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Wednesday, June 12, 2002
This was my third trip to Haiti. The first time was in August 1999, when Pierre Balthazar, his brother Loulou and I met with 35 residents of Pichon, an isolated village in the southeast part of the country. We asked them what progress they would like to see in their community and offered to support their efforts. The village had no electricity, no plumbing, no telephone and no healthcare, but their clear choice was to have a school for the children. In December 1999, my daughter, Amelia, and I returned to meet with people again and assure them of our continuing interest. Now, more than two years later, we were returning to celebrate the progress that had been made.
We had received the reports. We heard that the school was thriving and that four teachers were serving 125 pre-school, kindergarten and first-grade students. We knew that a Project Council provided local governance and that six "neighborhood associations" engaged parents in the work of the school. We heard that parents volunteered one day of service each week and that they helped with such things as maintenance and construction and the modest lunch program. Now we were going to see it for ourselves.
We were four Michigan visitors this time: Pierre, who grew up near Pichon; Lisa McGiveron, a mother of three and student in Pierre’s class at Lansing Community College; Jon Christensen, who learned of the project from Amelia; and myself. Our flight took us from Detroit to Miami, then Miami to Port-au-Prince. Strong winds moderated the hot sun as we left the plane and crossed the tarmac to the Port-au-Prince terminal. Inside, Loulou quickly emerged from the crowd with an airport official who whisked us through the VIP door and personally processed our papers.
Getting through customs was easy. Getting through the desperate poverty encircling the airport was another matter. Aggressive young men grabbed for our bags determined to provide a service and earn a livelihood. Loulou and Pierre withstood them, yet they lingered and persisted. A man with a missing leg walked on crutches among the crowd, seeking a handout. Another man with deformed legs crawled to a waiting car and hung on to the window until the passenger gave him a few coins. Still another man, with earnest countenance, approached me and with all sincerity reached out a thin hand and said in English, "Sir: for food. Please. For food."
I turned away from these people, bewildered and disappointed in myself. I was here to help, but could have given away everything I possessed at the airport door with only the briefest benefit to anyone. It was difficult to face the pain of insistent poverty and despair.
Loulou finally freed his vehicle from the parking gridlock and we wound our way through the narrow streets and up the mountain to Thomassin where a guesthouse had been reserved for us. We unpacked and unwound and dined on goat stew, rice and plantain.
Thursday, June 13
We packed luggage and ourselves into the four-wheel drive Mitsubishsi Montero that Loulou rented for the trip to Pichon. The 60-mile drive through beautiful scenery and over rugged mountains took four and a-half hours—longer than our time in the air from Detroit to Port-au-Prince. We stopped to photograph the lake at the Dominican Republic border and the deep valley of Fond-Verrette, where violent floods had overnight swept away houses, people and livestock—a consequence of years of deforestation and erosion.
The mountain roads took us through micro-climates of fertile plain, arid desert, pine forest, and tropical rain forest. We reached an impasse in the village of Mapou. Rain had turned the road into a quagmire. Deep ruts in the pasty, red mud marked the path of large stake trucks and threatened to bury us to the axle. As we stood by the truck pondering our next step, villagers, with typical Haitian readiness to help stranger or friend, offered advice. We backed out of the mud and followed an athletic teenager who ran ahead of us down a narrow trail through tall corn allowing us to by-pass the swampy area.
After a brief stop in Pichon to confirm plans for the next day, we finally arrived in Belle-Anse, on the Caribbean shore. This is the Balthazar hometown and Loulou stills owns a house there. We settled into the serviceable six-room Cocky (Creole for "seashell") Hotel. The hotel is a sign of progress in Belle-Anse. It boasts a gas generator and a fan in each small, concrete block room. Guests have the luxury of flowing air until the gasoline runs out. A single small lavatory containing a sink, stool and shower serves all six rooms. The lavatory also contained a spider the size of my outspread hand. We respectfully asked hotel staff to escort the arachnid outside.
The reports we had on the school’s progress did not prepare us for the reception we were about to receive. When we arrived in Pichon, the whole village was there to greet us. More than 100 children were assembled under a large banner that read, "Welcome to David, Lisa, Jon and P. Andre [Pierre]: Pichon love you." It was an embrace of Haitian hospitality that left us on the verge of tears.
After warm greetings we followed a community procession to the school and were given a tour of the facilities—a concrete storage shed, cistern, sanitary facilities, and temporary classrooms—none of which existed in 1999. Then we assembled under a shelter made of bamboo poles and palm leaves and listened to appreciative speeches by community leaders, teachers and parents. Speeches were followed by performances. Groups of pre-schoolers, kindergartners, and first-graders sang and danced for the assembled community and visitors. A couple children recited poetry.
As the program drew to a close, the host declared that it was time to give gifts to the visitors. Baskets of mango, pineapple, and other fruit appeared in front of us. There was a large bowl of eggs packed in sand. Someone led in a goat and someone else a live turkey. Each guest was given a basket woven by local craftsmen. It is hard to express the impact this generosity had on us, informed as we were about average Haitian income being less than $20 per month. After all, our purpose in being there was to help break the cycle of poverty. What we experienced was a wealth of community spirit offered with a directness and generosity that overwhelmed us. We could see that we had as much to learn from the people of Pichon as they had to learn from us.
Refreshments of coconut milk and roasted corn were served at the close of the program. Men with machetes trimmed the tops off coconuts leaving a thin plug of meat to be removed by the drinker. It was simple fare, joyfully consumed.
We took a few minutes to meet with the Project Council, which expressed appreciation for the financial support and encouragement that they have received from their U.S. partners. They also outlined their views on the current needs of the community, noting respectfully that we would have to consider if and how we might be able to help. Chief among their proposals was the need for a grinder for Pichon. Corn meal is a food staple in the area and the villagers have to carry their corn for two hours, and pay to have in ground in Mapou or Belle-Anse. Then they have to carry it home. People who live in the mountains outside Pichon may have to walk an additional two hours each way. The Council reasoned that a grinder would make life easier for local people and would provide an economic benefit that would help sustain the project.
After meeting with the council, we walked to see where the sand came from to mix the concrete for the storage shed and cistern. The site was a half-mile from the school and 30 yards down a gully. People carried the sand in buckets. Water for the cement was carried an even greater distance from a different direction. Our hike made the construction projects seem all the more impressive. It was evident that the project was locally "owned and operated," not something given or imposed by outsiders. Local efforts made ideas become physical realities for local benefit of their children and their community.
Soon it was time to load our gifts into the truck and head back to Belle-Anse for the night. We joked about whether we could fit our new goat into the overhead compartment of the American Airlines Airbus. Alas, this was not to be an issue.
Saturday, June 15
We awoke at 4:30 this morning when the Cocky Hotel generator ran out of gas at the usual time. The fans stopped working and we rested fitfully for a while in our stuffy cells. Eventually we walked the few blocks to Loulou’s house where Zette, our wonderful cook, had a breakfast feast prepared for us. The table was laden with now familiar dishes—goat stew, salad, potatoes, and plantain. This time there was something new, a platter of something black that resembled ground beef. It was "sang," a Haitian delicacy of boiled goat’s blood. As native Michiganders, we may not have ordered sang off the menu, but we each had a second helping. It was delicious!
After breakfast, we returned to Pichon, to visit the "Cascade de Pichon." We stopped to pick up several Council members then headed for the cascade. Mindful that an off-road vehicle was needed to drive the main road to Pichon, we had a mixture of excitement and trepidation as we literally headed off the road. We crossed an open field, followed a trail through the woods, wound our way up the mountain for an hour and finally emerged into a clearing. Gazing across the valley we got our first glimpse of the cascade. It begins as a line of water falling from the top of the distant peak, then disappears from view, reappearing to the right as an expanse of white threads, a bridal veil of falling water dropping into the valley below. It was a majestic sight, an untapped natural resource for electricity or eco-tourism.
We paused further down the road to look into the valley below where we could see people washing their clothes and themselves in the river. Fabrics spread out on bushes were drying in the sun. Loulou inched his way down the rocky slope to the river where we stopped to talk with people. A middle-aged man who had been drinking homemade brew dominated conversation. He knew the council members and he knew who we were. He berated us all for doing everything for the village children and totally neglecting those in the mountains.
We could not follow the conversation, which was in Creole, but the tone was evident. Council members listened patiently at first, then tried to explain to him that it was impossible to do everything at once. They assured him they cared about all the children. Still he ranted and raved. Finally, the somewhat embarrassed council chair said to him, "You want bread, but you would destroy the bakery." This penetrated his inebriated consciousness and he quieted down.
The incident was instructive to us. We could see the challenges people face with the unevenness of change. Jealousies are aroused. Opposition occurs. It takes wisdom to manage the process. We were impressed by the council members’ ability to do this. They listened respectfully, they tried to explain, and they expressed their arguments in terms that people could understand.
There are many stories from this trip to Haiti. They cannot all be recorded here. We had an authentic adventure and witnessed life at its extremes. In some places we saw abject poverty and the degradation of the human spirit. In other places we saw a wealth of community life and the triumph of the human spirit under very difficult conditions. Everything we saw—the evidence of need and the evidence of progress—convinced us of the importance of the work. We are grateful to family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and community organizations that have contributed moral, financial and technical support to the project over the past three years. You made it all possible. Thank you.