We have returned from Petite Montagne after three days and two nights spent collectively visiting fifty families and conducting three in-depth interviews.
While we have encountered hard hikes before, Petite Montagne stands out from the others in length and steepness not only on the way in to where we were staying, but also on the paths that led to families participating in the PSF program. To put this in perspective, on our last day before heading out, one of the Zanmi Agrikol employees in the area who led me and Monclair to the houses the day before thanked God that there had not been any rain during our stay, because our trips out to the families and around the mountain would have been impossible due to the narrow, steep, dirt paths we took.
Our charming “base camp” where we stayed was situated on a small, cleanly swept dirt compound high above a river and surrounded by similar neighboring compounds. We slept in a pretty blue concrete home with a wooden roof painted blue and white on top. About fifty feet from the entrance of the home was a storage shed (I assume) placed on tall stilts in the fashion we have seen a lot in our time here. Under this shed were chickens and an assortment of chairs to sit on. The entire area was bordered with banana plants, corn, and some aloe to one side. My favorite feature of our camp was a tall tree with giant green leaves that shaded the right half of the house. If you sat under this tree and looked out, you could glimpse the wide river that ran below us. We could access this river through taking a vertical path down, and did so to bathe after our two long days spent in the sun.
Petite Montagne stood out to me not only in the difficulty of the journey and the rewarding beauty of the area and our little camp after we were done, but also in the circumstances experienced by the families we visited there. The homes that I went to for the most part appeared much sparser than the homes we had visited before. I encountered more than one home whose walls—made mostly from dirt and stone—were buckling and swelling or had large holes missing entirely from the structure. The rooves were mostly straw and did little to cover the rest of the building; most of the kitchens were see-through cubic structures made by stringing dried banana leaves together in formations that looked about as substantial as a house of cards.
The women I interviewed could not read our permission form and were unable to write their own names—though both said that PSF funding had enabled some of their children to attend school regularly. I encountered children who showed the telltale signs of malnutrition with large bellies and skinny arms, and at least one who was suffering from some kind of severe sinus infection. There was a hospital located on the road we travelled on the way in, but it was distant from the area that I was working in, and a market in the same area.
Interacting with these conditions elicited many different responses and thought processes within me; I will try to be concise in sharing the two that continued to play within my mind as we hiked down.
First, our role this summer stood out to me aggressively this week. It is these situations—and the less severe but still lacking ones in the areas we have already traveled—that programs like the PSF program are designed for and desperately needed. Especially in areas isolated from bigger towns, resources are lacking and difficult to come by to say the least. While aid must be done in a way that empowers a community and the people within it to begin to provide for themselves—and I believe PSF has this focus—there must be a base from which they can build.
Our job this summer is to show this need and try as best we can to attach the voices and narratives that go along with it. To be an agent of assessment and change, to tell the stories of the families we encounter in order to better their circumstances, is an honor and a privilege we have this summer. It is not that we are alone in activating a change, but we play a small and important role in a grander scheme to improve family security and community health. This alone is an amazing experience that we get to share in.
The second major thought that circulated within my mind throughout the week and in our greatest moments of difficulty—there weren’t many—was how unbelievably blessed and privileged our group was, especially as we stood in stark contrast to the community in which we were staying. Yes, the hikes out to homes were difficult and the paths we took were sometimes so bad that the only thing preventing us from sliding down the mountain were the little grass roots that were thankfully growing in the dirt. But how dare we utter a word of complaint. These same paths were taken daily by children going to school, men and women going to work, and anyone just going from one place to another—with shoes worse than our high-tech boots or no shoes at all, and in many cases, loads on their heads heavier than our sleek, light packs. It is not that Haitians are all born with an innate ability to hike quickly, sweat less, and exhaust slower than we do. They have just grown in an environment in which they had to do what they had to do to get by without an option not to. For many that we have worked with this summer, this means climbing mountains like Petite Montagne or the hills within it regularly just to go about their daily lives.
It is so important in the times we deem the hardest here to remember that there is always an “after we’re done” in our lives. We have the ability to come home to a place with running water, beds with mattresses, electricity and fans, and a hot meal to look forward to. We can put band aids on our blisters and Benadryl on our bug bites. If we ever become sick here, we will receive the best medical care Haiti has to offer. You cannot say the same for the communities in which we work.
The mere fact that we can be where we are this summer doing our work makes us more privileged than most of the world and a large population of the United States. It is sometimes so easy to lose sight of the immense privilege our little blue passports carry, but to complain about our circumstances here is a blind exercise of this privilege. This is not to say that we should feel guilty as we encounter these circumstances and struggle to wrap our heads around whatever they may be. If anything, recognizing our privilege should push us to produce the best quality work that we can in our short time here.
Overall, Petite Montagne was an experience that reopened my eyes to the conditions faced by many in this country and around the world. It fueled me to continue our work at the highest quality we could and reminded me that taking enough time to pause and listen was the most important thing we could do given the task that we were. It is experiences like this that inspired me to participate in opportunities like our internship this summer and that continue to encourage my desire to work in similar fields as I try and discern what waits for me after this summer as a college graduate.