With small but steady steps, Haitians work to make better lives for themselves in the countryside

By Coco McCabe
Dieunel Prince teaches students how to use a word processing program at APPEL's computer training program in Liancourt, Haiti. Photo: Ami Vitale/Oxfam America.

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A few short months ago, anyone in Anse-a-Veau who wanted packaged goods—vegetable oil, batteries, spaghetti—had to ford the Grand Rivier de Nippes and make their way out of this town in southern Haiti. But now, perched on the edge of the square, a small shop has opened, offering locals some of the hard-to-get basics.

It’s supported by PADELAN, or the Project to Assist Local Development and Agroforestry in Nippes, a collaboration between Oxfam Quebec and the Ministry of Agriculture that uses money from the Canadian International Development Agency  to fund projects identified as priorities by local development committees.

And in Anse-a-Veau, this store was one of those priorities--desperately needed.

Several doors down, Mayor Telisme Dutelien sits behind his desk in a small office in the town hall. On a mid-May morning, the room is dim and sweltering. No lights shine and no fan churns: the community’s generator, which provided electricity, stopped working the month before, explains Dutelien. It’s just one of the problems that has plagued Anse-a-Veau in recent years, ever since its population began to drop in the 1980s, dragging the community’s commercial vitality with it.

The decline of Anse-a-Veau is symptomatic of what has happened across Haiti as Port-au-Prince, the capital and hub of opportunity, sucked people from the countryside for jobs, for schools, for a better life—or the promise of one. But in January, disaster struck there: an earthquake leveled great swaths of the city, killing 230,000 people and shaking the nation to its core. That calamity brought into sharp focus the drawbacks of centering so much of a country’s lifeblood in one sprawling place.

Now, the call for decentralization, long a national goal, is again sounding loud and clear. As international donors promise enormous financial resources to help Haiti rebuild, what are the steps it needs to take to answer that call? Some ideas can be found in the initiatives Oxfam had launched before the quake—programs based on the needs of communities, as voiced by the people who live in them.

They are small, but steady steps and the store in Anse-a-veau is one of them. Open since December 2009, it operates six days a week, its shelves of canned milk and crackers, matches and razor blades plugging the household needs local growers can’t fill themselves.

An egg a day adds up

Nearby, in Paillant, Guerline Rubin stands at the entry to her house, carrying a stack of cardboard crates loaded with eggs. They are from the chickens clucking in a henhouse in the corner of the yard—another of PADELAN’s community projects designed to help local families find ways to boost their incomes.

The chickens belong to Rubin’s father, a participant in the egg-production project which has targeted 20 households in the area. Each of them received 60 chickens, whose value the farmers  will slowly pay back—at the rate of 500 gourdes a month, or $12.40—to the local development council that provided the birds. They lay about an egg a day.

For Rubin, that means trips to the market at least twice a week to sell her family’s cache. She ports the fragile eggs via tap-tap, a small colorful bus that lurches over the dirt roads between villages. Each egg fetches about five gourdes, netting Rubin’s family about 2 gourdes, or about 5 cents.

Added up, that  bit of income becomes a precious resource for farmers  trying to put food on their tables, pay for medical care, and have a little cash left over to invest in a hardier variety of seeds that can promise a decent harvest—and give families a reason to stay in the countryside.

A few hills over, Marie Camel Rubin bends over her field of beans, corn, and manioc. Behind her, in the distance, a low building rises from the sea of green—it’s a new mill built with the help of PADELAN to grind corn and sorghum. Open six days a week, the mill saves local farmers the time-consuming trip via bus to another community to have their grain ground.

Rubin is one of the local farmers happy to have their own mill nearby. And while it saves her time, she still struggles to make ends meet.  Weeding along with her through the rows is her son, Noel Jolins. He’s 8—and he would be in school if his mother could afford the fees. But he had to quit when she couldn’t scrape together the money to send him.

Harvests and education

That’s one of the reasons Laventure Benad is so eager to see a small irrigation system completed in the hills of Colora in central Haiti. The father of seven children, he can afford to send only four of them to school now. But with irrigation—and the opportunity it will provide for three harvests a year instead of just one—Benad hopes he will have not only more food for his family, but enough income to pay for additional schooling.

“We’d like to go forward,” he says as a pair of young men behind him hammer at a heap of rocks, cracking them into gravel to help build the irrigation system.  Channeled into a pipe, water from the mountain stream flowing by them will find its way into more than 60 acres of fields below where it will help 150 farmers.

With the help of Proyecto Binacional Artibonito, an Oxfam Quebec-supported project known as PROBINA, the irrigation could eventually bring them a measure of financial independence, say farmers. They expect that within three years they will be doing well enough to b able to buy their own seeds and fertilizer.

For Markens  Louidort, a 26-year-old student  in Liancourt in the Artibonite Valley, education holds the key to a better future, he says. He has enrolled in a computer-training program offered by APPEL, or Association des Parents and des Professeurs d’Ecole de Liancourt, an Oxfam partner that provides post-secondary vocational training.

“The world is going on with technology and it’s important for someone to learn computers,”  says Louidort. In a country with unemployment as high as 70 percent, Louidort is hoping this new, hard-won skill will help him land a job.

Three days a week, for four hours each day, he settles in behind a computer in the stifling APPEL classroom. A series of batteries from Oxfam, recharged with the help of a generator at a nearby radio station, provide the electricity for the computers. Every seat is taken. This is the most popular class APPEL offers and some students share computers. A mood of deep concentration hangs over them.

At the head of the classroom, teacher Dieunel Prince talks the students through the next step of a program that will allow them to format certificates. Later, he explains privately that one of the biggest challenges he faces in working with these students is the fact that so many of them never had the opportunity to learn how to type—a handicap for those hoping to dive quickly into this new field.

That gap in learning is an indication of the struggles Haiti has had with providing a solid education for its citizens—about a quarter of the districts have no schools and 38 percent of Haitians over the age of 15 are illiterate. Education is one of the fundamental services rural regions will need to offer if decentralization is ever to become a reality for Haiti.

Michelle Lisette Casimir, mayor of Saint Michel in Artibonite, knows that well. Many of the families in the area sent their children to Port-au-Prince for advanced schooling, and some of them died in the quake. What Casimir longs for Saint Michel to have is a professional school of its own.

“We can’t talk about the future without being concerned about the youth—they way they are living,” says Casimir, adding that education is her top development wish. “With education...we will keep them.”