Friday, January 10, 2014

Our last full day in Haiti

Friday, January 10, 2014

We began our day with a step back in time, to the W&M Haiti Compact trip’s work in 2012 with the school in Cima. Then, our group worked with the teachers who were just beginning the school – under a tent provided by UNICEF, with tables made from the crate the tent was shipped in. Our team brought their experience in developing lesson plans and curriculum, and shared some structures for the teachers to use as they developed class for their 50 young students.

The school has come a long way!  With three talented teachers, led by Hernise, they now host many more students in three open-air but permanent classrooms, complete with chalkboards, desks and of course, dancing and singing.  The children welcomed us with enthusiasm and it was great to see Hernise again! (By the way, Bon Coco – the hot chocolate sold by a women’s cooperative that our team also worked with that year – is still in production and looking for more markets!)

We headed to the restaurant across from the university, a social enterprise developed by Sonje Ayiti along with other partners. It has become a gathering spot for university students and faculty, and served as a breezy, beautiful place for us to spend the afternoon. We met with the university student group again to discuss ways we could develop a partnership or connect around sharing resources, and look forward to continuing that conversation in the coming weeks. We also helped bus tables and had a great lunch at the restaurant.

We visited Caracol, the factory area recently developed to encourage economic investment in the region. We were not able to get on site (they are well secured!) but it was interesting to see from a distance after learning about the complexities and controversies of this project in our pre-trip reading of The Big Truck that Went By (by Jonathan Katz).

As it was our last day in country, we visited a small tourist market (metal geckos!) and picked up some Haitian peanut butter and coffee at a nearby grocery. We headed up the hill to join Gabie at a networking meeting for health-related NGOs and professionals, and met students from other schools who were here on medical outreach trips. (We also got to take in a beautiful view from high above Cap Haitien and the ocean!) It was actually sort of posh - and a striking contrast to the surroundings of many of our communities; a thought-provoking opportunity to see the economic differences right there in Cap Haitien.

On the way home, Piti picked up some water and popcorn for the ride. Over dinner with Gabie and heading into reflection, we discussed Sonje Ayiti’s micro-loan program (which our team was able to support through a community engagement grant), and how many of the women they work with are able to get small businesses started from that little boost.  Reflection brought us up to the roof one more time, for final thoughts on the trip and the beginning conversation of our goals for next year. It was good to hear that Patrick (who was with us most days) had positive feedback, and Gabie thanked us for coming and visiting as a sign of our care for our friends there. We look forward to developing deeper relationships with them each year!

-(Melody Porter)              

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Nutrition and Medika Mamba

Thursday January 9, 2014

On Thursday the group made its longest journey from Gabie’s house yet—a three hour car ride, most of which was uphill.  Sonje Ayiti operates in Bailly, an isolated village nestled at the top of one of the mountains south of Cap-Haitien.  With eight people crammed into an SUV for such a long period, the journey was quite arduous, especially for those in the backseat.  We were joined by a British nutritionist, Lucy, who was on the fourth month of her year-long stay in Haiti. 

Sonje Ayiti works in Bailly on nutrition programs and distributing Medika Mamba, fortified peanut butter designed to combat malnutrition in young children.  Workers from Sonje Ayiti make a weekly trip up the mountain to distribute the Medika Mamba to mothers of young children, so we had some large boxes of it with us for the ride.  I was relieved when we arrived, in part because I was slightly carsick and ready to get out of the crowded SUV, but also because I was looking forward to presenting my little bit of research on the cashew tree and its uses.  Many people in the village had received both cashew trees and moringa trees from Sonje Ayiti, and the purpose of this distribution is to create a sustainable nutritional supplement to combat malnutrition and increase food security.

Everyone in our group got the opportunity to speak to an attentive group of mothers about nutrition and women’s health, a task that was somewhat intimidating given that nobody in our group had ever been pregnant.  We tried to keep the conversation going both ways by asking the women questions and trying to find out what they already know about these subjects, and then the presentations turned into more of a two-way discussion.  After, Sudeep, Anderson, and I counted out the number of peanut butter packets each mother needed, which was great practice for my French counting skills.  We later learned that some of the women had walked for miles to receive the peanut butter.  As Gabie put it, it was either they do that or risk their child dying from malnutrition.

Once we got down from the mountains, we had to drop the British aid worker off at the medical peanut butter factory/office building where she worked.  She offered to give us a tour, which we joyfully accepted.  Apparently, most of the peanuts used at the facility must be imported from the United States because it is cheaper, although they are trying to use a greater percentage of Haitian-grown peanut butter.  This got me thinking about the actual impact of U.S. agricultural surpluses around the world, which are sold in places such as Haiti at below market prices and effectively make Haitian farmers uncompetitive.

I really gained a lot from this day, and I thought it was interesting to see first-hand the distributional challenges of aid delivery.  (Working for AidData on campus, I think a lot about international development issues.)  A basic delivery truck, for example, would have no way of making it up the steep, washed-out road that we were on to Bailly.  This is a major problem for people who want to be able to sell their crops to a wider market or produce anything that people would like to buy outside of the isolated community.  Overall, it was a successful day!

-(James Willard)

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Day with ICC

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

Today we worked with a different group, International Child Care. I think everyone on the group really came into their element when we started discussing the research topics we all had prepared. Yesterday, none of us really knew what to expect, but today we came into the town a bit more prepared. We knew what we wanted to accomplish, but we also knew that we would have to be fluid in adapting to whatever situation we were placed in. That was really encouraging, I think. Each of us were well-versed in our topics, and the work we put in before the trip shined through on this occasion. A clear difference between yesterday and today was the rapport we established with our translator. It was clear and quick and flowed well between us and the ladies we were talking to.

We also tried something a little different in helping to rebuild a retaining wall that was supporting a school in the town. It was a really really nice day that day, so working outside was a treat I hadn’t anticipated. It wasn’t physically strenuous, we were basically taking rocks from the nearby riverbed and tossing them onto the pile so the guys who actually knew how to build the wall could arrange them into a structurally safe and sound wall. I thought it was fun, we got to leave a sort of tangible legacy there that day.

After that we ate our lunch, got back in the car, and settled in for another bumpy ride back home to Gabie’s house. Today was, in my opinion, both more educational and more rewarding than the days before because we were able to have productive conversation and learn lots about the culture at the same time. We were able to speak to a group of midwives about their history and how the profession is changing with the introduction of cellphones and the use of ambulances to get the mothers from the most rural areas of the town in to the hospital.

That same day Piti, our driver, took us back into Cap-Hatien and showed us these really beautiful ruins of a fort. The fort had been there for quite a while, and to get to the ruins we had (and when I say had what I mean is we readily agreed) to walk along the beach and through the warm bay waters to reach them. We spent at least an hour wandering the grounds of the abandoned pen, and Piti took some great shots of the whole group. 
 All in all, it was a wonderful day exposing the group to the different styles of beauty that can be found in Haiti.

-(Sudeep Kalkunte)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

First Education Day

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014

Today was our first visit to open up a dialogue with Haitians about nutrition and health during pregnancy and how they can best use some of the resources non-profits make available to them.

Before we got going, we started off with a hot and spicy Haitian breakfast. We then left early enough for the ride out to one of the areas where mothers had gathered to receive aid and meet with us. The ride took a while, but we had a great driver and it was really great to see more of the country side. Once we arrived, we were welcomed and given seats to be amongst the mothers.

Before we had our talk, the children took turns being weighed and measured by a nurse. It took a while since  most of the youngest ones were pretty scared of the glass scale, but things moved along smoothly enough. One girl kept coming up to us and running away. Eventually, she brought one of the older boys with her and made a certain attempt to introduce us. Kids are cute and funny in any country.

When the weighing/measuring was done, we started talking about what we had learned about nutrition and the moringa tree. Each of us had specialized in one of several educational topics: nutrition during pregnancy, birth, birthing pains, the moringa tree, or the cashew fruit/cashews. We talked a bit about our subjects and asked the mothers what they knew about them. They explained to us that they knew a lot of the information already and that their trees were being eaten by goats. We talked to them about taking care of the trees and the necessary protection involved. Then, we talked about nutrition for children. They explained what things they gave their newborns and toddlers in terms of breast milk and eventually other foods. We commended them on doing a great job so far and to keep it up.

View of Cap-Hatien, where we stayed. 
Our base was around the mountain on which the city is located.

Since we were done, we enjoyed lunch in the car (Haitian coca-cola and peanut butter sandwiches, which were awesome) and left.

Once we made it back, we took turns reading out loud from Bossypants to pass the time (after I had napped) and then we took time to reflect on the day. Gabie explained that the mothers hadn’t taken good enough care to protect the moringa trees given to them, which was why goats could easily destroy them. We realized we should’ve reiterated that information even more so that they could be convinced to take better care of the trees. Gabie went on to explain that a lot of the information we had prepared was already well known and had been conveyed to locals by Hatian health workers. We could help by reiterating that information in order to build up the locals’ confidence in their health workers’ knowledge, thus building a better relationship of trust.

We reflected more on what Gabie had said after dinner. Tomorrow we plan on putting what we’d learned to good use for the next set of mothers.

-(Anderson Johnson)

Monday, January 6, 2014

First full day

Monday, January 6, 2014
First full day!

After a very long, satisfying night of sleep in our new temporary home, (we all slept for about 11 hours – talk about some travel exhaustion!), and breakfast with Gabi, we started our first day of the trip – and it was definitely a busy one.

In the morning, we traveled with Gabi (and sadly without our fearless advisor, Melody, who was home sick for the day – which Melody and the team were both pretty sad about) to the nearby location where her recently-opened restaurant is up and running. The property on which the restaurant is located, Konpleks Anba Tonel, is directly across the street from the Université Roi Henri Christophe, a purposeful choice of location: The restaurant uses local meats and vegetables – sometimes even as local as the peppers, spinach, and eggplant that they are growing on the same piece of property – for the meals provided. University students are able to get breakfast and lunch for a reduced price, and professors and other customers can also come get an affordable meal as well. The restaurant consists of open pavilions and brightly colored tables and chairs, and an overall comforting and relaxing atmosphere.  

A quick backtrack for some information on the Université Roi Henri Christophe: This Haitian university, funded by the government of their neighbors, the Dominican Republic, is now the biggest university in Haiti – it is now only in its second year, with 3,000 students, but a capacity for 10,000.

Hopes are high for the students who attend and the leadership they will develop from their education. This was especially apparent in our first meeting with a group of Université Roi Henri Christophe students. Gabi arranged for us to meet and have lunch with an organization of student leaders from the University, the Ligue des Etudiants de l’Idéal Christophien. It was very interesting to see what their organization focused on, most importantly leadership and a shared interest in furthering their educational opportunities, with a basis of bringing Haiti back in line with some of the ideals with historical Haitian leader Roi Henri Christophe. Going into the meeting, we didn’t really know what the goal of the exchange was intended to be. However, after introducing ourselves and discussing our different individual academic goals, the leader of the group expressed a desire to set up an educational and cultural exchange between our two colleges. Although we were all enthusiastic about the idea, we didn’t have all the answers we needed. Thankfully, both our group and the University students were enthusiastic about reconvening at the end of the week after doing a bit more thinking and clarifying on the idea.

Next, after a bit of drive (with our favorite driver ever, Piti!), we visited a town called Phaeton. Sonje Ayiti has been working with the town in some capacities, but Gabi explained to us on the way there that the village has been dependent on a feeding program established there for many years now. This was a classic example of a somewhat flawed, but well-intentioned way of combating hunger: Each day the feeding program gives one large meal to the children and adults of the town – which probably at first was keeping many of the malnutritioned children alive. But now, after years of the feeding program providing free food, the town has become somewhat dependent; many adults have lost the motivation to find other more sustainable ways to provide food for their families, and the feeding program has devolved into a long-term band aid, but not an effective cure. Gabi discussed with us why it was difficult to convince people that this was a dangerous cycle. We talked with the woman who runs the program, a lovely and very hard-working person, and got to interact a bit with the children who came to the school to pick up their meals. Gabi also sent Grace on an errand to get soil samples from the town – she wanted to get the soil tested to see if it is fertile enough for certain crops to grow in the area (Grace definitely got a funny look from a couple of 7-year-old girls for putting some random dirt in a plastic cup). 
Children in line for feeding program meal

Next we visited a farm in Paulette and chatted with the farmer in-charge of the projects going on there, which have been supported by Sonje Ayiti. He gave us a crash course in the water irrigation system they use – pretty impressive – showed us what plants are growing on the huge piece of land, as well as the greenhouse, and a hut where there are peppers and vegetables being dried. Just one more example of Sonje Ayiti’s efforts to enhance sustainable food security. We also saw our first glimpse of a large property covered in newly-built, colorful rows of “temporary” housing, funded by USAID. It was pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and Gabi explained the housing was placed with good intentions, but has created some frustration for being on fertile land that could have been used for crop, and for the seemingly random location.

So overall, Monday was a good day full of a lot of visits and a whole lot of learning about the complicated factors that go into aid projects, whether they are small or large-scale, successful or unsuccessful. We went home, team-napped briefly (of course), and had our first Haitian dinner with Gabi, where she filled us in more on the background of some of the projects we had learned about through the day, and helped us create some guidelines for the nutrition programs we would be helping with on Tuesday. Then Grace led rooftop reflection, after which we were all ready to go to bed to prepare for a big day (and early morning!).

-(Natalie Burke)