An Avalanche of Material (Including Repressed Memories)
I have learned so much about Fonkoze‘s journey over the last three days that I hardly know where to start with this blog.
On Wednesday, I returned to Marigot and re-interviewed Iliamene with the assistance of Linda Boucard (who continued the interview while I had to take a call about my “day job” with Grameen Foundation that I formally remain on sabbatical from until August 1). I learned a lot more about her toughness, her humble origins, and shuffling between households in Marigot and Port-au-Prince before settling into a productive life as a wife, mother, community leader and entrepreneur. (She became even more productive after joining Fonkoze.) But due to a series of miscommunications, we had less time with her than we otherwise could have. Thankfully, Linda agreed to return in the weeks ahead to go deeper, since her story has real depth and complements Mariyn Bayonet’s tale well.
Then we went to the Central Plateau, checked into our modest hotel, and had dinner with Steve Werlin — who helpfully filled us in on his early interactions with Iliamene (which were tense) when he became the branch manager in Marigot in 2008. I almost neglected to ask him about her, but when I did it alleviated my distress at not having been able to learn as much about her as I had hoped on that day.
On Thursday we spent the day at a summer camp for 140 children of CLM (ultra-poor program)clients, which will be repeated over the coming weeks such that 5,000 youngsters will benefit from three days of nutritious meals, fun, learning and interaction with their peers — quite a revolution for such marginalized families. The children were divided in three groups based on age. The sessions were led by “case managers” and their supervisors and in the case of the oldest kids, by a specially hired arts and crafts teacher who announced she would teach them some skills so they could earn money for their families making decorations to sell to people organizing weddings and funerals in their communities. I am not sure how valuable that was for my book but it gave me the chance to interview CLM’s director (more on him below).
When the earthquake struck, Paul was at home with his wife in their apartment, which was on the second floor of a three-story building. He was trapped on the second story by part of the ceiling that collapsed, even though much of his own floor had also fallen. He was not freed until 11am the next morning, and when he did he was dazed and thought he was among the living dead, having passed into the afterlife since he could not believe he had survived. His daughter was pulled by her legs through a wall by a neighbor at 11pm, six hours after the quake. His wife fell through the floor but somehow survived.
Paul, who sustained multiple fractures in his legs, and six family members, went to Fondwa and then Jacmel for treatment — but could find none except for a pair of crutches. About 26 hours after the quake he got a call on his cellphone from the leader of a Fonkoze solidarity loan center that had met — really! — earlier that day and collected their payments and given it to her since Paul had not come (as he normally would have). They were going to meet again on Thursday and hoped he would join. Upon getting this call finally realized he was still on planet earth, not some kind of afterlife of zombies and “living dead”. On Thursday, he found his way back to Bizonton (about 40 miles from Fondwa), got on his motorbike, and met with the center — crutches and all — amidst smiles, tears, songs and much emotion. The following day he and his colleagues went to the Head Office for a day of prayers and planning.
By Monday, his branch was up and running, with a mobile van donated by Alternative Insurance Company (a Haitian insurer that is a strong partner of Fonkoze’s) parked in front of the collapsed branch office serving as the new one. That entire week, the staff facilitated clients — many looking injured and bereft — withdrawing savings and receiving wire transfers from abroad. The following week, center meetings resumed and the branch operations shifted to the playground of an elementary school — where it would remain until the school re-opened in September.
As you can imagine, Paul was a bit reluctant to re-live this journey with me. It may have been the only time he did so since the earthquake except when he spoke to a Haitian psychologist who provided staff with post-trauma counseling (made possible by a grant from Fonkoze USA, whose board I chair, and American Jewish World Service). Like Linda and Helena the night before, he was willing to let me into his darkest memories which ended in a certain measure of triumph — but not before going to Hell and back.
Another powerful story to be woven into my still untitled book! Tonight I will have dinner with Fonkoze’s wunderkind James Kurz (referenced in an earlier blog). Tomorrow, I will try to write a book proposal to get the process of securing a publisher jump-started. Wish me luck.