What Haiti taught me

Farmer in Haiti with cabbages

A week with the UU College of Social Justice and the Mouvman Peyizan Papay.

Image: A farmer rests in a Mouvman Peyizan Papay cabbage patch in Haiti in 2011. © Nicole McConvery/UUSC (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

© 2011 Nicole McConvery/UUSC


The harder the rain pelted the roof of the gazebo, the tighter we pulled our circle of chairs. We didn’t want to miss a word spoken by Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, leader of a peasant empowerment movement in Haiti and our host for a weeklong stay in Haiti’s Central Plateau.

“I hear you have planted a lot of trees,” Chavannes said to our group of fourteen outside his home in a lush, forested valley. “Trees are one of the things Haiti needs most these days.”

Most Americans have never heard of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. But throughout the developing world, he is a hero—a champion of peasants’ rights, economic development, food sovereignty, and self-determination. In demand as a speaker across Latin America, he spoke to our group of (mostly) Unitarian Universalist travelers for hours one afternoon last May. We worried we were taking too much of his time, but he reassured us. “Today, I am your donkey,” he said in Creole. He would go as long as we wanted him to.

Haiti is sometimes called the Republic of NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Volunteers and nonprofits pour in to build schools and churches while telling Haiti how to right itself. Chavannes told us what’s actually working and how his forty-year-old grassroots organization—Mouvman Peyizan Papay (Papay Peasant Movement), or MPP—is a model for progress and empowerment.

For a week, we witnessed how MPP is transforming central Haiti during our travels with the UU College of Social Justice. The “college,” a joint venture of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee, organizes service-learning trips within the United States and in locations around the world, including Mexico, Haiti, and India—trips that combine travel, justice work, and education. As hard as I worked planting mango and papaya trees each morning, my Haitian hosts gave me far more than I could give them. Yes, I was in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, yet I was learning about topics I thought I already knew: organic gardening, solar power, sustainability. I kept wondering why—for centuries—other countries have been telling the Haitians what to do. And, I wondered, why can’t we do this at home?

Americans have a lot of opinions about Haiti. But they don’t always have a lot of accurate information. As soon as I booked my trip, people started asking me questions I could tell they didn’t really want answers to: “Why is Haiti so poor?” “Why are the leaders so corrupt?” “Where did all that relief money go?”

Before we met in Port-au-Prince, the College assigned us homework that quickly revealed the limitations of these questions. We read fiction, history, and political essays to prepare us to step into Haiti’s singular situation as an island shaped by its location, a slave revolution, historical domination by the French, and continued manipulation by Americans.

A one-minute history: Colonialism has left an indelible mark on Haiti. Atlantic currents flowed right to its shores, bringing Europeans who established sugarcane plantations and Africans they enslaved to work them. The French colony became the most profitable in the world, until the workers launched the largest slave revolt in history in 1791. The French government refused for decades to acknowledge Haiti’s independence, and relented only when Haiti agreed in 1825 to compensate slaveholders (paying an indemnity of about $3 billion in today’s currency) for their “losses” due to the uprising. Haiti struggled to stabilize its government as the United States grew increasingly interested in its resources and strategic location. The U.S. occupied the island from 1915 to 1934, consolidating much of the land once farmed by peasant families into corporate agricultural enterprises, which many Haitians still view as modern-day plantations. Freed from the American occupation, Haiti struggled throughout the twentieth century with military regimes and corrupt governments, some of which were propped up by the United States.

“God is too far, and the United States is too close.” Those words, often attributed to a Mexican president about his own country, are also spoken by Haitians. Dantès Bellegarde, a Haitian intellectual, uttered them in 1907. They still ring true today, even with billions of dollars in aid funneled through U.S. charities in the wake of the apocalyptic earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, killing more than 230,000 people and leaving millions homeless. Decisions about distributing aid were made chiefly by foreign governments and nonprofits, such as not supplying clean water to earthquake-ravaged Haitians until armed United Nations peacekeepers could be installed to supervise its distribution. When I arrived in Haiti three years after the earthquake, UN peacekeepers were still overseeing Haiti’s security and police. The UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti is widely seen by Haitians as an occupation.

I felt a heavy burden of history as I prepared to travel. I hadn’t paid enough attention to my own country’s behavior toward our island neighbor. I read my Haitian history books, and I underwent a series of shots and collected pills to combat malaria, hepatitis, cholera, and typhoid. For my week’s visit, I was getting more healthcare than many Haitians receive in a lifetime.

I met my travel companions in a Western-style hotel in Port-au-Prince. An iron gate separated us from the street, and an armed guard wandered the lobby, pacing beside the courtyard pool and its jungle of plants and tiny chameleons.

We were mostly UUs, affiliated with congregations in Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. We met for dinner at the hotel restaurant for introductions and bottles of Prestige beer, and again early the next morning to board Toyota Land Cruisers for our journey to the Central Plateau. “You might want to wear a skirt if you brought one,” our trip leader, Kim Duncan, told the women. In case we needed to go to the bathroom, we should wear something easy to manage along the side of the road.

It took nearly an hour to make our way out of the densely populated streets of Port-au-Prince. Vendors lined the streets, hawking toiletries, gum, and clothing. Rows of shoes hung on fences. Women and children lugged buckets of water. We weaved among motorcycle taxis carrying three or four people and “tap-tap buses”—brightly painted pickups and vans packed with passengers. The stalls thinned out as we reached the edge of the city and started ascending into the green “mountains beyond mountains” for which Haiti is known. To make up time, our drivers cut the curves close around the switchbacks. We saw goats and thin cows staked to the mountainsides. Barefoot children skittered out of the road when they heard the quick taps of our truck’s horn.

The Mouvman Peyizan Papay compound is like an oasis. All around, the mountains are green, but mostly bare of trees, which were cut down long ago to carve out plantations or make charcoal or kindling. But inside the gates of MPP, on the outskirts of the city of Hinche, trees grow tall and thick.

The compound is a training center, with a large pavilion for educational gatherings and member meetings. (MPP hosted 2,000 people for its fortieth anniversary celebrations in 2012.) The grounds are full of gardens, composting toilets, cisterns, irrigation systems, and pens for goats and rabbits.

We toured the elaborate raised “tire gardens.” Leeks, spinach, hot peppers, bell peppers, and carrots grow from tires turned inside out, fitted with a wooden bottom, and filled with soil fertilized with manure and compost turned by red worms from Nicaragua. The tires sit on platforms to keep them out of reach of animals.

MPP’s radio station, “the voice of the peasants,” is housed in a small cement building behind the gardens. Our tour guide and translator, Nanouche Enaillo Forestal, explained that over the airwaves, MPP can educate and organize. A large sign outside the door proclaimed that MPP says “No” to illegal grabbing of land, multinational and foreign occupation, and any form of recolonization. MPP says “Yes” to integrated agricultural reform, peasant agriculture, national sovereignty, and food sovereignty.

Another MPP training center a few miles away houses a health clinic, vocational training facilities, a furniture workshop, and a solar panel workshop. Cell phones have been a boon to the country, which lacks the infrastructure to install phone lines around the island. But charging them has been a problem for people without electricity. Haitians often have to walk a long distance to charge their phones, then wait two or three hours while they charge. Solar electricity can help solve this problem and is also cleaner in small houses than smoky propane lamps.

Next door was a cooperative bank for farmers, where an elderly man in a baseball cap that said “Obama” waited in a kitchen where jam was cooked and jarred. I calculated how many jars of jam I could fit in my suitcase and bought samples of papaya and guava preserves.

Across the street, in a scene from the nineteenth century—or the seventeenth—farmers plowed a field with ox-drawn carts. There were no John Deere dealerships here, and if there had been, there would be no gasoline to power the engines and no suppliers of spare parts. We took pictures and boarded the vans to see the tree nursery, where MPP grows 29,000 trees per season to aid in reforestation.

We planted some of those trees in MPP’s “Eco-Villages,” clusters of homes and house gardens for groups of ten families.

MPP began creating the eco-villages after the 2010 earthquake, when thousands of residents of Port-au-Prince fled the city and descended on the compound. Knowing there would be no housing for them to return to for the foreseeable future, Chavannes and MPP developed a model to help resettle these city dwellers in the Central Plateau to live in community and off the land.

The first village, built by the families and legions of volunteers, including many UUs, was completed in December 2011. MPP gave each family two goats, with the expectation that any baby goats would be gifts to families in the next village built.

Two residents, Andreal and Manuel, led us around the village and their tire gardens. Both had lost everything in the earthquake and had been struggling to survive without income. They had worked as security guards for the Haitian government, but had gone thirty-six months without receiving any salary. Andreal and Manuel were part of a protest in Port-au-Prince in which demonstrators burned tires and demanded pay. They were arrested and jailed. Chavannes bailed them both out and sent cars to Port-au-Prince to retrieve the men and their families. They used to burn tires, Andreal said. “Chavannes taught us to eat out of them.”

That afternoon, we dug holes for concrete posts that would support tire gardens in Eco-Village 4. Like the farmers in the fields, we used the tools on hand, mostly machetes with a scattering of shovels. We planted trees under the direction of an MPP agronomist called Difficile. In a booming deep voice, he told us which trees to plant. We had little Creole, and he had little English. But his words “mango” or “papaye” were enough.

Some days we were joined by the village children. Missing my own sons at home, I was delighted to have a young boy named Wycleffe help me dig and plant. We posed for pictures together. Mugging for the camera, he crossed his arms and struck a “gangsta” pose, encouraging me to do the same.

Each morning and evening, our band gathered on the porch of our MPP guesthouse. Led by our guides, Kim Duncan and Robert Ehler, and our trip minister, the Rev. David Messner from the UU Church of Savannah, Georgia, we discussed our work and MPP, the poverty we saw, the glimmers of hope and progress. Together we wrestled with our reactions to the difficulty of being the affluent among the poorest of the poor.

We talked about an afternoon visit to the Bassin Zim waterfall. As soon as our van doors opened, swarms of barefoot boys surrounded us to lead us by the hand to caves at the top of the falls. Jonas, 7, took me by one hand, and Gregory, 17, held the other. I struggled to scale the steep slope without the use of my arms for balance. But I could not turn down their hospitality. I pressed dollar bills into their hands when we were safely at the bottom, knowing it was not enough. Were these children lucky to have a waterfall in their village that brought in tourists and dollars? Or was this just a place that highlighted the gulf between the visitors and the local residents? I couldn’t help but feel they were among the lucky. Many spoke English well, because their families could afford to send them to school with those dollar bills the boys collected.

We also picked through complex emotions during another afternoon’s visit to an outdoor market in Hinche. The wares were sparse—vegetable vendors cheek-by-jowl with shampoo stands, machete stalls, and clothing. A patchwork of tarps formed a holey roof that did little to keep out a sudden, drenching rainstorm. Half of us ran out into the muddy streets, where water coursed down open gutters. A woman, who had followed us in the market begging, stayed close beside us, growing more aggressive in her request for money and offering her body to the men. Children laughed at her from covered porches, and they laughed and pointed at us, too. “Blan! Blan!” they cried, uttering the Creole word that at once means “white” and “foreigner.”

I valued the chance to reflect on all this with my new UU friends. The conversations spilled over into nighttime chats with my roommate, Jessica Bridges, from Savannah. We would lie awake under our mosquito nets reflecting on the day, agreeing we were lucky to be here, imagining how and when we could return to Haiti.

Our week ended under the rainy pavilion with Chavannes. He told us that MPP has resisted suggestions to call its members “farmers.” In Haiti, he said, peasant has a political connotation. The peasant has a civilization built on solidarity and a respect for the trees, the rivers, and the birds. “It’s a type of society where one helps the other. Today I help you work, tomorrow you help me work.” It’s a culture based on exchange, not sales.

Peasant agriculture is healthy agriculture, with natural seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, he said. “It is agriculture that respects nature, and the environment. It respects people’s lives.”

MPP has also evolved to promote education and literacy and to work for women’s empowerment. It works for soil and water conservation, reforestation, solar energy, and food sovereignty. MPP is fighting the presence of minustah and resisting efforts to buy large tracts of land to plant mangoes. “MPP is fighting against Haiti being taken by others,” he said.

“We have things here that rich countries don’t. They believe there is only one model of development and you have to copy it,” said Chavannes. But industrial agriculture has accelerated global warming with its reliance on petrochemicals; poisoned the land, air, and water; and destroyed biodiversity, he said. “This model of production is destroying our planet and our health. To save the planet, we need to live differently.”

For one week, our group did live differently. In our solar-powered guesthouse, we had electricity for just a few hours a day. We ate freshly-killed chickens and local vegetables grown in tires. Walking through fields, we picked up mangoes off the ground and ate them, wiping their juice off our chins. We showered in water collected in cisterns and recycled to irrigate gardens. I lived on Haitian time, letting the days unfold without my precise American schedule—waiting for the mud to dry before we set out in the morning, resting in the hot midday sun. We took time to talk gently, listen deeply, and laugh out loud. We danced the Kompa.

I pictured my small terraced backyard at home in Massachusetts and wondered what my neighbors would think if I erected tire gardens. I thought of the farm that has been in my family for generations and wondered if it could support an eco-village and better farming practices. I’m still wondering how I can bring a little more Haiti home.

Related Resources

  • Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice.Offers experiential learning programs in Haiti, India, Mexico, and the United States through a joint collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Association and the UU Service Committee. (uucsj.org)

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