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.
ROAD TO KAZNAV
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.
BAYONNAIS PEANUT BUTTER PROJECT (BPBP)
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.