Selection: More about the Gray Area

Sandra and her partner Jean Ranel live in a small rented house. It’s set just back from the main road that runs between downtown Tomond and Kas, a large rural market near the Dominican border. The couple and their children live on what Jean Ranel earns as a motorcycle taxi driver. The road is busy, especially on market days, and Jean Ranel earns just enough to keep the family fed every day, even though he only rents the motorcycle he uses.

A few years ago, the couple even started to get ahead. Jean Ranel was willing to work hard, and the couple had enough money left over after buying food and paying for school to invest in livestock. They’d buy a goat now and again.

Then disaster struck. Jean Ranel was in an accident. His leg was badly broken. And though it eventually healed enough for him to start driving again, it wasn’t the same. He lives with constant pain in his thigh and hip. He can’t carry heavier loads or multiple passengers on his motorcycle because doing so stresses his hip to the point at which he can’t bear the pain. It means both that he earns less per trip than he used to earn and also that he loses out entirely on regular clients who travel to and from the market with significant merchandise. The couple sold some of their livestock during Jean Ranel’s recovery. They sold the rest last year to send their girls to school. This year, they couldn’t afford to send the girls. When Sandra’s family offered to take their oldest girl off their hands, they felt they had no choice. They sent her away and kept the two younger ones with them.

I met Sandra during the last step of our selection process. And I was initially unsure what I should do. The couple has a small but regular income. It probably ranges between $1.50 and $2.00 per day. As a way to emphasize how much poorer most CLM members are than even those typically defined as living in “extreme poverty,” I’ve often said that we wouldn’t normally take someone who had a reliable income of $1 per day, which was the United Nations threshold for extreme poverty when our work began.

But Sandra’s case gave me pause. They have enough to eat, but of their three children two are out of school and the third is out of their home entirely. They live in a rented house, and as the annual rent payment looms, they have no idea where the money will come from.

Even so, I might have decided against taking the family had it not been for the sense of hopelessness that was strong in Sandra. It was present in the way she spoke, the way she sat, and the way she looked. She told me that more than six years ago she had tried to start a small commerce once, but when the money disappeared, she just gave up. She never thought to try again. She was certain to fail.

She doesn’t believe she is capable of anything, and that total sense of incapacity made me think I had no choice but to take her. We need to help her discover her abilities. Her livelihood will remain terribly fragile if she thinks it simply must depend on her man.