“Is this your first time to Haiti?” the man across from me asked as we both reached for spoons nestled beneath separate but equally delectable looking dishes during lunch in the Haiti Projects café located in their brand new library.
Scooping up some greens I shared that this was my 9th or 10th trip to Haiti over the past 6 years.
“Then you’re Haitian!” the man exclaimed, outstretching his hand and introducing himself as Joel.
“Hardly,” I laughed. “I still need to learn to make a proper soup joumou!”
Over lunch, I got to know Joel from the lunch buffet line. As we ate, this soft-spoken man with a firm handshake, bright eyes, and a big smile leaned close and told me his story in a hushed voice while I told him how I started coming to Haiti.
The 2010 earthquake raised the world’s awareness of Haiti through the coverage that focused on death and destruction suffered by this already poor country. As recovery efforts began and foreign aid poured in to provide immediate assistance, there was also a need to rebuild people’s lives through sustainable jobs as their livelihoods were disrupted.
With a history of reducing poverty through job creation through the Rwanda Path to Peace initiative, Macy’s was looking to replicate efforts in a similar way in Haiti and launched the Heart of Haiti line in the fall of 2010. A blog conference in Miami served as my first introduction to Haiti besides what I had seen on the news.
Gorgeous art work with visually stunning and vibrant patterns painted on papier mache vases drew me to the table where I met master papier mache artist, Pierre Satyr, and struck up a conversation with Danica Kombol. Danica’s agency, Everywhere, worked with Macy’s to share Heart of Haiti’s fair trade items with consumers through bloggers and social media. As I learned about the fair trade products sold through the Heart of Haiti line, I became curious about the people behind the products and the country where they lived.
Having double majored in art history and psychology in college, I knew how traumatic events, personal struggles, and even mental illness were depicted in works by artists like Monet, Van Gogh, and so many others. The image of Haiti in the news didn’t match the beauty I was seeing through the handcrafted goods by these talented artisans.
Vibrant colors and whimsical patterns by effervescent artists I met at the expo hall table made me feel I felt I was missing a big part of the story by not understanding more about the country. I stayed in touch with Danica, writing pro bono posts about the Heart of Haiti line, and when I saw that a small group of bloggers traveled to Haiti with her in 2011, I knew I wanted to join her.
January 2012 I was wheels up to Haiti with an open mind. Less than 90 minutes after leaving Miami and flying over gorgeous blue waters that the Caribbean is known for, we landed alongside cargo planes where palates of plastic wrapped supplies sat in the hot sun waiting to be dispersed as relief supplies to the island. The airport, like the rest of Port au Prince, had been badly damaged during the earthquake.
Sounds of construction came from somewhere behind the plastic sheeting as we made our way through dim hallways where the heat from the mid-day sun permeated the building in the absence of working air conditioners. We collected our bags from the single carousel and were led through a chaotic parking lot. We politely declined offers of help to carry our bags as helpful hands tried to take them from us while we wove our way through cars parked closely together. Seated in the quieter haven of our van, I got my first up close look at Haiti.
As we traversed broken streets lined with piles of rubble and tents occupying every open space en route to our hotel, I remember sitting by Willa Shailt, co-founder of Macy’s Heart of Haiti. Willa started traveling to Haiti right after the earthquake and while I took in the endless landscape of USAID tents and rubble, I asked if she had noticed change over the past two years since she began traveling to the island. Her answer was yes. Small changes were evident with each visit to Haiti.
Over the next few days, I got a crash course about the country between visiting artists. The Cliffs Notes version of what I learned (that is still true today) is that Haiti can be a complicated place. Blan, the Haitian Creole term for whites or foreigners, are considered outsiders and are often viewed with skepticism when offering help.
Knowing what I know now, it’s not surprising that women of Dam Dam, a papier mache collective in Leogane, questioned our visit. I suppose I might be skeptical too if a group of outsiders invaded one of the rooms in our 4 room schoolhouse where our conversation and work on papier mache pieces was interrupted. After sharing that we were fellow moms and wanted to learn about them, their art, and share stories of their handicrafts on our blogs, they asked us what blogs were. After a member of our group showed them a cached version of her blog on a netbook, they said they wanted to learn how to use the computer to blog too but openly wondered if we’d return. There were many before us who had made similar promises and never came back.
There are memorable moments that range from poignant, funny, touching, ridiculous, sweet, and beyond from my numerous trips to Haiti. Lined up in front of a room of women questioning our intentions, wondering if we’d be return was poignant, touching, and a lightbulb moment all at once.
Before I left for Haiti, people questioned why I was going, how this trip was a good fit for my blog, and why wasn’t Macy’s fully funding my trip. The truth is I was curious. I wanted to see Haiti with my own eyes, outside of the news reports. While I did receive small scholarship from Everywhere that covered my flight, this trip wasn’t intended to promote Macy’s products. I was under no obligation to write or share having personally paid for a majority of my trip costs. I was free to share my experiences if I chose to do so.
While many of the artists created products for the Macy’s Heart of Haiti line, they were connected as members of the Artisan Business Network (ABN), a business run by Haitian born New Yorker, Nathalie Tancrede. ABN started with seed money from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Fonkoze and other organizations that were looking to revitalize the handicrafts sector. Through ABN and Nat’s vision, skilled artisans were empowered to earn money through traditional handicrafts. Artists were exposed to new markets and retailers around the world and orders from retailers created sustainable jobs.
Dam Dam was part of ABN and with their single request to learn to use computers to share their stories online, my trip was given meaning and purpose given my background in technology and education. In the van on the way back to Port au Prince I formulated a plan to teach artists some basic computer skills and leverage connections to tech companies to get donated supplies in order to come back and keep that promise.
Following my trip, I wrote a request appealing for grant funds from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund and a year later I returned with donated laptops from Microsoft, a brand new Epson ink jet printer with extra ink cartridges packed in my carry-on bag, and other supplies to help artists set up accounts and learn how to use email, Facebook, and basic Microsoft Office tools for their businesses.
Other members of our group were skilled photographers and wanted to teach ABN artists how to take great photos of their work for marketing purposes. It seemed like we had great content for a half day training for ABN artists but technology is only as successful as your internet connection is strong.
We had the best intentions but Haiti’s infrastructure three years after the earthquake was still unstable in some parts of the country. While cell phone companies on each corner were aiming to put mobile phones in the hands of every Haitian on the island, the internet connection was so slow that most of our training time was spent setting up accounts, rather than teaching artists how to use them.
Chalk this up to lessons learned in Haiti, of which there have been many.Through the years, each trip has led to a deeper understanding of Haiti. I don’t claim to be an expert but I’ve become the person that local friends and my and online community comes to about Haiti when the country makes the news because of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew or in response to the president’s recent disparaging comments, advice is needed for setting up supply donations benefitting local communities, friends want to visit to see Haiti for themselves, or organizations want to share what they’re doing with the world through social media. It’s an honor because it means the good work I’ve done to share positive images of the country here and through social media has changed the perception of Haiti beyond the negative press.
With each trip I’ve also connected with various organizations and individuals who were on the ground before the earthquake. Even though there are 8 million people living in Port au Prince, the island isn’t that big. If you have a history of doing good work in Haiti and are connected to good people doing the same, your circle is actually pretty small.
From an original introduction Haiti Projects’ embroidery work on the side of a riverbank in Leogane years ago to some chance meetings a couple of years apart in New York City and more recently in Port au Prince, Haiti Projects CEO, Cherie Miot Abbanat and I connected to talk about Haiti Projects last year.
“I’ve learned that things in Haiti take time but if they’re meant to be, they’ll happen,” I told my new friend, Joel. “I had no idea that I’d come back after my first trip but somehow I keep finding my way back.” He nodded, knowing exactly what I meant.
I like to think that’s how my most recent trip to Haiti with Haiti Projects happened and how I came to visit this new-to-me spot on the island that is now home to a beautiful new library serving the community on the southern coast of Haiti.
This week I’ll be sharing more about Haiti Projects and their numerous initiatives housed at the Community Library such as the artisan cooperative, training women to become beekeepers, menstrual health education through the Pad Project, and TechnoClub hands-on technology workshops I got to see in action. Huge thanks for sending USB flash drives, iPads, cell phones, laptops, and more to support TechnoClub for me to take to Haiti Projects! The purses you sent will be given to women and girls who participate in the Pad Project!
It’s a pretty amazing place with lots of things going on that support the entire community of Fond des Blancs and is already pulling me back. Maybe during my next trip someone will give me that soup joumou cooking lesson I’ve been wanting for years.
To read about my past trips to Haiti, past posts can be found here and an entire gallery of photos can be found on Flickr or through the slide show link below. If you’re interested in joining me on a future trip, feel free to fill out this form. I’d love for you to join me and will be in touch!
This is not a sponsored post. Haiti Projects paid my travel expenses in exchange for covering the library opening and sharing their initiatives on social media. Scholarships from Everywhere and grant money from the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund (CBHF) have helped defray past trip costs but the remainder of my expenses are always personally paid for.