In the First Days

The first hectic days of our program for the more than 300 women who bring us up to 1100 new members for 2010 are behind us. Between finalizing the selection of our new members, inviting them all to their first training, helping each one choose the income-generating activities she wants to start with, and opening the training sessions in four locations, there’s been a lot to do. And there are plenty of details yet to be cleaned up before the end of the year. But things have gone astonishingly well so far: the training sessions are full, and our new members and their case managers/trainers seem to be hitting it off.

Things have been rushed because our commitment to our funders has been to get the new members into the program by the end of the year. We have been rushing up against the deadline recruiting precisely the correct number of participants, a task that only grew more difficult as information about the nature of our program spread.

The information can have a range of effects. Some families whom you interview in the field to verify their need for the program will hide assets so that they are more likely to qualify. Though this is always a problem, it becomes more serious as the character of the program becomes better known. Boukankare is full of families who would be happy to receive free livestock. Many of these, though not poor enough for CLM, are genuinely poor. Their needs are real, even if they are not grave enough to call for the comprehensive and expensive approach we offer. You cannot blame them for trying to work their way into a chance to do a better job at feeding their kids. Our staff’s straightforward challenge has been to see through such efforts.

But there’s another, more challenging consequence as well. Some people, upon seeing that they have not been selected for the program, let their jealously guide them. They begin to spread rumors about the program, hoping to discourage neighbors who really need us from joining.

And we see its effects. After two days of our six-day training had passed at Kafou Jòj, we saw that six of the people who were not attending were from the same neighborhood, an area called Mannwa, on a high mountain overlooking the rest of Boukankare. So one of the case managers and I made an unscheduled hike up the hill to talk with them. We wanted to see what was keeping them away. We spoke to most of the women individually, and heard a range of stories.

Rose Marthe’s was the easiest to understand. She had given birth only days before the session began, and couldn’t make the hike downhill with an infant not yet ready to be taken outside the house. On the workshop’s fist day, she had sent her younger sister to participate for her, but the girl was very young, so the case managers sent her away, not quite understanding why she was there. The girl herself hadn’t been able to explain things clearly. Rose Marthe agreed to send her husband instead for the next three days, and that should solve the problem. Her case manager will have to teach her the stuff that she missed when her weekly visits begin.

Micheline is an 18-year-old mother living with her older sister, who’s been her guardian since their mother died about a dozen years ago. She was selected for the program because she herself has nothing. The baby’s father abandoned her. On the day we selected her for the program we had to go by her house three times. She had hidden from us the first two times. Finally, a smart neighbor sent me off on a wild goose chase, explaining that the girl was at another sister’s home higher up the hill. While I was climbing, the neighbor got the girl to his house, where he then called me to join them. The girl was willing to talk to me, but only in the presence of a trusted adult. Her sister/guardian wasn’t around.

Micheline hadn’t come to the training’s first three days because her sister told her not to. The sister had heard that our program had a hidden agenda. She had heard that we would keep our own key for the house we would build for her, that the animals we’d provide would turn into a curse in some way. We talked with the sister a lot, and think we finally convinced her.

But there were others we couldn’t convince. And it’s not surprising. I have no standing, no credibility in the community. Why would anyone in Mannwa believe anything I say? The Haitian case manager who was hiking with me can communicate a lot better than I can, and he is at least Haitian. But he’s from Cap Haitien in the north, the farthest thing from local. He’s not someone they know or trust. His credibility is scarcely better than mine. It’s a problem that we can’t expect to solve by ourselves.

So we won’t address it by ourselves. We’ll return to Mannwa again next Tuesday, our sixth trip in the last two weeks. We’ve sent word by a sympathetic local leader that we’d like to hold a meeting Tuesday morning in his front yard for everyone in Mannwa who’s interested in learning about our program. We’ve asked him to especially encourage community leaders who could have some influence on public opinion to attend. We will lay all our cards on the table, hoping to create an atmosphere in which the whole community sees how it stands to gain when its eleven poorest families join us.

Success is critical for us in a bureaucratic sense. Our funders want a certain number of what they call “beneficiaries.”

But of course our ability to report promised results for our members, while important, is our smallest problem. It is difficult to imagine what hope there is for Micheline and her child other than CLM. For now, she is stuck in her sister’s home. And that sister is hardly well off herself. The baby she’s caring for right now is, we hear, her second. We don’t yet know where the first one is. Without CLM, she may be doomed to accumulate more and more children as she searches for a man willing to support her and hers. Her poverty may thus only deepen. And it is already pretty deep. If we can get her into the program, she’ll start developing her own assets, sources of income with the potential to give her some degree of control over the way she moves forward.

And Micheline’s not alone. The women who need us really need us badly. We’ve got to do whatever is necessary to convince them and the communities they live in that joining us is the right thing to do.