Sights, Sounds and Lessons from Haiti
The UU Service Committee was excited to partner with the Unitarian Universalist Association on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, December 3–10. In the post below, written on December 9, participant George Wootton reflects on time spent working with the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP).
I came to Haiti with memories of seeing a devastated country two weeks after the January 2010 earthquake. Although our first night’s Port-au-Prince lodgings shielded us from the remnants of that natural disaster, the damage was obvious just by traveling in this city. On this trip, though, I’ve seen a very different Haiti.
On December 4, we packed into two SUVs and ascended into what Tracy Kidder referred to as mountains beyond mountains. From Port-au-Prince, we drove mostly uphill for less than three hours on a well-constructed road into the Central Plateau. (We were told that pre-earthquake, this same trip took eight hours. My compliments to post-earthquake construction.) We drove through the lower plains, wide fields of grass and scattered trees, rising into the foothills, passing small homes made of various materials, from tarps the cinder block. People were sitting by the road in the Haitian heat, watching us pass. We traveled through busy villages, active with markets, shops, and houses too close to the road for my comfort; pedestrians; animals; and smaller vehicles, from human power to donkey power to fossil-fuel-energized horsepower. We passed into a land of rolling hills, lakes, streams, and lush low vegetation.
At midday, we entered the MPP complex in Papaye, Haiti, a series of buildings that support organic farming, classes, and housing for a few residents and the many people who come here to learn. At MPP, we are surrounded by trees — palm, Haitian oak, locust, and many others I can’t identify with hanging pods and ripe, round, luscious-looking fruit. The deforestation of this country is hard to imagine here. This place is alive with growth — physical, educational, emotional. Sounds of people living, roosters crowing, dogs fighting, insects, Haitian music, and construction can all be heard at various times during the day and night.
Our days have been busy. Mornings have been spent at the eco-village, a group of 10 recently constructed 3-room homes that house families who have left the difficult life they experienced in Port-au-Prince. Although not without its challenges, their new lives in this UUSC-sponsored village have brought opportunities for earthquake survivors to learn many aspects of organic farming, construction, and community living. I respect, though, the trauma that necessitated this transition. (One resident of the eco-village said that although he was willing to talk to us about the earthquake, he did not want to revisit those difficult memories.)
Our work has involved helping build a community center in the middle of the circle of homes. We have carried rock and cement by hand and, if we are lucky, by one of the two wheelbarrows in this community, although this was rare. We have poured cement, built a door, planted trees, and cleared vegetation. One of our members, Sally Beth, called on her experiences in Mali and Uganda, to teach village residents and volunteers alike how to construct and use a wood-burning stove far more efficient than the cooking facilities currently being used in the village. This will have a huge impact on the lives of these people.
In the afternoons, we have visited with representatives of MPP groups — men, women, and youth — all who explain the empowerment gained through the vision and energy of Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a charismatic man in his mid 60s who has fought for the rights of peasants throughout his life. We have toured the health clinic and canning factory, and we’ve visited the home of a local resident and talked about the changes in his life since MPP was founded. We have seen waterfalls, lakes built for aquaculture, farming cooperatives, techniques in organic farming that anyone in the United States would be proud to show off, played soccer with a local youth team, and danced to a Kompa band during the festival of the Immaculate Conception in Hinche.
I’ve made friends with people from all over the United States who share my need to understand how healthy Haiti can be and who want to participate in this healing. We have learned, in conjunction with our Unitarian Universalist values, new ways of understanding how we can respect the inherent worth of all people, respect the interdependent web of all existence, and explore our search for justice, equity, and compassion in our human relations.
Tomorrow we head back to Port-au-Prince. We will get on airplanes that will carry us to Alabama, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Utah, and Idaho. We leave, still searching, but with an experience that has been life changing. I am inspired by what I have seen, both in my fellow volunteers and in the Haitians who are building new lives. I look forward to carrying these sights, sounds, and lessons to my Utah UU congregation and to my next trip to this changing country.