Rural Haitian Life

Posted by on April 26, 2012

We traveled through many villages during our stay in the mountains. AMDH’s Director Ossé St Juste comes from Mombin Crochu, so perhaps he wanted to start the workshops here, so I could experience remote Haiti before the more populated areas.

My head is awash in images, but fortunately, my camera has captured a few so I can show you a bit of what I have seen. This is almost a surreal place, a clash of culture, as if a 20th century people, complete with cell phones, fashions and motorcycles, were transported into the 18th century.

As with all villages, land means everything. A family with even a small plot of land can garden and graze their animals. They have two planting seasons a year and grow sugarcane, beans, peanuts, corn, vegetables; perhaps banana or plantain or a mango tree.

Most have a few chickens; to own a goat or a pig is a blessing, to own a cow is a future. Often a family will keep a cow for emergencies…a commodity to sell if someone gets sick and needs medical aid.

Cockfights are common as a social gathering and possible money-generator…this man is washing his rooster with herbs for a fight later on.  Truthfully, the treatment of animals here is one of the hardest things to bear.

We passed a dead pig on the road, and beside me, Rhonda moaned. “Oh, to lose that pig must have been a tragedy for some family. We cannot imagine what such a loss would mean.”   Chickens, pigs and goats roam freely everywhere – country and city – and are very road-wise.

Rhonda once asked a woman, “How do you know whose chicken belongs to who?”   The woman looked at her incredulously. “If you owned something, wouldn’t you know it was yours?”

Sometimes families will own land that is many miles from home and so they build a small lean-to or woven garden house – a joupa – to accommodate them during the planting and harvesting seasons. Often, they are gardening by hand on steep 30-45 degree slopes of the mountains…breaking up the soil and hoeing it all by hand.

I have not seen a single plough or any other mechanical farm implement. I don’t know if they even use horses to help break the soil.

Those who own only the land their home rests upon must find another way to survive. They sell in the marketplaces and at crossroads, make furniture, repair tires and motors, work with mortar, sew, cook hire themselves out to others.

The hills of Mombin Crochu are naked and dry. The mountains are stripped of most of their trees. The timber was cut and burned to create charcoal or build homes. The number of people who have begun to adopt good agricultural practices is spreading, but hunger still trumps knowledge. Some have begun to practice terracing, crop rotation or soil regeneration, but until others actually begin seeing the results of this, many will continue in their old ways.

Several men in our workshops spoke of how they needed outside financial help to begin reforesting so they could protect and nourish their environment. Others dream of studying agriculture. They cling to dreams, but have no where to place them, no means to see them grow. There is earnest desire here, but there is no money.

Through the writing workshops, some have begun to see that if they can share the stories of their community successes, they may stand a better chance of finding financial support for the projects they wish to implement.

Lagatt is one of the communities that has become cohesive in their approach to enhancing the well-being of their people and environment.

Tippy taps, like this below, are simple hands-free handwashing stations implemented to stop the spread of cholera. The water-filled jug is tied to a branch on the ground. Tapping the branch tips the jug to pour out the water. A soapdish hangs nearby. It is now a strict routine to wash hands before eating.

Tippy Taps

Simply designed hand-free handwashing stations in the villages to prevent spread of cholera.

To combat malnutrition in the village, the people of Lagatt formed a co-operative community garden.  They purchased a plot of land, and sectioned it off for the families that do not have gardens. They developed and enforce their own set of rules – one of them the requirement to tether animals to keep them from grazing in the gardens. If an animal that has not been properly secured damages a garden, the owner will lose his own garden plot for a year.

Through this garden, and along with education on proper dietary requirements for health, they have expanded the variety of food eaten and improved the health of the community, greatly reducing the cases of malnutrition.

Inside a cookhouse

Parasitic worms are an ongoing problem in children and animals throughout Haiti. Rhonda points out naked children with distended bellies, a sure sign. There were quite a few children with ringworm in the region, many showing advanced stages with bare or grey patches on their scalps. With help from medical agencies, the CHE communities can be quickly mobilized to assist with health initiatives, such as immunization or distribution of medicines. They just need that outside support.

Children attend school only if their parents can afford the tuition, books and uniforms. Each school has a distinctive uniform.  It is quite beautiful to see all the children in their neatly pressed outfits.

Haitian school children in uniform

School children in uniform

There is no electricity. A few buildings have generators to supply light in the evening for few hours. Because their homes are dark, social life takes place outdoors. Women spend time chatting or selling at the markets, children do each other’s hair or play under the mango trees, men sit knee to knee playing a game of cards on a board balanced on their laps.

When the moon is full, they gather in its light to tell stories.

In a workshop, one man wrote, “Then I turn my eyes to the heaven to see the full moon shining, and I feel I could walk all night, to all corners of the country. It makes me remember the purposes of God.”

The average home is about the size of a North American bedroom, with several wooden slat doors, perhaps a few windows. Most have a separate cookhouse, although some families share one – a small hovel with a rocked in fire-pit, tables for preparation.

The women dry and grind their own spices. The most common meals are beans and rice, seasoned pork or chicken, a sauce of carrots and tomatoes, or spaghetti with vegetables. Our favourite supper was la-bouyi – a soupy velvety-smooth, pudding-like concoction of ground oats or plantain, mixed with sugar, flour and canned milk and then boiled.

The largest buildings are churches or schools. Occasionally, colourful flags rising above the trees will indicate the residence of a vodoun priest.

No one has running water, although there are several water pumps in these villages. From the time a child is old enough to walk, they are taught to carry small amounts of water. As they get older, they carry heavier and heavier loads upon their heads.

This young fellow had a very handy contraption. The front wheel is a motorcycle sprocket.

The women walk with grace and strength, carrying heavy buckets of water on their heads for miles and often up and down very steep inclines – whether by road or pathway. Buckets such as this are filled to within an inch of the top, yet they spill not a precious drop.

Water pumps (or fountains) are Haiti’s version of the water cooler: places to gather for stories and social times. Mombin Cochu used to have six fountains for the whole village – one by one, they broke down and without outside money to repair the lines, there is only one fountain remaining for the entire village.

While we saw a few men carrying bundles of wood or sugar cane, or hauling heavy loads on pull-carts, it was mostly the women who carry water, baskets of laundry or products to sell at the market on their heads.

And the contrasts. On one stretch of road, we might see a man coaxing a cow to pasture; another carrying a bundle of branches on his head; a family dressed in their Sunday best; little girls with ruffled socks or a boy trying to run in a man’s shoes; a young man sauntering along with an electric guitar and singing; a group of men walking with a battery and a set of gigantic speakers; a child atop a loaded-down donkey; a stooped old man hobbling, his toes poking out from his shoes, a frayed cowboy hat on his head; a bare-breasted woman beside the road, in a small hollow, bathing in a few inches of water; a young man talking on a cell-phone.

If they are lucky enough to have a water source handy, then laundry is done at the river. When our truck broke down on the way to Mombin Crochu, we were stranded beside a shallow stream where a group of women were washing their clothes.

They graciously allowed me to photograph them at their work. Begin able to observe these women without their posing was one of the highlights of my trip. I think they were delighted with the diversion our mechanical dilemma offered to their chore.

How shall I toss my dirty clothes into the washing machine, without thinking of these women and the weekly process of scrubbing and beating and rinsing their clothes to remove every last stain? I have never seen white gleam as it does in Haiti.

They will spread the clothes on the riverbank to dry or take them home to air dry in the trees and cactus.The way they care for their clothing shames me when I think consider my cavalier approach – the ease of which I can toss things in the washing machine.

I leave you with the image of this severely malnourished boy who we spotted playing alone. He seemed to be shunned by the others. Sometimes developmental problems or mental illness may be a reason to be ostracized because such things are not understood, or sometimes those who are simply lethargic or anemic are considered zombies and avoided.

Whatever the reason for his exclusion from the groups of children, this young man was incredibly talented with his simple wooden spinning top, which he spun with a frayed rope and could easily scoop up off the ground with one swipe of his hand, the top continuing to spin on his palm.

I cannot forget his unsmiling face, the hollow look of his eyes, the way his flowered jeans cinched about his tiny frame.

What does the future hold for him? What promises does even tomorrow bring?

7 Valued Thoughts on Rural Haitian Life

  1. Diane photographs ...

    What a picture your words paint. In 3D. I can’t help but think, as I read through this post, how youths and young adults in North America should be compelled to spend time living there as the Haitians do. Perhaps the youth here would begin to have a sense of appreciation and responsibility instead of their sense of entitlement. Thank you so much for painting such a vivid picture for us.

  2. Tabor

    I am not sure I can bare to read your posts much longer….

  3. Elephant's Eye

    This is ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ writing.

  4. Jane Tims

    Hi Deborah. What an amazing experience you are having. You have coveyed the differences, and yet I see similarities too, especially in the women’s faces. I am interested in the spices they dry and grind. Are they local plants they gather? I can hardly wait to hear your stories! Jane

    • Deborah Carr

      Hi Jane – yes, everything is grown locally, but I’m afraid I don’t know the secret blends…There are so many plants here….it’s really like a tropical jungle. You’d have a great time sketching…

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