During the American University Alternative Break trip in January 2013, we stayed in a city called Mirebalais in the central plateau and were hosted by one of our community partners, Fonkoze. Fonkoze is more than just a community partner, though — it’s Haiti’s largest bank for the poor, providing microfinance services exclusively to women in addition to many other programs tailored to address the health, education, family well-being, community engagement and literacy of all its 60,000 clients. The work Fonkoze does is so extensive and successful that its become a model for other microfinance initiatives around the world.
One day in Mirebalais we visited some of the poorest women Fonkoze reaches. We spent the morning hiking between the homes of two CLM members, situated in remote, dry, rough terrain that really isolates women and their families from surrounding communities and resources (if there are any). Even though it was before noon, the winter sun beat down on us and we drained our water bottles. It was pretty exhausting.
But the morning’s experience ended up being a really interesting contrast to what we saw of Fonkoze in the afternoon — our Fonkoze guides (the director of communications, several client case workers and credit agents) took us not far away to a community where Ti Kredi clients live in vastly different conditions. Ti Kredi women are in the next step up from what Fonkoze deems Haiti’s “ultra-poor.” They are able to take out small loans and pay them back collectively. Their health, literacy, living conditions and general spirits are improved from women in the CLM program.
To reach the Ti Kredi group, we all piled into our lumbering van, which navigated super rough roads for a couple miles before it could go no further. I was sure we were going to get stuck in the giant, water-filled ruts that cut through the road. There was so much water even though it hadn’t rained, because we were in a lush valley of the central plateau, where an irrigation system had been dug to channel water into dozens of fields along the road. There was more vegetation than elsewhere in the area, lots of sturdy-looking homes, livestock pulling carts, and an overall huge difference from the terrain we’d seen in the morning. Honestly it didn’t look too different from fields I see at home in Indiana!
When our van finally couldn’t go any further, nine of us climbed into the back of a Fonkoze truck — wedged in there (there were probably about 15 people total in one truck) we crossed a wide riverbed that was mainly dry because of the season. In the summer it would be too deep and dangerous to cross, but at this time of year we were treated to the most beautiful views from the back of the truck of the surrounding land. The water source meant that the banks were filled with people washing clothes, collecting buckets, and enjoying the view of about a hundred Americans trying not to fall out the back of a car!
That ride was fun, but more so it seemed symbolic of the divide between what we experienced that day, and of the very real divide between Haitians, determined by access to resources and to supportive communities. The Ti Kredi women we met after arriving on the other side of the river were — thanks to Fonkoze’s financial assistance and educational training — moving up the staircase of poverty against the odds of their environment. By virtue of where they lived and what resources they had, their livelihoods were so improved and indicated the possibility of even more improvement. And not only were they doing better financially, but it’s sustainable growth that Fonkoze facilitates. It was so encouraging to witness responsible development in a place where so many projects fail or have bad intentions to begin with. I was thinking about all this in the back of the truck, looking up at the wide blue sky and the ring of mountains around us, and soaking up the green, healthy scenery.
Audrey Van Gilder, American University Student Trip Leader