Once Again

The March 8th graduation of 338 CLM members from Bay Tourib and north central Boukankare was an achievement our team was rightfully proud of. Here’s a blog that Mackenzie Keller, of Fonkoze’s staff, wrote about it: http://100millionideas.org/2013/03/07/women-the-backbone-of-society.

And here are her photos: https://picasaweb.google.com/101507663468736938297/CLMGraduationBayTourib?authkey=Gv1sRgCLiO0pTajfe5pwE.

But it merely marked the end of one assignment, not the end of the CLM team’s work. Fonkoze has charged its CLM team with eliminating extreme poverty across Haiti’s Central Plateau, and the only way to make meaningful progress towards achieving that goal is to keep working.

So on the Monday after the Friday graduation, work began on recruiting the next cohort of CLM families. Our team is charged with finding and enrolling 360 this time. THe group will be financed through a gift from Artists for Haiti. Graduation should take place towards the end of 2014. We’ve been in the field for the past couple of weeks.

I had very little to do with the work at the beginning. The team worried whether my presence too early in the process – my white, foreign presence – could complicate their work. Folks are already be inclined to imagine that someone is planning to do something for them when our team starts asking lots of questions about their neighborhood and its residents, and that suspicion makes good information harder to come by. My being around would only make their hard job harder.

But last week we began final verification, and that’s the point in the selection process at which I have to be involved. I’ve written about final verification before. (See: Final Verification.) It’s the last stage of our selection process. It’s when a member of the CLM management team, like me, visits a series of women whom CLM case managers have recommended for the program. Our role is to verify whether the prospective families really need CLM.

Much of this work is easy, especially with a group of very experienced case managers such as the ones on the Artists for Haiti team with me. They are very good at determining the situation of the women they speak with. The great majority of women they decide to recommend obviously deserve the help we can offer. Sometimes a quick look at the hungry small children hanging around their mother, who appears to be without any hope of feeding them, is all one needs to sign the form that will make it possible for us to offer a family such help as we can.

I think of Jésumène and her daughter Rosemène, her oldest child, both of whom I met last week. They live in the same straw shack. They have no land they could farm, and no resources to invest in small commerce. Jésumène’s husband left her to take up with another woman. Rosemène rejoined her when she left her husband because of his abuse. The women have eight younger children between them.

Their main means of support is Jésumène’s twenty-year-old son, her second child, who finds people who allow him to make charcoal for them out of trees that they own. He must give the landowner half the proceeds from the sale, but can give the other half to his mother. A sack of charcoal sells for about $5 in the countryside, so if he can get a couple of sacks out of the wood his neighbors offer him, he can give his mother about that much. Making charcoal takes several days, however, so they would not get that money more than about once a week. It’s doubtful that he can make charcoal even that often. And often the wood that he makes consists mainly of scraps. He may not always get even a full sack.

The kids surely scavenge some. It’s almost mango season, and there’s sugarcane these days too. And the family may receive occasional gifts from neighbors or relatives as well. The boy probably works in neighbors’ fields as well, which would earn him about $1.25 a day. But the picture as a whole for Jésumène and her children is very grim. It was not hard to decide to qualify both women for CLM.

There are borderline cases that are more difficult. One way to look at the decision that we need to make is to ask whether our Ti Kredi program could serve the family we are considering. It offers six months of very small loans and more coaching than our standard credit program does, and prepares women to enter the larger credit program.

So when I met Julienne, I had to give that question some thought. She’s currently only able to send two of her eight children to school, but she and her husband have a relatively decent two-room house and, more importantly, she has both a salt business with about $6 of capital in it and a donkey that she uses to carry the salt from the market where she buys it to the one she sells it at.

So she already has a small business, and she’s had the discipline and the acumen to keep her $6 intact for a while, though it hasn’t been able to grow. I considered referring her to Ti Kredi, figuring it could give her the tools to slowly build her business into something larger. But with her eight children to feed, and the pressure she’ll rightly feel to put more of them in school, I just couldn’t see it. Especially when I saw the handful of younger ones hanging around their front yard late in the afternoon looking very hungry. We come across other women whom I do refer to Ti Kredi. They might seem to have fewer resources than Julienne does. They have neither a business nor an asset as valuable as a donkey. But they have fewer children and fewer signs of hunger.

Another difficult case was Elène’s. She and her husband appear to be in their late sixties, but they have no idea how old they really are. Neither they nor any of their children have birth certificates, and their parents did not even teach them who was president when they were born, which is a standard way to approximately remember birth years in rural Haiti. They live in the front room of a two-room house. It’s a nice house, in good condition, though its roof of straw and palm seed pods probably leaks unless they invest a lot of time in keeping it in good repair. Their youngest child is a twenty-something man, who lives by himself in the back room. He’s not a dependent.

She and her husband wouldn’t come under consideration, but they have a severely handicapped granddaughter living with them. The girl moves the way I remember seeing children with muscular dystrophy move, though I am not competent to diagnose her real problem. Imagine a twelve-year-old girl with muscular dystrophy whose family has never talked to anyone who might know how to develop such capacities as she has. She mainly lies on the house’s dusty dirt floor, and playing by herself. Her mother, Elène’s daughter, left her in Elène’s hands, and the grandparents have no idea what to do for her beyond keeping her fed and as clean as they can.

Elène’s husband has a small yard around their home that he plants with plantains, corn, and millet. They also rent two small pieces of farmland that he works. So life is clearly very difficult for them, but they seem to be feeding themselves and investing in their long-term well being probably isn’t for us. It’s a hard call.

At times, final verification can feel hard. You wander from house to house, hearing the horrible stories of lives on the edge. One hears again and again of hunger, of lost or even absent opportunities, of violence. You are charged with deciding who, among very poor people, is poor enough to require CLM’s help. It feels hard.

But dwelling on its difficulty is a trap. You can’t pretend that such difficulty is meaningful in the face of the misery you encounter, especially since you wander around with the knowledge that soon, if not immediately, you team will be able to begin showing the families you select a path towards hope.