I first visited Haiti as a freshman on an outreach trip through the Office of Civic Engagement, our work was to collect tree survival data for the Zanmi Kafe reforestation project, which aims to use a payment for ecosystem services model to promote long term tree planting and carbon sequestration in order to protect the steep farms of the central plateau from erosion and degradation.
While there I got to know the head Haitian agronomists that we partner with, as well as the farmers and families of the Bois Jolie community, where Zanmi Kafe partners. I immediately came to feel a strong appreciation for the vibrant culture of Haiti, the first independent nation founded by former slaves. The people are proud, enterprising, and generous. The food is excellent, a cuisine of tropical fruits, vegetables, rice and beans, and succulent meat sauces. The sun sets behind mountain ranges and the afternoons offer a respite from the heat in the form of rumbling rain showers. After one week, not returning was out of the question, and I eagerly began working with the program directors to return in the summer for an extended stay.
This past Spring Break, I returned to Haiti for the fifth time in two years, but this time I was the student leader for the trip. In the absence of the professor that usually helps run the show, I took charge of coordinating another round of tree survival surveys. Despite several months of research experience behind me and a solid base in the native language of Kreyol, I was very nervous before going. There was a lot of work to do, a number of loose ends to tie down. Furthermore, Haiti is notorious for presenting unpredictable obstacles. However, after our first night up in Bois Jolie, I was grateful and relieved to see that our group of 30 folks , including Sewanee students, Haitian students, and Haitian agronomists, were meshing well and doing good work. On the fourth day in this mountain community, I felt a surge of pride for our group as I looked upon a newly built seedling nursery and the twenty-nine household surveys that the group had helped to finish.
My experiences in Haiti have been full of gratification, challenges, and learning, but one of the most eye-opening moments happened during this trip, and it did not come in the form I might have expected. This moment happened on the concrete steps of a half-built church, while I sat down with the two head Haitian agronomists, Maxo and Bosquet. We began talking about how impressed we were with the adaptability and efficiency of the group, and the amount of work that had been accomplished. To my surprise, they voiced their pride in working with me, and their gratitude for my leadership in the program.
Their words, although simple, reflected hours of toil, difficult conversations and miscommunications, as well as moments of laughter, smiles, and appreciation. Their words were not for a stranger, savior, or temporary visitor. They spoke to me as a partner, and as a friend. To feel such a connection, despite all the different ways that community development work can go wrong, was an affirmation. I felt affirmed that long term relationships are completely necessary for improving the lives of humans across the world, and that I had made a genuine connection with people who live in a world far different from mine. Regardless of whatever standards of measurement for community development we use, this moment, those relationships, are above all priceless.