What could I expect? Bert Laurent, a friend and Executive Chairman at The Caribbean Institute had asked me to accompany a delivery of fruit tree seedlings by truck from TCI’s nursery near Port au Prince, over sometimes challenging, rocky, mountain roads to the small town of Leon on the outskirts of Jeremie. The whole area had been devastated by Hurricane Matthew, a category 5 hurricane the effects of which the people of the Grand’Anse hadn’t seen in decades, since 1955’s Hazel, to be exact.
I hadn’t been to the Grand’Anse myself in at least 15 years. My overwhelming memories were of a dreamy trek through the last remaining vestiges of a tropical forest. Travel then was the stuff of overly romanticized visions of Haiti before Columbus. Even the straw and mud huts of rural population in the area were invisible to the road traveller. There were still owls with nine-foot wingspans in the Pic Macaya cloudforest. Of course, there was the occasional village or town along the road, but the overall impression I had was that this is one wild place time forgot.
The trip to Jerémie, the main city in the Grand’Anse, took a good eight hours and we arrived as night fell and a thick darkness settled over the surrounding mountains. As we were approaching Jerémie I called the local Director of CARITAS, the Catholic organization that was our regional contact, to learn how to get to where the meeting had been arranged with the four local women’s organization through which the fruit trees would be distributed. TCI insists on delivering the fruit trees through local organizations, not directly to the individual beneficiaries. This is important. The idea is to avoid displacing the relationships between the people and their organizations. In fact, we do all we can to strengthen not only the local organizations but also their bonds with their members, because sustainable community development requires solid local organizational foundations.
TCI does not bring food and hire people. Rather, what TCI does is build the local capacity to produce food and to create jobs. TCI also brings business training and governance skills, and our approach is to work with women’s organizations. Something as simple as a fruit tree is very valuable and meaningful, not only because it produces food and income for twenty or more years, or because its roots prevent soil erosion: the way those trees get into the hands of the new owners can build solidarity and trust. And the fact that the owners are women gardeners, for whom the trees mean equity and capital, is an exciting and sustainable way to rebuild the community.
I looked forward to a good night’s sleep. But that’s when I learned that the distribution site was not in Jérémie itself but in Léon, and that we were about to drive for at least another hour off the main road in the night! Fortunately the moon shone brightly, and the night sky was now illuminated by a stunning panoply of stars that hung above us like diamonds. And we had two spare tires.
We finally arrived in Sirak where a CARITAS team member’s aunt lived and where we decided to spend the night. Where were we going to sleep? In that small house up the hill, across the Voldrogue river. We could see its tin roof shine under the moonlight. We made our way across the river, at some points knee deep in flowing water, climbed a steep slope, and arrived finally at Jimmy’s aunt’s place. After civilities, two mattresses were set on the floor for the five of us. It was a little after midnight: time to sleep. Tomorrow we were delivering the seedlings to the women’s associations, starting right next door in Léon..
The next morning after a brief ceremony of thanks, distribution of the seedlings took place on the grounds of CARITAS’ 35 hectare domain in Léon, where the women had gathered in a large assembly hall. CARITAS, the Catholic organization, is very active in community organizing and local development throughout the Grand Anse Diocese, which had been wrecked by the hurricane. TCI’s local contact in Leon is Father Jean Baptiste St. Alphonse, the head of CARITAS for the Diocese, who is also managing an agro-ecology program throughout the Grand’Anse. Two of CARITAS’ ‘animatrices’, Kettly Marie Berlus and Mita Basquin had volunteered to help the local organizations distribute the seedlings. Four women’s groups from four different villages were involved. Tèt Ansanm is in Kolimon, Chèche Lavi is in Alger, Fanm Konba is in Léon proper, while the members of OFAGDEM reside in Mònatif, in nearby St Anne.
The distribution was quiet and orderly, with the women and their daughters admiring each others’ seedlings and setting dates to visit each other’s gardens. After the fruit tree seedlings were distributed to the members of the women’s associations and their daughters I sat down with Mita, a twenty- one year resident of the area, to listen to her story and better appreciate the feelings of a surviving member of a community devastated by Hurricane Matthew. “Many organizations have come to assist us after Matthew. They have given us rice, flour, oil and the like. We consumed what they bring and it’s gone now. This is the first and only program that has brought us fruit trees…This has brought life. This has so much value!”
Mita understands very well the dependence of fellow residents to outside help because they have so little left. But she is a farmer, and deeply understands the importance of self-help and partnership. “I tell my daughter if someone is pouring water over your hands so you can wash them, the least you could do is rub your own hands”, Mita said. As our conversation was drawing to a close, she expressed her sense of overdependence on foreign assistance: “we must take back our stomachs!”
Just as the earthquake proved the resilience of Haitians, Hurricane Matthew will prove the resolve of the women of the Grand’Anse and their daughters.
By: Henry Hogarth /email: firstname.lastname@example.org /phone: +509 3702-7550