduation she took out her first loan. She has taken a series of loans since 2014, and the value of the loans has increased. The first was for just 3,000 gourds. The most recent was for 45,000.

She has experimented with a range of businesses. Often she will buy livestock at various markets in Sodo or Mibalè and resell it, either at the same market, counting on strong negotiation skills, or by bringing it to Labasti, where butchers come from Pòtoprens and prices for livestock can be high. Sometimes she buys groceries and sells them either in Labasti or in Nan Gad, a large market near the entrance to Kwadeboukè. She buys beans in Laskawobas, where farmers bring them in for sale from the mountains, and sells them in Labasti and Nan Gad, where they cost a lot more.

Two yeas ago, the CLM team had the chance to offer families who had been part of the program before 2017 a new level of support. In 2016 and 2017, the team began helping members organize their own local savings and loan associations, and these associations had proven a success. Members make weekly contributions over the course of a year, and the association uses the money to make interest-bearing loans to members. At the end of a one-year cycle, members receive all their savings along with their share of whatever interest the association has earned. Clermicile and the women she graduated with had passed through the program before the team had learned to use the associations, so Fonkoze decided to organize associations for 800 CLM graduates in the region.

Clermicile was elected president of hers, though her presidency didn’t last. At the first meeting, it became clear that the elected secretary could not read well enough to do the job, so she and Clermicile switched places. Clermicile is, it turns out, perfectly able to read Creole well.

This is surprising, not just because Clermicile attended just one year of school. When she first joined CLM, her case manager taught her how to sign her name. We are always careful to say that the CLM program does not include literacy. We help women learn to write their names, but that’s about it. Neither we nor the women we work with have time for much more in the 18 months that the program lasts.

But when Clermicile could write her name, her case manager started giving her other words to write. A range of words. And before long, Clermicile was able to read and write at a basic level. Little bits of practice in the ensuing years only made her more capable. Now she manages all the reading and writing associated with her post in the association without difficulty. The association recently completed its second cycle, and its members are happy with it. Over 20 other neighbors have asked to join, enough so Clermicile is planning to open a second association for them, so that her original one will remain manageable.

Clermicile likes her association both for the way it encourages her to save money and for the credit it makes available. She prefers to take out loans for just a month, borrowing only what she can invest, roll over, and pay back in one lump sum. Interest in her association is 2% per month, so paying back the entire sum quickly minimizes the interest she pays. She has gotten so comfortable with the rhythm of these loans and their repayment, that she plans to leave her more expensive SFF credit program when she finishes repaying her current loan.

Meanwhile, she and Jolicoeur have been building up assets. Clermicile has eight goats and Lovensky and his younger brother each have one too, gifts from Jolicoeur. The couple has purchased some land, as well.

Clermicile has made a lot of progress since she first joined the program. Some of it has been financial. She and Jolicoeur are not wealthy by any means, but they are managing. And she’s become a leader in her community, too. She is the secretary and undisputed leader of her savings association, but she’s done more. She now serves on a regional committee committed to fighting gender-based violence. There, too, she is the committee’s secretary.