Keeping Track and Arguing

It’s more than puzzling. It’s a little concerning.

I was in Chodri on Friday, a very rural area, high in the mountains on the way to Belans. It’s just above the main road, where it starts to turn away from Segen. The credit center in Chodri has the typical problems: Attendance at regular meetings has been poor, and payments aren’t coming in on time.

At the same time, it’s a center that I have hope for. The center’s elected chief never appeared to really understand what Fonkoze expects from her, but she seems to be getting clearer and seems motivated to take her share of the responsibility for turning her center around. She’s beginning to take a hard line with women who are late or absent, changing them a small penalty. Moïse, the credit agent I was with, and I were a little late ourselves. We had rushed there from another center meeting that lasted too long. And she made us pay the penalty as well. She was active during the meeting, intervening in the conversations between Moïse and the other members, explaining him to them or them to him. Attendance at the meeting was the best we’ve seen in the center in some time, and she could tell us where the absent members were. And the reimbursement was better than we’ve been seeing in Chodri as well.

But I was disturbed to discover that a number of the women didn’t know exactly how much they owed. They didn’t even seem sure of the regular repayment amount. They would hand Moïse a sum of money, but when he would ask them how much they owed they would tell him that he was the one who could answer that question. “Se ou menm ki konnen.” They trust their credit agent implicitly, and that’s encouraging in a sense.

But it’s not what we’re really looking for. Borrowers who will be successful in the long run are women who will manage their own affairs closely and stick up for themselves when they think Fonkoze is wrong. And sometimes Fonkoze is wrong.

I met Josane in Fonjannwèl, a populous coffee-growing region on the way up the mountain from Marigo towards Segen. We have three credit centers there, with something like 120 members.

Josane was one of several women who had made a special appointment with their credit agent so they could pay off their loan a little early and apply for a new one. Moïse went patiently through their files with them, one at a time, taking their repayments and confirming that they were ready to make their request.

When he got to Josane, he found a problem. Her file showed that she had been late with two repayments, and she had paid a lateness penalty each time. Since our procedure is to collect penalties before repayments, each of those two repayments had thus been incomplete. What’s more, the resultant overdue balance continued to accumulate lateness charges. When she came once more with what she thought she owed, she was still left with a balance, so she wasn’t ready to apply for new credit. Moïse explained the situation to her patiently, and she was disappointed, but she said she understood.

She was determined to get a new loan quickly, so she said she would come to the office the next day to pay off her balance. She would then be able to make her loan request the next time Moïse visited her center.

She was good to her word. The next day we saw her in the office indeed. I greeted her as soon as she arrived, but then went about my business. My attention was drawn, however, to an argument that ensued between her and the teller. The teller was explaining how much Josane owed, but Josane didn’t want to believe it. Since I had spoken to her the day before, I took the file from the teller, asked Josane to sit down with me, and then prepared to start explaining.

That’s when I made a discovery. Josane had signed a 12-month contract, but when her previous credit agent had filled in her loan amount he had calculated it as though she would repay in six months. Perhaps he did so because she had announced her determination from the start to do just that, and so get her new loan more quickly, but it was a big mistake.

She began her program of double repayments. A remarkable achievement. The sacrifices she had to make were very real. She was dealing with a situation that was difficult to start with. She lost not only her business but all her livestock in last year’s hurricanes. She lost a harvest and some of her farmland as well. So she would need to cut her expenses drastically to make her repayments on her already-reduced income.

And she wasn’t willing to trim her budget in any old way. She herself can not read, but is all the more determined to keep paying her children’s school tuition. She has six, and the oldest are mid-way though high school. The one place she found to cut expenses was her food bill. And as she explained to me how hard it had been, she lifted her shirt to show how thin she had become.

Her effort was heroic, but barely enough. She fell a little behind her accelerated schedule, but she was still well ahead of what she owed to Fonkoze. But since her repayment amount was wrong, her credit agent and our teller thought she was behind. They assessed the lateness fees that made things worse for her.

She had been listening to our explanations patiently, without really understanding them. It wasn’t until she really insisted that we explain everything to her that we saw that we were wrong.

She was quiet and polite through the whole conversation. That’s not always the case with our members. They sometimes get angry and loud. Even when we are right and they are wrong. But we continually encourage them to get as angry as they feel they need to get. Their willingness to insist on her rights is of great value both to them and to Fonkoze.