Micro Economies

Fito must be in his mid-teens. He was sitting next to me at my desk at home, very nearly crying. I had my laptop in Ka Glo, and we were writing an e-mail to an American colleague of mine who had lived in Haiti for several years. That colleague was in contact with another American who had lived here, and this other American had, for a long time, paid the rent that Fito’s mother annually owes for the small room where she lives with her children in Bois Moquette.

This year, something in the communication had broken down. Either their American friend had decided not to pay the rent, or had forgotten about it, or had been stymied by the various difficulties one can encounter sending money here. Fito and his family didn’t know. In any case, the rent was two months late, and the landlord had begun moving the family’s things into the street. It was Thursday, and he had told them to make no mistake: “Saturday will not find you in the room,” he had said, “unless the rent is paid.”

Among the basic aspects of life as a foreigner living in Haiti are the webs of financial dependencies that grow up around one. We create little micro-economies, peopled with those whom we hire to do various kinds of work and those we simply support for one reason or another. I’ll offer several examples.

I don’t do my own laundry here. I certainly could learn to wash everything by hand as Haitians do, and I could decide to build the time to do it into my schedule. I’ve never really wanted to, however. It would take a lot of time, and I’d rather use that time to read and write and do the various kinds of work I do. Or just to relax at home.

That choice is available to me. My neighbor, Rosemarie, does my laundry instead. She earns a little less than four dollars every time she does a load. This is a significant amount of money for her. Her husband, Awol, is a day laborer who has little land of his own. He farms other people’s land, raises a cow, and appears with a shovel or a trowel or a machete or an ax when there’s heavy manual labor to be done. He might get a little over two dollars a day for his efforts. They have three children. The oldest lives in Pòtoprens, with Awol’s sister. The two little ones live at home. Because of the two small children, Rosemarie can’t do much to earn money herself. She has to stay at home. The money she gets from me two or three times a month is probably making a big difference.

But, perhaps more importantly, it has connected her to me in a way that has nurtured a certain hope. Her second daughter, Sofonie is old enough to start preschool, and there is a private preschool just down the hill from the local public elementary school in Mariaman. Rosemarie would like to send Sofonie to school this fall, but she can’t afford to – not even with the laundry money that she earns. So she has already asked whether I would simply pay for the school. This would include various expenses – like shoes, a uniform, and a little backpack as well. The connection we have because of the work she does for me creates an expectation that I’ll accept a certain degree of responsibility in her life. I become the person she decides to depend on. In Creole, I become the patwon.

A patwon is someone who has wealth or power or connections that enable him to do favors for others. They include employers, whom employees depend upon for extra considerations when unexpected expenses arise, and relatives or neighbors with either wealth or connections that enable them to confer favors. They get young people places in schools, they pay for needed medicines, they help in other moments of need. They generally have a social position much highly than the person who comes to depend of them.

Another example: This afternoon, I’ll be visited by a young man from down in Mariaman, close to the school. I like him and respect him. Though he can’t be much more than twenty years old, he’s been living by his own wits and work for awhile. His parents can’t support him. He’s been earning the money that he needs to get through school by raising a couple of goats and by carrying water and doing errands for a couple of my American friends who live just down the hill. As is very common, they went beyond a mere work-for-money relationship. They became patwon. When he needed serious dental work done, they undertook to pay for it.

But the current situation in Haiti, together with changes in their lives, made them decide to leave, and that decision left gaps in the lives of people who had grown to depend on them. The young man who told me he’d be coming to see me is one of those people. Not only does he have a relatively small portion of the dental bill left to pay – something his American friends couldn’t have known about – but he is now trying to figure out how to afford school next year without the little bit of income that working for them earned him. He will speak to me today about those two matters: the last dental expense and school in the coming year. He hopes, I think, that I will be willing and able to take over the role of patwon from the American friends who left.

It’s awkward to be treated as a patwon. I sometimes think of the comment Lloyd Bentsen once made as chair of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” The money that the people around me ask me for is not a lot. The portion of the dental bill I am being asking to help with is less than ten dollars, but that’s money the young man doesn’t have. Sending Sofonie to school might cost forty or fifty dollars – I don’t know – but Rosemarie has no way of earning such a sum. Fito and his mother needed about $175 for their annual rent, but their current family income is, approximately, zero.

At the same time, these sums add up. Though by any reasonable standard I am paid quite well to do the work I do, I have a lot of the same concerns about covering my various expenses that anyone might have. Some of these concerns are real, and some are probably imagined, but both sorts feel like concerns nonetheless. The truth is that my resources are limited and that they feel even more limited than they are.

But what’s worse is that the people who come to me are generally asking for help with things that they have fundamental rights to. Why am I deciding whether someone can get dental care or an education or a roof over his or her head? I feel both as though my right to refuse them is limited and as though what seem to them as gifts from me are not the answer at all.

It would be easy to be theoretical about this – in one sense of that word. On one hand, if my willingness to share a little of what I have makes those who ask me find it easier to accept my privileged social and economic position, then I am doing them a disservice. Their acceptance of the privileges that people like me have is surely part of the larger problem. On the other hand, if my giving nurtures dependence, then the disservice is even more clear.

Even so, in the immediacy of the moment and of the need that’s presented to me, such thoughts of what would really be best can seem pretty distant, pretty abstract. If a toothache keeps an acquaintance from sleeping, should I be asking myself whether paying for dental treatment will undermine his or her larger progress? When asked by someone whether I will help them with some money, I rarely feel as though I know what I should do.

I would be finished with these reflections, but I sense that something’s missing. I need to add at least three notes.

First, the picture is too one-sided. I’ve emphasized fiscal – I won’t even say “economic” – dependence over dependence of other kinds. It is important for me to be continuously aware of my very great dependence on many of those who ask me for monetary help. Cases like Rosemarie’s, who does my laundry, are only the most straightforward ones. The people who feel they need money that I can give them have a lot that they can and do teach me about how to live in Haiti. I depend on them for advice and more. A friend to whom I just gave roughly sixty dollars was effusively grateful, but I think he’s come to know perfectly well how difficult it would be for me to get by without his regular help. And I’m grateful for his awareness.

Second, it would be a mistake to think that only foreigners create such webs of dependencies as the one I’m part of. Steady income is a rare thing in Haiti, and anyone who has one is certain to find plenty of people that need her or his help. The fact that “patwon” is so common a word here testifies to that.

Third, a note about Fito: The people I contacted on his family’s behalf decided not to help out this year. As I prepared to give Fito the news, I tried to think whether the was something I was willing to do. I didn’t want to take on responsibility for a whole household, but I didn’t like the thought of their being cast out into the street. So I imagined a compromise, one that I thought would be both helpful to them and easy for me. I gave Fito a substantial portion of the coming year’s rent but told him that I would not give more. I thought that would be the end of it.

Of course it wasn’t. He is in no position to simply accept me word that I won’t give them more money. Within a couple of days he was back at my house with a long story explaining his need for an addition sum. It’s pretty clear that he’ll be coming regularly now.