Review of “To Fool The Rain”
By the spring of 2011, I had become sufficiently invested in and intrigued by Fonkoze, a Haitian microfinance and social development institution, to publicly commit to writing a book about it. Several years before that, I had met Steve Werlin, one of the most unusual and wonderful men I have ever come across.
Think of him as a cross between the most thoughtful, soft-spoken graduate student you ever met and Buddha – a playful, intensely curious and humble man with no apparent concern for accumulating any material possessions beyond finding a strong cup of coffee to enjoy each morning and a place – anyplace, really – to get a few hours sleep every night.
A couple of years after I announced my intention to write a book about Fonkoze, Werlin quietly began talking about his desire to write one on Chemen Lavi Miyo (CLM), the organization’s signature program designed to uplift rural Haiti’s ultra-poor which I wrote about previously on this site here and here. While I continue to struggle to deliver on my commitment, Werlin has not only followed through but has written something truly unique and outstanding: To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and Their Pathway to a Better Life.
Over the course of 27 reader-friendly (meaning short) chapters, he introduces a handful of CLM clients and the staff, called case managers, who serve them. Through deft story-telling, we learn about an arduous 18-month process of building up clients’ income, assets, confidence, social standing, ability to plan, and, in the end, their humanity. He lets us see the violence, absurdities, superstitions, beauty, and mundane realities of rural Haiti along the way.
Some stories end in qualified triumph and a few in tragedy; others conclude ambiguously. While he does not make himself a central character in the book, he does not disappear either; in this and other ways, he achieves an effective balance that a less able writer would have failed at.
He has a way of stating profound truths starkly, informed by a keen eye for detail. To wit:
Regarding outsider’s roles in Haiti: “Americans and other foreigners have been coming to Haiti for years bearing all sorts of gifts and doing all sorts of harm.”
On not getting enough to eat in rural Haiti: “Adults may hide hunger. Children generally don’t.”
About CLM client named Manie: “Her high, soft voice is clear, but always sounds a little weary. She doesn’t speak. She sighs.”
Or this about a case manager named Martiniere as he talks with a woman who was about to give up on the program after a demoralizing setback: “As she spoke, his every gesture – the way he nodded now and then, his smiles, his scowls, the way he shook his head – let her know that he understood.”
For me, the highlight of the book was the conclusion of a story about a woman named Josamene Loréliant. She was so downtrodden that virtually everyone she knew called her a nickname, Ti Rizab, which basically signified that she was not a human being, but rather a bad joke. She accepted that appellation for her entire life until she accumulated assets, a tiny but sturdy home that most Americans would consider a small shed, and some measure of confidence. By the time she graduated from CLM, Werlin tells us, she insisted that people call her by her proper name.
Some years ago, Werlin wrote a teaching tool for Fonkoze microfinance clients based on stories of rural Haitian women going through their daily lives. A senior Haitian employee of Fonkoze who is both a feminist and nationalist told me that she was at first incredulous, and later simply astonished, that an American man – yes, Steve Werlin – had written so effectively from the point of view of a Haitian woman.
I had always hoped that Werlin’s improbable gift for seeing the world through their eyes, and his unique experience of being part of a team that painstakingly helps to transform their lives, would come together in a book that could help foreigners like me who have a desire to understand and help Haiti. Well, he has done just that.
Werlin waits until the final few paragraphs of this slim volume to tell the reader that CLM has achieved and maintained a 95% success rate. Unlike so much philanthropic writing these days, he does not lead with data, abstractions or buzzwords. Human stories gleaned from endless trips to talk to people in their native language, meeting them where they are (literally and figuratively) in order to nudge them forward on a pathway to a better life, are at the core of To Fool The Rain. The fact that this program has been proven, through rigorous impact evaluation research, to work in multiple countries with populations that most development specialists had effectively written off is, oddly and wonderfully, a secondary point in Werlin’s captivating story.
At the very end of the book, this skinny, self-effacing man mounts a small soapbox and writes with great moral clarity: “Extreme poverty exists because we chose not to eliminate it.” Very few people have earned the right to credibly pen such unambiguous words. Steve Werlin, at the conclusion of To Fool the Rain, is one of them.