In the Shadows of Mountains
The first American Peace Corps volunteer ever to request assignment to Haiti, Adam Price '88 reports on his first year among the people of the Western hemisphere's second-oldest republic.
Photos by Adam Price '88
Editor's Note: In October, Adam Price '88 completed the first year of a two-year Peace Corps assignment in Haiti. Interestingly, he holds the distinction of being the only American yet to request assignment for Peace Corps duty there. The story goes that upon meeting a woman on a commuter train in Washington, D.C. who had just received a Peace Corps assignment to Haiti, Price walked into the Peace Corps headquarters during lunch that day and asked to be sent. The immediate response was a look of shock on the administrator's face and a call to the Haiti program manager to break the news. Price soon found himself being processed into the Corps.
Haiti is a natural fit for Price. Before joining the Peace Corps, he had been working as a business development consultant in Washington, finishing his doctorate in Caribbean-American literature and looking to move into international development. His early interest in the field arose from annual subscriptions to National Geographic given by his grandfather John Wyatt '30 and an English class he calls "Neo-Colonial Literature" taught by Wabash professor Roger Berger.
In the following excerpts from a series Price wrote for the Indianapolis Star, the author shares his observations during the "integration" phase of Peace Corps training. In a final section, Price considers the goals he hopes to achieve, understanding that in the Peace Corps, it's not the volunteer's triumphs that count, but those of the people he serves.
Day One in Haiti
Port-au-Prince, Haiti-Our American Airlines jet dwarfed the Port-au-Prince airport. There was not another jet in sight-only a couple of large propeller craft in the grass near the taxiway. Having traveled to other Caribbean islands, I am used to debarking by staircase and walking across the tarmac, but never had I seen a country's main airport so empty.
The Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is hard to describe in terms that capture the obvious grit of frequent squalor and the easily missed sense of daily routine with which the teeming crowds carry on their activities. For every house that stands abused and neglected, there is at least one with some repair in progress. Any flowing water (including broken pipes) has a crowd washing clothes or bathing. And clogged downtown streets are filled with vendors, brightly colored mini-buses and covered pick-up trucks called tap-taps.
Tap-taps are the most common mode of transportation. When moving down a road in Haiti, one is either in front of or behind the ubiquitous vehicles. The tap-taps always have a name and are most often covered with designs and mottos painted in red, white, blue, and gold.
In my very unscientific study, their names often fall into categories that concern the chauffeur's religion, driving abilities, attitude, or girlfriends.
The tap-taps are constantly halting as passengers "tap" (read: "bang") the side of the vehicle to signal their stop
To ride in a tap-tap is to share one's personal space with a crowd of people and an odd goat or chicken. Haitians have a much smaller personal space than Americans, but a tap-tap's benches are often so crowded that if a passenger doesn't have to sit on someone else, even a Haitian feels a sense of luxury
Training "In Country"
Cavaillon, Haiti-Family is the center of life in Haiti, and I have lived during my Peace Corps training in the countryside of Haiti with three generations of a family that has "adopted" me.
My "mother" and "father" are in their 70s and have already raised 12 children. My "brother" is in his 30s and my "nephews" are ages 10, six, and three. This, by Haitian standards, is a smaller than average family.
We are made a little more average by Yolene, a 17-year-old orphan girl who lives with us Like many children in Haiti whose parents have died, she was left to make her way by working for relatives or another family. Haitian families take in other children so often that it can be very hard to get an accurate count of children in any given family. It is amazing how fluid the family structure is and how willing these families are to accept children from others when they are just getting to the point of moving their own children on to adulthood.
To many Haitians in the countryside, an empty house is a lonely house. Here, the Haitian proverb, "Children are a family's riches," is accepted as gospel. There is also such a strong tradition of communal living that the comings and goings of family members and neighbors in and out of households is unquestioned. This communal living even extends beyond family bonds to the entire Lakou, a compound in which several families live and raise children as a group.
Lakou society is a dying tradition, however, and Haitian families are shrinking in size as the agrarian society diversifies. But even with these societal changes, the family bonds seem as strong as ever.
Every night, my family gathers in the lamplight for a few hours of work, study, talk, play, or hairbraiding. My mother sells sugar, flour, and ground corn at market every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, so she often spends evenings preparing small paper packets for her wares.
The children often read homework assignments or draw in their notebooks. Every time I pass a Haitian schoolhouse and hear the children chanting lessons, it reminds me of the one-room schoolhouse demonstration at Conner Prairie [museum and pioneer settlement near Indianapolis]. Much like our forefathers, who learned their "three-Rs" by rote, Haitians have very good memories for the shared culture and schoolwork that is repeated so often.
In the Shadows of Mountains
Robin, Haiti-Déyé mon gen mon. Translation: Beyond the mountains are mountains.
To know that 80 percent of Haiti is covered with mountains, most of which are not accessible by motorized vehicles, is to understand this Haitian proverb and a most influential aspect of Haiti's geography. And to climb these steep slopes for hours under the hot Caribbean sun is to experience the constant force that these mountains exert on the people who live in their shadow.
Mountains channel people in much the same way they channel water. Because of the extreme exertion of mountain life, once a path has been created through the rugged terrain, the flow follows these paths. And these paths in the Haitian mountains, barely less rugged than the mountain itself, are constantly traveled by machann (market women), kiltivate (farmers), and ti moun (children).
The view of these mountains is alternatively breathtaking and sad. Outside my back door at 4,500 ft., Pik La Sel rises to more than 9,000 feet. With its green and sharply rising angles, this mountain is a majestic sight. Every time I see this peak I laugh. To a born-and-bred Hoosier, its beauty is unreal.
In another direction from my back door, I look toward denuded hillsides that have lost their trees to charcoal and lumber production. Eventually they also lost their soil as progressive crops failed to hold earth and water.
In Haiti, a farm is divided into several small plots Not only does the average Haitian farmer not have access to power-driven farm equipment, he or she does not have access to credit. So farmers must always have a crop ready for harvest and sale in the market.
Children help in farming and later in marketing, but their greatest responsibility is carrying all the family's water if the family does not have a cistern. Water, other than in the high-altitude mist common in the mountains, can be scarce in the dry season. So this is quite a chore, lugging heavy buckets up steep hillsides.
While certainly the men and children help, the women carry the majority of produce to the markets. These women may trek with overfilled baskets on their heads eight to12 hours through the mountains to arrive at a town with a large market. If a machann should be so lucky, she may live along a dirt road passable by kamyon (trucks). These kamyon generally leave very early in the morning and are overflowing with machann and their produce.
I have read that a full-time machann who travels frequently, buying and selling in several villages, can net as much as $20 Haitian or about $6.60 U.S. in a week. In a country where the World Bank pegs the average annual income at $4.80 per week, this is no small amount of money. But then, the work-mental, emotional, and physical-required to make a living in the mountains of Haiti is no small matter, either.
Kenscoff, Haiti-At Wabash, I thrived on personal goals and time tables (albeit with blessed extensions). I worked together with my fellow students in class and in study groups, but I was pushed by my individual drive to succeed. But as we know, not everything in life is based upon our own ability to complete a task. Whether as teacher, parent, manager, co-worker, or assistant we succeed through the success of others. In Haiti, this success by extension is becoming a reality to me every day through my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I live in Kenscoff, a relatively lush commune in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. I began my work here with a three-month study of local organizations and communities. I had many meetings during this period that served as an entry into the local society. From these meetings I have begun to understand the needs and possibilities for these communities. Likewise, each community has begun to understand the reason for this stranger's arrival.
I am currently working, or laying foundation for work, in the transformation of local fruit and vegetable crops, dissemination of credit, marketing of an improved stove, and teaching of teachers. The emphasis is always on creating or strengthening local opportunities through local understanding. I not only help to build a better stove, but I also strive to pass on the significance of developing appropriate technologies and community education of these advances. This results in social change-as much as technology transfer-as I transfer a mind set of problem solving.
One example of this can be found in our development of new kerosene and charcoal stoves for the Haitian market. In tests, we found that women wanted to use the maximum power of the stoves at all times. We have explained that there is no need to put more energy into the system after the water comes to a boil-that doing so wastes water and charcoal. It has been a struggle to get participants to accept this understanding of energy systems and our stoves, but if we can save charcoal consumption in this environmentally devastated land, we will have accomplished something very important.
In the long run, when our community learns that there are underlying scientific reasons for such phenomenon, they will have greater control and hopefully responsibility for events. Watching the members of my community learn these principles, just as I have learned about their culture and families, will be rewarding. Yet my personal achievements are secondary to my mission here. The real gauge of my success will be how much members of my community have learned when I leave.