Sunday, December 4, 2016

Hiking around Mon Sejour


It's hard to find Desarmes correctly on a map. As a millennial, it's kind of mind blowing to be in an area where Google don't really know where you are. (This is the world we live in). Moreover, as someone who struggles with anxiety (especially travel anxiety), I worked really hard on this trip to really appreciate things in the moment. (I have this horrible habit of only appreciating great experiences in retrospect). Hiking around Mon Sejour was definitely one of those times in Haiti that I had to work hard on appreciating in the moment. Okay, I know I sound ungrateful but hear me out. Even though it was hot (oh my gosh it was SO HOT), and I was sweating through my dress, and I was hiking up and down steep inclines in very worn toms, and I was quite worried that the older members of my group were going to fall (and being so far from any real medical care was a thing), I was able to hang on to a sense of gratitude to MCC for taking me to far remote places on the world that I would never, ever go otherwise. It was actually pretty incredible. 

The Haitian mountains used to have trees. Or maybe it was the trees used to have mountains. Because of the legacy of exploitation in Haiti, deforestation is a big concern. When the rains come (or Hurricane Matthew) vulnerable communities become even more vulnerable without roots keeping the soil on the mountain tops. Without trees, lush topical forests dissolve into dessert-like landscapes. 

But in the Artibonite Valley, this is changing (and has changed), thanks to MCC's work in Desarmes. 

The reason we were hiking around this mountain in heat of the day was to visit an Agro-forestry project. (A hike, I should say, is one that many Haitians do every single day, no matter the state of their shoes). 

If there is any part of you that somehow believes Haitians aren't smart because they are "poor" or don't have the same kind of access to education as Americans or whatever you rationality may be, forget that way of thinking. Immediately. 

This Agro-Forestry project on Mon Sejour is beyond brilliant in every sense of the way. There is a tree nursery that has a goal of planing 50,000 trees each year. However, they have a earth day in June and they (thanks to the help of the community) planted 50,000 in one day. The complexity of growing different types of trees in between cycles of beans and corn and so many other crops so that there is always something to eat and always something to sell is unbelievable. In order to do this type of work in the States I am sure you would have to have a Masters in some kind of farm tech management degree. It's amazing.

You can see this brilliance growing on the mountainside. For real. Look at the following photos. The bald mountains is what this area used to look like. The trees are part of MCC support Agro-Forestry project. At least some of them are. The cool thing about MCC is since it supports community partners and leaders that means that there is significant community buy in. Since this project started on Mon Sejour, there have been "copy-cat" projects popping up around it as other farmers see the benefits of this type of work. And the forest continues to go and the spring on this mountain is starting to get stronger and stronger. Birds have returned. There is a deep sense of taking care of the earth and of one another. 

“The country is not poor, but sometimes we’ve lacked vision," Paulisme Francklin., MCC Agro-forestry technician, told us during our tour the project. "But when we put our heads together and work together, there are amazing things we can do."

Isn't that the truth. 

This hike was no joke
Testing out different varieties of mangos to see what type grows best in this area. This one was the winner. 

Francklin standing in a field (I think it was sweet potatoes)

Photos by Tina Schrag and me

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Mamba, part 2

We had only been in Haiti for a day before we headed up to Desarmes, a rural community in the Artibonite Valley. Out of all the places we'd end up going in Haiti, Desarmes was definitely a favorite. It is lush, green and cools off at night (way more so than Port-au-Prince).

MCC has been in Desarmes since before I was born. In fact, Jean Remy Azor, the MCC Agro-forestry coordinator (who is basically in charge of all of MCC's work in Desarmes) has worked with MCC since 1982. (Although we learned that the work has changed drastically since then, especially in light of the various political climates facing Haiti in the 90s. Jean Remy and Michelet (who have worked for MCC the longest) had to go into hiding for a time when any type of community development group was seen as political and thus a threat. Thankfully, that is no longer that case in Haiti). 
Jean Remy (center) explains about his work with MCC Desarmes. (Also pictured: Elise Quiring, MCC Haiti Connecting Peoples Coordinator and Paul Shelter Fast, MCC Haiti Rep, who were 2 of our leaders on this tour)
You can't go anywhere in the Haiti without the reminder what it means to live in a place with no infrastructure. All you have to do is look down at the road (assuming that there is one) underneath your feet. This is, of course, true in Desarmes as well.
Walking to Rosayln's house in Desarmes. Photo by Stan Swartzendruber
I had to look down at the ground as we walked through the streets. It was a Tuesday, which meant that it was also market day. We passed vendors of many kinds ranging from a woman selling plantains to a man who had a giant cardboard box full of pills in their unmarked plastic sleeves. We weaved our way through the goats and people, pausing occasionally to make room for a moto to pass. I am naturally clumsy on a paved road; so I was not taking any chances on this bumpy gravel road.  I had to watch my feet.

Jean Remy was taking us meet a woman named Rosalyn, who would show up how to make mamba or peanut butter. Mamba is a stable of Haitian life. It is common is eat mamba with bread for breakfast, or even supper as lunch is the biggest meal of the day. (And I mean BIGGEST meal. Many of the MCC Haiti national staff are used to these North Americans with small stomachs). Mamba is very smooth, smoother than the peanut butter we have in the states. Sometimes it also has spices in it such as cinnamon other times it has chilies in it making it spicy. (I have to pass on that kind though).

When we arrived at Rosalyn's house, we entered through the "cactus" fence (sorry I cannot remember what this type of plant is called) to her courtyard or a Lakou, which was this beautiful, lush outdoor space which is an extension of the house and often shared with the neighbors. Rosalyn showed us the entire process of making mamba, from roasting the peanuts, to removing the skins to grinding them, multiple times until the mamba is nice and smooth.
The Lakou
Rosalyn shakes the peanuts to filter out the skins we just pealed off

We were at Rosalyn's house almost all afternoon watching (and taking part) of the whole mamba making process. It was amazing. It is also humbling to realize that my entire life is easy. There is nothing about my life that is hard. Nothing. It does not take me all afternoon to make a small amount of peanut butter because I don't have to make peanut butter.

Rebecca, one of the MCC Haiti reps, told us prior to going home that when we get home we shouldn't feel guilty about taking a nice warm shower or about other things in our lives. Rather, she hopes that we now have a deeper appreciation for the little things.

I think this is so important. It's important to be mindful of so many things. From peanut butter to functioning roads to the safe tap water flowing through our faucets. All these things and our time spent with Rosalyn in her lakou, are what I am thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The importance of peanuts

This morning I went to the fridge, grabbed the jar of natural peanut butter and put some on my toast. Then I screwed the lid back on and put it back. And the world spun madly on.

Ever since I came back from Haiti, I've thought a lot about peanut butter, or mamba. Mamba is a staple in Haitian cuisine and life and one that surprised me in many ways.

I knew very little about Haiti prior to going there. Not that I am an expert now, but spending 9 days there did teach me a whole heck of a lot. The Learning Tour I was one focused on "Soil to Table," which was one of the main reasons I wanted to go. I love food (just in case you had any doubts). But what that meant in Haiti, a country that struggles with daily food security, was hard to guess.

Like I said, Haitian food surprised me because even though the main staples are simple, the food is amazing. They don't have a lot to work with, but they manage to make the most delicious dishes from basic ingredients. I hate to be the person who uses the word "umami" but really the food in Haiti was rich in umami. Overall, there aren't a lot of spices that are used in daily dishes, but still they had a depth of flavor I was not expecting. Honestly, I was anticipating similar things to what I've eaten in Central America. And that was semi-true in the sense that we had rice and beans and plantains. But sorry to my Central American friends, I like Haiti's versions way better. (For real, I had the best fried plantains of my life in Haiti and generally, I am not a fan of those).

I digress. This post is about mamba. Mamba number 5.

Peanuts are very important to Haiti in many ways. They are a cheap source of protein but more importantly they can easily be grown in Haitian soil and in dry conditions, (which is a really good thing because all the deforestation that has happened in Haiti has made large sections of rural areas into dessert like climates).

 Peanuts are also political.

Several months ago, the U.S. tried to "dump" a shipment of peanuts to Haiti under the banner of "feeding starving Haitian children." Many NGO's in Haiti (including MCC) spoke up to say, hey! This actually is not a good thing, which, on the surface, makes the American audience super confused. Why don't people what to give extra food to hungry kids? That seems like a no brainier. But the roots of this are a little bit deeper and this is not the first time the U.S. has pulled this kind of trick. Yes, I say and I mean trick. Back in in 90s, the U.S. dumped a ton of rice in Haiti and completely ruined the local rice economy, which still has not recovered. When this happened, many rural Haitian farmers were out of luck and thus moved to Port-au-Prince to find work. This was one of the reasons why there were so many people living literally on top of each other when the 2010 earthquake struck, killing thousands.

And let's not pretend the USDA doesn't have their own agenda with this boat load of peanuts. Because of the 2014 Farm Bill that encouraged U.S. farmers to grow more peanuts, the USDA got stuck with a ton of extra peanuts and instead of letting the market in the U.S. get saturated, why not send them to the "needy" elsewhere.

But how can a Haitian farmer up in the rural mountain community of Kabay compete with free? She can't. No one can. So why immediate hungry might be met, dumping peanuts does not improve food security at all. In fact, it's like a giant leap backwards.
It gets even more complicated when someone from the USAID (a U.S. Agency for International development with a large presence in Haiti) tweeted that they were against bringing in U.S. peanuts to Haiti. (Although as a larger organization they fail to comment on this). Organizations, including our own government, know this is not a good idea. The MCC reps we spent time with in Haiti told us how they are a part of an NGO network which spoke activity against the U.S. peanuts. But even NGOs who knew this was not a good idea had to pull their name from this statement because of parts of their funding wrapped up with the U.S. government.

See? This isn't just about a boat load of peanuts.

It's a story about mamba for breakfast and a woman named Maksiane Piarre who grows peanuts up in the mountains of Kabay, an area so remote that one must use a donkey (or a land rover) to get up there. (It takes the locals hours to walk to Desarmes, the larger community where they can sell their goods).
Maksiane Piarre stands in her peanut field

Kabay is a considered a "red zone." Members of this community survive day-to-day. Most do not have access to any kind of latrine. It is hot and it it humid. (We are in the Caribbean after all). And just 6 short years ago this community was like a dessert.

But that is changing, thanks to MCC's Agro-forestry projects. There are trees again. And there are peanuts. And where there are peanuts, there is hope.
This is Elisamar Michelet who works for MCC as an Agro-forestry technician in Kabay
This "patch of green" is actually an agro-forest. Meaning, it is a garden and a reforestation project. Because food security is such an issue these projects must be able to feed and provide income to farmers, not just reforest the land. The gardens are designed so that there is always something to eat. Notice how bare the land is around it. That was how this entire area was just 6 years ago. 
All of these things were spinning in my head this morning as I hate my peanut butter toast. It's a crazy world we live in where even peanut butter is political and mamba can change the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Haiti Journal Entry: Arriving

Monday, October 31, 2016

Arriving in Port-au-Prince is a little daunting. I always feel that way when I am about to land in country I know very little about, especially when English and/or Spanish are not readily spoken. (Obviously, I don't speak Spanish, but I am better at navigating Spanish speaking countries than I am any other non-English language). It's a little daunting.

You know those white American girls who have always "dreamed of going to Africa" or who "dream of one day going to Haiti?"  Yeah, I have never been one of those basics. Ironically enough, I lived in South Africa for 10 months and ironically enough, I just landed in Haiti. I got up at 2:45am this morning, so my attitude is not the best and I find myself thinking, "why do I always end up coming to countries that aren't even in my top 10 places?" But here I am, ready or not.

Attitude check. Okay, let's go.

I am here with a group of MCC staff and constituents from all across North America. And I am in charge of herding them, making sure they don't die, or have emotional break downs, etc, etc, or something like that. It's a little unclear. That is also a little daunting.

We're starting to land now. The first thing I notice is the mountains. I forgot about this. The mountains aren't often shown in the skewed media lenses. Everything is lush and green, at least around the edges. This is Port-au-Price after all.

Driving through the city is a different story, a collision of colors and grey cinder blocks, piles of trash waiting to be burned and people heading home from work, weaving down the sidewalks or compacted into the tap-taps. The street vendors are still hard at work, sitting with their goods on sidewalks, trying to sell as much as they can before the sun goes down. I see piles of fruit and a woman who has sandals hanging evenly against the wall, almost as if by magic. Nothing here is new. Like many developing countries, Haiti is one of the United States' dumping grounds.

No matter how many places I travel, I tend to forget how strict we Americans are about our road rules. Even those who do those rolling stops through stop signs. There are a couple half attended stop sign here and are universally and completely ignored. They also aren't in creole.

Initially, it is best that I don't look out the window too closely as a motorcycle stops in between our van and a cement truck just in time. We will quickly learn that rules of the roads here are quite simple; the largest thing wins. Duh. Trucks, then buses, then cars, then motos, then people. Everyone gets it and finds their place in the ecosystem of vehicles, The blans (or white people) will get it eventually.

There still isn't a president here yet, maybe on November 20th. But there are a lot of people trying. Hundreds of posters smile down at us, large billboards, faded signs of the same candidate lining an entire wall.

I am ready to be out of the van by the time we reach the MCC guest house. Today is a Voodoo holiday in Haiti, but right now it is quieter than I thought it would be. It's also hotter than I thought I would be. There is a balcony outside our room and beyond that a tree with the largest leaves I've ever seen. I look down below and meet the eyes of a small black cat that I instantly love. Of course. We watch each other for awhile before a noise behind it breaks the trance.


Sunday, November 13, 2016

Sitting with Job

This post is dedicated 

to my sister, to my cousin Heidi, to Megan, to Austin, to Kati, to Tirzah, to Denise, to Erin, to Erica and Karin, to Camilla, to Heidi, to Tina, Elise and Rebecca. Your words (whether direct or indirect), Your heartache, Your pain, Your strength, Your anger, Your encouragement or listening ears, Your stories and insight; Your tears, all of it has held my bones together this week. Thank you. Our stories aren't even close to being over. 

To my 7 year old niece for whom I fight, in hopes of a different reality for women.

And to the women in my life who voted differently than me, I love you completely, deeply and fiercely. 

I got back from Haiti on November 8th. In hindsight, if I would've know of this was going to be, I would've shifted our learning tour schedule a little bit. Coming back from Haiti on the day of the U.S. election was rough. Y'all it was ROUGH.

Going to the context of Haiti to the context of the 24 hour news cycle and white privilege in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport is quite possibly the quickest and bluntest form of culture shock I've ever experienced. Now, don't misunderstand me. I know I was only in Haiti for week. I've been out of the country before and for longer periods of time. All of those other times felt like easing back.(And culture shock didn't always manifest itself right away). Not Tuesday. It was like going from a warm bath to someone grabbing your head and shoving into a bucket of ice water.

Welcome back.

I have a lot of thoughts in my head and I know I have been adding to the noise consistently since coming back. But I am a writer. This helps me. And right now, this is how I am trying to make sense of our world.

I cried a lot on Wednesday. It felt like a day of mourning and I could not stop reading stories that broke my heart.

On Thursday, I got up, got dressed and went back to work. Not necessarily because I felt like I was ready to be there but rather because my colleagues, Erica and Karin, were facilitating "The Loss of Turtle Island," and interactive, learning experience about the Native history in the U.S. They travel all over the U.S. for MCC with this exercise and Thursday was my first time to participate it. I wasn't going to miss it no matter how unsteady I felt.

It was maybe the best thing I could've done. Again, don't misunderstand me, it was rough. This history of indigenous people in the States is unbelievable and actually isn't a history at all. It is still happening.  It's heartbreaking and people like me still continue to reap the benefits.

(For example, in the late 1800s, a man named Standing Bear was detained by the U.S. Army. Standing Bear was not a war criminal. Standing Bear and his tribe had previously been moved from Nebraska to a reservation in Oklahoma. When Standing Bear's son died, he wanted to bury his son in their homeland. His only "crime" was traveling back to Nebraska to bury his child. Standing Bear had to prove in court that he was a human being. Let me say that again, Standing Bear had to prove to the court of law that HE WAS A HUMAN BEING.) 

I know. 

(I say this directly impacts me because of two reasons. 1. I am white. 2. This went down during the Kansas-Nebraska act, when the U.S. government gave incentives for European settlers to move out west. I have direct ancestors who took advantage of this. This story is a part of my DNA whether I acknowledge it or not).   

Anyway, I digress. Participating with this group of Mennonites, made up of white people like me, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, first generation immigrants, Latina-Americans, and Native Americans, was probably the best thing I could do in terms of trying to make sense of our world, which does not make any sense. How can a man who ran his campaign on the rhetoric of hate, win? I thought we were better than this? Or that maybe we were at least heading in that direction.

At the end of the debriefing time, Erica, (my colleague, one of the facilitators, and an Indigenous woman) told us something one of her elders had used to comfort her in the light of the election results.

[I paraphrase] "Maybe you'll find it sad, but it helped me", she told us.

She proceeded to read something on her phone that said "Natives have suffered under every single president of the United States."

That really shook me out of my fog. Obviously this is not a good thing, It really sucks. But it is a reminder to white people such as myself that minorities have suffered from systemic forms of oppression since the beginning of the U.S. The election of one person, or even several people, thus far has not changed this. It is up to people like me to challenge the status quo, to join in the fight that has been going on for centuries.  As my buddy (I wish) Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote in Hamilton, "We will never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me".

I carry this with me with deeper conviction than ever before. I also carry with me the acknowledgment that I could go back to ignoring politics, because even though I am a woman, I am also a white person. I don't have to see my privileged if I don't want to. But I am fighting to remain in the grey area, the area beyond white guilt that challenges me to think of practical way to be an advocate and an ally to and with women, people of color, Muslims, the LBGTQ community, people with disabilities, veterans, immigrants, refugees, the undocumented and everyone else that my president-elect has publicly insulted, threatened and shamed.

It's hard work. But it's important work. And as a white person, I am committed learning as much as I can, to speak up and to get in the way.

Out of all the scripture that's been quoted at one another on social media this week, something did stand out to me. An African American woman wrote that what she needed was people to be willing to "sit with Job." When people are suffering, we would be wise to sit with them and not try to dismiss their reality as being "out of touch" or unimportant.

When a group of Muslim women are crying outside of friend's apartment complex the morning after the election, that is significant. We would be wise to sit with them.

When my sister's first graders (many of whom come from Muslim, Refugee, and Immigrant families) come off the bus Wednesday morning crying because they are scared they'll be sent anyway, that is significant. We would be wise to sit with them.

When African American friends wake up Wednesday morning in tears and share their despair on social media, that is significant. We would be wise to sit with them.

When women who have been sexual abused share their stories and their anger at their president-elect who perpetuates rape culture and dismisses their trauma by saying it's "just locker room talk", that is significant. We would be wise to sit with them.

When a Native grandmother shares that her grandchildren on on the front lines in North Dakota getting their wrists broken multiple times by the police, that is significant. We would be wise to sit with them.

And when all the Jobs in our lives and communities are ready to stand again, we would be wise to rise up with them.

I tell myself, and you, the same thing my sister told her students: Be brave because you are important. Be kind because everyone else is important too.

Now as "my friend" Leslie Knope says, "find your team, and get to work."