Since I didn’t find time to write while I was in Haiti (instead, I spent every waking hour with a microphone in my hand), my plan for this week is to put into words some of the more notable experiences.
On Monday morning, we woke up at 4 a.m. to catch a ride to Gonaïves with a Haitian doctor who was on his way to Port-au-Prince. Without street lights or electricity, we picked our way slowly across the University campus. The night was warm and quiet. The only sounds were the crickets, distant vodou drums and the occasional rooster. The stars were brilliant overhead. Sitting down on the stone wall just outside the University gates, we waited for the headlights of Dr. Manno’s car. We could hear singing from the Baptist Church down the street, where men and women meet every morning from four to five a.m. to pray.
We had to leave early, I was told, because the roads were so bad that the drive to Gonaïves, which once took just over an hour, now takes at least three hours. Mom and Dad had already done this trip a few days earlier. They’d flown to Port-au-Prince in early February to help out at Food for the Hungry headquarters. For five weeks, they had translated for visiting teams, distributed tarps to tent cities, helped set up a new office, and woken up every morning before five to the sound of the rooster just outside their tent.
Once that assignment was over, they’d continued north to Gonaïves, now home to 65,000 refugees from Port-au-Prince. In a bitter twist of fate, many of these refugees had already lost everything in a series of floods that tore through Gonaives in 2004 and 2008. 3,000 people died in Gonaïves during the first hurricane; 1,000 died in 2008. Many of the survivors moved to Port-au-Prince, thinking that at least in the capital they could escape the floods. And then the earthquake hit.
Misery is a strange commodity in Haiti. It’s one of the few things that you can find in abundance. But as I was to learn from the people of Gonaïves, resilience is also in ample supply in Haiti—a truth that still confounds me, knowing everything that this nation has already endured.
Our first stop of the morning was a small village in the watershed of Riviere Ti Bayonnais. Mom and Dad had spent time in this village a few days before I arrived in Haiti—a dusty c luster of houses just off the national highway. Earthquake relief money was being used to fund a reforestation project on the eroded hillsides, with the goal of employing refugees to prevent yet another catastrophe in Gonaïves come hurricane season.
For the floods that had scoured Gonaïves and washed away entire sections of the national highway, were—unlike the earthquake—preventable. Had the dry hillsides not been so entirely deforested, and had there been trees to hold the soil in place and filter the rain through a thicket of green leaves, slowly refilling the aquifers, the rains would have come and gone without menace. It was the eroding hillsides that funneled the downpour into washed-out ravines, to sweep down on Gonaives in a raging torrent.
On the morning we visited the soil conservation project, one of eight inter-related projects in the watersheds above Gonaïves, it was still a work in progress. We hiked up through white stone gullies and dried millet fields. Goats bleated on the hillsides. Bright-colored laundry hung out to dry on the cactus fences along the path. The sun was glaring, even at 8:30 in the morning, and sweat trickled down the backs of our legs as we stopped to survey the terraces being carved into the sides of the mountain.
They weren’t much to look at: small mounds of piled earth reinforced by millet stalks, winding along the side of the mountain. To Dad, they looked like sutures on a wound.
A dry wind blew down from the crest of Ze Pelin mountain as we slid down a bank of loose shale to see a series of stone terraces built into the side of a 15-foot ravine. To the untrained eye, the project looked hopeless. Behind us, a herd of goats wandered across the hills, kicking aside loose dirt and trampling the fragile terraces. Dad shook his head, his face grim. Livestock are the bank accounts of peasant farmers, and some of the goats had been newly purchased with the wages earned from building the terraces. It seemed an insoluble conundrum.
And yet small tendrils of hope were already visible. In the five days since the terraces had been planted, the first rains had come and tiny green tree seedlings, no more than 2 cm high, had begun to emerge along the sloped contour of the terraces.
I asked the Haitian agronomists—two of whom had watched classmates buried alive in the earthquake and had leapt to safety from the second floor of their Port-au-Prince university, only to watch other friends crushed under falling cement blocks—what they thought of their country’s future: was it hopeless? Was their best bet simply to escape on a student visa at the first opportunity?
“No!” they insisted. It was for this reason that their lives had been spared. Reforestation, “rebwasment,” was their work and their dream. They believed in their country, they believed in the vitality of soil that still remained. It was possible for the ravines to be restored, for the trees to return.
In one year, 28-year-old Sanon Elioth assured me, I could return to this very spot and stand in the shade of trees which were now only 2 cm tall.
“I have hope for my country,” Sanon insisted.
“Yes we can!” agreed Georges Ruysdael, another earthquake survivor.
Dad, no longer a young dreamer, pointed out that possibility and reality are two different things, but he didn’t argue with the possibility of standing beneath a 6-foot-tall tree in one year’s time. He’d seen a lucena tree grow 12 inches in a month and with Haiti’s rich, year-round growing season, anything was possible—as long as the goats didn’t trample the terraces, that is, and the hurricanes held off for another year.
Mom took a photo of us standing on the brink of the ruined hillside, rough terraces hewn into the rocky soil at our feet, a deep ravine to our right. It was to be the “before” picture, Year Zero; we would have to return in a year’s time to see what the future held.
In the meantime, one of agronoms kicked a small stone into ravine. It delivered a puff of dust into the dry air. This ravine fed into the very same watershed which, in a heavy rain, washed down into Gonaïves, where 65,000 earthquake refugees hope and pray that the hurricanes don’t come this year, and that these fragile seedlings, these small, green symbols of hope can outlast the odds that are stacked against them.
It was only mid-morning and the sun was already scorching. Mom, Dad and the Haitian agronoms hurried down the steep mountain path, strong legs devouring the hungry miles. There was work to be done. It was all I could do to keep up.