More about Memène and Chiver
July 6, 2014
Memène was pleased when I asked her to stand up at the three-day workshop for CLM participants. Gauthier, our program director, was about to speak to the group. I had spoken to him about Memène several times over the last year, and I thought he’d want to hear about her progress from her.
She has generally seemed like a shy woman, but she hopped right up off the bench chair with a big smile. “My husband and I just sold a pig. Between that money, and some money I earned from my small commerce, we were able to buy a cow. And he just got paid for some farm work he was hired to do, and earned enough to buy two more. We have three now.”
That puts them a long way from where they were when they joined CLM. They live in an especially poor corner of Demare, an agricultural area tucked behind Labastille, the most important weekly market in Southern Mirebalais. A hillside that was once covered with dilapidated straw shacks but now sparkles with shiny new tin roofs on a half-dozen CLM houses.
It is not as though they simply took off once they joined the program. We evaluate all families after six months. The survey we use is meant to serve case managers, helping them focus their attention of members who are progressing more slowly. Families are scored as fast climbers, slow climbers, or slow-slow climbers. Memène scored as a slow climber, and Christian, her case manager, noted that he was concerned because she seemed unwilling or unable to set her mind on any sort of a plan.
And that was the least of her problems. She was also subject to a lot of abuse, so much so that we had to bring in a representative of the Haitian government’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs to see her and Chiver. We had tried to get her out of the house or to get Chiver past his violence by ourselves, but we hadn’t had much success. (Click here)
But bringing in the law seems to have turned the trick. We have been keeping close track of the couple ever since we first heard about the violence, and they both report that it has stopped. “Now when Memène makes me mad, I know I have to walk away,” Chiver explains. Memène’s view is even simpler. “Things are really good.”
Many CLM graduates are able to buy a cow before they graduate. Some are even able to buy one before they reach the twelve-month mark in the program. But the achievement of Memène and Chiver is exceptional. From zero chickens to three cows in just twelve months. And from a member we expected to advance especially slowly.
For rural Haitians, cows means a lot. If you take good care of them, they grow reliably and, so, gain greatly in value. A heifer will eventually provide young, which can add a lot to a household’s wealth over the course of years. And cows are a lower-risk investment than other large livestock. If they die, you can sell the beef. Pack animals, which are more useful for the most part, become food for scavenging dogs.
But a cow is also a status symbol, a sign of wealth. It affects the way that communities perceive its owner and the way its owner perceives herself. When Chiver first surprised me by showing me the three cows, I joked that he was now a “gran nèg,” or rich guy. He liked the joke, smiling broadly. But part of what he liked was that it was only half a joke. A family with three cows really is wealthy, at least comparatively. And even if he and Memène continue to have problems to resolve, he knows he is now much better off than some of the people living around him.
But I didn’t quite get it. As badly off as they had initially seemed to be, I was having a hard time imagining how they had turned things around so quickly. So I went to chat with them to see whether I could figure things out.
The first possibility I had to consider was that we had mis-selected Memène for the program. We are good at selection, but we aren’t perfect. If they had had wealth we didn’t know about right from the start, that would explain a lot. This seemed pretty likely, because the couple had proven itself capable of working hard and profitably. I really wondered how such hard, productive workers could have been as poor as we thought they were. I went back to their initial selection forms, and they said that Memène had had very little wealth at all. No livestock whatsoever, for example. But I asked her about this, and she reaffirmed that she had had nothing. And her case manager said the same thing. I thought back to they way she and Chiver described the fights they had had to me, and one of Chiver’s consistent accusations had been that Memène had come to him with nothing. “I took you in right off the street,” he would say. He eventually came to feel sorry to have spoken to her that way, but the accusation itself was evidence that Memène had been as poor as we thought she was.
But there was another possibility. Chiver might have owned some livestock that our case managers had decided not to include on Memène’s form. It would have been a reasonable decision. Their relationship seemed anything but reliable. If they both identified his livestock as definitively his, she would be in dire poverty the moment they broke up. Or she would be forced to stick with him because of her poverty. But Chiver told me that he didn’t have anything when we started. Not that he hadn’t ever had animals. He had started to build up wealth a couple of times, but had always had to give them up. Most recently, he had accumulated a handful of goats, but had had to sell them off when his father had a sudden need for cash.
So I sat down with Memène and Chiver in front of their new CLM house. Chiver was weaving palm leaves into thin walls that he could use to surround their latrine. It sits close to a narrow footpath that leads to a working sugarcane mill, and the latrine’s original wall had been knocked over by a horse that had passed by carrying a load of sugarcane. Memène and I sat on small chairs in the little bit of shade that the front of their one-room house could provide, and the two kids were jumping around on their bed, inside. Chiver sat on the ground as he wove.
I tried to explain my question to Memène: They had proven how hard and effectively they are willing and able to work. Their wealth was growing quickly right in front of us. How, I asked her, could two such capable young people have gotten as poor as they had been?
I had a hard time getting the question out clearly. Memène sat in silence at first. Chiver looked at her and told me that she didn’t understand. He started to help me explain. This itself was progress. He knew better than to simply answer for her.
Eventually Chiver and I were able to pose the question clearly. Memène is a woman of few words, but her own were clear enough. “Se te pwoblèm nan kay la.” That means, “It was the problems we had around the house.”
Chiver then explained. They had been struggling just to make sure there was food in the house every day. He would have to find work as a day laborer just so he, Memène, and the kids could eat. Day labor pays a little more than $1 per day. And you can’t make a meal for two adults and two kids for much less than that. A contract to weed or plant an entire garden could be worth several thousand gourds, but you might have to wait a long time to be paid. Chiver couldn’t wait. Every meal, every day, depended on him.
“Once Christian started bringing Memène money every week, I was able to look for contracts. I didn’t need to work by the day any more. When Memène started her commerce, things got ever better.”
As soon as they escaped the daily struggle with hunger, Chiver was able to turn his attention to more lucrative contract work. By the time we bought Memène her pig, he had purchased one too. She now keeps the family fed by herself, which means that Chiver can focus on work that will continue to make them wealthier. They even invited her little brother to move in with them. There is plenty of food to go around, and the younger boy can help look after the little kids. That gives her more time both to do the heavier housework – like laundry – and to take care of her small business.
When we talk about their dreams, things have gotten clearer, too. They know that they cannot simply continue to buy large animals. There are only so many Chiver can take care of on the very little bit of land they have access to. But someone willing to work as hard as he does on other people’s farms would have every reason to hope for success if he could start accumulating farmland of his own. It won’t be easy. The land in Demare is expensively fertile, and the titles aren’t always clear. Chiver is afraid that he could spend a lot of money on a piece of land, and then find out that he didn’t buy it from the real owner.
But when you talk to them about the prospect of buying some farmland, they get giddy. They both like to farm, and you can tell that owning their own land is their dream. If they can start working on it while we are still with them, we can probably secure some reliable help with the deeds.
So Memène andChiver are well one their way to a better life, one that they’ll be able to sustain over the long haul.