It takes a lot to shake me. I’ve travelled and lived in places where poverty strips human beings of their dignity. I have always dug in and found my role in championing change. But Haiti changed everything.
In early July, I travelled to Haiti as a new employee of FINCA Canada. The purpose of my visit was to learn about our microfinance programs and meet several FINCA clients who have improved their lives through FINCA’s small loans.
Driving through Port-au-Prince, I found myself deeply shaken. The raw poverty in Haiti’s capital was unlike any I had ever witnessed. Plastic bottles and take-out containers line the roads and fill the sewers and creeks that zigzag through the city. Pigs, dogs and goats haunt the garbage heaps and back alleys throughout the city. Rubble from earthquakes and hurricanes still litter the streets and many buildings are in ruins. Storms regularly bring flooding that fill homes, shops and roads with water and garbage. What in the past had shocked me into activism instead left me feeling numb.
How can they, me, you, or anybody, possibly thrive in the face of so many obstacles?
Thankfully, my visit with FINCA’s clients and staff in Haiti shook me out of my numbness. Their resilience to build and expand their small businesses and provide for their families reminded me that persistent effort, combined with seizing opportunities creates change.
Here are some of their inspirational stories.
Outside of Jacmel, I met Gertha Simon. She has two children aged 15 and 20 and runs a cosmetics business. She is also one of the founding members of her Village Bank.
Now with 12 members, the original group came together in solidarity over seven years ago. They named their group Solidarité Fanm (fanm means “woman” in Haitian Creole). The group borrows a set amount of money from FINCA and collectively make decisions on which members receives part of this loan. They must all live within 10 minutes of each other and receive training on effective business practices.
Gerta’s group has received 11 loans since it started. When I asked how her life had changed, her face glowed with pride. With loans from FINCA, Gerta had grown her cosmetic business to the point that she can now afford to send her children to university. She hopes they will be lawyers or doctors someday.
The next day, I met Louisena Toussaint. A mother of four young children, Louisena runs a small food store.
When I asked Louisena what she had personally received from her business success she seemed confused by the focus on herself. “I do everything for my children,” she insisted. “Everything I do is so that they may have a better life than I did.”
Because of the growth of her business, she can also afford to go back to school part-time. When I noted that running a business, raising four young children and being a student was a lot to manage she shook her head and said, “I am blessed. With financial security comes freedom and peace of mind.”
She is also the Treasurer of her Village Bank. Louisena showed herself to be a great leader in the Village Bank meeting I attended. She continually encouraged her 10 members to ask questions, be engaged and to support each other. The solidarity of the group reminded me that one person can make a huge difference in the lives of many others; that small acts of compassion have far-reaching and lasting impact.
A Woman’s Worth
Now, two months into my tenure with FINCA Canada, photos of these two women, Gertha and Louisena, are up in my office here in Ottawa. They remind me that I, too, have a role to play in fighting poverty in Haiti. I’ve increased my monthly donation because I know change needs to happen right away. I also get to speak with other Canadian donors about the immense power of a small loan to change not just one life today, but an entire family’s future.
I, too, am blessed. Because these women taught me that access to opportunity – the opportunity to build their tiny businesses – is a catalyst for reminding a person of their worth. As each woman in Haiti reclaims her dignity, all of us are made stronger.