An ajoupa is a minimal, prism-shaped structure that some of Haiti’s poorest families live in. It consists of two straw walls – pressed cane or dried corn stalks will do – that lean on each other. The back wall is a triangle made of the same straw. If there are palm trees nearby, the ajoupa-maker will lay some seed pods across the top. These are thick and fibrous, and can be as much as six or seven feet long and over a foot wide. As roofing material they can provide some protection against rain.
Rosana has been living in her ajoupa for several years. She and her husband, Joseph, live in Dejaden, a small village in Masikòt, a large and remote area of Sodo where we are now starting our work. Getting to the entrance to Masikòt is a hard 90-minute climb. A motorcycle can’t make the trip. Masikòt is divided by a number of deep, narrow ravines. From that entryway, you can hike another couple of hours, up one steep slope and down another. Dejaden is about halfway between the entrance to Masikòt and Kwaskou, the most remote of its villages.
The ajoupa is not the first house that Rosana and Joseph have lived in. Their first home was a thatch hut that burned down early in their life together. Their first child was an infant at the time, and he was caught in the fire. They lost him. Their second house was washed away in a hurricane’s heavy downpour.
So they live in the ajoupa now with three of their four children. The fourth – actually the oldest of their surviving kids – lives in the mountains outside of Port au Prince with a family that took him for Rosana and Joseph. His parents gave him away hoping that his new family would be able to do more for him that they themselves could. But they don’t hear from him, so they don’t know. The three other kids spend their nights down the hill on the slightly raised floor of their grandmother’s hut because rain soaks them through if they’re on the floor of the ajoupa. The ajoupa’s one bed has just enough room for Rosana and Joseph.
We met Rosana as part of the process of final verification. After participatory wealth ranking has given us a preliminary list of women in an area who might qualify for CLM, members of our team of case managers visit each woman and fill out various household surveys that all aim to give us precise information about the way the family lives. The case managers then make a recommendation. If they judge the household to qualify for CLM, one of the directors visits to interview the woman and make a final determination.
Verifying that Rosana and her family qualify for the program was easy, except for the fact that it came at the end of almost eight hours of marching through Masikòt, seeing one family after another. Everything she said and everything I saw as I looked around her yard marked her family’s need for the program. The children aren’t in school because Rosana and Joseph can’t afford to send them. They have a small patch of land, but couldn’t afford the beans to plant it with. They make about a dollar for a day’s work now an again when a wealthier neighbor needs help in the field. Then they have to wait until their neighbor – wealthier but not wealthy – can pay them. They keep a goat for a neighbor, and the goat just gave birth, but it had only one kid. If it had had two, they’d have received on as payment. Now they’ll have to wait for another pregnancy.
The day before I met Rosana, I was in Bouri, where I met Monique. It was also during a second trip we were making to an area. We had missed her the first time around. She’s the mother of six kids, the oldest a boy about thirteen. She was once a market woman and was starting to thrive. She told me that her business had grown strong enough that she had begun buying livestock out of the profits.
She and her husband were watching their household grow when disaster struck. He became sick. He lingered, constantly weakening, for five years. They spent what they had to save him, selling the animals and using up the capital that was in her business, but nothing helped. He died. That was five years ago. She wanted to sell their one small piece of land, the yard the house sits on, to pay for his funeral, but her neighbors convinced her not to. Instead, they chipped in for the funeral themselves. One of the neighbors even gave her use of a small plot of land right next to her house so that she has something to farm.
This brings me to her boy. Neither he nor her other children have been to school yet. The sad truth is that he’s an important wage earner in the household. Their main source of income is what he and his mother are paid when they can find work in other people’s fields. Between the two of them, they might be able to make about $1.80 for a day’s hard work.
The boy was scowling in the corner of the yard as I spoke with her. She explained that he had spent a couple of hours starting early in the morning planting sweet potatoes for her in their borrowed plot of land, and he was complaining that he was hungry. She had told him that he would have to wait. She had some corn lying on a sheet in the sun. A neighbor had brought it by as a gift, but she would have to dry it out before grinding it into meal. When I asked her how long that would take, she said that it would be ready tomorrow. In other words, neither she nor her kids had any prospect of a meal today.
The final verification process can be frustrating. We cannot afford to tell people in advance that we’ll be coming to see them. Such an announcement would require explanations that could only distort the information we need to collect. So we just show up, hoping that the people we need are at home. My whole eight-hour visit to Masikòt was all because nineteen of the women we needed to see were absent the first time we went. And even on the day that I returned, there was one woman we couldn’t find. So we’ll have to go again. And, as luck would have it, that one woman lives on the top of a ridge in the most distant corner of the most distant village in Masikòt.
And to miss a household is a big problem for us. CLM only goes to a village once. We simply eliminate extreme poverty in one fell swoop everywhere we go. If we miss a deserving family, they will never get another chance. Yesterday, a woman who thought we had missed her panicked when her neighbors, who had also qualified, told her what we would do for them. She was so upset that she stumbled and fell, bruising her side badly because she landed awkwardly on a rock. She’s got three kids – ten, six, and five – whom her husband, who used to beat her regularly, left in her hands when he deserted her. She feeds them by working for her neighbors in the field or doing their laundry. She can earn enough to buy a cup or so of rice that she divides into two meals. In other words, she really needs us badly.
But for all the misery you see and all the frustration you encounter, verification is ultimately very happy work. Because it’s work undertaken with a keen awareness of the package of services we can offer all the households we find that need them and of the program’s excellent record of success with those services. The hungry kids you see today will be healthy and in school tomorrow. The ajoupas will be replaced with decent homes with tin roofs. The families will have reasonable outhouses, filters to ensure clean drinking water, and the know-how and income-generating assets they’ll need to change their lives forever.