Before leaving Sewanee for the Haiti spring break outreach trip, I had a lot of thoughts going through my head. This was my second time leading a group of students to the remote area of Haiti that I’ve worked in for three years now, and I was admittedly a little nervous. On the plane ride over, I kept asking myself if we had prepared these students well enough to face the challenges that awaited us. I wondered how the coffee looked after being in the ground for well over a year. I even tried to imagine how the farmers we’ve been working with were feeling as they awaited the arrival of another group of twenty Sewanee students. I know the work that we’re doing is meant to help them, but I’ve always wondered how these impoverished farmers feel each time they see such a large group of Americans arrive in their village, all decked out in nice hiking gear and yielding fancy cameras. But, as always, my worries were put to rest as we hiked into the school of Bois Jolie and were greeted by our cheerful Haitian friends.
Zanmi Kafe partner Wilber Celine, with Sewanee students Kate Wilson and Huguette Ciza counting coffee berries during a site survey, Bois Jolie, Haiti, 6:40 PM, March 14, 2016.
It’s been a rough year for the farmers of Bois Jolie. A relentless blight has swept through the region in the last year, decimating many subsistence farmers’ crops. Upon seeing this during a weekend trip in February, Dr. McGrath decided that we should distribute partial carbon payments during the spring break trip, and hand out the remainder of the payments when we return in May. Organizing the distribution of carbon payments can be quite difficult with the language barriers, varying currencies, and formal receipts that must be dealt with. But, on March 25th, none of these difficulties hindered the execution of a successful carbon payments distribution. I sat at a table holding the receipt book, and, in a remarkably organized fashion, the farmers’ lined up as their names were called and received an envelope containing both a payment and a photograph of themselves. I was fortunate enough to get to talk to each person as they signed the receipt book after receiving their payment. The happiness radiating from the farmers was easily visible, and I was once again reassured that our collective presence was truly desired.
Every year, I’m amazed at how Sewanee students are so willing to expose themselves in such a foreign place and become fully immersed in a culture so distant from their own. The majority of students at Sewanee come from financially secure families, and traveling to a place like Bois Jolie, Haiti can be quite shocking for someone with little experience in third-world countries. You can read about poverty in a book and the implications it has upon generations of people, but to see it first-hand is an experience that should not be underestimated. Books about Haiti can accurately describe the hardships of living in rural poverty, but what’s often left out is the beauty and kindness within these people that lies beneath their struggles. However, despite the jarring transition of traveling from Sewanee to Haiti, the students on our trip embraced the difficulties entwined with our work while cherishing the positivity that flowed through Bois Jolie. Though it won’t be long before I return to Haiti, I cannot overestimate how grateful and appreciative I am for having been given the opportunity to work closely with so many wonderful people.