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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Score: 1 Goal for the Americans






The entrance to Lascahobas in the Central Region

Yesterday, I was riding next to my Action Aid Colleagues, Alcee, Wesner and Thomas, climbing a green mountain pass to a majestic overlook of Lake Peligre, and trying my very best not to be sick. Our driver, Thomas, was an expert road nagivator. So much so, in fact, that he was attacking the curvy turns with the strength and determination of a 400 lb sumo wrestler. My stomach, however, was down for the count. Once we finally cleared the mountain pass, though, life improved considerably. We were entering the Central Valley and Lascahobas was on the horizon.


Lake Peligre

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. 


View of the rocky "road" in Mirebalais

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.


One of the better roads in Mirebalais

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.
Community Members in the fields of Lascahobas

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.

'Cash for Work' project leaders explain water flooding barrier system.

We escape the sun and 100 degree heat by congregating under a big mango tree. Community members start joining us one by one, curious about the foreigner and city folk who have come to visit. Linda is a young, 24 year-old mother who has recently arrived from Port-au-Prince, along with hundreds of other displaced persons. Despite her age, she is the first to step up when I start off by asking what the greatest needs of the community are. She echoes a similar theme that I have already heard from every single Haitian with whom I have spoken: jobs.

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.

Lascahobas 'Cash for Work' project members
Alcee, Wesner and I ask a series of questions over the next two hours, as our impromptu meeting grows to include almost two thirds of the project participants. Men and women take turns explaining to us the logistics of how they organize meetings, the rotation of responsibilities, their success in working with Action Aid and the local NGO partner, COHSAD, and the struggles that they are facing as a community. My colleagues are especially patient with me and help translate into Creole, as I try to frame and reframe my questions.

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.
Home made out of palm trees by Lascahobas 'Cash for Work' participants


When we ask what the greatest concerns of women are, a dozen voices cry out at once, “Vaginal Infections!” Despite the fact that a community hospital does exist a few miles away, medicine and qualified personnel seem to be in constant shortage. I hear many stories of women who die within just a few days of their first symptoms. Several mothers tell me that they are worried about infections that they are potentially passing on to their babies through their breast milk as well. One woman explains that, “it is sometimes difficult to know what is worse…to continue nursing them or to switch them to the water and formula.”

Me and women participants of the Loscahobas 'Cash for Work' project, with Linda in orange.

Assets in the community include a school that all participants’ children can attend, a market place where participants can sell the small amount of surplus crops that they produce and a wealth of plant biodiversity. Crops include corn, beans, rice, potatoes, yams, melons, mangos, papayas and bananas. Linda chimes in again on her new form of employment. “I never knew that Haiti had such a wealth coming from the earth in just one place. If we had the proper water and way to transport everything, it could really be something.” Yet, the community has very little in the way of infrastructure, except for a few donkeys, hoes and shovels and the rich soil that is forever vulnerable to flooding. The ‘Cash for Work’ soil conservation program, however, hopes to change that liability into an asset.

Children at school in Lascahobas


After a long series of picture taking, laughing, more picture taking and shaking each community member’s hand, we say goodbye and head over to Linda’s family’s home down the road. At their displacement camp, we meet Linda’s 3 month-old son and her grandmother, Piorette. I like Piorette right away. She has sparkling eyes, a loving embrace and absolute termination that she is no older than 58. “Don’t believe her,” her grandchildren tease. “She is 72 years old!” Piorette chastises the collection of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who surround her. She insists over and over again that she was born in 1908 and is therefore not a day over 58. The family giggles and snickers, like they must have heard this same argument before. Despite the teasing, though, it is obvious how much they love her.

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.”

Displaced Port-au-Princian, Piorette. Mother of 10, grandmother of 53.


World Vision helped move the family out here into makeshift tents after the earthquake. Piorette, Linda and their family lost everything: their home, their shop, their goods and some of their family members. Piorette tells me with sad eyes that she never thought she would leave Port-au-Prince, the place of her birth. Her eyes begin to sparkle, though, when Linda’s adorable baby starts cooing and giggling. A dozen family members look knowingly at one another for a moment, perhaps sharing sad memories of what their life once was, perhaps sharing a moment of joy that this new life survived the earthquake.




Linda and her 3-month old baby


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;)



Thomas, our driver, finally smiling.







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