Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Twoudinò: gettin rural

I realized I never wrote about my trip into Haiti boonies! Most of this I wrote right after our return in mid-January…

I spent most of last week in a place called Twoudinò. For the non-Creole speakers among us (oh wait, that’s everyone) that translates to Hole of the North!! It is a lovely hole indeed, about an hour's drive from Cap Haitian, inland from the northern coast. I went to make house visits with the project director Fonkoze's program Chemen Lavi Miyò, or Path to a Better Life.

Watching the program in action was so interesting. I wasn’t contributing much of anything on this trip except a LOT of questions and the inevitable attention of being the token blan. Oh! But I graduated from Blan! to Blan WO! That’s TALL whitey! Are people that much shorter in the provinces that I stand out so much more?! Also in the funny whitey category, at one house where we’d stopped a girl of about 9 was inspecting my leg. My pants were rolled to the knees. After touching my skin she informed me that “if you were to get cut, they wouldn’t be able to sew you back together cause you skin’s so fine.” And my hair got stroked a few times. But aside from bringing entertainment to rural Haiti, I went on this trip to see Fonkoze’s work in the field, and to understand what the rural poverty of Haiti looks like.

We based our trip out of Twoudinò, but each day would drive 40+ minutes in some direction, on dirt roads (roads?) over streams, through ruts, up mid hills where I thought I’d have to get out and push... My favorite was when we would park, get out, and hike. Gauthier the project director, Shaila our pro from Bangladesh, and I zigzagging across wide open fields with nothing but the bald mountains in the background. I would have never seen these gorgeous countrysides and lost mountain panoramas if it weren’t for working with Fonkoze.

One thing Gauthier told me that was eye-opening was that many urban Haitians don’t even realize the conditions of the rural poor. I had assumed though that most Haitians usually had a relative or two living out in the provinces. Gauthier responded no, many people in Twoudinò don’t realize what it’s like right outside their own town. That was reinforced when my co-worker back in central office accounting, a 32 year old guy, said “My family is from Jacmel. I’ve never been anywhere but Port-au-Prince and Jacmel.” I was surprised—never a quick trip up north? No curiosity to see your country—national parks, revolutionary monuments? Haitian history is so rich!! But when I think of the roads and arduous stickiness of public transportation, I understand the lack of movement. But the conversation with the co-worker is also a reminder of Haitian incomes—working at Fonkoze will not make you rich and readily mobile.

And then the people we met, the women participating in Chemen Lavi Miyò.

I’ve heard the stories but the greatest effect of this trip was to have images—in 3D—to associate with statistics. To give you a feel for the average woman we visited: those who qualify to be in this program are the poorest of the poor. They’ve been identified by their community leaders. Fonkoze also has a poverty scorecard—the participants answer a set of questions in order for us to get a basic idea of the depth of their poverty. Most of these women can’t read or write, have 5, 6… 9 kids who aren’t attending school. They have no assets—land, donkey, nothing. Some have a husband. Their houses are typically made of sticks weaved together, with mud plastered against them to form walls. Dirt floors, thatch roof, or tin if they are lucky. No toilet—go poop in a field somewhere. Maybe a mattress, that a few of the family members can sleep on, the rest get the floor. Usually a separate little shelter of sticks and thatch under which they cook. A lot of the houses leak—if it rains, the family is standing up in a corner all night not to get wet. Nearest source of drinkable water… depends. And if you run out… it’s dehydration or dysentery, when nasty water is often the only substitute.

(For those not interested in micro-finance-y things, please skip following paragraph.)

Our program is funded by an arm of the World Bank, which is also funding similar programs in Ethiopia, Pakistan, India and Yemen. The intent is to replicate a program that was pioneered and met huge success in Bangladesh, where much of the work in microfinance began. We give these women some basic assets (they choose between goats, chicken, and merchandise to sell), and we get them in some of Fonkoze’s educational programs (basic literacy, sex ed.) They receive bi-weekly visits from their case manager to make sure they are on track, as well as a small weekly stipend so they can spend time tending to their assets/businesses instead of begging. Fonkoze provides a minimal amount of building materials (tin and concrete) to create a more livable/healthy shelter, and we’ve partnered with other NGOs (Partners in Health included) to get free health care for the women and their families. The goal is that at the end of the 18 months of this program, they can “graduate” up to the smallest of one of our loans (about $20 USD) to continue to grow their businesses, and provide for their families.

The two women I remember most vividly were some of the worst off. In one instance, the woman’s hut had collapsed. So she and her family moved into their goat pen. It was about the size of my bathroom, 5’ x 7’ and like most of the huts we saw, was divided into two miniscule rooms. A front area is where your dishes etc are kept, and a back area is for sleeping. I really have no idea how the whole family fit inside to sleep. The goats found a tree to sleep under.

The other woman who stands out in my mind had a lean-to shelter of one room, made of sticks. I had to crouch down to fit “inside.” Literally, there was hardly even room on the dirt floor for her 6 kids to sleep. The few clothes she owned for herself and the kids were hanging from parts of the sticks poking out of the wall. They’re only “inside” to sleep, the rest of the day is spent outside. She had no husband, and was rail thin, as most of the women were. Through her threadbare and holey white tank top you could see sagging breasts to her wasteline, although she was probably only 30 years old. Arms thin but strong and muscular. Hair in a few chunky braids, as was typical of all the women we saw. Before the program, I’m pretty certain she’d been begging on a nearby road, and probably still does some. She had begun planting a few random crops in her yard, and her new goats were nosing around the yard. As bad off as she was, she was one of the more lively of the women. I liked her cause she poked fun at Gauthier for having “so many women,” …all of the program participants!

A final woman I remember was, along with another program participant, planting peas in her mother’s field when we walked up. The woman was about 70 and her mother is still kicking at 104!! Under the shade of a nearby tree, the 70-year old and two other Haitian women squatted down on their heels in the dust, to talk to us. I know very few American women limber enough to manage this classic Haitian squat that these women do EVERYwhere!! It was in observing these women that I couldn’t help but think, the poorer they are, the more beautiful they are. Haitian men look alright, but the women… just blow me away. Watching her as she talked, I could hardly look away from the 70-yr. old, she was so stunningly put together. It wasn’t til I was really staring that I started to figure what makes these women so attractive… after having wondered about this for months! The high defined cheekbones—it’s all there! Their faces are just set beautifully, with broad and proportionate noses, and skin that hardly seems to age.

Coming home I was left with plenty thoughts, ideas, and hillside conversations to chew on… which I hope I don’t swallow and forget too quickly.

From the photo album:

Me and Shaila, sitting on the bed we shared, in the house of one of the local employees. His wife also cooked our dinners! (Shwanky hotel days and per diems courtesy the USG are OVER!! )

My teammates, Gauthier the project director, and Shaila, our pro on loan from the Bangladeshi microfinance institute who pioneered this program. They're hugely knowledgeable... and kept me well-entertained to boot!

No comments: