Problems that Don’t Just Go Away

The work of CLM is not simply about making poor people wealthier. It can’t be. Helping extremely poor people transform themselves economically is, of course, at the center of what we do, but to emphasize economic transformation would damn the process to failure, at least for many of our members.

We need to help our members transform themselves socially and psychologically as well. We need to help them change who they are. Because although some of them are more or less success stories waiting to happen, women whom easily-changeable circumstances or unfortunate events have kept extremely poor, there are others for whom poverty is an apparent destiny, women whose situation within their community or whose own behaviors and attitudes seem to lock them where they are.

These are the women we must focus on as we head into the second half of our 18-month journey. We know from experience that many of them can and will change their apparent destinies, but it won’t be easy.

One of the most extreme examples among our current group of members is Jean Manie. I’ve written about her before, though I called her “Eileen.” (See: MeetEileen.) She grew up living in domestic servitude in Mousa’s home. He’s a relatively wealthy farmer in Chimowo, near central Boukankare. Jean Manie’s mentality and her social situation are combining to block the economic progress she needs to make to change her life, and it is not yet clear what we can do to change that.

There has been one important and positive change in her life. Her boy Patrice, who had been living with her family in another part of Boukankare, has been with her for months. He was even able to start school last year. At eight he was only a couple of years late. And though he missed the first several months of the school year because he wasn’t yet with his mother, he was able to pass and is ready now for second grade.

But right now, that is about the only good news in Jean Manie’s story. When I arrived yesterday with her case manager, Alancia, for her weekly visit, Jean Manie wasn’t even home. She was off working in Mousa’s fields.

This is a big deal. We really insist that our members be present for these weekly meetings. We know that they need our advice and encouragement, and these weekly visits are our best way to ensure they get it. The visits are the foundation our approach is built upon.

But her mere absence wasn’t the worst of it. We found Patrice there, getting ready to go help his mother work in the fields for Mousa, and told him to show us her animals. They are in terrible shape. Her sow just lost an entire litter of five piglets. The sow itself was miserable, unable to stand and unreactive to our presence. It appeared near death. Patrice brought his mother’s two ragged goats out to us from the savanna where he had tied them to feed. Both have had miscarriages since we gave them to her, and neither is pregnant again yet. Jean Manie is not taking good care of her animals, and she’s approaching a level of failure from which she will not recover.

And it’s not just the animals, either. The other members whom Alancia serves are well on their way to having nice new houses to live in. Those houses may be small, but they have good tin roofs, and can keep their families dry in heavy rains. Jean Manie is not yet at square one. She doesn’t even have a place to build it yet.

Mousa said long ago that he would give her a little space, but that’s not a good idea. She is a servant in his household and will remain one as long as she is on his land. That is what we believe, and that is what members of their community, who have spoken to her case manager, have said that they believe as well. They have told us several times that if she builds a house on his land he will always view the house as his.

But it isn’t clear what her alternative is. She could go back to the part of Boukankare that her family comes from, but she says that she has nothing there. She can’t accumulate the resources she’d need to buy or lease a small plot of land because she can’t care for her animals. She’s too busy working for Mousa to even try. And her animals are her only hope. She can’t do commerce because she can’t do even the simple arithmetic that making change requires.

But the most tenacious impediment to Jean Manie’s success is her attitude. Her response to any proposition that you make is that she can’t. She has a servant’s mentality, a sense of beholden-ness to Mousa and his wife that puts their interests first. She doesn’t seem to imagine herself as someone who could live a different way.

The relationship between her living situation and her mentality may be something like a chicken and an egg. Growing up as a servant may have made her passive, accustomed to always having someone else to decide. It may have robbed her of the tendency to plan on her own behalf or to think on her own. And the demands that Mousa and his wife make may have created or may at least encouraged that mentality. Is he giving her so much work that she cannot take care of her animals? We have heard that she’s had boyfriends, but that they’ve given her up when Mousa started to treat them as unpaid farmhands too.

But chicken-egg questions are unanswerable. Proverbially so. We tend to put them aside almost as soon as they are raised. They can be interesting, but not much more.

We cannot know whether there is a way to transform Jean Manie’s situation, but we must assume there is. To dismiss her life as a destiny, or as a cycle we can’t break, would be to condemn both her and probably Patrice to servitude for life.