WET DUST

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.

EARTHQUAKE
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.)

ENTERPRISE
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.

SOLAR DEHYDRATION
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.

BAPTISM
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.

1 Comment

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One response to “WET DUST

  1. Shalonda

    Oh how your passion, enthusiasm, creativity, and humility inspires me. I thank God that you are in this world, but not of it.

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