Haiti: Where Hope & Hardship Meet

sunset in Jacmel

Six days ago, I boarded a plane for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on my way to witness the work Fonkoze is doing to reduce poverty, particularly among Haitian women. In my carry-on, I had a copy of Kate Bowler’s Everything Happens for a Reason, a book I had been looking forward to reading for several weeks. It recounts Bowler’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis at age 35, with an 18 month old baby, and asks why suffering happens and where God might be in the midst of it. These felt like the perfect questions to try to wrestle with in Haiti.

I’m sure everyone has an image in their mind of Haiti, cultivated from news reports of sweeping poverty, natural disasters, and political instability. It ranks as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and in the top 20 poorest countries in the world by GDP per capita. The scale of poverty takes your breath away. The population and infrastructure were decimated in 2010 after a massive 7.0 magnitude earthquake, and they continue to be pounded by hurricanes. As in all places, the roots of poverty are myriad, but in Haiti political instability and bad governance have wreaked havoc. A docent at the Musée du Panthéon National Haitian, a history museum in Port-au-Prince, recounted to us that there have been 34 coups in Haiti’s 214 year history. US foreign policy has either explicitly supported or turned a blind eye to many of these regimes. This is the Haiti of the news, and probably of most American imaginations.

I boarded that plane to Port-au-Prince expecting to encounter that Haiti, but also hoping to see a different side. The Haiti of the news lacks humanity; it seeks after sensation. I wanted a fuller picture. My church has partnered with Fonkoze for many years in their work to reduce poverty in Haiti. Fonkoze was founded nearly 25 years ago by Father Joseph Philippe, a Catholic priest from rural Haiti with a vision to give rural Haitians the tools and support to lift their families and communities out of poverty. It has since grown into the largest microfinance organization in Haiti, providing financial and development services via Fonkoze Financial Services and the Fonkoze Foundation. Fonkoze Financial Services currently serves 64,000 loan clients and 208,000 savings clients via 44 bank branches and over 2,000 community centers, almost all in rural areas where there is no other access to financial services. Additionally, the Foundation provides adult education classes, innovative community health programs, and an intensive “graduation approach” program to serve the ultra poor. Fonkoze is providing desperately needed services in hard to reach areas, and their work gives Haiti a much more human face.

Street in Jacmel


Sunday morning, I sat on the terrace at our hotel in Jacmel, a French colonial artists haven on the southern coast of Haiti. From my chaise I could see the ocean waves roll in. As I read through Kate Bowler’s book, I pondered how her situation seemed so far removed from what I was about to see, and yet her questions and her desires were so universal. She was looking for meaning in suffering, if such a thing even exists. She wanted to provide a warm, loving life for her little boy, free of tragedy and hardship. She was seeking God, not necessarily to explain what was happening to her body, but to be present in it. And I was struck when she noted her refrain in the midst of all of this:

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

Six days later, those words continue to ring in my ears. They capture so well what I witnessed in Haiti.

On our first day, we visited Claudine, a Fonkoze client who operates a boutik sante, or community health store. She has been trained by Fonkoze as a Community Health Entrepreneur, and in addition to selling hygiene products and over-the-counter medication, she can provide hygiene training and malnutrition screenings in her community. In Haiti, over the counter medication is often not available in most communities, and when it is available it can cost up to three times the average price on the international market, making it cost-prohibitive for most Haitians. Claudine is able to provide products at a stable and affordable price. She turns a profit while still being cheaper than the local pharmacy. She has 12-15 clients a day, and on the day we visited she was almost out of stock and preparing to purchase additional supplies in town the next day. With her profits she was able to help build a cement block home for her family, which they had just moved into.

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

At the end of steep, rocky road on the highway between Jacmel and Port-au-Prince, a rural school convenes in a pavilion overlooking mountains. Twice a month, the school pavilion doubles as a Solidarity Center, where Fonkoze loan clients meet for loan repayment, education and training, and community building. One woman told us that she has to walk an hour through the footpaths to get to the Center, and journey even farther to a town where she can buy products for her small business selling goods in her community. She shared that microloans from Fonkoze allow her to send her children to school while still running her business, but that access is difficult, and so she sometimes thinks about leaving the program. Her credit agent promised to work with her to find supplies closer to home, and the women in her lending group encouraged her to stick with it, because they were stronger with her.

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

On our way to visit a CLM client in the Central Plateau

On our way to visit a CLM client in the Central Plateau

Perched on a hill, accessible only by foot, we arrived at the home of Evelyn. Eighteen months ago, she graduated from Fonkoze’s Chemin Lavi Miyò (CLM) program, which provides housing materials, literacy skills, small livestock (such as a goat or pig), and other services to the ultra poor in Haiti’s Central Plateau. Evelyn had grown her two goats from Fonkoze into several goats, chickens, ducks, and a pig. She also had a thriving small farm, in which she grew sugar cane and manioc that she sold at market in the nearest town. When asked if her son, who looked to be about 10, helped her carry her goods to market, she replied that he was her student, and he needed to be in school, so she didn’t let him help with that. Plus, she didn’t want him to be teased for helping with domestic chores. Evelyn’s family had been kicked off the land they lived on once, and their current landlord had put them on notice that they would need to move again. She was unsure where they would go, but she was confident that she would be able to rebuild their home. As we left, she said, “I am grateful for Fonkoze, because Fonkoze gives me hope.”

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

In Haiti, Fonkoze employs nearly 1,000 people, a service in itself in a country where the unemployment rate is estimated to be between 40%-60%. Case managers and credit agents cross the country on motorcycle and on foot to provide services to remote and inaccessible communities. We had the pleasure of being accompanied by two of Fonkoze’s drivers on our trip who delivered us safely down roads that looked impassible. They routinely leave Port-au-Prince to drive Fonkoze employees and visitors through the provinces. One is trying to finish his university studies in between trips so that he can join his wife in Canada. The other does not get to see his son as often as he would like. Yet they contribute a vital service to the work of this organization.

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

I cannot make meaning of the poverty, malnutrition, and disease that are present in Haiti. Nor can I make meaning of the hope and joy. All I can say is that somehow, God is present and active, and with Kate Bowler I can take up the refrain.

Life is beautiful. Life is hard.

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