Monday, May 18th, 2009
Mirebalais, Central Plateau, Haiti
In the midst of the wreckage of this country, I continue to meet the most inspiring, charismatic people on both sides of the micro-finance fence. It makes it impossible to stay mired in despair, despite the never-ending sprawl of abject poverty here. In fact, I feel quite hopeful. Because even though you could liken the day-to-day progress that GF and Fonkoze are making to emptying the proverbial well one teacup a time. The well still gets emptied that way.
Yesterday I said if Anne Hastings asked me to learn Creole, become a loan officer, and traipse all over the countryside, I’d seriously consider it. Today, I want to revise that plan so that I can work side by side with Gauthier Dieudonne, director of the program on the first rung of the Fonkoze ladder called Chemen Lavi Miyo (CLM), which means “Road to a Better Life.”
The women in CLM are the ultra poor. So destitute and spiritually broken that they aren’t even ready for a cash loan of $25 (US), so Fonkoze gives them an asset like chickens or a goat, instead. Then Gauthier and his team mentor them through a two-year program that basically rehabilitates them from the inside-out with weekly pep talks, confidence building, home repair and health care.
Gauthier spoke of the isolation these women feel. That when he and his team arrive to tell them they’ve been selected for CLM, the women often give them a blank stare, as though Gauthier is speaking a foreign language. It’s because nobody’s ever done anything for them before so they have no reason to believe that Gauthier will make good on his promise, either.
I admit, I’m surprised that the human aspect of getting people out of poverty has been given so much attention here. I mean, it makes complete sense to me that this level of care is what made CLM’s pilot program so successful. (96% of it’s participants graduated to the next rung of Fonkoze’s ladder called Ti Kredi with the $25 loans.) But one-on-one attention is expensive and, above all, time consuming, and I just assumed that the problem of poverty in Haiti is so big and urgent that rehabilitation with this kind of attention to detail wouldn’t be a viable option. But I was wrong. Replicating a program that’s been successful in Bangladesh, Fonkoze pulled up their socks and walked the walk. Alex says Anne and Gauthier must share some DNA with Professor Yunus, because the three of them eat, sleep and breathe the mission of eliminating poverty.
I wish you could meet Gauthier. He’s a little bit of magic in this ravaged country. He’s Haitian, but lived in the US for many years, then moved back to Haiti a few years ago where Anne got hold of him. He’s burly, soften-spoken, gracious and charismatic. He effortlessly commands everyone’s attention like a natural-born leader. It’s no exaggeration to say he loves every one of his clients. He even said to me, “You have to, in order for the program to succeed.” And without exception, everywhere we went his clients were overjoyed to see him.
Gauthier and his colleague, Myriam Narcisse, another native Haitian, took us to see a Ti Kredi meeting first thing this morning. Most of the women in the group were graduates of CLM and the sense of accomplishment shone on their faces. They wore their best clothes for the meeting and carried themselves with dignity. When our group arrived, the women laughed and joked with Gauthier, and greeted us all with hugs and kisses. It was fantastic and unexpected.
Again, the human element seems to be the magic bullet in these programs. Which is so obvious if you think about it for half a second. Still, I kept expecting Fonkoze to seek faster, less labor-intensive ways to achieve the same goals. But Gauthier says that would leave some women behind, and in his words: “Failure is not an option.” Meaning, these women have experienced so many set backs in their lives, that one more failure would be unbearable.
Next, we hiked across muddy farm land and took a hollowed-log boat across the river to meet a client about to enter CLM. Gauthier arranged the meetings in this order so that we could see the difference between the women in Ti Kredi, and one who had not yet begun her journey. The difference was astounding.
The client was Adeline: a single mother in her twenties with three or four children, (the father randomly comes and goes without notice), living in a tiny mud hut in the middle of nowhere. She weaves straw mats from dried palm fronds for a cash. The trouble is, it takes her 10 days to weave one mat and the money she makes is already promised to the vendors who’ve extended her credit to buy food. So she never gets ahead.
When we showed up Adeline greeted Gauthier with a smile, but was shy about looking the rest of us in the eye. She wore only the bottom half of her gray dress and absently clutched the bodice of it to her chest without putting her arms in the sleeves.
Myriam told me later that Adeline said the collar was torn so the dress wouldn’t stay on properly. But even so, it was as though Adeline wasn’t quite aware that she was only half dressed in front of strangers. Like it’d been so long since anyone cared what she did, that she no longer cared herself.
When we asked her if she was looking forward to getting her goat this Saturday, she looked at us like she didn’t understand the question. It’s what Gauthier was talking about earlier. Since nobody ever comes through for these women, they don’t even bother to form expectations about the future. Their whole lives are consumed with survival. To Adeline, Saturday might as well be a year away. The bigger question is, how are she and her children going to get through today with the occasional mango for food (it’s mango season here), and seemingly no hope for a better tomorrow?
It is against this bleak backdrop that Gauthier and his team will go to work rehabilitating Adeline and her life.
As I sit here in my bare hotel room in Mirebalais I think, at least I have indoor plumbing that works most of the time, and a bare blub for a light. What does Adeline do when the sun goes down? Even if she had a light for her hut, she can’t read. She and her children sleep on a mud floor so there’s no comfort. Their bellies are distended from malnutrition. There’s no relief for them anywhere. So how has Adeline kept going this long? I don’t know the answer. But it speaks to the extraordinary resilience of human spirit.
P.S. Before I go to sleep I have a funny story to tell you.
It’s the rainy season here which makes many of the rural country roads impassable by car. In order to get to our first meeting with the women of Ti Kredi, we had to cross a couple of streams, get poled across a river in a hollowed-out log boat, and trek through ankle-deep mud on foot for about 45 minutes. Now for reasons unknown, I was trying really hard to stay clean while we navigated this soggy terrain. (Why??! WHY??!!) Two thirds of the way through our journey, I slipped and fell –SPLAT! My whole left side got soaked with gooey, black mud. Yes indeed, I, the original Princess and Pea, got slimed – BIG TIME! We had a mini camera crew with us and I believe they caught it all on video. Oh, joy!
Other than being completely embarrassed, I was totally fine. And getting slimed actually freed me up to slosh through streams and sludge as needed, from there on out. So it all worked out perfectly. ☺