Talking with young adults as they come to understand and even transform themselves is part of the great privilege of undergraduate teaching.
Their openness, curiosity, and willingness to question make them wonderful teachers. I never imagined wanting to do any other work.
But in the mid 1990s, happenstance brought me into the presence of a very different population: teachers and students of literacy in Haiti.
Here, the transformation that educators were struggling for was more dramatic. On one hand, they wanted to help students old and young enter the written world. On the other, they sought to use literacy education to catalyze engaged and organized citizenship among men and women who had grown up taking the world as it presented itself.
I felt I could learn more with these teachers than I was learning at home, so I left college and moved to Haiti. I worked with different groups: college, high school, and elementary school students; literacy classes; a network of rape victims; a club of young men living in a gang-controlled slum; and a microfinance institution that offered literacy classes to its borrowers.
The more I learned about the participants in the classes I was part of, the more I realized that the economic issues affecting families’ access to education would need to be addressed. My Haitian partners and I were trying to develop better, more participatory ways to run classes, but better classes would mean nothing if people were too poor to attend them.
So I became increasingly involved with Fonkoze, the microfinance institution whose literacy programs had already been part of my work here. I had numerous opportunities to talk to the women who were its borrowers, and was constantly hearing stories about the ways in which the business that depended on their Fonkoze loans helped them manage their families’ lives. Eventually, I became the manager of one of its 45 branches, responsible for its credit programs, but also the other aspects of its operation.
I had agreed with Fonkoze that I would manage the branch for a year.
It had been failing, and the institution’s director hoped that the year would give me enough time to learn how it was failing and, perhaps, begin to set it on a better track. The earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010 caught me at the branch, and the extra work that it required pushed me to lengthen my commitment, but as the summer of 2010 began to approach, I was ready to return to teaching the following September.
That’s when I was offered the chance to join Fonkoze’s extreme poverty team as a regional director. Chemen Lavi Miyò, or the Path to a Better Life, was Fonkoze’s adaptation of an approach, usually called “the graduation approach,” that had been developed by BRAC, a very large development organization in Bangladesh, to serve families too poor to benefit from traditional microfinance.
The program—we usually call it CLM—does not depend on a loan, but on a grant of the assets that a family needs to launch businesses that can help them manage household expenses.
But it’s much more than a grant program. Participants receive training on how to manage their new assets and eighteen months of weekly visits from a case manager who help ensure that they get started on the right track. The case managers also teach them important life skills, and help the Fonkoze team facilitate a range of health measures: from water filters and latrines to housing repair and free healthcare from Partners in Health.
Working with the poorest of the poor took me into the mountains where they live.
It took me off of the main roads that lead from town to town in Haiti and onto the footpaths that wind through Haiti’s mountains. The people I met were so poor that they were hungry most of the time when they joined our program. They’d go days without a hot meal. Not because of a famine or other disaster, but simple because they were that poor.
People like Orana Louis, a woman who lives with her husband and children in Bay Tourib, in the mountains of central Haiti. Orana was born into extreme poverty, having moved to Bay Tourib with her widowed mother from Mannwa, across the mountains when the older woman moved in with a second husband. Orana and her husband, Sonn, were unable even to feed their children every day when the first joined the CLM program. With access to Sonn’s family’s land, but not assets to invest in farming, the couple got by on what Sonn could earn by working across the border in the Dominican Republic. He’d leave home for months at a time. Whenever he’d return, he’d bring some extra money so that Orana could start a small commerce to keep the family going the next time he went away, but pregnancies and the strain of feeding all her children with a business that was never large enough would quickly eat up her capital, and the household would be hungry again.
The CLM program gave the couple livestock, but it also enabled them to invest in both small commerce and farming. With money to buy seeds, Sonn was able to stay home, and that made it possible for him help Orana develop her business as well. In their case manager, Hilaire Nozan, they had a devoted advisor, pushing them to take the transformative steps a better life for their children would require. They repaired their home, covering it with tin rather than leaves, and built a latrine in their yard. Soon they would need to add a room to store their harvest as well. Sonn would travel to Port au Prince to purchase merchandise for the business and help Orana take care of the livestock. Orana would carry her business to markets on foot, as many as four or five each week, to keep the business moving. Soon they were able to buy a mule so Orana was no longer limited to what she could carry to market on her head.
Their children are now healthy and in school, and the couple is committed to family planning. They’ve had setbacks – major losses to theft, livestock deaths, bad harvests – but the couple’s newfound resilience had enabled them to weather it all. They’ve even been able to buy additional farmland outright, decreasing their vulnerability to the sort of land conflicts that might have derailed them in the past.
Accompanying families like Orana’s as they transform the vicious cycles that can leave their poverty to continually deepen into virtuous ones that lead them reliably to better lives is a privilege not unlike the privilege of working with college students. Participating in the transformations people undergo is a source of joy and hope.
Steven Werlin, a faculty member at Shimer College, in Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working for Chemen Lavi Miyò, Fonkoze’s program for the extreme poor. He currently acts as CLM’s communications and learning officer.
His book, To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and their Pathway to a Better Life (Ti Koze Press, January 2017) will be available in January 2017 on http://www.fonkoze.org/to-fool-the-rain/.