Starting Over Again

After something like three months spent selecting new CLM members in Tomonn and Boukankare, we are finally beginning to offer them the services they need. Friday, I was in an area of Boukankare called “Laplenn,” meeting with new members.

Until now, the limit of my territory in north-central Boukancare had been Mannwa and Balandri, two high mountain ridges that overlook the more populous southern part of the county. But they also overlook a secluded valley behind them. That valley is sprinkled with neighborhoods, but Laplenn is its overall name. It means “the plain,” though there’s not much about the terrain that deserves that name. Steep but low ridges crisscross it thoroughly.

Getting to the area is a real nuisance. Hiking up Mannwa and then back down into the region is long and hard, and it leaves you with the unfortunate necessity of hiking back up the steep hill to Mannwa at the end of a hot day. Instead we went through Balandri. That allows you to bring your motorcycle quite close to the area, but only by driving up the aptly named “Mòn Dega.” “Dega” means “damage,” and the road is hard enough to manage that it feels as though it could do you harm at any time. It’s steep, narrow, and winding. But what’s worse is that it’s covered with loose rocks. All you can do going up is put the motorcycle into first gear, give it gas when you hit big rocks, and try not to let it get out of your hands. I haven’t figured out the best way to go down yet. Fear of falling as I roll down the hill presents more danger than the hill itself does, but I haven’t been able to conquer that fear just yet.

Things seemed much easier for Wesly, the case manager whom I accompanied. He’s experienced on a motorcycle, and experienced as a case manager as well. In June he graduated a group of 50 members in Sodo, near where he lives. He’s now starting with his second group.

The first week we work with new families, we do not visit them in their homes. Instead, we meet with them by neighborhoods. Wesly had invited all 15 of the women from Laplenn who have been assigned to him to meet at one member’s centrally located home.

At this first meeting, they accomplish a couple of different things. First, they establish what his weekly schedule with them will be. Wesly had planned, for example, to visit Laplenn every Wednesday, but the women told him that Wednesday wouldn’t work well because it is the local market day. So they set Thursday instead, and then determined the order he would see them in. Second, they meet their case manager. Though they had already seen and worked with Wesly during their six days of enterprise training, they had not known that he would be their case manager. At the training, they had worked with other case managers as well. On Friday, they learned that they’d be working with Wesly, and he gave them an initial talk about his hopes and expectations, a pep talk. Finally, they learn about their weekly food stipend. We give CLM members 300 gourds per week during the first six months of the program. That’s about $7.50. Wesly gave them their first installment at the end of the meeting.

Wesly’s going to have his work cut out for him this cycle, and it’s not only because he drew especially challenging terrain. There are women in the Laplenn group who probably have a tough road ahead of them.

I say “women,” though in the case of the member who struck me most, that seems a stretch. I saw a very young-looking girl at the meeting and assumed that either she had come with her mother or that her mother had sent her in her place. I did not want to imagine that a girl so young could have qualified for the program. After all, for us to have selected her, she would have to have a child, and she only looked to be twelve or thirteen years old herself. I was startled to hear that she was a new CLM member nonetheless.

Her name is Louneda, and it turned out that we hadn’t selected her. She has no children. We had selected her mother. But the mother died giving birth to twins just a few weeks ago, leaving a 17-year-old boy to fend for his four younger sisters and the twins, who survived. The father lives with another woman and does not support his kids. Their situation seemed dire, so we took Louneda, the oldest surviving girl — there had been an older sister, but she died several years ago — into the program and told the brother, the family’s de facto adult, that he’d need to give her his support.

His name is Fanfan, and the two of us talked while Wesly met with Louneda and the other members. Fanfan’s the one who explained to me how his mother died. When I asked about the twins, he told me in an apologetic tone that he had carried them across the mountains to the central Partners in Health hospital, which is just a couple of hours away on foot. He said he had to give them away because he had no idea how to take care of them. I tried to assure him that I understood, though “understood” is surely the wrong word. I cannot remotely imagine standing Fanfan’s shoes.

His biggest concern right now, he said, is school. He explained that he knows he won’t be able to go to school any more. He has to take care of his sisters. What’s really troubling him right now is that he doesn’t see how he’ll be able to send the girls to school this year, either. There’s a community school only about a half-hour away on foot, and it’s not terribly expensive, but it’s hard enough for him to keep his sisters fed. His one source of income is working in his neighbors’ fields for the dollar or so a day that farm work pays. Scraping together the $20 or $30 tuition for the coming year is more than he can do.

He and Louneda will have a hard time. But if they manage the assets we give them well, they should be able to steer their household towards a better future. Doing so will, however, require them to think like adults. Fanfan makes a good first impression. I haven’t spoken to Louneda yet. At the meeting she seemed terribly shy. Helping them make this too-early transition to adulthood will be Wesly’s challenge. I’m glad they have experience on their side.