Still Hungry

Sometimes it feels as though CLM is almost magically effective. That’s not to say that the work is easy. Our case managers and the members they serve struggle very hard for our success – with the elements, with each other, and with the realities of poverty and of rural life. That success thus belongs entirely to them. But approximately 98% of the families that complete the program are sustainably self-sufficient within 18 months. That record can sometimes lead us to expect success to follow us as inevitably as the day follows the night.

And many member families do take off almost as soon as we begin to work with them. The combination of assets and individualized coaching that we offer is enough to set them quickly and reliably onto a good path.

But for others, the road is much longer. All sorts of problems can interfere with the progress they need to make. I’ve written of such cases before, cases like Marie Paul. (See: More About Marie.)

She started the program in debt, and rather than setting the problem before her case manager so they could try to figure out a solution together, she concealed it, liquidating most of the assets we gave her to pay off a loan shark who was threatening her life and then lying about the sale. Even then, her case manager, Martinière, worked out a plan that could have enabled to restart with a reduced asset base and have an excellent chance to graduate nonetheless, but she would not take his advice. She would not even stay home on the day of his weekly visit so they could talk. She missed so many of their appointments, that he eventually became discouraged. Her home forced him more than a half an hour out of his way on his Wednesday route, which was already an especially long and hard one. The two of them never developed the relationship of trust that is far and away the most important element of everything we do. And so she languished. Her new home was never quite completed, and her assets never quite grew to what they need to be. She is very hard working, so we hope that she and her children will eventually be ok. But she could not graduate with the rest of her cohort in eighteen months. It’s a shame.

Lucienne lives close to our base in Bay Tourib. Five of her nine children survive. All are grown, but the two youngest are still unmarried and live with her and her husband. When she joined the program, the four of them were living in a corner of an older child’s house. That was about a year ago. When we began the process of home repair, she decided to add a room to that house for herself , her husband, and the two kids rather than building something separate, and that’s where they live now.

The two enterprises she chose to receive from us were goats and small commerce. We gave her three fertile female goats and made 1500 gourds, or about $ 37.50, available to purchase merchandise for her to build her commerce with.

But it has all more or less gone wrong.

Part of the challenge has to do with her husband. He is crippled by pain in his feet. He can barely walk, let alone work. The whole burden of running the house has fallen on her, and on their kids.

She and her case manager decided to invest the commerce money in beans. With her son’s help, she planted ten mamit. A mamit is a large coffee can, which is a standard dry measure in rural Haiti. But the crop was almost a total loss. They’ve pulled up and dried the plants, and are preparing to hull them, but she already sees that she’ll get a lot less than the ten mamit she planted.

Her goat rearing has not done much better thus far. One of the goats successfully raised its first litter – a single male kid – and is almost ready to give birth again. But another one died. Lucienne was able to sell the meat, but only by letting neighbors buy on credit. It went for 850 gourds, only about a quarter of the goat’s live value, but Lucienne hasn’t yet been able to collect any of what she’s owed.

The fate of the third goat is a more complicated story. The short version is that her son Lorès took it and sold it behind his mother’s back. Lucienne can’t even talk about it without sobbing.

It happened shortly after we transferred the goats to Lucienne. At the time, Lorès was competing with another young man for a young woman’s heart. As Lucienne tells the story, the girl and her family made it clear that they preferred her son. They pressured him to spend money he didn’t have on the girl, and eventually convinced him to sell his mother’s CLM goat towards that end. He caved in, sold the goat, burned through the cash by buying gifts for the girl, and then immediately regretted what he had done.

Knowing that Lucienne’s case manager would insist on seeing the goat during his next weekly visit, Lorès was forced to confess to his mother. That’s when Lucienne first became aware of the stage that his relation with the girl had reached, and she put a maternal veto on any further progress. Her boy chose to stick with his mother and accept her word. But by then she had lost two of her three goats.

A case manager’s first move in a case like this, in which a CLM member or a member of her family sells one of her assets without our approval, is to pressure the member to find a way to replace it. And Lucienne and Lorès agreed to do so.

But the more she considered it, the less sense it really made to Lucienne. Their crops had failed, and there was little beyond their farming that could bring in the cash they would need to buy a new goat. Lorès said that he would sell a small plot of land that Lucienne had given him for him to farm on, and use the proceeds from the sale to buy a goat, but Lucienne could not see the sense in his doing so, and we had to agree with her.

Lucienne speaks very clearly: She is working only for her two kids. That is to say, for her daughter, Jeslène, and Lorès. For Lorès to sell off land that she’s given him in order to return an asset to his mother can only feel like a step backward for her. Haitians describe a step like that as, “//Lave men, siye atè//.” That means, “Wash your hands and dry them in the dirt.” There’s little reason for her to develop productive assets if she can only do so by impoverishing the son who is her reason for developing them in the first place. They need to find another way.

The assets she has to work with are the mother goat and its first offspring, 3400 gourds in her Fonkoze savings account, and the 850 gourds owed to her for the goat meat she sold.

So this is what she and her case manager plan to do: She will have her son sell the young goat. They’ll need to do it quickly. By the middle of August, goats will start flooding the market, as people need cash to pay tuition for their kids’ schools. But if they sell right away, they should be able to get somewhat more than 1000 gourds. By withdrawing almost all her savings from her account, she’ll have over 4000 gourds, enough to buy a good, small horse.

That horse should be able to unlock small commerce as a real opportunity for Lucienne. She is no longer strong enough to carry heavy loads on her head, so without a horse she would almost have to sell from out of her home. And the reality in rural Haiti is that women who sell out of their home almost have to sell on credit if they are going to sell at all, and women like CLM members can lack the social capital they need to consistently collect what’s owed them.

But she still needs seed capital to get her new commerce started, so her case manager will have to help her collect at least a substantial portion of the 850 gourds she is owed. 500 gourds or so would be a start, if a very small one, and it would be enough to give us some hope that, despite very substantial obstacles, Lucienne will succeed in the end.

All that will require a lot of hard work, and that’s where we come to Lucienne’s most urgent problem. She’s been really sick. She was rushed to the clinic in Bay Tourib after collapsing in the market nearby. She was very weak, and showed strong signs of anemia. Her blood pressure was extremely low. The doctor gave her iron pills, but those pills don’t address the fundamental issue, which is that despite almost twelve months in the program, Lucienne cannot yet ensure that she and her children eat a meal every day. It is too early to call her situation something as final sounding as a “failure,” but to call it anything less than that would seem to trivialize how difficult her life still is.

The day I spoke with her, it was midmorning, and she and her children had not yet cooked or eaten anything. We gave her a few gourds, which her daughter very quickly turned into a bowl of stew, but such handouts won’t really help her succeed. She will need to quickly turn her horse and the merchandise it carries into food to feed herself and her kids and profits that can help her grow.

It won’t be easy. But we are optimistic. The fact that she lives so close to our base means that we can watch her especially closely, helping her track and manage her commerce as she tries to make it grow. We can also work closely with her boy, who seems very much motivated to make up for his lapse.

So Lucienne’s battle is far from over. Only time will tell whether it is one we can help her win.