Summing It Up

September 1, 2003

I spent the first four months of this year on Lagonav, an island off Haiti's coast, in a village called Matenwa, located in the mountains in the center of the island. It was a trial period. Can I learn to function in a new culture? Can I learn the language these people speak? Will I be able to stand the heat? What about typhoid, malaria, giardia, dysentery, hepatitis, AIDS? What skills do I have that would be useful here? Will I even want to come back here and apply them?


Well, I'm going back this month. Because while I was there, despite the physical and psychological hardships, I got a life. A life that I truly love. Taking the donkey to the spring to get water. Teaching teenage boys to sing Bob Marley songs. Eating mangoes. Making kites. Dancing. Walking to Josiann's house every afternoon to pick up the meal she cooked for me. Going to the market on Fridays. Flirting. Singing. Laughing. Making people laugh. Laughing. Making people laugh. Laughing….


A Haitian man once said to me, "I hear that Americans only laugh when they are happy." For him, this is a mind-boggling notion. "Haitians can't be that way. We'd never laugh. There is always misery. Telling jokes and laughing are what we give to each other. While you are laughing, you don't feel your suffering."


Everyone in Matenwa is malnourished. There is almost no health care.


The environment is ravaged. Nobody has enough to eat. The whole place feels like it is a hair's breadth away from being a refugee camp. Nobody has enough to eat. Deforestation has radically disrupted rainfall patterns. Nobody has enough to eat. Children hang out by my house in the afternoon when they know I'll be returning from Josiann's with a meal. Nobody has enough to eat. Most of what people eat is imported from the Haitian mainland. Nobody has enough to eat. This country has so many problems, but to my mind, the biggest ones relate to food.


I know stuff about food, about agroforestry, about soil building, about gardening. Ideas that you read about in progressive magazines regarding locally produced food, and agricultural sustainability apply directly to Matenwa, except that they are less about quality of life than about life itself--the literal survival of individuals, their community and culture.


The peasants of Matenwa realize this all too well. They speak matter-of-factly about their doomed way of life. They grasp the importance of change and are wary of it, too. They want to feed themselves without giving up their connection to the land. It's hard to figure out which of the things I know are relevant, and harder still to try to communicate what I know in a meaningful way, but I try. I suppose that's what I'm "doing" there. That's why I'm going back and staying longer this time.


That's part of the reason anyway. The larger reason is that in four months I somehow developed a beautiful life.