This past Monday, Maxo and Bosquet, the head agronomists of Zanmi Kafe, convened a meeting between fifteen of the ZK farmers. We met at the home of Jean Nelson, one of the programs most successful farmers, and began to discuss a workshop series on terracing. In the meeting, we discussed several points, including the material to be covered in the training as well as preparation for the upcoming fall coffee harvest. After working through some questions from the farmers, we looked at some of Jean Nelson’s terraces (which can be seen in the background of the above photo).
Terraces are an integral aspect of agroforestry in this region of Haiti, where farms are dotted across the slopes of the mountains. Without proper terracing, water and soil wash away during rains, leaving behind rocky, unforgiving soil. Extensive erosion is one of the worst things that can happen to a farm, as layers of soil that took hundreds of years to form can disappear in an afternoon storm. Rebuilding depleted soils is long and unrewarding work, so soil conservation through terracing is an important technique. Unfortunately, with stone terraces, the labor required is intense, and poorly built terraces can wash out in just a few years. The cause for these washouts is terraces being built against the contour of slopes, and it is this problem that the farmer workshops will attempt to address. Using a level-a (a makeshift level for finding the slope and run of a contour), terraces can be built with much longer lifetimes, increasing the incentive for the labor investment.
After examining some of Jean Nelson’s fine terraces, we agreed to meet again in the cool of the next morning at the farm of Phillipe Nelson to do a demonstration of terrace building without the level-a. I left the meeting excited by the energy of the farmers, and eager to see what would be done in the morning.
The mornings work began in the cool shade on the slope of Phillipe Nelson’s farm. The group of farmers stood about casually for a while joking and talking about the work to be done, until some the tools were brought out. The process of building a rock terrace was new to me, and I watched as Francique and Ephesian, two more ZK agronomists, ran out a line of twine along which we would be building the terrace.
After the line was placed, Francique began making a foot-wide canal with a pickax
, running along the contour of the slope. As the work began in earnest, so did the banter. Saintanot Merrilus was quick to point out that “granmoun” (grandparents in Kreyol) like himself were better off sitting and watching the work rather than doing it. However, he was soon off to collect large, flat stones from the nearby creeks and footpaths. Myself and several other farmers joined him. As I watched the others (many of whom were much older than me) pick up large chunks of limestone to form the base of the terrace, I felt the strange tension of being an outsider participating in an intimate community ritual.
Of course, being an outsider is par for the course in Haiti. As a six-foot-tall white man, I stand out in crowds. I must bend down to get through the footpaths between the lean-tos set up by market vendors. I hear “blan” everywhere I go, and my “otherness” in Haiti follows me around like a shadow. I am associated with the rest of the developed world as coming in to give something and leave. This is, however, exactly the reason that building the terrace was such a unique experience.
To be clear, although I have helped plan the workshops, I am by no means the facilitator. When it comes to building rock terraces, I was easily the most inexperienced person (as in no experience) in the group of fifteen or so farmers. I couldn’t even carry the biggest rocks. And yet, I was there, just as they were, working to build something together. Despite my otherness, I could participate in something that totally rearranged the usual power dynamics and privilege that inevitably and unfortunately frame many of my relationships in Haiti. Without that framework determining the nature of my participation, I didn’t feel like I was intruding as much as I usually do. In the sudden quietude of my presence, I was privy to something intimate and beautiful, something stronger than even the most level rock terrace.
As we neared the end, the size of the stones needed grew smaller and smaller. Spaces in the rock terrace were filled like puzzle pieces by the careful hands of the Haitians. We gathered around the product of our work and rested in the shade. As a symbol of gratitude for the effort given by their neighbors, the Phillipe Nelson’s wife and daughter brought out slices of bread and cups of coffee for those that aided in building the terrace. Wilifred Saintillus, one of the most active participants, gave a small speech and expressed his desire to continue to participate in shared labor and resources among his neighbors, through activities such as building more terraces, group harvests, and sharing animals. Exana Siliana, who took the place of her recently deceased mother, walked around with a bucket, pouring cups of water on folks hands so they could clean them.
As Siliana poured the precious resource over my own hands, I rinsed away the dirt and mud that had collected on my hands. Later, another farmer motioned to me to wipe some dirt off my neck (I was somehow the only sweaty and muddy person, the Haitians had not a speck of either on them). She was unsatisfied with my job and came over to brush the dirt off herself. This community, in the span of a few hours, taught me, fed me, and cleansed me. I was both broadly accepted and individually welcomed through these small acts of kindness and generosity. The beauty, in my eyes, is that these gifts were extended to all the farmers, and not just the visitor.