Venance Lafrance Is Not Dead
Credit: Photograph by Ben Lowy
The Lafrance family had not always been poor. Venance's mother had once been a successful merchant. When Venance was 12, his little brother Frandi got into a fight with a neighborhood bully. The other child was the son of a prominent Jérémie sorceress. Madame Lafrance and this other lady got to words. The other lady said, "Evelyne, you're too rich! You won't have money again!" Various magical curses were thus effected, and after that Venance's mother no longer had the strength to go to the market. That's how the Lafrance family fell on such hard times.

A couple of months after we met Venance, his mother came to visit us. Madame Lafrance was a slender, pretty woman in an ankle-length skirt who never smiled – she looked a little like she was suffering at all times from a very bad stomachache. She wanted, she told us, to start a little business buying vegetables wholesale off the boat from Port-au-Prince, then reselling them in the market, and she asked if we would be willing to invest in her enterprise.

Was she, I asked, still afraid of the effects of the magic curse?

"Oh no!" she said. That was all finished.

We gave her the money, but things didn't work out as well as we had hoped: Madame Lafrance invested half her funds in the lottery and the remainder in a large stock of garlic. Madame Lafrance did not win the lottery. The garlic failed to move in the market and then rotted. When we asked her what happened, she explained that her enemies had – once again! – used black magic to curse her and her market stall.

We kept trying to help the Lafrances. There is only one upside to living on 50 cents per day: It shouldn't be that hard to reach $1.50 per day. That's the difference between the bitterest poverty and what Haiti's former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide called "dignified poverty." We were willing to try most anything short of giving them a large wad of cash. What follows is a nonexhaustive list of various schemes we employed to help them:

Venance wanted to sell coconut water on the beach, at the big party the local population held every August to celebrate Jérémie's patron saint. I fronted Venance the capital to acquire the coconuts, but he forgot to bring his machete. When he went back home to get his machete, people stole all his coconuts.

… And then there was the time Madame Lafrance wanted to sell clothes on the street at Christmas. This scheme, too, was a failure, as Madame Lafrance bought ugly clothes. Also, we later learned, she gave away half of the clothes to her relatives.

… And then there was the time my wife and I came back from New York with a suitcase stuffed with merchandise that we'd found in a dollar store in Chinatown – a dozen toothbrushes for a dollar; children's toys; little clocks; cheap cosmetics; and so on. Madame Lafrance and Venance got to squabbling about just whom this merchandise was intended for. Both insisted that the other would waste the profits: Venance told us that his mother would spend the money on the lottery and magic; Madame Lafrance predicted that Venance would buy himself new clothes. Venance eventually dropped out of school to sell the merchandise himself. All the stock was sold at a loss, and Venance never went back to school, although he did acquire a nice wardrobe.

This last failure was what convinced us to leave the Lafrances to their own destiny. Our small experiment in social engineering had done more harm than good, and the Lafrances were as poor when we were done as when we started.