Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
Mirebalais, Central Plateau, Haiti
There was no hot water at the hotel this morning. Of course I was all soapy by the time I realized the freezing cold water really, truly wasn’t going to get any warmer! Ooof!
Same as yesterday, I met Alex, Kate and Myriam on the upstairs porch of our hotel for breakfast: tea, (coffee for Kate), and slices of pale toast with butter. Myriam had bought some mangoes and pineapple, so the kitchen sliced those up for our breakfast, too. The fruit was out of this world! Alex kindly provided the tea. He travels with his own stash, like I do. Though I completely forgot this time, I was so preoccupied with remembering to bring things I never travel with like bug spray, malaria pills, and my own quick-dry bath towel.
Today’s trek into the countryside was not the mudfest it was yesterday. But one of our four-wheel drive vehicles (our team travels in two cars), did get stuck trying to cross a small river on our way to the first site visit. We caught the whole thing on video just like a National Geographic documentary. After several attempts by our fearless Haitian drivers, it was decided it’d be best to leave the hopeless SUV behind and just take the pickup truck which zipped across the river, no problem. Once on dry land, Kate and the camera crew gamely climbed into the back of the pickup and we picked our way along the gutted country road going about 15 miles per hour, at most. Occasionally our driver had to get out and place rocks in the deep ruts so the truck would stay level.
Our first stop today was a Solidarity credit meeting. Solidarity is the third rung on the Fonkoze ladder and a core part of the Grameen model of micro-lending. Women, often from the same village, organize themselves into groups of five members, and take out individual loans. That group then joins with other groups of five, and the lot of them form a Credit Center. Now a whole community of villages is involved and people are not only responsible for themselves, but they can rely on and help their peers. Solidarity.
Today was the day the Credit Center had their monthly meeting with the loan officer to make scheduled payments on their loans. The women sat in chairs in a straight line under some trees, while the loan officer — who arrives by motorcycle and carries the cash in a knapsack(!) –sat at a wobbly card table facing them. The loan officer takes attendance and then one woman, who’s been elected the leader of her Solidarity group, hands over her group’s cash, and signs her name on a paper receipt which she gets a copy of. If she can’t sign her name, she signs with a “+” sign. One women signed with two “+” signs.
In Solidarity you start with a $75, three-month loan and go up from there. The loan officer records all the transactions by hand in a notebook. Every year all loan officer’s ledgers are audited by an outside auditor.
I asked what happens if one of the women in a Solidarity group can’t pay her installment on a given month. Depending on the circumstances (sickness, death in the family), she will be given a grace period to come up with the cash. If it becomes a chronic problem, however, everyone’s assets in her group will be frozen and no one will be able to borrow more money until she makes good on her payments. (Gulp.) I’m telling you, these women mean business. They have embarked on a journey that, not that long ago, seemed totally out of reach. Now they’re well on their way to changing their lives completely. You definitely don’t want to be the one to stop that train!
As with CLM clients, and those in Ti Kredi, the difference between them is meausurable. The same is true between the women in Ti Kredi and Solidarity. The members of Solidarity have an even greater sense of themselves. Delightfully, they both wear their best dresses to their group meetings, despite the oppressive heat at 10:00 in the morning. But where the women of Ti Kredi are still finding their way, the women in Solidarity are more confident and ask for things: health care (which all Fonkoze clients get); disaster insurance to offset the devastating effects of hurricane season; and lower interest rates, since the world economy took a dive (they’re currently paying 5%). To me, the fact that these women feel deserving enough to pose these questions is one of the most profound and moving indicators of their progress. I believe it is the essence of helping people help themselves.
Saint-Annie was the last Fonkoze client we visited today. She’s in her late fifties, I’d say, and has been a borrower since 2001. She started in a Solidarity group she formed with three of her sisters and a niece. They’re all doing very well now, she says, as is Saint-Annie who lives on the main road, not far from Mirebalais, in a concrete three-room house with cement floors. Her home doubles as her shop where sells goods wholesale and retail. She’s like the local 7-Eleven. She carries beer, water, soda, milk, sugar, flour, cornmeal, candy, popsicles, and clothes when school is in session. She has two refrigerators in her home –the first refrigerators I’ve seen outside of our hotel. And two of the rooms in her house have a bare bulb for light. The third one has nothing.
Store hours are from 6:00 or 7:00 AM (depending on whether or not Saint-Annie goes to church), and it stays open until 10 PM –unless it’s raining, that is, then she closes at 8:00.
“How come?” I asked.
“Because people don’t walk around in the rain,” she said, smiling at me like, Wow, you’re one dumb bunny, aren’t you?
Saint-Annie has a grace and stillness about her that I like to think has been enhanced by the fact that she is now a successful, self-sustaining business woman. This week she pays back the last installment on a $50,000 loan she took. She said she’d like to borrow $100,000 next time.
I love micro-finance.