Report From Haiti
by Charlie Paget-Seekins, October 21, 2010
I have been back in Haiti for a little over a month now. Things have changed some here in Leogane in the time I was gone. More and more temporary shelters have sprung up. Though not all of them are very nice, they are far better than tents, that’s for sure. There’s less rubble in the streets. More relief groups are functioning here. It seems that many relief groups take about six months to get going on their projects. So progress is being made but I find myself cynical about the effects of all the projects to help Haiti.
Haiti has been receiving aid in one form or another for years and things seem to just be getting worse. It does not feel like the Haitian people are being empowered to solve the problems here. Groups come to Haiti and decide what Haiti needs and try to provide it. Often these groups do not really understand the country or try to involve locals in the decisions. Sometimes the aid money does not even get here, ending up in the hands of international companies. It is frustrating to see so much of the population here unemployed or under-employed with lots of time on their hands not doing much to improve or clear up this place.
Most Haitian people do not have the resources or education to do much more then take care of their basic needs. I wonder what Haiti would look like if there had not been so much intervention. Has aid disempowered the people here? Certainly some NGO initiatives have done more harm then good. I like to think that the work I am doing is meaningful and beneficial to the Haitian people. The longer I am here, the more complex I understand things to be. I am learning more Creole which is allowing me to communicate with people and begin to understand the culture better. This is such an interesting, beautiful, messed up country. Every time I take a trip here I learn so much more.
I just got back from a three day hiking trip in which three friends of mine and I hiked over the mountains from outside Port au Prince to Jacmel. We crossed the mountains walking through farmland on the steepest of slopes. Up, up the road climbed and then down and back up again.
As we got further up the “road” turned to a trail — steep and rough. We scrambled over loose rocks and up slick rock faces. Yet, all the time we passed women with bundles of produce, mostly carrots, balanced on their heads. Sometimes there were donkeys loaded with produce.
This hike that was so challenging for us was traveled every day by Haitian farmers going to market. We walked through clouds on the first day. Along the way there would be small villages and stalls selling delicious food. The first night we were hosted by a very sweet farming family. The father and mother were in their 40s and most of their kids had grown up and moved to Port au Prince. They still had a young daughter living at home. They were very kind to us and insisted on us sleeping in their beds in their tiny house while they slept on a made up bed on the floor. We shared the food we had with them and in the morning we gave them money for their generosity. That day we hiked up this long, long hill. At the top it changed from being steep farms to a pine forest. There is very little forest left in Haiti. It was strange and wonderful to walk through this remnant of Haitian forest. Pines are not native to Haiti but they grow well here. It turns out that the forest was planted as a project of the Spanish government to help Haiti. After walking through the trees for a long time we emerged into another environment again.
There were many rocks sticking out of the ground in outcrops. In places and between these outcrops there was intensive farming with many plants intermingled together. The farms here were much more productive and the farmers were able to live closer together because of this. The houses were simple stone buildings but the people seemed more prosperous. As we walked we passed through a larger town that felt a bit abandoned. We walked on and on and the farms grew worse again. We thought that we should be getting a close to the end of this road at this point, but we talked to a woman washing clothes on the side of the road (it was a road again) and she told us that we still had a long way to go.
We walked with two Haitians leading two cows for a time following them down treacherous shortcuts. One of these shortcuts took us out of the high flattish farmland into the jungle. It was muddy here and very slippery.
By this time we were very tired and one of the people I was with was having problems with her knee. Our guide offered to let us stay at his brother’s house which we gratefully accepted. We slept outside his house in our tent after eating a delicious meal of squash soup that they prepared for us.
In the morning someone guided us through the jungle down toward the ocean which we could now see. This was probably the most stunning part of our trip and also quite challenging and steep. We walked through banana fields and past avocado and guava trees. We could see waterfalls to our right and sometimes between the trees we could see the ocean. When at last we reached the paved road at the bottom of the mountain we were proud and exhausted. From there we took a bus to Jacmel and stayed there for the night.