Women cross the border freely, balancing enormous bundles of clothing and baskets of produce on their heads. Men on motorbikes spurt past, looking for customers in need of a ride. Creole, Spanish and French are thrown around in the balmy noon air. This was daily life for the five Emerson students who volunteered in Haiti this past August.
The students—Katie Woods, Kelly Smith, Joel Wool, Claude Bartholomew and myself—arrived in Anse-a-Pitre, a rural region in southeastern Haiti bumping up against the Dominican Republic, with all of the supplies needed to survive for a month: tents, sleeping mats, cooking utensils, medication. We lived at Sadhana Forest, a reforestation project and sustainable community, to work on ameliorating problems that have afflicted the island nation for years—deforestation and ineffective resource use.
“Haiti’s social and economic problems date back way before the earthquake happened, and hit places that the earthquake never struck,” said Wool, a WLP major who graduated in May 2010.
Haiti has long suffered from deforestation and soil depletion, two factors which not only precipitated the mudslides that caused unnecessary damage during the earthquake, but also make any agriculture or forestry in much of the nation very difficult. In a country with few employment opportunities, people often cut down trees as a source of fuel and income.
Sadhana Forest seeks solutions to these problems by reforesting a section of land given over by the mayor, as well as reusing resources like waste and water whenever possible. Our food scraps were composted to make fertile soil, and discarded juice boxes and plastic bags from villagers were used as planters for seedlings. We also worked on building skills and sharing knowledge with the local community. Many Haitians, mostly teenagers, volunteered alongside us, carting water from a nearby well or helping to collect dry material used in the compost.
Our experiences in Haiti, as so often happens in volunteering internationally, gave us just as much as anything we did while there.
“My trip to Haiti definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone, gave me a new perspective, and helped me to re-evaluate my values,” said Bartholomew, a Communications Management Master’s student.
Smith, a senior WLP student, was struck by the normality of life in Haiti, and emphasized the optimistic attitudes and hospitality of the people she met.
“There’s still happiness in Haiti,” she said.