March 11, 2003

It is so dry here now.

I just wasn't prepared for the way this "environmental degradation" feels. I have heard and read the words that describe the everyday landscape--rocky eroded mountainsides almost bare of vegetation--but its in-your-face presence grabs the gut, stabs the heart. Before, when I thought of deforestation and erosion, I associated it with clearcuts I've seen in the Pacific Northwest. In my mind those are wilderness places, places without people. Here, I see the tiny stone houses which dot the baked landscape and cannot believe that anyone could possibly live there. Yet the people who live in these houses are my friends.

I can be airlifted out of here at the snap of a finger if things become too tough for me. But life isn't all that tough because I pay my family to make sure I have adequate nutrition and water. I try to stretch my 5 gallon bucket of water to 3 days instead of the usual two. The Haitian word for poverty is mize. Misery. I can guess, and sometimes see, the misery that the citizens of this community experience, but what it would truly feel like to live that misery is beyond my imagination.

People say that everyone's hearts will be lighter when--if--it starts to rain.

It's windy. Air currents of the Caribbean passing disinterestedly over drying rock. The wind rattles the tin roof of my house and drives dust through the cracks in the doors and windows when they are closed. Thick, crummy sinuses and nagging coughs are the norm. The dust on the road is almost ankle deep in some places. I suppose if it begins to rain, and rains too hard and too fast, it won't be such a blessing.

Cisterns are dry and water sources (springs) higher up have given out. The spring at Nanjozen where people from Matènwa go for water is weaker, but still running well. Huge crowds come there now. There have been fights. You can hear the shouting at the bottom of the ravine from far away.

Citizens of Matènwa try to go to the water at night so that the people who
come from far away can have better access. Some are trying to organize
people to stand in line (about as hilariously impossible for Haitians as Americans giving up their cars) or for the locals to let the ones from far
away go first because their lot is harder, having walked up to 2 1/2 hours to
get there. I find this generosity in a time of such scarcity touching.

The price of gas has tripled (and then some) since December. (Due to pressure from the US to withhold aid as long as gas prices are artificially supported, I was told. Could this be true? I am stumbling on the logic.) Until the water started giving out, the crippling inflation was a main topic of conversation. The one-way taptap ride to the wharf at Ansagale is up to 25 Haitian dollars. About triple from last year. Almost everything on Lagonav--from washbasins to tomatoes--is imported. Gas for the trucks, gas for the boat, there is gas in everything we touch, and so the hikes in gas prices are distributed all the way down. Friday is the day of the biggest market. All weekend the talk is of prices. It seems like the same few goudes just get passed from hand to hand. Where does the extra money come from when everything costs more?

Enough of the misery. We're starting to eat mangoes. Here is my happiest
story.

The school has a garden space that has produced a few tomatoes and
carrots, but has never been organized or focused very well, I think, for a lack of understanding of how you make it happen. I've been more than reluctant to leap in with my northern climate gardening skills to say "this is how you do it", because I really don't know specifically how to garden here.

The first week I was here, I had the good fortune to meet a Jean Rene Gabriel, an agronomist from a different part of the island of Lagonav. He was animated, congenial and interesting, despite my worse-than-awkward language skills. Someone told me he had a beautiful garden. Two teenage boys interested in environmental issues agreed to take me there, to a region called Lotore, to visit.. We left in the dark, walked footpaths up and down a couple of mountains and in a couple of hours, at sunrise, arrived in a place where you could smell the sea and found Jean Rene planting manioc.

Jean Rene was gracious and fun, eager to show us everything. And what a garden! He interacted mostly with the boys. This took the language pressure off of me. I could follow what he was saying because I understand gardening. I snapped dozens of pictures with the digital camera.

Jean-Rene has been living and working in that community for about 15 years. When he began it was barren--a former mango forest turned to baked earth. He's worked hard at soil building and erosion control, doing all those things we just wish would happen all over Haiti. In addition to his own very productive vegetable gardens, fields of manioc, beans, and peanuts, and reforestation/erosion control projects, he's worked throughout the community to help people get their own gardens going or improve the ones they have. So"visiting" him, we rambled all over the surrounding countryside, looking at a variety of plantings and experiments in growing things. The pictures I took were of many projects in various stages and I was able to assemble them in a sequence that illustrated more or less sequentially how you make a productive garden. (How to use organic matter for mulch and compost, for example, is one idea that's not well understood by most people.)

I brought my laptop to school and began showing the pictures to anyone who wanted to see. (Which is to say everyone. Most people had never seen pictures on a computer before.) There came a flurry of activity to try to make our garden just like his. The students and teachers weren't satisfied with just the pictures, and arranged for the upper grades to walk to Lotore and visit Jean Rene, too. We went yesterday. Everyone is charged. He is one amazing man--a bundle of energy, an extremely hard worker, articulate about problems, solutions and techniques, and adept in community organizing. The sense among the students and teachers was, "Oh, I get it. This is how you do it."

Jean Rene is coming next weekend to do two days of training with our
teachers and few community members. He'll help us plan the school garden and try to find a way to start a pilot project or two to work on one of these eroded hillsides. The school has some money to pay for the hard hot work of trenching, making terraces, and moving rock, so we hope we can begin some kind of work right away. (The number of strong and able men so willing to work if they could just find it is another one of the things that touches and saddens me as I learn about life on Lagonav.)

So, we'll see what happens. Yes, there is much misery here, but much enthusiasm, too. People so want their lives to be better, and oh don't we
hyperorganized white folks wish we could plop ourselves down and line them out to show them how!

I type and type and only scratch the surface of my experience here. I wish I could communicate it all. What it is like, what I see, the people I have met, what the everyday encounters feel like, how each day has challenges and surprises, how the warmth and generosity of so many people here is so deeply touching, how beautiful the smiles are, how empowering it is to slowly learn to function in a place that is so bewildering sometimes. One could write forever, but the longer I am here, the more my "insights" seem trite.

I don't know where you look to find out if it began to rain on Lagonav, but you can be sure that when it does, I'll be dancing in it.

Wage peace,
Nancy