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. 🙂
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.
TOUGH LOVE, PB v. R&B, AND COLD TAMPICO
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.
BAYONNAIS MEDICAL CLINIC, CHOLERA
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.
HAITI FOUNDATION OF HOPE
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.)
CHECK YOUR EGO
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?”
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.
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.'”
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.)
“MAMBA BAYONNAIS” (MB)
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.
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.
RIGHT NOW, UNLESS YOU ARE AN AID WORKER, THE BEST THING YOU CAN DO IS GIVE MONEY. CLICK HERE TO CHOOSE HOW YOU WOULD LIKE TO DIRECT YOUR DONATION. PLEASE HELP–EVERY DOLLAR COUNTS!
(I recommend Partners In Health)
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.”
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.”