My colleagues graciously agreed to escort me to the site of an Action Aid ‘Cash for Work’ project that employs about 110 community members with partial funding from the United States. The participants work to conserve soil and improve harvests by utilizing a series of naturally made barriers that prevent flooding and soil erosion. In this rural zone where farming and small intraregional markets present one of the few sources of income, soil is worth its weight in gold.
The first town that we come to in the valley is Mirebalais, what I affectionately now call, Pothole Heaven. Actually, the word ‘pothole’ does not really sufficiently describe the state of the roads. To come to think of it, the word ‘road’ doesn’t really seem to suffice either. Think rocks. Think boulders and mud holes and craters.
Trying to break the ice with our sumo wrestling driver, Thomas, I throw in a joke or two about the art of driving in such conditions. “On doit vous appellez Colonel Thomas, comme vous devez etre un soldat pour passer sur cette route la!” Translated in English, “We have to call you Colonel Thomas from now on, since you have to be a soldier to make it over these roads!” I get nothing but a slight head nod from Thomas. After years of having lived and traveled in Africa, I know that it is always smart to make friends with your driver. Your life can depend on it! But, Thomas is just as stoic as his sumo counterparts, and doesn't budge an inch.
Part way through Mirebalais, we encounter an ominous series of road blocks and multiple signs indicating that there is insurmountable construction ahead. This is of little concern to brave Thomas, though, who jumps out of our 4 wheel-drive chariot, pushes the sign aside, and plows through onto the “roads” under construction. When we finally clear the worst of it, we hit the main part of town and encounter new challenging gauntlets. Goats and dogs and children and hawkers fill the streets. No problem! Thomas weaves in and out of them like he is dodging samurai throwing stars.
I quickly learn the language of the road on this trip. One honk means, “Heads up, because I am coming around this corner and my car is bigger than yours.” Three honks mean, “Get out of my way, you crazy pedestrians/dogs/goats/donkeys, because I am not slowing down!” Continuous urgent honking means, “I am going to kill you if you do not throw yourself from the road side this very instant!!!” After Thomas just barely misses a young girl carrying a load of bananas on her head, Alcee and Wesner start to protest. A short conversation in Creole ensues and I imagine Thomas saying something like this. “What are you talking about? I missed her by a mile! Would YOU like to drive instead?” I try to break the tension with another joke. “It’s war out here, Thomas. We’re lucky to have such a good tank and commander!” Alcee and Wesner chuckle a little, but stone-faced Thomas just nods again. And so, we rumble on.
After 2 ½ hours, we reach Lascahobas, a small, rural town that inhabits some 6,000. We pass through the modest town and head out into the even more rural periphery to meet the project members. Community leaders show us the natural barriers that they are creating, using strategically placed raised beds that are reinforced with sturdy sugar cane sticks.
Linda turns up her bravado and explains how difficult it is to be a displaced person in Lascahobas. “Before, we ran businesses. We sold items. We worked in shops. We worked in offices and schools. Now, there is nothing but farming. And so, we have become farmers. It is the very first time, though, that we displaced persons have even seen a field, much less used a hoe.”
Community leaders who grew up in Lascahobas explain to us that at first, it was difficult to integrate the Port-au-Prince natives into their project. However, the local participants quickly adapted and started training the new arrivals on the basics of farming. Linda explains to us that they are all united now, under this common ‘Cash for Work’ project, as they only have one another to survive.
As for community identified challenges, health is on top of the list, with record cases of water-borne illnesses due to poor water sources. “Our babies and children have constant diarrhea,” explains Linda. “It is difficult sometimes for them to even keep down food and water.” And in this 100 degree heat, that makes diarrhea the number one killer of children.
Lodging is also of great concern. Houses are made out of crude palm branches and splintery wood. Strong storms can decimate the structures, requiring constant repairs and rebuilding. Fruit trees are plentiful, but the community does not have the capacity to dry and store fruit for when it is out of season. Despite some small scale husbandry efforts, protein and starches are scarce.
Piorette has 10 children, 53 granchildren and God only knows how many great grandchildren. In Port-au-Prince, she used to sell food, medicine, clothes and little trinkets in the market place. But here in Lascahobas, she and her family have nothing. “If I could pray for one thing, it is that my children and grandchildren can find jobs out here in the country. And, that the little ones go to school. I just have to pray that God does not forget us.”
At the end of our hour conversation, I present Linda with rehydration and vitamin C packets and encourage her to only use them if the children become very ill with diarrhea. Piorette holds me with her two strong hands and kisses me on each cheek. “Mesi, mesi,” she says in Creole. The love in her eyes is overwhelming and I find myself not wanting to let go of her.
We finally pull away from Linda, Piorette and their family and head back to our warrior driver, Thomas, who has been watching the family scene for the last hour. We head back to downtown Lascahobas and share a nice Haitian meal of chicken, plaintains, rice and beans. After visiting a new school and water pump outside of town and navigating past villagers on their way home from market, we start back towards Port-au-Prince. Thomas seems to be driving a little more slowly now. He also stops each time that I go to take a picture and finds us the best place to buy mangos on the way. Deciding to try my luck once more, I go for one last attempt at some intercultural humor. “Thomas, it’s a good thing that the roads of Lascahobas and Mirebalais are behind us. Otherwise, we’d have mango juice by the time we arrive!” Finally, finally, Thomas breaks into the biggest smile and gives a quiet, yet definitive chuckle.
While listening to the radio on our way home, we learn that Ghana has defeated the beloved U.S. soccer team in the finals. Alcee and Wesner tease me a bit about our American team and hypothesize on whether it will be Argentina or Brazil who will win the World cup. I just smile though and look out at the beautiful, lush Central valley. Ghana may have won the match, but score one smile for America;)