Marie’s Saga

Our initial selection process failed to identify Marie Paul. I’ve written about her before. (See: Field Notes.) She just didn’t show up on our radar screen. The residents of Mannwa who attended the initial Participatory Wealth Ranking meeting didn’t mention her. That’s not uncommon. The extremely poor families we work with are frequently forgotten. They are not considered members of their communities. They don’t matter to anyone.

Our case managers then come across these otherwise invisible families as they go door-to-door, visiting the households who are identified in the meeting as the community’s poor. The team will see a little straw shack that doesn’t appear on the map produced by the Wealth Ranking process, and they’ll take a look. If they find someone inside, they’ll start asking questions. They’ll fill out paperwork if they think the house’s residents might qualify for our program.

But Marie Paul lives far enough from the families that were on our list that we didn’t come across her house. It’s a little bit hidden, sitting on the back side of a ridge, right behind a small church. We learned about her in conversations with Edrès, the man who eventually became the president of the Mannwa Village Assistance Committee. He asked us to look in on her, explaining that her family was in miserable shape. He thought she could probably qualify. Since he had already shown in a number of ways that he understood our program’s goals, we took his advice and went to see her.

Marie Paul has six kids by her first husband, who died a few years ago. She has a seventh, still an infant, with a man who abandoned them shortly after the baby was born. The kids aren’t in school. At the time we met her, she wasn’t able to feed them every day. Selecting her was an easy decision.

After she entered the program, she seemed to be doing well. She seemed to really jump into its logic. She was taking good care of her goats and managing her food stipend well. She was keeping up close contact with other members in the area too, behaving as though they were new members of her family. If we had a criticism for her, it was that she was managing the stipend too frugally, investing too much of it her family’s future rather than in food for herself and her kids. That’s a common problem among highly motivated new members.

Then one Wednesday evening, Martinière, the Mannwa case manager, came back late to our base in Saut d’Eau in a little bit of a panic. He hadn’t been able to find Marie Paul that day. When he passed by her house, already late in the afternoon, he saw three of her kids, obviously hungry. The baby was crawling in the yard, putting whatever it came across into its mouth.

And he had heard a disturbing rumor. A couple of other CLM members told him that Marie Paul had sold her goats and cashed out her small business. She was without assets. He had spoken to Edrès, who said he had heard the same thing. Edrès added that he hadn’t been able to speak to her yet, but had told one of her older boys that he needed to talk to her.

Our first need was to speak with Marie Paul. We didn’t think it could wait a week for Martinière`s next visit, but he had a full schedule, so I went to Mannwa a few days later, hoping to find her. I didn’t. Since we had a refresher training planned for all members, we decided to focus on getting her to the training. I left a message with Edrès, asking him to let her know that we were concerned about her and that we really needed to talk to her. We very much wanted to see her at the training.

Fortunately, she decided to come. And she told us the following story:

She and her first husband had struggled to send their oldest child to school, and she somehow continued to send the boy after her husband died. But when it was time for him to take the official primary school graduation exam, she was out of money. She owed the school 1750 gourds, less than $45, and its director was holding her boy’s exam ID in lieu of payment. The boy, by then in his late teens, wouldn’t be able to take the exam unless she could pay the bill.

So she borrowed the money from a neighbor, hoping to repay it with a bean harvest. Unfortunately, rats ruined her garden. As time passed, and she had no hope of paying her debt, she disappeared. She moved to Lachapèl, to the west, hoping she’d have a better chance of finding the money she’d need. When her lender from Mannwa found her there, she turned to a loan shark in Lachapèl who said he would lend her the money. By then, she was together with her second husband. He had just planted a crop of pigeon peas, and he told her she could sell the harvest to pay back the loan. So she took the loan and repaid her debt even though she had to agree to 100% interest every six months. Having repaid her first lender, she was able to return to her home in Mannwa.

But once again, rats ate her harvest. And then the man left her, and she was left without a way to pay back the loan. Interest kept accumulating. By the time she joined CLM just a couple of years later, her original debt had grown to more than 8000 gourds.

Then, somehow, the loan shark discovered that she was part of some program that had put assets, and even some cash, into her hands. By then, she had the three goats we had given her along with a fourth she had purchased with savings from her weekly food stipend. He went to Mannwa together with a local deputy to get his money back. He took her goats, she said, and sold them for 6000 gourds. The deputy convinced him to call things square. The debt was thus erased, but Marie Paul was back to zero. She added that her small business was still intact.

The next time Martinière had a free day, he decided to hike up to Mannwa to see her. I went along. Though she expected us, we didn’t find her at home. Her son told us that she was down in Laplenn, in the valley behind Mannwa. We went looking for her, and found her there. She was supervising some charcoal production. She said she had nine sacks of ready for sale, five in a warehouse in the market in Difayi, on the nearest major road below Mannwa, and four more she’d be moving to market in the next days. It would be worth something like 1800 gourds, already a nice profit over the 1500 gourds she started with.

This is where things get complicated. We had asked Edrès to find out what he could, and he came back with a different story about her goats. He said that she had borrowed money for her child’s funeral. One of them had died a few years previously, struck by lightening. The rest of the story corresponded more or less with what she had said, except that he added that he had heard that the loan shark had come to her armed, threatening her life.

And we had also spoken to one of her kids, who led us to think that the lender had not seized the goats, but had pressured her to pay him. The boy led us to believe that she was the one who sold the goats. He also told us that she had gone down the mountain a few days previously with one sack of charcoal, not five.

We couldn’t be sure that Marie was telling us the truth. But we needed to know just what her situation was. Otherwise, we would not be able to help her. So Martinière told her to have the proceeds from her charcoal sales ready to show him on his next visit, but when we went by as scheduled on the following Wednesday, she wasn’t there.

She appears to be ducking us. And we can’t help someone we can’t find.

We’re not yet sure what is next. We are waiting for the Mannwa Village Assistance Committee’s next meeting, scheduled for the last Wednesday of this month. We have asked Edrès to have the deputy there. We want to hear his side of the story. And we plan to come with one of the senior case managers, a man trained as a lawyer. We need to get to the bottom of things.

If we find out that Marie is lying, we could kick her out of the program. I am a former college dean of students, who sometimes had to deal with young people unwilling or unable to respect our school’s rules, and so I sometimes have that inclination. At school, it was often the right thing to do, though never pleasant.

But that just doesn’t work for CLM. Marie is in the program because her family desperately needs it. Her children are hungry. They don’t eat even once a day.

At the same time, we can’t just replace whatever assets she’s lost. Apart for the fact that we our limited by our budget, we can not afford to have members think that they can do what they want with their assets because we’ll always just buy them new ones.

So we will talk to the committee and see what they think. If Marie has lost all of her assets, we’ll need to find an approach that will help her start over again. Martinière will have his work cut out for him.