Wet Dust (Essay)

Please click here to read the essay, “Wet Dust.”

This work describes many of my experiences in Haiti, as well as their intersections with medicine and art.  Readers of this blog will find there are certain subjects I have not yet tired of discussing.  🙂

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What is mine to do?

I’m three trips overdue on blog updates.  Over Spring Break I was able to join a Medical Student Missions team in Verrettes.  I was back in Bayonnais in late May with a group from IOH Methodist Church before returning to the US for my 5-year Davidson College reunion.  My most recent trip was split between Bayonnais and the Haiti Foundation of Hope in Terre Blanche.

Leading mission teams in Bayonnais is always a rich but demanding experience.  By now, most of my Haitian friends understand I have little time to sit down and catch up when teams are present.  This is why I felt strongly about returning to Bayonnais on my own to invest time in various friendships.


Charles Etienne is one such friend; in fact, he is my godbrother.  His wife died in October, 2010 when cholera first struck Bayonnais, and a precarious financial situation continues to mire his attempts to provide food for his three children.  In a mud-hut room, adjacent to where I watched my godson open his eyes for the first time 3 years earlier, I sat amid extended family and listened. . . It turns out Mme Etienne hadn’t had cholera after all; she had been sick with an undiagnosed illness that had been coming and going for years.  As Etienne described desperately driving her to the hospital on his motorcycle, only to have her fall off 5 minutes down the road, I heard his mother quietly start to cry from the darkness in the corner of the room.  Barely strong enough to stand, he had carried her lifeless body half a mile to his in-laws house where the official grieving process began.

In the light of a small kerosene lamp, Etienne continued to share the hardships of this past year.  Help from extended family allowed him to pay off the remaining loans he had taken out for his wife’s funeral.  In Haiti, regardless of how destitute you may be, if a loved one dies, he/she will be buried in a coffin.  Culturally, it is extremely disrespectful to put someone in the ground without one, and great loans and sacrifices will be made in order to afford the at least $500US necessary to make the purchase.  (Consider the national pain associated with the post-quake mass burial outside Port-au-Prince.)  A request for the wedding ring in order to help pay funeral expenses was denied by his in-laws, and great drama ensued when he took the children back to his house; he thought his family could take better care of them, and he didn’t want them to grow up not knowing their father.  However, his brother-in-law, who had been borrowing his moto-taxi, trashed it while his mother-in-law deceitfully acquired money from Etienne’s pig sale.  His impression is that they want to see him fall on his face.  (Of course, this is one side of a two-sided story.)  Worst of all, his mother-in-law blamed him for his wife’s death, painful words he will never forget and unlikely forgive.

Based on 3 months of Etienne recording dollars spent and earned for his moto-taxi business, we learned that if there is a lot of traffic and he works every day, he can expect to make about $100 US / month.  (This assumes he wasn’t fudging numbers in his bookkeeping. Basic financial analysis like this is foreign to the vast majority of people in Bayonnais; “small business” owners know they’ll make a profit if they sell a given good marked up from their purchase price, but no one keeps track of the Gourdes, and everyone sells on credit.  However, there’s a new generation of educated youth with high school math sufficient for basic budgeting.)  “Okay, you’ve got a hundred dollars this month.  How are you going to spend it?”  I asked him.  His first priority, along with feeding his kids, seemed to be putting up a headstone on his wife’s grave, which would cost around $85 US.  It is very difficult navigating the tension between encouraging dependence via financial aid and the necessary tough love that pushes him to make it happen on his own; it’s hard because when he doesn’t, those young children don’t eat during critical phases of their development.  Before leaving Bayonnais, I was blessed to be able to cover the headstone (a specific, localized expense) allowing him to use income from a one-month day-labor job in the mountains to repair his motorcycle.   (Note, he worked so hard, and with so little food, on this job that he’d have to stay up in the mountains for days at a time, as he was too weak to return home to see his family.)

During our conversation, I learned something very interesting about feeding his children: although it is roughly three times more expensive to provide rice and beans than an extra-think peanut butter sandwich, he would rather the kids eat rice and beans.  Through further conversation with other friends, I learned that the three Artibonite staples, rice, corn, and millet, are so ingrained (pun intended) in the cultural mindset that Bayonnaisiens will forgo days of not eating in order to afford a “legitimate” meal.   Peanut butter sandwiches are more than welcomed as a snack or lunch at school, but it is apparently embarrassing to eat peanut butter sandwiches as a main meal at home; it means you’re dirt poor.  My gentle caution to Etienne was to be careful not to sacrifice his kids’ nutrition to his pride, as eating peanut butter sandwiches every day would be better for them than rice and beans 3 or 4 times per week.  Understanding the depth of the cultural roots mentioned above, I simply hope peanut butter gets mixed into the family diet just a little more than it presently is.

Lastly, on returning home that night, I found myself drinking a cold Tampico (fruit juice) in front of the new refrigerator.  Thinking of Etienne’s work under the hot sun and wondering about the last time he had enjoyed a cold beverage, I felt the subtle tug of the Holy Spirit, to which I replied in my head, “Am I really going to walk back to his place this late at night to give him this drink?” . . . While taking his first sip, I asked Etienne about the last time he’d had a cold drink.  “I can’t remember. . . It’s been so long,” he said.


Perhaps, though unlikely, it’s been as long as Bayonnais’ dream for a medical clinic.  As many readers know, the comment that hit me hardest upon first meeting Actionnel (leader of OFCB) regarded healthcare.  He said he wept when he learned that there are such things as veterinarians in the US, for there are no doctors for people in Bayonnais.  I can testify to the consequences; I’ve heard of far too many deaths—people of all ages—during my time in Bayonnais.  However, thanks to God, Engineers Without Borders, and many committed individuals, the dream is becoming a reality.  Phase 1 of 3  is under construction this summer, and the coming years will bring 2 doctors, a dentist, and multiple nurses, all of whom went through the OFCB school before being sponsored for higher education.


Anne-Junie, one of the nurses who has already finished her degree, has been working in the cholera clinic.  Founded in October/November, 2010 when the outbreak began and still operational due to demand, this make-shift clinic has literally saved many hundreds of lives, probably a thousand.  (Not all patients who arrive have cholera, and those that do have varying levels of severity.)   Cholera patients tend to come in from the mountains, and sometimes cases are so severe that peripheral pulses are absent.  Thanks to Anne-Junie and some of her classmates, many of these patients are doing well several IV bags later.



The following is a refection from my time with HFH, an organization located in Terre Blanche (near Gonaives) and very similar to OFCB.

“Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired,” says four-year-old, Terri, her response included in an article about children’s definitions of love.  Her peer, Billy, affirms, “When somebody loves you, the way they say your name is different.  You just know that your name is safe in their mouth.” As Dr. Dave’s gentle voice meets the foreign sounds of a pediatric patient’s name, I’m reminded of this safety.  A rich smile seconds his tone.  Blossoming on her mothers lap, little Ji-ji opens from a guarded position–at least enough for heart and lung sounds.  Nurse Becca offers a pretty red ball to encourage further comfort, but then I hear my own name called.  Dr. Richeme would like to teach me about cervical cancer; my name feels safe in his mouth.   

Here at the Haiti Foundation for Hope, I feel like I’m part of a family.  The solidarity espoused by Haitian and American leadership is remarkable.  My first visit was in February of 2008: curious about what was going on in Terre Blanche, I had come to visit for two days but ended up staying a full week translating for a medical team.  When it became possible to join another team this summer, I leaped at the opportunity.  My first-year medical school training was itching for context and clinical application, and, boy, did I get my fair share!  The experience deepened my sense of vocation and reminded me why I am privileged to be in medical school.  It’s tiring, but hearing Ji-ji quietly tell mom, “li gou,” or “it tastes good,” while receiving a 5 mL/min oral rehydration treatment for cholera . . . well, it made me smile.

 The Haiti Foundation for Hope quotes, “Lespwa fe viv,” a Haitian proverb that loosely translates, “Hope gives life.”  In God’s economy, hope is a valuable currency.  It appreciates much, and though easily shared it is not easily spent.  I go to Terre Blanche to be and to hold God’s hands.  I go to heal and be healed, to be reminded that beneath my seeming self-sufficiency, I guard spiritual vulnerabilities not unlike the physical hardships of my Haitian brothers and sisters.  In Terre Blanche, peoples’ names sound different and safe because God, who is love, is at work.   Truly I tell you, there is hope enough for us all.

To elaborate on getting “my fair share” of clinical application, I got to see mumps, scabies, cutaneous anthrax, hemorrhoids, inguinal hernias (help retract one), a hydrocele, HPV polyp removal, multiple abscesses, listen/feel a ventricular septal defect, palpate prostate and advanced cervical cancer, witness a birth, use the sonogram, and assist multiple surgeries, including ainhum amputation and a circumcision of a 20-something year old—ouch!  Dr. Rolf Richeme, a Haitian doctor in general surgery residency, was one reason for such a rich experience; he was such a good teacher that he’d eventually leave the room after the surgery was over, telling me, “Alright, sow it up.”  Then he’d come back and joke that the suturing took much longer than the surgery itself.  (Below are photos of the cutaneous anthrax patient and the effects of antibiotic treatment; she gave permission to take and share these images.  The last image shows me suturing after a lipoma resection.)



At one point I showed Dr. Richeme a picture of a someone in Bayonnais unlike anyone he’d seen during 10 years of general practice in Port-au-Prince.  Also known as “lobster claw syndrome”, ectodactyly is a genetic defect characterized by developmental abnormalities in the hands and feet; fingers and toes are variably fused or absent.  Several members of a family in Bayonnais have this syndrome, the youngest of which has only a pinky finger on each hand.  They function relatively normally, for example one man is working on construction of the medical clinic.  However, as you can imagine, it is difficult/nearly impossible to find shoes.  My mom noticed this issue in May and returned to the US determined to address the need.  Armed with traced outlines of feet, she entered Smart Feet in Savannah where the owner had “happened” to have been researching ectodactyly the previous couple weeks.  She asked me whether they’d like the suggested shoes, as they were very clunky and not very attractive by US standards.  “I think they’ll love them,” I said.  “If not, I can always bring them back.”  As you can see in the following photographs, they were well-received.



Unfortunately, beautiful containers of Manba Bayonnais, or Bayonnais peanut butter, were not as well-received in the city of Gonaives.  “Mami” and Mme Alez were the directors of the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, a small enterprise about which you can read more in previous posts, and part of this most recent trip involved getting a more of an update about what went wrong.  Basically, it seems the missing puzzle piece was a skilled marketing agent.

Almost everything was good: they had a workplace equipped with an efficient, motorized grinder and understood extensive methods for selecting against aphlatoxin-contaminated nuts; the product was delicious, unique (they added cinnamon), and well-packaged; we had researched the peanut butter market in Gonaives as well as our competitor, which didn’t taste as good and with whose price we were confident we could compete; they had bank accounts, capital for starting the business, and a local consultant (Firmen); they had excitement about the prospect of running the first legitimate small business in Bayonnais; lastly, they had pride in their peanut butter.  However, for some reason they hit a brick wall trying to sell to distributors in Gonaives.  When I mentioned a recent contact, the female manager of the St. Marc Delimart (an upscale grocery), who was interested in seeing the product, Mme Alez was not interested.  I could see that trying to sell peanut butter in Gonaives had been exhausting; in fact, she and “Mami” had already comfortably moved back to working in the kitchen at OFCB.

When I reflect upon the entirety of the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, from its initial conception as a subsidized protein source under the umbrella of OFCB to an independent, entrepreneurial venture owned by two women, the following comes to mind: listen very well, and hear from the right people–direct solicitation of Firmen’s honest feedback, which he didn’t readily offer, early on may have avoided some challenges during the first phase of the project.  Lastly, it’s just hard to start a legitimate business in Bayonnais, but we’ll keep encouraging those who are interested.

On a more positive note, I ate some 14-month-old dehydrated bananas that tasted just as good as when they were desiccated in the solar dryer; I should also stress that they didn’t make me sick.  These were part of a running fruit preservation experiment that had been going on for over a year in the closet of the back left bedroom.  While dried bananas don’t have any Haitian market value at this time, it was pretty cool to eat one and see that solar dehydration works.  (Bananas are available throughout the year, as opposed to sweet peppers, which are available only a couple months.  Hopefully someone will run with the idea of selling dried fruits or veggies in the off-season; the sweet peppers dry very well.)



During the IOH Methodist devotional one evening, I decided to share an interesting encounter that caught me off-guard.  Walking to and from the market, I’m engaged in many brief conversations about how and what I’m doing.  Most people know me and call me by name, Pite (“Pee-tay”).  However, one little kid called me “Blan,” the blanket term used for any foreigner, and I responded, “Mwen rele Pite,” or “My name is Peter.”  Although quick and casual, the remark tasted of ego and the notion that this little kid should know my name.  It’s a very strange experience to be in a place where you’re so conspicuous, where so many people know and appreciate you, where some joke you’re the mayor, but even a humble bit of celebrity can start to go to your head.

Medicine is a humbling profession, and as I mentioned above, I continue to be affirmed in my decision to go to medical school.  I’d wondered what it would be like to begin gathering this body of knowledge and skills whose practical application holds life-changing and life-saving potential.   Working with the medical team at HFH, I felt the needs of the poor more pressing than past trips.  I felt more responsibility to be involved, to be accountable to what I’ve been given, which includes not only opportunity and education but awareness of suffering—very real, unjust, and personal suffering.  This recent experience uncovered that difficult question again, the one we must ask if we are to love well, to love sacrificially, the one our culture does its best to insulate us from, the one I hope to live into each day:

How much is enough?

How much of my time, energy, resources, and voice is enough?   I’m smiling to find myself returning to a special quotation, a close companion on my first trip to Haiti: “When you find something in a human face that calls out to you, not just for help but in some sense for yourself, how far do you go in answering that call, how far can you go, seeing that you have your own life to get on with as much as he has his?” (Frederick Buechner)  I still don’t know. . . but now it stings to think of he who doesn’t have much life to get on with, or who may lose it quickly without medical help. . . and yet we are human, our hearts can only beat and bleed so much.  I appreciate a prayer shared at that same devotional where I checked my ego, “Lord, what is mine to do?”

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Please refer to this page for Bayonnais updates.  Medical school is keeping me very busy.  🙂

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Chez Jameson

Jameson Alexis walks at least two hours each day going to and from school.  One day I asked if I could walk to his house with him; he was delighted.  The following video includes pieces of our conversation about life in rural Haiti. 

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Family Reunion

The most meaningful part of my second trip in May was introducing my Haitian family to my parents.  It was their first time to Bayonnais, a place they’d heard so much about these past few years.  My mom shared the following with our church upon her return:


Fred and I had the incredible opportunity to be part of the mission team in Haiti this year.  Before I begin, I would like to thank all of you for making this trip possible for all of us to be emissaries of your love and His love.  Thank you for coming to Loc’s Chicken and Waffles (a local restaurant that hosted a fundraiser) and supporting us with those huge tips despite the clumsy service! Thank you for your prayers while we were on our journey.  We are grateful for them.

Although I think we are still processing our experiences, I wanted to share with you a brief glimpse of them.  Our son, Peter, spent a year in Haiti and, in his blog, he writes, “I came to live at the intersection of joy and suffering.” I don’t think I understood that statement until this past week.  Let me explain.

Our arrival in Port-au-Prince found us loading into an old yellow school bus with all of our bags and supplies, the heat and humidity even more intense than we had anticipated. We were already missing the luxury of AC. Our driver, Vital, expertly maneuvered through the throngs of people, cars, trucks as we craned our necks to look at all the tent cities and piles of rubble that had sprung up everywhere since the earthquake.  A five hour hot and dusty bus ride took us along the coast until we turned on to a battered dirt road that would take us up into the mountains of Bayonnais.  People stood outside their homes and watched us just as curiously as we watched them.  Waves were exchanged through the windows.  Donkeys, chickens, and pigs were narrowly missed as Vital weaved through muddy bogs and deep ruts in the road.  We knew we were close when children started chasing the bus with shouts of joy.

One step off that bus and we fell into the welcoming arms of this rural Haitian community and it remained with us the entire week.  People greeted us with smiles, handshakes, and bisous wherever we went.  Fred and I were particularly blessed being the parents of Peter, who is quite beloved there.  We would go on walks throughout the hill sides and they would ask (in Kreyol, of course), “Where is your mother?  Where is your father?”  Family is very important to the Haitians.  Upon raising our hands, we would be instantly embraced.  I became Mama Peter and Fred became Papa Peter!  Never will we be welcomed so incredibly again!  They opened their homes to us, allowing us to curiously peer into a one room hut about the size of your bathroom, dirt floor, a chair or two, a tin roof, a granary, and usually a few goats, chickens, and too skinny dogs milling about.  Peter translated for us and they were gracious to answer our questions.  Despite the poverty, I quickly became aware of their dignity and their desire to make the most of what they had.  The floor may be dirt, but it was swept several times a day.  Mangoes hung from the trees.  Women would stand by the side of the road and try to sell a a scoop from a  basket of rice or beans, mangoes,  a few okra.  Men were in their small fields with an axe, turning up the soil, removing stones, planting seeds of hope for a good crop.  It is a rural sustenance farming community, living hand to mouth, and often the hand is empty due to erosion, bad weather,insects,or poor quality seeds.  There’s no government aid to help here; there’s no where to turn.  That’s where OFCB comes in.  Men wait patiently in the early morning hours for Actionnel to come , to quietly tell him that his family has not eaten in three days, and can he give him anything to help.  That’s where the Granary of Joesph has come in, that’s where our dollars to support the school have allowed them to buy food when it is a low price in Gonnaive and store it in the granary.  Poverty, misery, hopelessness.  Then a school opens in 1993 replacing a cock fighting arena and children now have the opportunity to get an education and break the cycle.  A church is built, replacing an old voodoo site(and, yes, we did hear voodoo drums late at night) and people now have an opportunity to hear The Good News of our Lord and Savior and hope begins to take shape, dreams begin to form.  God uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things, and He is hard at work in Bayonnais.  In the midst of poverty, joy begins to sing.

So, where did we fit into all of this?  Where do you fit in?  We prayed each day that God would use us according to His will.  We emptied ourselves and offered ourselves, playing with the children, teaching English, practicing conversations with those who are determined to learn the language, we painted a classroom that was recently plastered alongside the Haitians, we worshiped together, different voices rising in one song, one heart, one body.  The Haitians, by the way, are beautiful, strong singers, their bodies swaying as they sing.  We recorded the school choir singing so you will have the opportunity to hear them when you buy the CD that Bill Simmons is going to make.  We played soccer with them, and, of course, got creamed to their great amusement.  I like to think that, by our presence, we shared God’s love just as they shared God’s love with us, that we made that hope a little stronger.  As with most mission trips, however, I think most of us feel that we received far more than we gave.  They gave us their presence, their radical hospitality, which was all they had to give and it was such a lesson to us all.

So, where do you fit in?  As the days progressed, we became increasingly uncomfortable leaving the front steps where we gathered with the children   to go eat abundant meals fixed by several women in the guest house.  We knew there were children outside who were hungry, but who had been told not to ask us for anything.  We were eating delicious meals (which were purchased with our per diem expenses) of chicken, goat, fish while most probably rarely ate meat, if at all.  Beans and rice are the staple of the schoolyard meal and it is often the only meal of the day for many.  We talked about it during our evening devotions.  Could we take our meal out to them and just eat a PBJ?   Eddie Ledger, a Haitian American who is helping  Actionnel explained that the meals they were fixing for us were their way of thanking us for our support, that to refuse it would be to refuse their hospitality.  So, while some of us snuck a few cliff bars out, Julie asked  Actionnel what was the best way to help.  He said one word: sponsorship.  Sponsor a child for 35.00 a month or a little over 400.00 a year.  This supports not only the child, but the entire community with their other ministries, like the Granary of Joesph  I mentioned earlier.  96% of the monies received go directly to the community, paying teachers (who often work for free when the monies run out) and providing food.  Think about it. A family here could support a family there for what you might pay to go out to dinner one night.  God can take our small gifts and transform an entire community, maybe an entire country!  All things are possible with Him!

There are so many other experiences to share.  Fred and I would be happy to share them with you, if you are interested.  New insights may develop as we process the experience.  I am grateful to you for your support and to God for using us.  Our greatest goal, I think, was to simply share God’s love.  I pray we succeeded.

I’d  like to close with a quote from Henri Nouwens’ In The Name of Jesus:
“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving Him are the same thing.  The desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, ‘You are loved.  There is no reason to be afraid.'”

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I was in Bayonnais for most of April and two weeks in late May / early June.  These trips were bitter-sweet.  Every goodbye up to this point has been tempered with a return date, but as I stood before the church congregation on June 5th, I couldn’t say for sure when I’d be back.  Firmen had delivered a firery sermon about the need for change in Bayonnais.  “Change needs to come,” I repeated.  “But know that something signficant has already changed in Bayonnais: my life.”    A new phase of it begins August 10th at the Medical College of Georgia where I’ll apply my childhood curiosity for how things work to the human body.  I hope to return the summer of 2011.

Anticipating the question on most readers’ minds, I’ll first say a few words about the aftermath of the earthquake.  Blue tarps speckle the landscape as you fly in to Port-au-Prince.  Walking off the airplane onto a jetway for the first time, I saw aid dollars at work.  (In the past, passengers walked to / from airplanes on the runway.)  Structural devestation around the airport is minimal, but tent cities are everywhere.

On the surface Bayonnais is more or less back to “normal.”  National exams approaching, school is in session with many new students from Port-au-Prince.  Primary and secondary school soccer teams compete against visiting teams, wins and losses taken very seriously.  I saw the cooks, who busily provide meals each weekday for over 1800 students, and they greeted me with what has become an amusing tradition: clapping hands and reciting, “me Pite, me Pite, me Pite!” as I do a little dance in the doorway of the kitchen.  Hugs and smiles embraced me from every corner.

Madecene and Jodes even smiled from framed photographs.  “I brought these, ” I showed Dimilsaint.  “The family members may not have anything to remember them by, but it might be too early. . . ”  His forlorn face immediately confirmed it was, and I gave the pictures for safe keeping until the right time.  A fatigue surfaced, especially among some of the OFCB leadership, that betrayed the weight of the past months.  My friend, Miselet told me about the grace of having been outside when the ground shook: a blurry figure hovered above. . . splash of cool water to the face. . .”You’re alive,” a Samaritan said, offering a hand up.  Eddy describes a long period of not being able to eat or sleep; psychological trauma prevents him from returning to the capital.

While I was in Bayonnais at least four people died: Maitre Jean was a gentle, smiling man who taught Actionnel and devoted his life to education; there was a 17 year old girl who was preparing to take the national exam; a younger boy who appeared septic made it to but not out of the hospital; a middle-aged woman living a couple houses from the OFCB compound complained of abdominal pain, and I think a kid was struck by lightening up the mountain.  I want to know what really happened to that 17 year old girl, another explanation besides a mystical sometimes-white-sometimes-invisible powder she supposedly stepped on. . . Life is hard in Haiti.  Nonetheless, Tiko, whom I’d given money to in April for her sick baby son, told me the purchased medication saved his life.  My godson, Tielas, is doing well, and I was blessed to be present for the arrival of his brother exactly 2 years and a few hours after his birthday.  His father and mother humbled me by asking that I name the child; after much prayer, I proposed, “Confiance/Konfians.”  I’d heard Haitian names such as “Deliverance” and “Hope,” but I hadn’t yet heard “Trust.”  The parents liked it, and everyone who heard the news got such a kick out of the fact that I’d named a Haitian baby.

(Note: I ramble a bit in these next three sections.  If you’re not very interested in small business, you may want to skip to the reflection on BAPTISM.)

One practical way to address hardship in Bayonnais is to invite God to help grow the local economy.  As far as employment and money-making  outside of OFCB goes, you’ll find the following: pastors and witchdoctors (who may be wealthy or dirt-poor), other ministry/school employees (including administrators and teachers), midwives of various levels of training, motorcycle taxi drivers, a photographer (also sells photocopies/lamanations), carpenters (and men who specialize in cutting tree trunks into boards), bakers, a few small shop owners, a lady who makes great BBQ, cell-phone chargers (power via generator), and many, many subsistence farmers who carry their products to market.  There’s also a motorized grain mill and a few manual grinders that bring in revenue at certain times of the year.  Most Haitians make money by simply buying and reselling goods in different locations: for example, a woman may go to Port-au-Prince once or twice a year, load up on unique merchandise (e.g. charcoal iron), and sell it at a 100% profit in Bayonnais.  Locals also make money by selling property (especially trees for charcoal), cock-fighting, and unfortunately prostitution.  OFCB offers a work-for-food program to build community projects, and other temporary aid projects with foreign funding employ manual and some skilled labor.  The problem is that nearly all “businesses” mentioned above don’t keep an adequate track of finances to determine profits or losses.  Moreover, most are crippled because they sell on credit.

Anyone with a good idea and access to capital can start a small business–you don’t need to go to college.  This is important given the rising tide of OFCB high school graduates with no prospects for higher education.  Microcredit loans are helpful for small-scale investments, buying wholesale items for example.  However, the risk involved in a sizable loan means if plans go awry, your family will not eat and you will be in debt.  These high stakes and the absence of successful local business models have been stumbling blocks to innovation in Bayonnais.  Thus, one OFCB partner suggested “Bayonnais Enterprises, Inc.,” an entity independent of OFCB that would offer entrepreneurial coaching and funding to promising proposals.  If a business plan is convincingly profitable and sustainable,  an investor may take the risk upon his/herself.  The entrepreneur is motivated by potential profit, but if it doesn’t work out, he or she will not be in debt.  However, for assuming all the risk, the investor demands 30% of monthly profit.  Repaid loans are recycled or given as a community gift.

Because “Bayonnais Enterprises Inc” doesn’t exist yet, I created an account at the local bank and started encouraging friends to write basic business plans: what’s the service, where’s the demand, what are the numbers, which potential obstacles, etc.  Cebou, the local photographer, and the Peanut Butter Project owners, Mme. Alez and Mme Merilus, will be the first to deposit in this account.  (Cebou used to use an old-school film camera and had to go hours away to Saint-Mark to get pictures developed; now he has a digital camera and printer that should make his business more profitable and efficient.)  I’m excited about an unusual proposal for a rabbit business.  Given start-up capital of roughly $300 US, Fortuna Guerson would be the only one for miles around selling a tasty meat that reproduces much faster than goat!  (Hopefully Eddy Leger, a talented Haitian-American who will be living in Bayonnais this fall, will be able to help coach these and other local entrepreneurs.)

Mme Alez and Mme Merilus chose a simple and effective name for their product, which translates as “Bayonnais Peanut Butter.”  The Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project has undergone some recent changes, including becoming independent of OFCB and shifting toward a focus on selling in Gonaives.  OFCB has too much going on right now to adequately oversee this project, which would have more viability in private ownership.  The current model has been offering peanut butter to Bayonnaisiens at a price so low it would have to sell over 100 containers (32oz) per month to break even.  While it promotes the original vision of providing extremely cheap but quality peanut butter to locals, it has no long-term sustainability because there’s simply not enough purchasing power in Bayonnais.  Startches are still winning out over protein.  However, Gonaives has a vibrant peanut butter market with only one legitimate competitor, “Pidy” from Saint-Mark.  As in Bayonnais, school children are the beneficiaries of most peanut butter in Gonaives.  Research indicates Mamba Bayonnais could compete in this marketplace, effectively directing money from one of the largest cities in the country (also due to receive reconstruction aid) into the Bayonnais economy.  Frankly, MB tastes better than Pidy.   Should MB be successful, Mme Alez and Mme Merilus will also be interested in implementing “Zami Mamba Bayonnais,” or “Bayonnais Peanut Butter Friends.”  This program would maintain the original mission by continuing to offer peanut butter to Bayonnaisiens at a low rate, provided they recycle containers and don’t resell.

The MB team is as follows:  Mme Alez and Mme Merilus are owners, responsible for production, distribution, writing down all transations, and managing the business account; Firmen is a volunteer business consultant who also manages a larger account containing most of the invested foreign capital (he distributes money as needed); Rachelle and Limose are volunteer (for the time being) accountants who will manage a very simple monthly financial report; Yolande is a volunteer marketing agent who seeks to identify potential clients in Gonaives; Cebou offers the use of his new printer for labels (MB provides ink, paper); Villate, an OFCB agronomist, helps troubleshoot grinders and communicates with Meds and Food for Kids when necessary.

Haiti has a problem.  Tons of mangoes fall, too many to eat.  Poor roads bruise them and limit export potential.  Many end up rotting because there’s no way to preserve them.  When I visited Kaznav with Noncilien last August, I wondered about preservation via jelly.  However, mason jars were too hard to come by, and botching the seals could lead to botchulism.  Solar dehydration sounded like a promising alternative.  Fortunately, there’s a lot of information online about how to dry fruit, enough to build and test a basic dehydrator on my dock.  All you need is heat (95-150 degrees F) and convection.  This design uses a black sheet of metal for heat and slants it at an angle for natural convection; hot air rises and carries the water out of the mangoes.  Because bacteria need that moisture to survive, you can preserve thoroughly dried fruit for months at a time in well-sealed container.

In Bayonnais I hired a carpenter to help build a few different models.  The first dehydrators were horizontal, meaning they were flat wooden frames with black metal on one side and chicken wire on the other; a thin cloth separated the fruit from the wire to prevent any uptake of metal by acidic fruits.  Successfully hosting mangoes, bananas, corosol, okra, and tomatoes, oven temperatures ranged from 100 to 130 degrees F.  The bananas were my favorite.  Next, we built the Mac-Daddy dehydrator, a vertical box in which layers of fruit are stacked on trays.  It was very successful and efficiently dried a large quantity of mangoes and bananas in 6 days.

It was time to tackle a big question, “Would Haitians like it?”  Many Haitians are familiar with imported raisins, but dried mango and banana are completely foreign concepts.  I even asked an airport employee who lives in Port-au-Prince, and she said she’d never seen any Haitian dried fruit for sale.  The first few taste tests were approached skeptically but provided very positive results.  I sat at the market one day and tried to sell.  (I attracted a lot of attention, more a function of my skin color than the novel product.)  It was a blast making up little Kreyol sales jingles until my voice went out, but then I just paid some ladies in kind to go advertise for me.  Of the two hundred or so people who tried the dried fruit, only three didn’t like it!  After about two or three hours of asking one Gourde for a few pieces of banana and mango, I made almost $2 US!

In April, I held two classes early in the morning and taught people of all ages the principles of solar dehydration.  Competitions for best homemade dehydrator, hightest quality / quantity of dried mangoes, and greatest variation of successfully dried fruit identified the most committed individuals.  I stressed the potential benefits of this technology in Bayonnais: not only would it provide more food security by effectively “creating” food that otherwise would have rotted, but there’s remarkable economic possibility if we can find a market for the product.    Consequently, I invested in a few individuals, particularly two bright young men who are going to see if they can sell in Gonaives.  If they find a market there, I have a crazy idea for next summer.  With a few-thousand-dollar grant, I think I could supe up a school bus and turn it into a massive, mobile dehydrator.  (Buy one of OFCB’s extra school buses, hire a metal-worker to cut covered vents at the very top and in the lower sides for convection–maybe even hook up a solar panel on top to power a couple fans for increased airflow, spray paint the bus black, and dry kilos of fruit each week.  Security is a solid lock on the door, and if someone gives you grief about property rights, you simply park it somewhere else!)  The challenge would be finding the right entrepreneur to carry it on into a sustainable enterprise. . . but all of this is just fanciful thinking right now.  We’ll see what my friends discover.

Rain carries earth into the Bayonnais river.
Men and women trust their weight to pastor Actionnel as he lowers them into a heavy current.  These waters of baptism are muddy, but they still wash away sin.
Standing beneath a palm tree,
I look down on the scene below and then beyond it.
(The altar rail was white and I was three.  Blessed in the name of the triune God, I declared to the congregation, “I’m all wet!”)
A man looks Actionnel in the eyes before closing his own.
(The Bible was colorful; my name was written inside.  I was thirteen and it was time, but I’m not sure it was my time.)
His coffee skin disappears in the river.  We are but wet dust, “for a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground–then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:6-7).  But breath must yield to waters, that body becoming for moments an inanimate image of God: wet dust returned to the river, its density mingling with the world.  These long seconds are pregnant with resurrection.
It is time.  It is his time.
His body rises, dripping.
Lungs open like sails to carry his heart along a new horizon.
Inflated with a name still warm and humid,  Jean Jonel is as he was not.
I can’t tell if he came up with mud in his eyes, whether the river’s or his own.  “He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see,” said the man who once was blind.  “I do not know whether he is a sinner.  One thing I do know is that though I was blind, now I see.” (Luke 9: 15;25)
Seeing is the challenge of an artist.  Seeing well means listening with eyes as blind men do with ears; it means seeing more than what you want to see, more than what’s comfortable, easy.  Do I see?
Loved ones wrap Jean Jonel with arms and a towel as he approaches the bank.
A woman stands beside Actionnel.
I think I see.  The truth is I like to draw God a certain way.  It’s a pretty picture most would agree, maybe worth framing in a dining room.  But it lacks integrity; I fear I look more at the paper than Him.
In college I drew figure studies, and I remember one subject well.  He sat in a standing fetal position, quietly curled and tucked, as I received light from his left torso.  Delicate shadows rippled with each inhalation as flesh testified to breath, form to spirit.  “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).
Startled, I notice a magnified eye hovering above that muddy river.  It’s looking at me and through me, dry and untouched by the motion below until a dirty raindrop disrupts the reflection in my glasses.  Does mud fall from open skies?
There must be earth on the palm branches.
A series of clear drops split the first, and black specs pepper my shirt.
Actionnel supports her body beneath the water–she weighs less.
I am all wet, again.
Today is our time.  When it’s not, the river still flows if we’ll be still and know.
He was pleased with his son.
I hope He’s pleased with us, too.

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Earthquake Updates

Iverner Pierre wrote about the earthquake on his blog.

Madecene Alcius and Jodes Miliacin are two of our journalism students who remain missing in Port-au-Prince.  They had to wait a year after graduating high school until sponsorship funding became available.  This is their first year of college.

(I recommend Partners In Health)


(Top 3 Do’s and Don’ts for helping Haiti, How companies can help)

Eddy, who had gone to Port-au-Prince to take a college entrance exam, writes, “Praise the Lord  I’m [alive].  Only God could get me out in this situation.  I’m very sad, I was Almost crazy, I wake up in the night  in order to go out of the House.  But let me tell you that I was so bad , two students died , That made me so sad, too.  The college that I got the exam fall down (brake).  In the morning Thusday, I had my last exam Miselet  ( my friend ) and I was at the university  After we finish talking, I left  him at the University. . . I will take a time to explain you this long history that I had in Port-au-Prince.  My mom The way I feel , I need to consult some special doctors  ( Psychologue, psychiatre)  to take care of me . ( I have a bad head hache every day.)  I don’t feed well, that could increase my sickness.  I think You know how is our situation in Haiti, Since I [returned] , I have nothing , a friend that barrow me some 40 haitian dollars to enter in Bayonais .  My mom Try to take care of although she hasn’t.  Your prayers were with me , I gave all glorry to my Lord, God Has A plan  for me.  I wait for him.  I will write to you to explain you the situation very soon.  Yours in Christ, SLEDDY.”

Future dentist Simon told Vital, “There many dead bodies on his street and I imagine that by the 22nd of January,there might be a  lot of contamination around PAP. Fuel might be a major problem. Getting food will be another issue. From what I have heard from the local radios, the Capital will dead in the next six months and every student from the 9 other departments are being asked to return home, for no school can be possible in PAP soon. All the radio stations in Port-Au-Prince are out of use. Only Haitel cell phones are good,but there are no phone cards for them.”
Simon told Vital through Haitel,which is the only one working in Haiti now, that even on their street there many dead bodies and there is no means to walk anywhere.  Yet, if it is possible, they [the college students] are coming back home tomorrow. They are just strapped.  Madecene Alcius and Jodes Miliacin [the two journalism college students] are still not seen and the school they were at /in has been callapsed and also the Palace of Justice where they used to go to practice.  The whole country is a chaos right now.”

Actionnel’s second update:  “We are fine in Bayonnais.But, I have heard over the local radios  that Port-Au-Prince might be dead for next 6 months to come and suggestions are being made that every bod in PAP move to their home towns. I believe that PAP needs all the necessary attention for now. Yet, our two journalist students are still missing in PAP. The school they were at has been callapsed and so has the building they used to go to for practice.  Big trauma in the Bayonnais for now. Everyone in Gonaives is OK,Praise the Lord! But, we truly suffering with the ones grieving all over the country.”

Actionnel’s first update:  “Everybody is fine in Bayonnais.Yet, the whole school was a big mess at 4:54 today.but, we did make the students go back to their classes. But, Port-Au-Prince has been destroyed. Other cities such as: Petit-Gonoave, Saint-Marc, La Gonave have been badly affected. I still can not have any idea for my home in Gonaives. No Cell phones are working. And no more information for the rest  of the country.”


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Long overdue . . .

The following post was written just before the earthquake:

I returned from my last trip to Haiti on August 10th.  Why has it taken me this long to update my blog?  While it’s true that I’ve had many things going on: secondary applications to medical school, Biochemistry and Cell Biology classes, tutoring three students, and working on the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, it is also true that I’ve had a lot of free time.  It’s uncomfortably honest to reveal that sometimes, and perhaps even often, my friends in Haiti slip to the back of my mind.  Sometimes an anesthetic fog descends on the tension of living here, the comforts of life in the US dulling my response to immediate needs in Haiti.  Then it rises, and pain wakes action.  It looks like this: nestled feet-up in a Lazy-boy chair, I meet eyes with a Haitian child leaning in front of me on a wooden stool.  Nevermind its missing leg; he substitutes one of his own.  As his gaze lowers to the dirt, I struggle to find the handle that drops my feet, struggle to stand from this quick-sandy pillow. . .  Some say the cry of the poor is like the sound of a wooden bell.  In a buzzing, busy culture, we must listen with intention to hear well.

The most important story I have to share from this trip is that of Noncilien and my visit to Kaznav.  Many have heard me talk about the harsh realities of my friends’ lives: beneath the smiles is the fact that most aren’t eating one day of the week, and that may stretch to several during the dry season.  However, none of these friends live as far up the mountains as 19-yr-old Noncilien, a passionate student who showed great interest in my English class.  I started sneaking him Cliff bars when I realized how hungry he was, and one day I learned that he was hiking 2 hrs each way for my pronunciation exercises!  I was shocked.  He proceeded to tell me about waking up before sunrise to get to school in time (8:00 am), about getting home after sunset and stumbling in the darkness.  Can you imagine doing that five times a week?  I asked if he would show me where he lives, and he smiled.

Kaznav is a hike–up, up, and a rocky way that becomes precariously muddy in certain sections.  The trail is so bad donkeys can’t get up it, which limits what people can take to/from the market to what they can carry on their heads.  Noncilien has many hopes for his community, and one is to make a road to Kaznav, but he knows the first step is his education.  Local children fall behind because it generally takes a 12 yr old to make the harsh trek to the nearest school, and money is scarce.  Though there’s a hunger for knowledge, they’re stuck in the fields working for another hunger.  Up here, people may go an entire week without eating a proper meal!  The nearest water source is 45 minutes away and it’s typical to make three trips a day; do the math.  Noncilien’s mother had him when she was 16.  Four of his siblings died at ages 8, 9, 11, and 12.  As we hike, we pass an older woman working in the fields.  Her sons died at 19 and 25. . . I am 25.  I ask her a few questions; it sounds like they died of malaria.  Noncilien tells me she shouldn’t be doing this work, but she has no choice.  (I think of an older friend, frown-faced, tapping his finger to the second as he illustrates a racial theory of overpopulation to justify not sending foreign aid. . . I think he would learn a lot from this woman. . . I think we could all learn a lot from this woman. . . )

We pass a house and Noncilien tells me this is where he asks the time so he can pace his hike to school.  A few houses later his smiling mom comes out to greet us.  After a warm welcome by the whole family, Noncilien begins a tour of his property which supports six different species of mango tree!  He takes me off his land for a moment to an usually flat parcel with a beautiful, panoramic view of the valley.  “This is where I’d like to build a school or community center,”  he said.  “But first we need a road.”  Losing an eye to a goat horn has not affected his vision.  I admire the simplicity of Noncilien’s hopes and plan to help his people: first, get an education; second, make a road; third, build a school. . . Throughout the day he talked a lot about the value of wisdom and education, about how things can’t stay like this, about how things have to change.  My mind goes back to those mango trees. . . Mangoes have huge economic potential in Haiti.  Poor roads damage the fruit and limit exports.  Tons of mangoes rot each year in places like Bayonnais because there is no way to preserve them. . . at least not yet.  I’m looking into whether or not canning jars with rubber septums are sold in Port-au-Prince.  If they are, Noncilien’s family would just need a little loan to start a small jam business–one that could put a new product in the Bayonnais market and funnel money up that rocky path to Kaznav.  Otherwise, readers who like to can, put your thinking caps on.  Can you think of a unique and safe approach that doesn’t involve rubber septum lids?  Do you know of a solar dehydrator that could handle mangoes? . . . and what do mango jam and dried mangoes have in common besides market opportunity?  They both go well with peanut butter!

Before we get to the peanut butter project, however, I must mention a few more things about my visit to Kaznav.  Noncilien’s mother had prepared an extravagant meal for us: noodles, plantains, and fried eggs.  There was a lot of food, and they encouraged me to eat it all, but I know whatever I don’t eat they will eat. . . so I figure a good stopping point that receives their generosity while honoring their hunger.  As we’re getting ready to leave, his mother offers me a large bag of fresh beans.  Thanks, but no thanks.  If she pushes them on me, I’m going to have to draw a line.  She does.  Along with many words of thanks, I say that I’ll be leaving the next day for the US, and laws prohibit me from returning with them.  She understands and, smiling, begins to send us on our way. . . Before we leave, the grandmother looks satisfied as she says, “Li semble vant mwen plen.”  This visit has left her feeling like her stomach is full.  I’d never heard that expression before. . . wow. . . Her grandchild had never seen a white person before.  He couldn’t take his eyes off me for the longest time, and once he warmed up to me, he unwittingly started doing a little dance–a slow version of the salsa minus the hips.  “What’s he doing,” I asked as he shuffled before me, eyes locked on my face.  “He does this when he’s happy,” someone said and we all laughed.  Li semble vant mwen plen tou.  I feel full too.

I gave Noncilien my watch so he’ll worry less about getting to school on time.  He won’t need it though.  OFCB challenged him to make a certain grade in his classes; if he succeeded, he could stay with a family that lives close to the school during the weekdays.  This would eliminate a lot of needless travel and give him more energy and time to study.  They set the bar high, and he jumped right over it.

During this last trip I worked a lot on this project.  I did research on the peanut market in Bayonnais and found its annual price fluctuations.  I talked to women who make homemade peanut butter to sell on sandwiches and determined their average costs.  I emphasized techniques to minimize aphlatoxin contamination to both peanut vendors and the women who make BPBP peanut butter.  Peanut samples from BPBP, analyzed by JLA Global, indicate our sorting techniques are effective.  We built a Full Belly Project sheller whose efficiency allows us to buy peanuts unshelled rather than shelled, in turn lowering our costs.  I talked with agronomists at OFCB and one at Meds and Food for Kids.  If we buy peanuts in bulk in January/February when prices are lowest, storing them in our local food bank, a sustainable project model that doesn’t depend on subsidies may be possible.  (Currently, we have a little less than $3000 of the nearly $4000 needed in start-up capital.)  If BPBP sells 127 containers (32 oz) per month at $3.25, the project will pay for itself, including the labor of the two women who run it.  If BPBP sells 160 containers per month (max production), it will make a $48 monthly profit.  This price tag is 50% cheaper than Port-au-Prince and 35% cheaper than old, inflated BPBP prices before it knew where to set them.  MFK trained one of our agronomists about aphlatoxin prevention and donated a much-needed, high-quality grinder.  Plastic Packaging Corporation has given 1000 containers.  A lot has been happening and it’s very exciting!  Below is a video that shows what goes into making our peanut butter.

For more information about the project, click here.  BPBP is also competing for a $5000 prize in the Ashoka Changemakers Improved Nutrition competition.  Voting opens up on January 25th, and because there are 246 other projects from around the world, we need your support!  Please spread the word and vote!

BENOIT (a journal entry)
“There’s an old man who lives up the mountain.  His name is Benoit.  He lives by himself and I check in on him occasionally.  We met because his face interested me more than most, and I wanted to draw his portrait.  It was one of the more difficult ones to do because of the scruff around his mouth, so I prayed about it a lot.  (It’s embarrassing when you have someone sit for an hour an a half and it looks bad.)  With time we’ve become good friends, the kind who can playfully give each other a hard time.

He’s old.  In fact, nobody, including himself, actually knows how old he is.  He lives by himself in a small thatch-roof hut not much bigger than a closet.  While it is difficult for me to give things away to locals, as doing so invites problems of equity, most people in the area don’t mind my generosity towards Benoit.  It is by no means extravagant: some protein bars or peanut butter here, a shirt there.

Each time I leave Haiti I consider the potential of a last goodbye; I don’t know how much time he has left.  Today, I heard he was sick and reached his house around sunset.  He was sitting quietly on a small white rock by himself.  A smile lit his face when he realized who I was, and I thought about the beauty of unexpected gifts.  However, I didn’t have any gifts besides me at the moment.  “I don’t have anything with me,” I replied to the usual question.  I told him I heard he was sick and that I had come to check on him, but it was my mentioning the word, “friend” that triggered something.  It was subtle, but I noticed it.  He proceeded to tell me that he doesn’t have anyone; there’s no one to look out for him.  Something about my coming to see him as a friend, even and perhaps especially empty-handed, addressed a deep longing.

As I walked away, I could hear him singing. . . Singing.  All I know is that whatever happened during those casual five minutes was divine.

I don’t think either one of us expected God to show up in one another so powerfully this evening.”
(this photo was taken by a friend)

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Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project (update)

I have quite a visual right now.  No, it’s not just the dancing banana but rather what it must have looked like to see me hopping around the room, raising the roof and switching from foot to foot.  It was during the StartingBloc Boston Institute this past February, and a vote the day before had provided the opportunity for me and three others to talk for 10 minutes about projects in which we were engaged.  I spoke about the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, opening with an invitation for everyone to shake it to the “Peanut Butter Jelly Time” song.

The Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, for those unfamiliar with it, was inspired by Project Peanut Butter’s work in Africa.  When I learned that it is common not to eat a day out of the week in Bayonnais, that day likely to multiply during the dry season, peanut butter came to mind as a protein-rich foodstuff that is readily available, long-lasting, tasty, and fulfilling.  (Even in the US peanut butter is the best item to bring to a food drive; it’s nutritious, kid’s love it, and its lipid base repels spoiling bacteria.)  Peanuts are grown in Bayonnais and are available throughout the year, though prices may fluctuate as much as 100% depending on the season.  Other ingredients, namely salt, sugar, and cinnamon, are relatively inexpensive and easy to find.

Thus, all we needed to start the project was some start-up funding (IOH Methodist Church, SCDS, and private), a mechanical grinder (approx. $500), and a well-respected, locally-hired project director to manage production, distribution, and nutritional education.  Finding the grinder was the first obstacle, but eventually we purchased one in Port-au-Prince.  At this point, I had communicated my concerns to OFCB: choosing the right project manager was critical, and I needed to know, for fundraising purposes, at what price we would subsidize the peanut butter; at what price would locals, who do not yet understand the importance of protein, buy it?

There are cultural factors in our village as well, including the simple fact that people aren’t used to buying peanut butter, even though it is a product with which they are familiar.  Moreover, take someone living on the borderline of spirit-crushing poverty who has “x” amount of dollars:  $x will get them this much starch (sorgham or corn, for example), or $x will get them this much peanut butter.  It’s highly likely the starch, greater in quantity, will trump the protein, a common problem in many poor countries.

At this point I stepped back, acknowledging that I was too involved, that if the project had any chance of lasting success, the Haitians would have to have ownership of it.  In January, while I was busily completing premedical coursework in Savannah, GA, the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project gained steam.  I returned last week to find a widely popular and well-managed project run out of one half of a small room next to the bank.  There are five different volumes sold at prices ranging from roughly $1 to $5, the largest represented a former 32-ounce wide-lid mayonnaise jar.  As far as demographics are concerned, students and professors comprise the greatest number of buyers, followed by various adults buying for themselves and family; some send jars all the way to Port-au-Prince!  The manager says some days no one may come in, but other days as many as 8 people may visit, buying as many as 4 volumes each.  I can’t explain my excitement at learning that students are regularly eating it in the morning before school!  One of my greater hopes was realized in hearing one girl say it improves her attention span in the classroom.  Professors will take some with bread if they don’t get a chance to eat lunch.  Others have moved up to the peanut butter and banana sandwich; wait till we introduce bee-keeping and honey!  Approximately 374 containers have been distributed since January.

Unfortunately, I have to taint all of this wonderful news with one unknown.  After starting the project, I learned about a nasty little bugger named aphlatoxin.  It is a mycobacterium that may contaminate many staples, including peanuts, especially when they are not properly sorted and stored.  Though substantial research regarding its affects on humans is lacking, there is ample information to validate its harmful toxicity, which may compromise immunity and nutrition as well as contributing to liver cancer.  Of course, this would be completely counterproductive, especially to big-bellied, red-haired children who are already protein-deficiently one step behind.  Nonetheless, aphlatoxin is in the peanut butter we eat here in the US; there’s no getting around it.  The question is, “How much?”  Various international standards greatly minimize exposure, so don’t go boycotting the PB@J!  I’ve spoken with several organizations, including Meds and Food for Kids and Partners in Health, who have informed me of effective preventative techniques and testing procedures.  (I’ve shared preventative farming techniques with a local agronomist in Bayonnais.)  I look forward to testing the aphlatoxin content of our peanut butter when I return in July.

Back to the good news: we successfully brought a peanut-shelling kit, engineered by the Full Belly Project, to Bayonnais.  The fiberglass mold and metal parts provided are enough to make several of these cement machines.  Once OFCB identifies a metalsmith who can replicate the needed parts, a small business may begin.  Only a few organizations in the country have such molds, and most–if not all–are not using them for microenterprise.  Thus, we have a huge market to which to cater with a relatively small and inexpensive product.  Moreover, if made properly, the machine serves as the first round of sorting for aphlatoxin-contaminated peanuts, for they fall through unshelled due to their moisture content.  Also, because it hurts one’s fingers to shell peanuts for a long time, it is not uncommon for people to moisten the peanuts so as to minimize the wear and tear on their hands; moisture in a Carribean climate, however, is a welcome mat for aphlatoxin.  Therefore, the FBP peanut sheller is a two-fold blow to this malicious mycobacterium.

Should OFCB successfully implement a peanut sheller business, profits may substantially support the Bayonnais Peanut Butter Project, which depends upon financial assistance due to its inherent subsidies.  Currently, BPBP at least leans in the direction of sustainability; we’re not giving out peanut butter for free.  In a country where many tons of food aid rotted in national ports, it’s also worth noting the significance of a system in which foreign dollars translate directly into on-the-ground, locally-produced nutritious food.  Currently, the project account holds $530.  I’m going to try my best to fit fundraising in somewhere between my sister’s wedding, Organic Chemistry II, the MCAT, and medical school applications this summer.  If you or anyone else may be interested in assisting, please let me know.  Also, stay tuned for whenever Google announces the top 100 projects of their 10 to the 100th Competition; I submitted a nationally-scaled proposal.

Libone manages sales and distribution of the peanut butter, which is shown in various containers to his right.  The transparent wall affords a quick visual inventory.  The peanut butter you see here is what remains of the fourth round of production.  When they make more, those rows will extend to cover the table.

Libone manages sales and distribution of the peanut butter, which is shown in various containers to his right. The transparent wall affords a quick visual inventory. The peanut butter you see here is what remains of the fourth round of production. When they make more, the table will be covered with jars.

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I just returned from eight days in Bayonnais with an 18-member college team, my first trip back in over six months.  Though leadership demands set a fast pace for the week, causing me to forgo several house visits and conversations, I had an incredible experience.  Fortunately, I was able to assure friends that I would be back in July for a few weeks.  Group reflections the final evening testified to God’s moving deep within many lives, and I was surprised by how far away I felt from my first visit to Bayonnais.  So much has happened since then. . . so much reconstruction of identity and perspectives characterizes the other side of that turning point, the other side of showing up in Bayonnais.

The phrase has been working on me for some time following a conversation with a dear friend.  Though we may obsess about agendas, about how and what we are going to serve, sometimes we are called to enter into the uncertainty of simply showing up.  What is the significance of showing up in Bayonnais?  Why not take the thousands of dollars our large group spent on last week’s experience and send the money rather than ourselves? . . . We could substantially support the food budget or easily start a high school graduate on his or her first year of college.  What justifies our showing up?

These are hard questions not to be taken lightly; I ask because I know others struggle with them.  Having lived in Bayonnais, I do have an opinion, and I’d appreciate your patience as I attempt to articulate a response.

Watch this video because it is highly informative, but take notice of the final exchange, for it speaks to our subject.  I lived in the mountains of Haiti for seven months, and I can still only scratch the surface of what it meant for a smiling white American to give two most valuable possessions, namely time and presence, to a people who often feel forgotten.

I remember the first time a mission team came down during my stay.  When they stood up to introduce themselves to the community, I hesitated as whispers and giggles tickled the crowd.  “Peter is Haitian,” one of my highest compliments, accompanied the acknowledgment that I didn’t need to go up that day.  Many teams would come and go, and while their time in Haiti was always transformative to say the least, they never saw the ripples following their departure, never saw the ways in which pieces of their lives had been sewn into the fabric of the community.  “How is Rob?” and “I had a dream about Katie last night. . .” didn’t reach their ears unless I remembered to forward them through the Internet.  Many visitors don’t understand that in the same way they carry faces of new friends back home in their hearts, their own faces remain imprinted upon Haitian hearts in Bayonnais.


What happens during a stay in Haiti?  I can not think of a single mission group that has not been humbled by the following observation:  “I came to help others, but I received so much more than I offered. . .”  In other words, “I came to serve, but I found myself served.”  Pay attention to these words, for they point to one of the most profound and unexpected truths about life.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather humbled himself as a servant, taking human form and becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross. . . Therefore God exalted his name, that upon hearing it every knee would bow, in heaven and on earth, and that all would proclaim him as Lord!  (Phil 2: 6-11)   Notice the “V” shape of God’s stepping down and subsequent exaltation.  Resurrection is built into God’s design. When we die to ourselves, even in small ways, there is life on the other side–even if it is sometimes punctuated by a Saturday of waiting.  Unfortunately, so often we lack the courage to take the risk, to put ourselves out there, to show up. . . and sometimes, when by grace our words attain the quality of deeds (Weisel) and we do, we may not even realize we have done so.

I wonder if this has something to do with what happens in Haiti. . . I wonder if the new life on the other side of the week eclipses the reality of how much stepping down may have actually occurred on that short flight.  When we signed up for the trip, we may not have appreciated the questions that awaited us on the ground, questions that would grow in quantity and quality, challenging our way of life and perhaps even shaping our very identities.  Awareness, it seems, is not a pre-requesite for the death-to-self that precedes resurrection, the simple decision to lovingly show up in another’s life–wherever it may be–pregnant with possibility.

We need to acknowledge that we are participating in each other’s lives, that our decisions, however small and seemingly insignificant, shape our shared world.  Again, so often we are unaware of the impressions we leave upon others.  If you wake up early in the morning and sit on the front porch of the Helen Hunter building, you’re likely to behold a painfully beautiful scene: women, brooms in hand and jovial in spirit, sweeping dirt. . . sweeping dirt. . . their floor is dirt and leaves impede its cleanliness. . . These women have taught me more about dignity than anyone else, yet they are oblivious to such teaching and its significance for me.  It would take me a while to discern what it meant for a young child to make eye contact with the Blan passing by in the truck.  That momentary attention spiced with a quick smile could move mountains in that little soul.  God works through us in small but significant ways.  Add them up and you have a miracle, for as Beuchner writes, “A miracle is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A miracle is where one plus one equals a thousand.”

The miracle is one of mutual exposure.  Certain potential is primed within us, only able to be developed by the light of another person, by the light of God.  However, we must risk getting close enough to receive that light; this may mean getting dirty and probably means renouncing cherished stereotypes, for these only thrive at a distance.  In the light of Jesus’ example, a picture slowly appears. . . though the image may look different to each of us, we find ourselves united under the timeless question it poses:

Do we have the humility to receive the life of God and the courage to live it?

We watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory during cinema night last week–yes, the creepy one with Johnny Depp.  One particular scene arrested me.  Charlie has found the last golden ticket, the park-pass of his dreams, yet he informs his impoverished family that he won’t be going to the Chocolate Factory.  A woman had offered him $500 earlier that afternoon, and Charlie knows his family needs the money. . . Silence lingers, much as it may have following the italicized question above in the second paragraph.  Then Grandpa George, who had cynically bet against Charlie’s hopes earlier in the film, imparts wisdom:

“There’s plenty of money out there. They print more every day. But this ticket, there’s only five of them in the whole world, and that’s all there’s ever going to be. Only a dummy would give this up for something as common as money. Are you a dummy?”

Forgive me for sounding like a self-help book, but there’s only one of you.  Consider the words of Marianne Williamson: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. . . You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Are you willing to at least consider that you are more valuable than you could ever hope or imagine, that you are worth the very life of God?  Are you willing to be childlike, fostering imagination such that you don’t place limits upon the Grace of God and how it may move through you?  For those still wearing economic blinders, are you willing to appraise the likelihood of the experience inspiring you to raise more resources than you would otherwise have sent in place of yourself?  For veterans who go more to be served and forgo trips because they don’t get much out of them anymore, are you willing to acknowledge that it may only be about you when it is not about you?  C.S. Lewis writes, “Your real, new self will not come as long as you are looking for it.”

Buechner confesses, “I fend off the world, I avoid getting involved with other people’s needs, so that I can get ahead in the world myself. But at this deeper level, much deeper than conscience, the truth of it is that I need the world. I need the very ones that I keep at a distance. I need to love and be loved by the very ones from whom I hide myself behind this face. I need them not so that I can ease my conscience but so that I can be myself.”

Go because you are willing to appreciate the value of a golden ticket.  Go because your wholeness and theirs depends upon it.  Go because He went before us and goes with us.  Just Go.

May we all have the courage to show up in people’s lives, wherever we find them, for there too will we find ourselves.


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