Haiti’s Complex Humanity

A demonstrator in Port-au-Prince during a January 22 rally. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

For a number of complicated reasons, I chose Haiti to begin what’s planned to be a round of near-global travel. Like most white North Americans, my travels to the Caribbean have focused primarily around vacations; maybe I’ve been a little more adventuresome than most, but it’s still a perverse and inaccurate way of seeing the lives of others. My goals, for a book I’m researching, are to see how people in other countries raise food; how they market and process it; what they eat and why; and how they cook. I’ll look at policy and the regulations that shape growing and eating also. This is in an attempt to help find, define, showcase, and popularize the alternative agricultural methods (broadly known as agroecology, though there’s more to it than that) that are equally productive, but less extractive and exploitative — and therefore more sustainable — than many of the industrial methods that dominate agriculture in the United States and elsewhere.

I wanted to start with someplace both different and nearby. Haiti, which has intrigued me since I read Graham Greene’s The Comedians in the late ’60s, seemed a good candidate. Plus, I had the offer of a guide, in the person of Steve Brescia, who runs Groundswell International, which supports the development of agroecology among family farmers — “peasants” is really the better word — in several locations around the world, including here.

At this point, it’s impossible not to refer to our president, who undoubtedly has never set foot in Haiti. It’s easy to call a poor place a shithole, if you’re arrogant, ignorant, and lack empathy. It’s another to try to understand why Haiti is so poor. (I’m not sure whether the best one-word answer is “racism,” “slavery,” “colonialism,” “neoliberalism,” or “globalization,” but they have all played important roles and, except for outright slavery, continue to, as the developed world uses Haiti and similar nations as captive markets.) To visit is to appreciate what a stunning display of humans’ ability to adapt to the challenging circumstances — the poverty has been compounded by earthquakes, hurricanes, even cholera — you can see here. At least, that was one of my major takeaways.

We spent 72 hours in Haiti, much of it in cars. There were highlights, to be sure, but I want to be clear that although I saw farming on steep hillsides, organizations of peasants and their families, generally a side of the country that most Americans don’t, the truth is that I saw some noteworthy things in a few villages. Steve has been to Haiti dozens of times; he started visiting in 1992, and has gone pretty much annually since. Along with his friend and colleague Cantave Jean-Baptiste, he has supported good work there for much of that time, and still learns with each visit. For me to pretend that I saw more than one-tenth of one percent of anything significant would be arrogant.

Straight from the airport, we met with Ricot Jean-Pierre, the program director of PAPDA (Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development), a collection of groups working to organize peasants and workers and focusing on better development models. After a stop on the way out of town for a lunch of overcooked goat meat, fried plantains, and Prestige, the local beer, we began the five- (or was it six?) hour drive to the areas near Hinche (with a quarter of a million inhabitants) and the town of St. Raphaël, around which are dozens of villages.

This is the heart of the region where Cantave — who’s an organizer, agronomist, educator, and founder of PDL (Partenariat pour le Développement Local) — works closely with a number of local farmer groups organizing around women’s and children’s health, and human rights, as well as both farming techniques (and therefore income) and self-government.

“To visit is to appreciate a stunning display of humans’ ability to adapt to the challenging circumstances.” Photo: Mark Bittman

Haiti is not only the poorest country in the hemisphere, it’s also the second-oldest republic (formed in 1804, mostly by former slaves), with a history clouded by colonialism, cruel dictatorship, and of course, natural disaster. Like many countries, it’s seeing an abandonment of the countryside, as both soil and people have moved downhill. The soil washed to the sea as a result of deforestation, and the people to Port-au-Prince in search of work and (I’m guessing) infrastructure. Supporting, establishing, and reestablishing sustainable farming in those hills forms a great part of the work of both Cantave’s and Steve’s organizations.

The drive was hair-raising and eye-opening from the get-go. Port-au-Prince’s “public” transportation system comprises hundreds of hacked, small pickups (“tap-taps”), brightly painted, often with religious slogans, and capable of carrying 20 or more people at what would appear to be great risk; as well as thousands of motorcyclists (mostly, if not all ,young men) who will pick up anyone who flags them down. Combine that with narrow and badly maintained streets (maybe “unmaintained” is more accurate); a fair amount of barely regulated private-car and truck traffic; tens of thousands of pedestrians; few sidewalks; and many roadside piles of rubble, lumber, sugar cane, tires, crates of sugary beverages, vendors of almost everything, 4-year-old kids — you name it. The scene is just short of chaotic, at least to the sheltered New Yorker.

As the newly arrived guest, I rode shotgun. In my opinion, that’s the scariest seat, and the last time I remember being so jumpy was on the national highway headed south from Saigon toward the Mekong Delta; that was 1997. We sped along on the national highway, large stretches of which are unpaved.

A few things I saw on that drive:

• Some 6-year-old kids walking down the “highway” with five-gallon plastic water drums on their heads. Running water isn’t common in the countryside, so people carry water, wash clothes (and themselves, and cars, and whatever) in streams. (There’s also little electricity, and no national grid.) Of course, there are also women of all ages carrying huge piles of a variety of things on their heads, including 50-pound bags of rice.

• A settlement of 300,000 people (according to Carla, our translator) 30 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince, with no roads, no plumbing, no electricity, no services of any kind. People were resettled in tents after the 2010 earthquake, and then created makeshift houses with available materials.

• People riding burros with saddles made of dried sugar-cane leaves. Not uncommon. Oxcarts, too. A striking sight was a funeral procession led by an oxcart with two yoked oxen, the coffin in the back, decorated with cane leaves and draped with white muslin.

• A huge supermarket with almost no fresh ingredients and almost nothing from Haiti.

• Zero white people. We were the people from another planet. In fact, the only two white people I saw from arrival at the airport until departure were Steve and Carla.

Piles of American rice at a Haitian market. Photo: Mark Bittman

Once at Cantave’s place — a nascent training center for farmers and organizers a few kilometers outside St. Raphaël — I felt settled into a place of beauty and energy, a different world; people in general were energetic, engaging, and talkative. I can speak French (badly), but it’s not as helpful as it might be here, because so much of Haitian Creole is different. I imagine part of that was rebellion, the development of a code language different from that of the oppressor. Part of it, too, is simply time and distance; my impression is that the French influence here is far less important than the African or the American.

Most of the rest of my waking hours were spent visiting farmers and their families and a couple of farmer-run enterprises, including a newly functioning sugar mill (sugar cane remains an important crop, but there aren’t enough processing facilities for small farmers), and a peanut-butter “factory” — basically a small-scale but powerful grinder in a 60-square-foot concrete building.

The St. Raphaël daily outdoor market was, like the supermarket, notable for its lack of local food; almost all shelf-stable staples come from the United States and, not surprisingly, thanks to (American) subsidies, are cheaper than healthier, domestically produced food. It’s impossible not to wonder how to get over this. Farmers’ organizations seem, unquestionably, to be making a difference: Peasants I met grew much of their own food, and relied upon it — they understand, in the most important ways, what’s healthy. But they also grow surplus, and it’s difficult for them to sell it — there’s no real market for it, and therefore imported foods continue to dominate. There’s an opportunity here, and some people are talking about a special daily or weekly market for local produce only.

Down the road a bit was the meat market, which comprised a few dozen people selling live goats and chickens. It was not uncommon to see people walking to market with chickens under their arms or carried in sacks, or goats on a leash or tied to the back of a cycle. I loved this, both for its spectacle and as a reminder that good meat — all the meat raised here is “free-range” and “organic” — shouldn’t be taken for granted.

I had four notable meals. Dinner that first night at Cantave’s was, oddly enough, a near replica of lunch, only five times better: beautifully seasoned, pan-roasted goat meat, tender and mildly spicy; fried plantains, crisp-tender and salty; thin, fried slices of breadfruit — big chips, essentially; pikliz, a kind of barely cooked, spicy slaw; cucumbers, lettuce, and tomatoes. And more Prestige, too.

Lunches, prepared (mostly) by women of the village organizations that we visited, were cooked in huge pots over open wood fires: sorghum, mayi moulen (which means, literally, “milled corn,” but that doesn’t mean much to non-Creole speakers, and it is, essentially, polenta); root vegetables (sweet potato, yam, cassava, plantain, and more); 10 or 15 kinds of greens, most unidentifiable by me, pounded together while cooking to make a kind of beaten sauce; okra with chilies and a little bit of goat (sensational); black beans, some mashed and strained, also to become saucy; and a red bean I’d never seen before.

I have to say that my favorite meal was the first breakfast: The table was adorned with a cooked goat’s head, next to which was a stew called ragout tonbe — fallen ragout — so named because it’s made from the offal that falls out of the goat after the first butchering cut is made. (Meat from the head and feet are involved, too.) All of that is stewed with leeks, bitter-orange juice, parsley, garlic, thyme, chilies, black pepper, salt, tomato, and oil. I didn’t see it get made, though I wish I had, because it reminded me of nothing so much as bouillabaisse, I guess because the seasonings were similar and the intestines virtually indistinguishable from squid. It was all served with boiled roots and cassava bread.

I left Port-au-Prince a little over a week ago, and have since been to Brazil (quickly), home, and am writing this from London. The contrasts are staggering, and will not become less so.

After leaving Haiti, I couldn’t help but compare the “shithole” comment to Greene, who noted that the poor are not the source of the world’s troubles: “Wars are made by politicians, by capitalists, by intellectuals, by bureaucrats, by Wall Street bosses or Communist bosses — they are none of them made by the poor.”

Author’s note: For readers concerned about the word “peasant”: I’m not using it capriciously. While in English in the US we usually say “smallholder and family farmers” or the like, the groups of farmers, workers, and their families refer to themselves as organizations of peasants. This is not only true in Haiti, but in many other countries.

After the devastating 2010 earthquake, U.N. “relief” forces brought cholera to Haiti, sickening hundreds of thousands and killing about 10,000. A fascinating man around my age, who grew up in a peasant family from this region, and whose brother, Chavannes, was one of the founding members of La Via Campesina, perhaps the most important peasant organization in the world. More on that another time. The infamous “Papa Doc” Duvalier. I reread The Comedians (fun piece) on the flight home and couldn’t help but think of Trumpie when I read Papa Doc’s attempt to damn and discredit Greene by describing him as “a cretin, a stool pigeon, sadistic, unbalanced, perverted, a perfect ignoramus, lying to his heart’s content , the shame of proud and noble England, a spy, a drug addict, and a torturer.” Maybe hundreds of thousands; Port-au-Prince, with 2.5 million people, is only a little less populated than Chicago. But then I was traveling with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the late (and missed) Kerry Simon. I got to sit in the back. Less frightening. “So where do you charge your phone?” — which most, or at least many, people seem to have, I asked someone. “In every village, there are a couple of people who have a generator or a solar-powered battery, and you pay them a few gourdes” — the local currency — “to charge your phone.” I was told what they were, but none of the words mean what we think they mean, which is to say, the word translated as spinach is not what you think of as spinach.
Haiti’s Complex Humanity