I was half an hour early, but I felt as though I was a least that late.
This in itself was striking. I’ve worked in Haiti with perfectly successful groups, groups that met consistently over months or even years, and have had to adapt myself to the fact that half the participants or more would often arrive for a two-hour meeting as much as one hour late. Lots of Haitians live without watches. Transportation is unreliable. Things can take a lot of time. And punctuality, while respected, isn’t generally viewed as all that important. I’ve never seen a Haitian here start to panic because they’re going to be late.
But when I got to the 10:00 General Assembly at 9:30 on Saturday morning, everyone was already there and busy. The singing and dancing and talking were in full swing.
The General Assembly is the annual meeting of Fonkoze members from all over Haiti. Fonkoze’s core activity is what is called “solidarity group” credit. A Solidarity Group is five close friends who organize themselves to take out their loans as a group. Responsibility for repayment is shared. They agree in advance that if one of them has trouble meeting a repayment deadline, the others will come to her aid. Solidarity Groups are then organized into Credit Centers of six-eight groups. These Centers are designed to be permanent associations of women committed to improving their lives. Through these centers, Fonkoze organizes loan disbursements and repayments and educational services.
For the General Assembly, members from all of Fonkoze’s branches choose representatives that they send to Pòtoprens. That they send their representatives is true quite literally. Fonkoze does not pay the expensive transportation costs, nor does it cover lodging. The women themselves and the others whom they represent are left to make their own arrangements. For women who joined Fonkoze because they are on the edge of poverty but are ready to fight to improve their situations, these expenses are considerable. The round trip from Wanament, for example, might be as much as $50. And this is in a country in which much of the population lives on less than $1 a day.
But 175 women came to the meeting, representing all 28 of Fonkoze’s branches. They heard reports from Fonkoze staff and a presentation from an expert in decentralization. Interspersed through these presentations were songs and a short play about the importance of Fonkoze services. The play was created and performed by the group of women from Wanament. I later learned that they had been asked to perform something only that same morning. They created the play and learned the lines within a couple of hours.
The most important phase of the meeting began when the women were invited to step forward and ask questions or offer comments about Fonkoze. One way of describing what happened at that moment would be to say that chaos broke out. Women stood up from all through the auditorium and rushed forward to take the microphone. Multiple women tried to speak at once. When Fonkoze staff tried to suggest that questions be written out, a large portion of the women refused. They had not traveled to Pòtoprens in order to leave someone a note. They wanted their voices to be heard. Fonkoze’s staff had to abandon its carefully-planned agenda and go with the flow.
There is, however, a deeper and, therefore, truer way to interpret the apparent chaos. Fonkoze’s core objective is to help poor Haitian women take greater control of their lives. One way it does so is to offer well-structured credit programs. Women cannot have control of their lives unless they have their own sources of income. But credit is not enough. Another way Fonkoze helps women take increased control of their lives is by offering educational programs, like Basic Literacy. Fonkoze feels that it should be helping women develop the tools they need to manage their affairs well.
When Fonkoze’s members took control of the General Assembly, when they forced the organization to give up its plans and respond to their need for space and time to speak up, they were showing a willingness to assert themselves that Fonkoze’s leadership could only welcome. The chaos was a clear sign of progress Fonkoze has made.
The challenge that remains for Fonkoze will be to find new ways to respond to its members’ assertiveness. Already there are plans to create a newsletter in which Fonkoze staff will respond to questions and comments that members send. The dialogue will have to be ongoing, but Saturday’s meeting was a very promising point from which to depart.
Here are some photos of the meeting: PhotosoftheGeneralAssembly.