A Town Built on Hope

>> Authored by Trevor Franda (Wisconsin Microfinance)

Let’s begin a journey. Climb aboard our open-top jeep as a friendly Haitian man smiles from behind the wheel. We are in Port-Au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. As you take a look around at the French-style architecture and bustle of people, a word comes to your mind. Resiliency. You are standing in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, only 5 years after the biggest natural disaster the country has ever seen. And upon closer inspection, the city reveals its wounds from the past; crumbling stone buildings, painted graffiti on scraps of wood covering the window holes. Yet, the city is anything but barren. Crowds of Haitian men and women flock to the streets, chatting emphatically and going about their business.

We drive along the narrow streets up and out of the city. The hot sun beats through the clear sky and onto our foreheads. As we turn away from the city, the landscape becomes much different; something you’ve never really seen before. There are beautiful rolling hills and mountains, but very few trees. Most of the natural resources that were once abundant on this land have been cleared away years ago. The road becomes dirt rather quickly, and soon we are bouncing along, winding into the hills.

On the side of the road we pass a man and some cattle. As we’ve been driving, you’ve noticed that there have been very few other vehicles on the road. People will trek for miles each day to go about their business – only a lucky few have the luxury of travelling by motorcycle or cars. We wave “hello” to the man as we pass by, and continue on our way.

After a few hours on these roads, we finally reach our destination – a town called Barreau Michel. But, to your astonishment, you see this is hardly a town at all! One stone building stands erect in the town center, and crowds of Haitian men, women, and children are chatting amongst themselves. But beyond that, only a handful of open wooden shelters stand scattered throughout the area. This “town” is really more of a crossroads than an active village.

As we ride into Barreau Michel, the people stop talking and look at us with welcoming eyes. The women all have smiles on their faces, and greet us in their native Creole. Today, the people are all gathered here for market. Hundreds of baskets are laid out around the town, filled with colorful foods and objects. As you walk through the market, each vendor excitedly shows you their collections that they have for sale.

At the other end of the market, we come up to the old stone building. A man inside greets us, dressed in nice clothes. It becomes clear that this building is a church, and the man is the pastor. As we walk in, he ushers us into some chairs to sit down and talk to us. We are here today to hear his story – the story of this town. I have heard this story a few times before, but today he will tell it for you.

Years ago, before the earthquake, the people of this town were poor. They farmed their land, and grew just enough food to feed themselves. Many of the people own land that is far from here, about a two hour walk. But they made do by coming here on Sundays for mass, and to socialize. Then in 2010, the earthquake wreaked havoc on the small island nation, and destroyed what little these people had. There was no insurance, and no access to capital to take out a loan and rebuild.

Then, a group of students from Wisconsin decided to take action. Following the principles of Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, they set up a microfinance system in Barreau Michel, organized through the church and the well-respected pastor. Because these people were so poor, loans of $60 US Dollars, or 2500 Haitian Gourdes, were enough for them to buy the goods they needed to start new businesses and begin the climb out of poverty.

The micro-loans were kept at low interest rates of 1% a month to encourage repayment, and loans were made primarily to women. The loans were only made to people in groups of 5, in which all group members were required to repay their loans before receiving subsequent money. After the original 5 month loans were paid back, new loans could be made of value twice the amount, at around $120 US Dollars. A group of citizens formed an oversight committee to screen loan applicants and collect funds.

And with these loans, people had hope.

Barreau Michel went from having nothing, to having the potential for everything. Twice a week people would come together for market and sell their goods, as they are today. And repaid loans were collected into a pool and used to make future loans, keeping all of the money in the community. Now, 5 years later, there are over 1,000 people on a waiting list for new loans.

We thank the pastor for the story, and return to the market. As we depart, you look at the faces of the people and see something new. They are poor, but they are resilient. They have hope. Hope that someday, their family will live a life free of poverty.

We return home, and we go to work.

Trevor Franda

Wisconsin Microfinance


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