Moving Forward Again

Thursday, I got word from Kaglo, the small village in the mountains above Port au Prince that has been my home in Haiti since 1997. There are now about 25 people sleeping in my house there every night. Mine is one of the few houses in the neighborhood with a tin roof, and neighbors who have roofs of poured concrete – which was, until recently, the more prestigious way to build – are afraid to sleep in their own homes. There would be another couple of people there, but two teenagers, recognizing that they will have no school for the present, decided to join me in Marigo and are now staying with me here.

There’s nothing exceptional about my house’s state. Fonkoze offices all over Haiti are getting reports of rural households filling up with a combination of refugees from Port au Prince and neighbors whose homes were too badly damaged to trust. My own house presents a very manageable instance. Each of the various households whose members sleep there still cook their own meals and manage the rest of their own expenses as well. They come together only to sleep.

Other cases are more challenging. Families in the countryside, for example, might find themselves hosting grown children or siblings or cousins and their families from Port au Prince, any number of people who no longer have any means of their own. Their jobs no longer exist. The small commerce they managed in the city disappeared with their homes and most of their other belongings. They may have lost a couple of family members as well. The combination of farming, animal husbandry, and small commerce that was, until now, supporting a household of three or four or five, may now have to support twice or three times that many. I spoke to a notoriously successful credit agent from Fonkoze’s model branch in Lenbe, and he told me about a client of his whose two-room house once had three residents and now has 25. And the commerce his client manages with her Fonkoze loan has to support them all.

But there is a flip side to this emigration from Port au Prince to other parts of the country. The level of economic activity in those other areas has noticeably increased. We began to see it in the expansion of the smaller daily markets in the mountains above Marigo. Little turns in the road where we were accustomed to seeing a three or four women sitting with their wares in baskets in front of them now have a dozen or twenty women or even more. They are starting to look like markets. And the major regional markets seem to be growing dramatically too. The three closest to Marigo – Savann Dibwa, Peredo, and Kay Jakmèl – all seem much busier. More people are there, both buying and selling.

It’s been a boon to Fonkoze in Marigo and to the women it serves. At least those who have merchadise that escaped the earthquake or money to buy with. That’s been most evident in loan reimbursements. In the days when we first opened after the disaster, we collected very little of the money that was owed. Attendance at credit centers was unusually poor, and those who came told us, for the most part, that they would not be able to pay. In the first week we collected less than 25% of what was due. But in the last two weeks the ship has showed real signs that it is righting itself. If you don’t count money that was already past due, we’ve been able to collect about 90% of what we’d expect. That is much too low, substantially lower than the worldwide norm for microfinance and too low to get us to where we are sustainable, but it shows that the rapid and dangerous deterioration of our portfolio that we feared is not happening. At least not yet.

This is not to say that we have nothing to worry about. Our members were hit hard by the earthquake. They lost their homes, their businesses, their families and their friends. So Fonkoze will need to figure out how to help them get back on their feet for two reasons. On one hand, our own survival depends largely on our ability to help its members prosper. More importantly, since we exist only to help them make their way out of poverty we cannot be what we claim to be unless those members succeed.

As a step towards sorting things out, we invited almost 20 of our borrowers to a half-day meeting in Marigo. We wanted to hear from them. We chose women we view as leaders in their centers. Most, but not all, were their center’s elected chief. We felt that it was important to be dealing with women in some of the most affected communities, women whom we knew, from experience, we could count on to be clear and direct about what they had to say. We were, and still are, in a delicate position. We know that we want to take extraordinary steps to help our borrowers in this time of need. We also know, however, that we can’t yet say what we’ll be able to do. Talking too much with our borrowers about their needs could easily raise their expectations and lead to disappointment if we are not careful. We wanted to be sure that we were dealing with women with whom we feel we communicate especially well. The credit agents and I came up with a list of names, and our branch’s full-time field evaluator – called a “social impact monitor” – took care of the rest. By 9:30 in the morning, our discussions had begun.

The meeting proceeded in two stages. We started by splitting the women into two groups of manageable size to hold focus-group discussions of the earthquake and its consequences. We were speaking with women who were both victims and advocates for victims, and they spoke strikingly in both senses.

There were lots of tears, both happy and not. Madeleine is a long time Fonkoze member from downtown Marigo itself. She had two children living in Port au Prince at the time of the quake. She wept as she told about finally hearing news of them two days after the distaster. For those two days she had had no word. She had no reason to think that they were alive. Eliamène told us about how she lifted her child in one hand as the kitchen they were in collapsed around them, and then ran to her aged mother, who was sleeping in a back room, and lifted her with the other. She herself couldn’t explain where she got the strength. Then she went on to explain how her mother died just a few days later. The shock of it all, she cried, had been just too much.

They spoke in detail about the losses that they and their fellow members had suffered. Many had homes that were either damaged or destroyed. Many lost livestock. Women in one area spoke of rainwater cisterns they depend upon for drinking water that had cracked and now leak. And very many of them lost all or part of their businesses, in any number of ways. Some lost produce that rotted before it could get to market. Others lost merchandise in houses or depots that collapsed. Still others lost their merchandise because they panicked and ran when the quake struck. A young member from Mabriyòl was in Port au Prince with a shipment of beans and coffee. In the hours after the quake struck, she dumped them at a heavy loss just to be rid of them. She felt lucky to be alive. The church full of friends whom she was to meet after selling her wares were not as lucky.

After about 90 minutes of sharing, I gave the women a report. I told them first about the state of Fonkoze. Fonkoze is a membership organization. Its majority owners are its member/borrowers, and I like to emphasize that point every chance I get. They needed to know the state of their institution, if for no other reason than because it is theirs. I told them about the organization as a whole and about the Marigo office as well.

I then presented a summary of the information that our credit agents have been collecting in their visits to the centers. We have reliable data concerning over half of the women who have loans with Fonkoze Marigo, and the picture is grim. 20% of them have lost their homes, and another 67% have homes that were damaged. The vagueness of the difference between “home destroyed” and “home damaged” probably means that the percentage who’ve lost their homes entirely is really a good deal higher. More than 36% of the women lost cash or merchandise, some everything, though some less than that. Many lost family members, and a few lost children. And many lost assorted other things, like livestock, trees, or rainwater cisterns. This latter problem especially struck the dry regions in the mountains above Belans, and is especially dangerous. There’s not much in the way of spring- or well-water up there, so securing something to drink will be a problem for awhile.

They asked a few clarifying questions, but were then ready to give us advice. The first one to speak was Marie Ange, a very strong center chief from the large town of Kay Jakmèl. She suggested that Fonkoze should lend them the money they need to rebuild their homes. But Yemitsou, a young center chief from the rich farming region between Peredo and the sea answered that such loans wouldn’t work because no one would be able to pay them back. She said that if Fonkoze wanted to help them with their homes, it would probably require gifts, even if that meant that the amount was much less.

Eliamène then jumped in. She buys charcoal from smaller merchants she knows in the countryside and then sells it to wholesalers, who take it for sale in Port au Prince. She sells to them on credit. She’s had great relations with them. The system has worked well. They pay her when they return from Port au Prince. Unfortunately, this time they never made it back from Port au Prince. They died before they could pay her what she was owed. She lost everything. She didn’t think that Fonkoze could do much to help her rebuild her home. That will, she said, be a long and expensive process. But if it could help her manage her current debt, and give her an additional grant to reinvest in her lost business, she would be able to solve her housing problem herself, at least eventually. After all, she explained, she had already managed to build a home once.

We will have to give their various suggestions careful thought. They understand, I think, that part of the equation will involve our figuring out what we are actually able to do. But it is a remarkable fact, though common enough in Haiti these days, that as worried and shell-shocked and unhappy as these women were, none showed any signs of hopelessness. Though several warned me that their members would not be able to sustain the 90% repayment rate I reported to them for long, they all agreed that they are ready to move forward. They are hopeful that Fonkoze will be able to give them the kind of extra help they have learned to depend upon, but understand that, in the final analysis, they will have to, and will be able to, count on themselves.