The Complexity of Relationships

I was back in Judge Patrick’s court the other day. He’s the justice of the peace in Trianon, and has helped our team through conflicts involving CLM members before. (See: Justice of the Peace.)

Hilaire is one of the case managers I work with, and he had asked me to go to a hearing for him. One of his CLM members had been called before the judge, and Hilaire had to be elsewhere. We don’t protect our members from the legal consequences of any ill they do, but we want them to feel supported as they go through the legal process that determines whether they did ill in fact. Safine had been called to court because of a formal complaint that had been filed against her.

The complaint had been filed by her husband, and the story had struck me as unbelievable when I first heard it. I simply assumed that there was something important I was missing.

Safine and Maxo have been together for years. They have two children. She has also children from a previous relationship, and Maxo splits his time between her and another woman and other children farther up the mountain in Terre Rouge.

Safine has been focused and hardworking since she joined CLM. She and her children had been living in a house that she built with money that she earned in a cash-for-work program run after the 2010 earthquake by an organization called Mercy Corps, but the house was on land she had rented, and making the rental payments was always a problem. Maxo is a truck driver, but he does not own a truck, so he depends on owners to hire him to drive for them. None have recently, so his contribution to the household has been minimal. And he hasn’t been willing to do other sorts of work he might find, preferring to wait around for the relatively large payday he can expect if he gets to drive a truck. Safine chose goats and small commerce as her two CLM enterprises, and though she works hard at her commerce, she’s struggled to keep the household fed without Maxo’s help.

But she had a clear objective. When she learned that CLM would help her build a house, she decided that she wanted to build it on her own land. She’s from a different part of the Central Plateau, so her family has no land in Redout, where she now lives. She would have to buy a plot.

Talking to neighbors, she found someone willing to sell her a space she liked for 20,000 gourds, just under $460. She would have to pay 15,000 by January 1st, and could owe the rest. Maxo wasn’t interested, but she was determined. She started saving money. She was afraid to keep it at home because she worried that Maxo would spend it, so she asked the local KASEK, the neighborhood’s elected leader, to hold her money for her. Asking a wealthier neighbor to hold money is a common way of saving in rural Haiti.

She started by going to visit her family in Boucan Carré, where she found a brother willing to give her 2500 gourds. She went straight to the KASEK with the money, without even stopping by her home. She then sold most of the house she was living in. It was relatively large, and she realized that, if she sold off most of it – some of the doors, support posts, and lumber and tin from the roof – she could still keep enough basic materials to build a much smaller place on her new land. She also sold the new roofing material CLM gave her, realizing that the unsold tin from her current house would be enough to cover a small one-room home. She raised 11,000 gourds from these sales, which brought her within 1500 gourds of her goal.

At this point, she went to Maxo to ask him what he could contribute. He gave her 1000 gourds, but it was just before New Year’s Eve, and January 1st is the most important holiday on a Haitian calendar. They hadn’t yet done their holiday shopping, so Safine told Maxo she’d have to take 500 gourds for groceries and would only be able to add 500 of the 1000 gourds to the money she was saving to buy the land.

She now had 14,000 gourds, so she went to the man she was buying the land from and asked him to accept the slightly smaller down payment. He agreed to do so on one condition: He would hold her receipt until she has given him the remaining 1000 gourds. Safine didn’t want to agree to that. She couldn’t be sure when she would have the money ready, and had learned from Hilaire that she should not hand over a large sum like that without a receipt. But the seller said that if he didn’t get his money by January 1st, he’d sell the land to someone else, so she went to the KASEK and asked for her 14,000 gourds.

At first the KASEK refused to hand it over the money at all. Not out of dishonesty, but out of kindness. She had watched how furiously Safine had scrabbled to amass the money she needed, but it was December 31st, and she worried that if she gave her the money before the holiday, Safine would feel pressure to fritter some of it away. But Safine insisted. She said that she had saved up the money because she knew what she wanted, and that the KASEK didn’t have to worry about her on that score. The KASEK brought Safine her money, and they started talking about the 1000 gourds. When the KASEK heard that Safine would have to hand over the money without a receipt, she agreed to lend Safine the last 1000 gourds. She said Safine could repay her whenever she had the money.

So they called the seller, a couple of his friends, and Maxo to the KASEK’s house to do the paperwork. In the countryside, the KASEK is responsible for land transactions. She would write out the receipt, have each party sign, have witnesses for each party sign, and then add her own signature.

That’s when the trouble started. The KASEK wrote out the receipt, putting Safine’s name down as the buyer and Maxo’s name as a witness. Maxo was furious. He is, he said, the man in the house. His name should be together with Safine’s as a buyer. He refused to sign unless he was listed as a buyer, and he filed a complaint in the justice-of-the-peace’s office when the sale went through despite him.

And that’s what I couldn’t understand. How could an unemployed man who contributes 500 gourds out of 15,000 so that one of his two partners can make a down payment on a piece of land imagine that he had a right to insist that he be listed as one of the buyers?

I heard a couple of different explanation. Someone told me that he had just insisted that, as the man of the house, he ought to be named in such an important transaction. Another said that he claimed that, if his name were not on the receipt, Safine would have the right to kick him out of the house any time she wanted. A third explained that he had other children and that he didn’t want them to be excluded from the inheritance. (Haitian laws about inheritance are strict. Property must go to one’s children.) Since he had been living with Safine in a house she built on land that they rented together, he felt that he had a stake in land purchased with proceeds from the sale of the house.

None seemed like plausible claims. But all seemed like things someone might assert. I hadn’t spoken to Maxo myself, nor had I spoken recently to Safine, so I was anxious to hear what they each would actually say once they were in front of Judge Patrick.

As the plaintiff, it was Maxo’s role to speak first. He made a long, rambling speech explaining why he had wanted his name on the receipt for all the reasons I mentioned above, but claiming again and again that he accepted Safine’s decision to do things her way.

I began to wonder why we were sitting there if he had decided to accept her decision when he finally came to his point. He wanted to split with Safine, and he came to the justice of the peace because he wanted to do it clearly and publicly. He is the man of the house, he said, and it had gotten to the point that she had “done too much” for him. As the man, he explained, it is his role to give, not to take. He could not live in a house built with his wife’s means on land purchased with his wife’s money. He had to leave.

They were not married, but had been together for years. Because she was not local, he worried that, if she ran into problems, her family would come to him for explanation. He had come before the court to declare that they were separating and that he would no longer be responsible for her.

I struggled through his speech to keep track of what he was saying. The small courtroom was full of noisy observers. But I was sitting in a corner with Safine on one side of me and a member of our local Village Assistance Committee on the other. So with many questions and explanations, sometimes repeated, I think I followed. I was encouraged as I tried to follow Judge Patrick’s responses on his face. He’s a very focused listener, but doesn’t bother hiding behind a poker face. It was clear that he was surprised, and even a little amused, by what he was hearing.

When it was Safine’s turn to speak, she laid out the relevant part of the history of her finances: how she had paid for the first house and how she had used that first house to buy the land the second would be built on. She talked about how she had had to sneak around the household with her money, bringing it all to the KASEK to hold, because she couldn’t trust Maxo not to spend it on trivial things for his own amusement. Even as she was succeeding with the commerce that Hilaire helped her establish, she was struggle to feed their kids because Maxo was contributing nothing except added expense. When Judge Patrick asked her whether she agreed to split from Maxo, she quickly answered that that was what she wanted too.

But Judge Patrick told them things were not as simple as they wanted them to be. As a justice of the peace, he is the lowest-level judge in the Haitian legal system. The law prescribes the kinds of cases he can decide and the kinds that are beyond his authority. He said that he cannot separate a family, that they would have to go to Mirebalais, to the next higher level, to do that.

This started a dialogue, which he facilitated, about whether it would be worth going to Mirebalais to do what they wanted to do. Maxo started by insisting that he wanted to go there that very minute. But he was clearly posturing. He wasn’t tone deaf enough to have failed to notice how ridiculous the courtroom observers found him. And Judge Patrick seemed to want to make him feel that he was walking down a dead end.

So they decided that they would try to work things out in Trianon, and then Judge Patrick brought up another, more important issue. The kids. Safine and Maxo were welcome to split up, but who would take responsibility for the kids? He told Maxo that, even if he left Safine, he would have to continue supporting his children. At first he said that he would take the kids.

Safine initially said that she would agree to this, but asked where he would raise them. When he said he would take them to his other household in Terre Rouge, she scornfully asked who would take care of them. He said he’d give them to his wife there – he is no more married to her than he is to Safine – and Safine could only snort her contempt.

That contempt resonated throughout the tiny courtroom. Judge Patrick and the observers seemed to want to say something simple, like “What?!” Maxo’s reaction to the collective gasp of disbelief only made things worse. “Well, I’ll just find another woman and give the children to her.” People simply laughed at him.

So they agreed that Safine would keep the kids. Judge Patrick told them he would enter an agreement between them into the court record, one that guaranteed that they would not bother each other and that Maxo would pay support. So he started writing in a notebook he uses to draft things for the record. He got to a point and stopped. He looked up at Maxo and said, “How much child support will you pay each month?” Maxo tried to claim that the exact amount shouldn’t be an issue, that he would pay money whenever he had it, but Judge Patrick insisted on an amount for the agreement.

When Maxo wouldn’t answer, Judge Patrick turned to Safine. She asked for 5000 gourds. It’s a pretty modest amount, a little less than $115, but it’s certainly more than Maxo would be able to pay without finding someone to let him drive a truck. He could resign himself to other work – whether farm labor or other odd jobs – but he wouldn’t earn 5000 gourds. And he hasn’t shown much inclination to do anything other than drive a truck.

So, the argument continued.

At this point, I had to step out of the courtroom. Another CLM member saw me at the hearing and asked to talk with me. She had been served a summons too, and wasn’t sure what she should do. So we talked outside for a few minutes and got the man who had filed the complaint to agree to postpone their hearing until the following week. That would give us time to clarify what the matter was about.

When I turned to go back, I was surprised to discover that the hearing was over. Patrick had gotten Safine and Maxo to agree to stay together.

I wasn’t sure what to think about that, especially when Maxo told me, as we were leaving the courthouse, that he was happy to be back with Safine but that she would have to learn to listen. So I kept my peace, waiting to speak to Hilaire.

He got to the office early in the evening, after a long day of work in the field, and he was quick to ask me how it had gone. I gave him a detailed account. He listened closely, but impassively, smiling only when he heard that Maxo had said he would go find another woman to take care of his kids.

None of surprised him, and he told me why. Maxo was not contributing to the household. Though he had filed a complaint against Safine, Hilaire never imagined that he would leave her. He has it too good. But Hilaire added that he doesn’t think the relationship will last. Other CLM members, Safine’s friends, have told Hilaire that Safine could do much better. They say that she’d have an easy time finding another partner, one willing and able to do more for her that Maxo does.

And Hilaire thinks it’s just a matter of time. Safine is one of the most ambitious and disciplined of the women he works with, but she is dragging behind because of a partner who does nothing but make her job harder and complain about things as he does. Not a very promising basis to build a relationship on. Perhaps I should be more sentimental, but I’m inclined to trust Hilaire.

We will not advise Safine to throw Maxo out. That’s the kind of decision a woman must really make on her own. But we will assure her that we’ll be behind her whatever she decides. In the meantime, Hilaire will be back to see her next week, and they will start to plan to build her house and set up her latrine on her new piece of land. And she’ll move forward. That is, above, what she is determined to do.