The Haitian Way
I breathe a sigh of relief as I step into the back of the van, its dark windows a blissful respite from the hot Haitian sun. Back in Boston, there’s still about six feet of snow on the ground, and my sweater and corduroys seem almost as out of place as the group of Canadian doctors riding in front of me on the way to their respective hotels. Our driver masterfully winds through the mountainous streets, gripping the wheel as he avoids at least three head-on collisions at the last minute. Rock outcroppings shoot out of the ground with wild abandon, a natural majesty usually absent from cities as big as Port-au-Prince. The city seems to wrap itself around the hillsides and cliffs, roads nestled into the rock just enough to avoid a steep fall, if one can manage to avoid the barrage of oncoming traffic, wandering farm animals, and wayward soda salesmen who seem to dance around every corner. The dance of their movements belies a deep understanding of, and comfort with, their surroundings.
In fact, much of Port-au-Prince seems this way, haphazard yet centered, like the mountains upon which it stands. It’s hard to separate this feeling from that with which we (as outsiders) associate Haiti, a country that’s been stricken with countless natural disasters in recent past. As we drive through the outskirts of Port-au-Prince on our way to Saint Marc, our translator points out a cluster of dirt-floor shacks tucked into the foothills, brown and barren from a recent drought. She explains that, after the earthquake in 2010, the government announced a plan to expand the city outward to these foothills to compensate for so much of the structural damage that displaced thousands from their homes. The plan never came to fruition, but the people that flocked to the land remain stuck on the mountainside with no crop or means of livelihood to speak of — just waiting for the next big thing to which they’ll have to adjust.
It makes sense that Port-au-Prince is thrumming with an energy that comes from a necessity to adapt — to earthquakes, to unsafe drinking water, to cholera, to foreign aid that eventually dries up and a government that often struggles to respond adequately to these problems.
I see this same energy, this resourcefulness, in the microentrepreneurs I meet, all clients of our local partner, Sogesol. I talk to a plantain farmer, Castel Desir, who used microloans to get back on his feet after four successive hurricanes destroyed his crop in 2008. When he’s not farming, he helps run a small shop in town with his wife, or picks up extra work as a supermarket inspector for the government. He adapts to his environment as it changes, and he uses all of the resources available to him, including microfinance, to support his business and his family, no matter what comes his way. When asked why he works so hard, he tells us, “All human beings strive to beat themselves, to do better.”
Like Castel, people here are used to constantly changing circumstances, especially when it comes to foreign aid. This past June, the Red Cross came under intense scrutiny for work supposedly done in Haiti post-earthquake after raising about $500 million for the region. Although the charity claimed to have provided homes to more than 130,000 Haitians, NPR reported that the number of permanent homes built with these donations came to six — six – total. But it’s not just the Red Cross — this latest discovery of lacking impact is par for the course in Haiti.
As we prepare to meet more of Sogesol’s microfinance clients, our translator cautions us to fully explain what it is we do at Accion and why we’re there — the people here, she says, suffer from “mission fatigue” — too many foreigners coming in to help improve conditions, and too little change. Considering that my plane ride down here was filled with more tweens than I’ve ever seen in one place at one time, all here to build houses for those in need, I’m not the least bit surprised.
As the week goes on, we meet a lot of farmers, because of our partner’s flagship agricultural loan program, who tell us that Haiti has been in a severe drought for the past six months. The drought has been so severe that many of them have even had to resort to buying water, rather than wait for rain that may never come.
But despite it all, the microfinance clients we meet are calm and collected, seasoned entrepreneurs that have worked and survived through everything that chance has thrown their way. They like microlending precisely because it’s not aid — it’s a business transaction, one thing that they can always rely on outside themselves, amidst a whirlwind of changing circumstances.
One farmer, Herst Cadet, even acts as a sort of unofficial representative for Sogesol, in his farming community, where many business owners lost much of their savings in the early 2000s due to pervasive Ponzi schemes in the area. He spreads the word to the other farmers about the benefits of microfinance loans, and how they can use them to expand their businesses on their own terms.
“Seeing the faces of the loan officers who trust us with the money, it helps build confidence in all of us,” he says. “When your work is recognized outside the community, you gain value.”
The loan officers Herst refers to are a key part in the whole operation. Most of the officers we talk to have upward of 250 clients, many of whom are farmers who live and work in areas removed from the city. We follow Sogesol’s loan officers through rice fields and ditches, winding back streets and crowded markets, all of which they navigate with ease, because it’s just another part of the job.
“I’m a field person,” one woman, Merchina Garconvil, tells us with a smile. She says that loan officers at Sogesol have to love getting out there and talking to all of the business owners — and their dedication to the entrepreneurs they serve is evident in all of our conversations with their clients.
I was relieved to find, in talking to so many Haitian business owners over the course of the week, that they don’t feel the “mission fatigue” from microfinance. They’re proud of what they’ve used loans to accomplish in their work, their lives, and their children’s lives. They’re staunchly self-reliant and calm in the face of adversity, even when fate deals them a rough blow. They’re optimistic about the future. They’re praying for rain, and making things work in the meantime.
“In 10 years I want to have 100,000 Haitian dollars,” Castel tells us proudly. “And if we’re dreaming here, how about one million?”
It’s my last night in Haiti, and the mountains shoot up to meet the night sky. The stars cloak themselves with dark clouds. I smell dinner — beef tassot — crackling on the grill nearby. I look up, surprised to feel a bit of water land on my forehead — the beginnings of a healthy rain. I guess those prayers paid off.