I will always remember Jean Nelson wielding his machete and cutting sugar up into edible pieces for our university students to chew on when they visited his farm in Bois Joli, Haiti, most had never experienced such a raw, sweet treat. He would then slice the top off a coconut with a quick action of his blade, it was evident he sharpened it every day and prided himself in that task. When everyone had their share, he would smile.
He was always willing to share his abundance.
If you were privileged, usually a small group, you got to sit in the plastic chairs under the banana trees on the earthen patio outside his house , and feast. No little umbrellas or contrived atmosphere, just the sincerity that lies in our mutual humanity. There was a beautiful, mountain overlook to the west. During Carnival season his house was decorated with a simple strip of purple and gold ribbon that ran across the front eaves. It was as important as any home on St. Charles Avenue during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
As you entered his farm there was a “Digicel Phone Company, Top-Up” location sign, laterally posted on a tree. You knew a business person lived there, someone working several hustles to make ends meet. Duncan Pearce one summer observed that Jean Nelson went two hours down the mountain, two hours up, and wasn’t carrying any commodity either way. Confusing, because Haitians in the country usually had a material purpose in making the trek. Upon inquiry Duncan found out that he had gone to one market, bought some goats, and sold them at another market for a profit. Goat brokering at its best.
The Bois Joli zone is a remote, rural community in the Central Plateau of Haiti and was Jean Nelson’s home. It is a place University of the South students, staff, faculty and friends have come to love and appreciate, not out of pity or sorrow, but because we share a common journey and try our best to see one and other as brothers and sisters, not haves and have nots and to learn from each other.
If we pause to think of what sharing meant to Jean Nelson and we reflect upon what that means in our own life, we might put our heads in between our legs and fold in deep guilt. That’s not the purpose. We look at Jean Nelson as a guide for us to be as thoughtful and giving as he was and keep becoming better people.
Deborah McGrath always said I had a man-crush on Jean Nelson. Maybe it was the machete or the cool looking hat he wore, I don’t look that good in a hat. He was a handsome man and well respected. His farm was well terraced and admired, so yea I suppose I did.
He helped build the PVC nursery near the main cistern last March and was key in rallying the community support.
I don’t know how he died but I suppose beyond our knowledge there lies the illnesses and problems that go beyond our detection. He seemed healthy, but I don’t know what his real condition was. I wonder if the PIH hospital could have helped, I wish this did not happen. In writing this, tears are so very close.
He will be greatly missed,