By Kathleen Kaye
Parishioner Lead, St. Jean Baptiste Sister Parish Committee
Whenever I eat a mango, I remember a small courtyard at the Jesuit Retreat House in Port-au-Prince, our first stop on Valentine’s Day 2018. Mango trees filled the courtyard, the branches heavy with their bejeweled fruit. When the day’s heat dissipated and the light disappeared and all that could be heard in the distance were tap taps — Haitian taxis, car horns, the random yelping dog, and impromptu D.J. music — the trees dropped their fruit through the night with a soft thud.
Early the next morning, someone swept up the precious fruit with a handmade straw broom and we enjoyed the sun-warmed mango when we gathered for breakfast following Mass. We were headed for Jeremie that morning on a toy-like plane made for a dozen people with little luggage and no room for error. We seemed to barely graze the sapphire sea, before we arrived on a dirt field.
This would be the 15th time members of Holy Trinity’s Haiti Committee had visited since the earthquake in 2010. Five of us squished into a pickup truck driven by Père Medard, the priest at our sister parish, St. Jean Baptiste, and settled in for a four hour bone-jarring ride to Anse-d’Hainault. It would be the last time we could expect running water and electricity. But we would have food, though scarce and an unearned privilege.
Anse-d’Hainault is located in the lower southwest quadrant of the Department of the Grand’Anse. When the dirt road you are traveling on ends at the ocean, you have arrived.
Haiti has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world, with 4.4 million Haitians — nearly half the population — needing immediate food assistance. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in 2018, 2.6 million people did not have reliable access to adequate food. This figure jumped to 3.7 million Haitians in 2020. For 2020, the OCHA stated that without immediate food assistance for the Haitian people, of the 4 million experiencing food insecurity, 1.2 million people will only be able to eat a meal every other day and about 2.8 million people might eat just one meal a day.
Haiti ranks 170th of 189 countries on the 2020 Human Development Index. Despite notable improvement in some development indicators, including an increase in life expectancy at birth, chronic poverty is pervasive throughout the country. Lack of access to electricity, sanitation and healthcare is widespread. These are basic needs that should be available to all.
Years of political instability, and recurring natural disasters have kept Haiti in an impoverished tailspin, placing one seemingly insurmountable obstacle after another in their path to development. Ongoing political tensions in Haiti worsened in 2019 and persist to this day. In an atmosphere of political unrest, Haiti entered 2021 as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with more than 6 million people living on less than $2.41 a day. Corruption, inflation, gang activity and fuel shortages spark regular mass protests. Blockades, demonstrations and violence have been common, forcing the country to standstill episodes known as Peyi Lock, hampering food and nutrition security and access to healthcare, education and water.
Add to these existing obstacles a pandemic. COVID-19 threatens to raise inflation, further increasing prices of staple foods. Haiti imports about 80% of its rice so the pandemic’s impact on the global supply chains further restrict access to staple foods.
Morning Mass at St. Jean Baptiste is at 6am. The rectory sits on a slight rise above the village, and just steps below is one of two new wells installed by Food for the Poor (FFTP), our partner in developing projects that St. Jean Baptiste has identified as needing. Until four years ago, there was a 3 mile trek in each direction to bring water home. The clank of the pump handle starts before sunrise and continues into late evening. While old gas cans or yellow UN containers are filled with water, kids play soccer and women scatter laundry to dry in a patchwork pattern on the rocks. There is much laughter, and up on the hill some of us will be on time for Mass.
Rural areas in the Grand’Anse, where our sister parish is located, can be hardest hit by alarming levels of grinding poverty. Poor nutritional status among children is another reflection of the severity of food insecurity: 22 percent of children in the country are chronically malnourished, 10 percent underweight and 66 percent of children under 5 suffer from anemia.
Holy Trinity supports St. Raymond’s School, a thriving learning environment for 800 students, pre-k to graduation. Through the years, Holy Trinity has facilitated the installation of a solar- powered computer center, developed an extensive library, built sanitation centers, and offered a scholarship program for graduates. Recently, we were able to provide meals to children, pre-K and grades 1-6. At the school, women in scarf-wrapped hair, sweat bedding up as they work over open charcoal fires, prepare beans and rice. Courtesy of our collaboration with Food for the Poor (FFTP), these children can rely on one meal a day each school day.
In rural areas such as Anse-d’Hainault, food scarcity was compounded by a drop in agricultural production following the 2018 drought. With fewer employment opportunities in rural areas, many men are moving to urban settings, leaving behind vulnerable women, children and the elderly, and putting them at risk of exploitation and gender-based violence. Mothers become the default heads of households, and struggle to support their families by working long hours, in addition to child care and responsibilities at home. This additional burden facing women is one of the causes of increased malnutrition rates in children under 5, according to a survey conducted by Action Against Hunger in the Grand’Anse. The deterioration in nutritional status may be due to a number of factors, including a reduction in mother’s breast milk, due to extreme stress.
Later in the week, we drive to the north of Haiti to cross into the Dominican Republic. We join the crush of Haitians on foot, tractors and motorcycles, and cross the Dajabon River. In 1937, the Parsley Massacre took place here. Henchmen under the direction of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo, machetes in hand, slaughtered tens of thousands of hardworking Haitians. Ironically, Haitians return to this site on Mondays and Fridays when they are permitted to cross the bridge to buy and sell goods. Dajabon Market is massive. Picture Target meets flea market meets some of the freshest produce the Dominican Republic can provide. And eggs…you can’t find an egg in Haiti. We return to Haiti, following trucks laboring under the weight of precious goods. Out of necessity, and resiliency, this scene will play itself out every week for the Haitians.
One of the drivers of food insecurity, among other factors, is the poor performance of the agriculture sector and the heavy dependence on food imports, which accounts for more than half of the food and 83 percent of the rice consumed. This makes the country vulnerable to inflation and price volatility in international markets. Consumer prices for major food products are 30 to 77 percent higher than in the Latin America and the Caribbean region, making them unaffordable for vulnerable populations. Persistent drought has considerably impacted agriculture. Farmers in the Low Northwest Department have experienced extended lean periods with fewer rainy seasons and annual production nearly cut in half. As a small island state, Haiti is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. More frequent extreme weather events can devastate significant parts of the country’s agricultural production. On the 2019 Climate Risk Index, Haiti is fourth among the countries most affected by extreme weather events.
Even short distance truck rides can take hours on dirt roads. The riders on donkeys were making better progress than we were. After a series of axle-cracking gutted areas on the road, we stopped and got out and walked. We were being shown one of the coffee farms. After a slippery walk down a steep muddy incline to a path that only the farmer could see, we saw the humble coffee bean plant, tucked under the protection of larger plants.
“Just Haiti” is a Fair Trade association of six coffee bean farms throughout the country. Notwithstanding the 2018 drought and Hurricane Matthew, which destroyed 90% of the plants in the Anse-d’Hainault area, the business has rebounded as a result of the persistence and patience of its farmers. The profits have paid for agronomy scholarships of the farmers’ children. Our group enjoyed a robust cup of locally brewed Just Haiti coffee at an Alliance meeting. Their coffee is sent to be sold in the states. Holy Trinity parishioners can enjoy this after Sunday Masses or at home. Early on, the St. Jean Baptiste committee identified an agronomist for the Alliance — otherwise, the farmers are entirely self-sufficient, defying the odds and mother nature.
Our last supper, if you will, at the rectory was Biblical. We had come to expect and look forward to spaghetti and ketchup, black coffee and peanut butter for breakfast. Sunday dinner was an outpouring of love from the women in the “kitchen,” a day spent bent over charcoal burning fire pits. They seemed to have pulled every fish from the sea, every mango they could pluck from a tree, or vegetable and precious rice driven back from the Dominican Republic. The flour for the bread was local, from the mill at the rectory. Just prior to dinner, mothers of two of our scholarship students came by with homemade donuts as a thank you. Still warm! They had seen us earlier that morning at Mass. Being offered food from one’s need, not abundance, was not something I had experienced before. I was humbled by the gift.
We started dinner, as we did every meal singing in Creole:
Ou Voye Ban Nou a Papa
Manje Ki Bay Lavi
(The food that you have sent us, Father,
Is the food that gives life.)
Distinguished Haitian author Edwidge Danticat has said, “Haitians have a great resiliency to live…to live as human beings.” The Holy Trinity St. Jean Baptiste Committee will remain engaged with our brothers and sisters in Anse-d’Hainault. Our mission statement says that we will accompany the people of St. Jean Baptiste in hope of deepening our relationship and promoting the well-being of the community…with compassion, respect and shared humanity.