Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Greg's Haitian adventure part 3: Haitian musings

I've been in Haiti a week and a half now, sufficient to have a fair number of reflections to share.

I got into Port-au-Prince just fine after my pleasant experience with Copa airlines, and I was met in PAP by an old friend. The airport and environs seem in good shape, about how they were two years ago when I visited. This area was never densely populated, and I imagine the airport has gotten priority treatment in post-earthquake reconstruction. Lots of outsiders have been flying in, so the State and its masters surely want to make the airport area as nice as possible. I didn't go anywhere else in Port-au-Prince this time, so I didn't see the status of the rest of the city; I imagine it's a lot more depressing. Of course the area around the airport has always been pretty depressing too, but in the same bland, suburban-industrial-warehouse way airport zones are depressing in any country. Not a destroyed rubble-and-corpses kind of depressing.

My friend accompanied me from the international airport to the national airport. The two use the same runways, but to get from one to the other as a passenger you have to walk quite a ways. Aside from my surprise at how intact all the buildings seemed, I was amazed that the weather wasn't hotter. It had been about a year and a half since I'd experienced temperatures over 90 degrees, since in my Colombian highland home it never gets above about 70, so I was dreading the heat shock once I got off the plane. But even walking under the sun in long sleeves with a heavy backpack, I wasn't sweating profusely. Another pleasant surprise.

The company I'm working for had in theory reserved me a flight to Cap Haitien, or Okap as Haitians say, but when I went to the ticket counter of the airlines I thought I'd be flying with, they said they had no flights that day! I went to another airlines counter, where they had apparently transferred my ticket to, so everything worked out fine, but I had a few minutes of nervous laughing. I was happy to be in Haiti, with its unexpected problems and joys.

I had enough time before my plane left to talk with my friend. A few years ago he and I had invested together in a taptap, a pickup truck converted to a public bus, but it had gotten beaten up in the earthquake. He'd spent close to a year trying to make it work, but any profits he made got immediately sunken back into repairs and little problems. Eventually he traded in his big pickup that didn't work for a smaller collective taxi that did, and he's making a decent living with the taxi. He told me he was a bit ashamed about the truck's not working out, but I think he did the smart thing by finding a profitable alternative to something that wasn't going well.

After he left, I had about an hour more of waiting in the airport, and I got to talking with some sort of a missionary. He gave me the typical earful of how difficult it is to work with Haitians because of their cultural shortcomings. I've never much bought into this type of discourse. Maybe I've just been lucky, but across all the different cultures of people I've worked with, I've found that it's not hard to collaborate successfully if both sides respect and consider one another's concerns. Apparently that had not been this missionary's experience, and he'd been working in Haiti longer than I had (albeit without speaking the language), so I wasn't interested in arguing with him.

My plane to Okap was a 10-passenger propeller plane, with a stiflingly hot cabin. It reminded me of my only other plane trip within Haiti, seven and a half years ago. I'd gone with some friends on the thirteen hour road trip from the capital to Jeremie, at the far end of the southern peninsula. After the last 30 mile stretch that took about six hours in a rickety old school bus (six hours of my holding in violent diarrhea!), I had decided I didn't want to return by road. So my two companions and I had taken a Soviet-era propeller plane, with Russian warning signs everywhere. It was their first and only flight ever.

Once in Okap I had to wait about an hour for my ride to come get me. Because of the flight company mixup, my employers thought I'd be arriving later than I did, and even when I'd pieced this together, I didn't have cellphone minutes to call them. Eventually some nice taxi drivers let me call on their phones, and my ride finally came.

My first few days were spent settling in, though they certainly didn't have the air of calm and relaxation one normally associates with "settling in". I visited the factory of the company I'm helping, I visited other factories and farms, I went to a number of parties and barbecues for a soon-to-depart company employee. We even went to a lovely beach in Chouchou Bay, about two hours from Cap Haitien over a horrid, bumpy road. Between the stressful ride in the back of a pickup truck, and a nascent stomach virus infection that seemed to be going around the whole work team, I didn't actually relax much. In fact, in the first week or so I wasn't able to make up for my 2:30am wakeup the day of my flight. But the beach was really beautiful, almost paradisiacal. I've never been much of a beach person. The sun and saltwater somehow give me a headache. But this time I put on lots of sunblock, floated aimlessly in the water, and got some work done in the shade. The only things missing were my wife and kid. It would have been his first beach trip.

I am staying at a residential compound near Okap called Breda, in Vertieres town. The names rang a bell for me, though I couldn't tell why. After a few days, my host explained to me that Breda was the plantation home of Toussaint L'Ouverture when he was still a slave. L'Ouverture would go on to lead the Haitian slave rebels against the French, British, Spanish, and eventually Napoleon's army (though Toussaint would die imprisoned in Europe after a false truce ploy). Vertieres, in turn, was the site of the last major battle of this 12-year-long struggle for freedom and independence. When I realized all this, I was thrilled to be in such an important historical area. This is the cradle not only of Haiti's independence, but of that of much of Latin America; Bolivar found inspiration for his struggle and (even physical refuge at one point) in the new Haitian republic.

My main work thus far has been on two fronts. One main duty is to help set up a sort of practical farming school. Haiti has plenty of technical ag schools, but often they teach a lot of theory, and perhaps some capital-intensive temperate zone farming technologies that aren't necessarily appropriate for Haiti's context. Our vision is to create a practice farm where students can implement hands-on, economically viable farming projects, which will prepare them to make a decent living at farming once they graduate.

My other main job is to help the company I'm working for to obtain high-quality peanuts for a peanut butter-like product they make. Often Haitian peanuts give low yields, and have high levels of aflatoxin, a contaminant caused by a fungus that gets into the peanuts in the field and develops during growth and even in storage after harvest. So my job consists in finding ways of helping farmers to increase their yields and decrease their aflatoxin through things like using aflatoxin-resistant seed varieties, and spraying appropriate fungicides when needed.

As part of this quest for better peanuts, we've been planting a lot in different contexts.

Above is my handful of peanuts, and the notched stick we lay in the row to control planting distance between seeds.

The other day we were planting out a bunch of peanuts on an organic pepper farm run by a guy from Georgia.

It's a really cool place, though it's out in the middle of an unpopulated, arid zone.

Most of the surrounding land belongs to the Haitian State, and they have big plans for it. Among other things, it is to be the site of a big industrial park, where Korean corporations will get tax breaks to produce clothes and ship them through Okap or the Dominican Republic, which lay at opposite ends of the region's main road.

I normally don't like semi-arid climates. They depress me, and the endless, uniform mesquite-forested plains of northeastern Haiti are no exception. But that zone really has a lot of agricultural potential. The soils are fertile, there's plentiful irrigation water, there are vast flat expanses you could work with a tractor. A US-style farmer could really get his head around setting up a homestead there. So as we were planting and the entire day thereafter, I entertained fantasies of rotating sunflowers, sorghum, beans, corn, cassava, cattle, and goats through that mesquite forest, and even producing sustainable charcoal for Haiti's voracious cooking fuel market.

On a farm adjacent to the hot pepper place, they have a jatropha plantation.

Jatropha is a dryland shrub native to the Caribbean basin that is used for biodiesel production. There are ways of interplanting food crops with jatropha, which is a nice way of reconciling food and fuel production, and there are even varieties of jatropha without its typical toxic chemical load, such that the leftover meal from its oil-pressed seeds can be used as human or animal food. This plantation was using neither innovation, which means it's not a very efficient or ethical use of land. However, since it's out in unpopulated bush, it's not taking away land or food from people, at least not right now.

As we were planting under the hot sun, we were piped with a constant stream of Arab music. It turns out that the Jordanian contingent of the UN peacekeeping troops are stationed about half a mile from the pepper farm. It was a Friday, so we were eventually treated to the call to prayer. I thought it was lovely and solemn, but a Haitian worker said the singer's intonation sounded like a cat meowing and screeching. This struck me as an ugly and intolerant commentary, especially considering that he and other workers had been humming nasal Protestant hymns the whole time we'd been planting. And the Muslim chanting was certainly no worse than the incessant Evangelico-pagan screaming, hooting, whooping, panting, and singing that issues forth from the loudspeaker of a Pentecostal church located at the top of a hill above our residential complex. But on the other hand, I guess it's fair to be intolerant and disrespectful of people who are occupying your country indefinitely with a questionable mandate.

So that's my life for now in Haiti. Lots of exciting work and new ideas, lots of enthusiasm about the constant upward trajectory Haiti's development seems to be taking (sometimes thanks to, and often in spite of outside interventions!). In general I'm impressed and surprised that life in Haiti isn't as harsh and difficult as I'd remembered it or expected. Maybe I'm just less sensitive to certain manifestations of poverty nowadays, or more accustomed to the languid rhythms of a poor tropical country, but I think that in the ten years I've been coming here there has been a real change, a real gradual improvement in Haitian infrastructure (and hopefully in life for the mass of Haitians). Living here is actually really pleasant for me right now. I of course wish my family could be with me, and I'm often eager to get back to Colombia to my other professional and personal duties. But in general I'm thankful to have this opportunity to offer my services and be of use, and enjoy one of the countries I love in this world.

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