You have a beautiful house
I’m still thinking about Haiti and all of its highlights. For how short the trip actually was, there were a lot of high-impact moments.
One of my favorites? Hanging out with Gernita.
Okay, by hanging out, I partially mean interviewing her and recording her giving us a tour around her land. But that totally counts as a hang out sesh.
I asked her about some of the challenges she faced living in Haiti.
"You are living in a country where everything is in disorder. When you work, you can’t reap what you sow and we are poor people. This is just how life works,” she explained to me. “Sometimes you work and the dry season comes and it kills everything. Sometimes it’s the rainy season and it kills everything.”
That spirit of resignation wasn’t unique to her experience. Throughout Haiti, there was a strong sense of frustration over the country’s failure to improve people’s quality of life. Storms were inevitable. Government support was absent. International aid was ineffective. I can’t think of another country that has received as many broken or unfulfilled promises as Haiti.
What struck me while I was in Gernita’s community was its lack of young people. There were babies and smaller children around, and then there were people like Gernita who seemed a little too old to be parenting toddlers. My own age demographic was absent.
When it finally registered with me, I asked where all the 20-40 year olds were.
“Port Au Prince,” I was told. “Everyone goes there looking for work. Trying to earn money. Not many young people see an opportunity to make a living through farming.”
Knowing that many have had to see their parents work exhaustive hours only to produce very little food to show for it, I could understand why farming loses its appeal. Speaking broadly, Haiti has some major soil fertility issues.
“There are also a lot at the Port Au Prince airport.”
Our translator explained to me how so many millennial Haitians were on their way to Chile, Mexico, or Brazil to look for work. There were more opportunities in those countries. Many of the young-and-educated Haitians were those making the exodus, which was starting to create a brain drain.
I can’t blame anybody for doing what they need to in order to make life livable for their family. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve had to do something so drastic to make sure my family was eating, but I have no question that I would. At an individual level, this decision is extremely understandable. There are issues that arise, however, when it becomes a national level trend.
With Haiti losing much of its trained and educated population, the nation loses its most qualified candidates to take on some of its major infrastructure issues. The possibility of a cooperative society was being nudged out by a survival-mindset society. Moving to new areas could also be an unsafe experience for many immigrants, especially if new communities grow suspicious and hostile.
The way to start to reverse this trend, and to make Haiti a place with more opportunities, starts much further upstream. It begins in places like Gernita’s rural community, where most of the population lives as subsistence farmers.
Gernita told me how she joined Plant With Purpose’s training program, along with many of her neighbors.
"The environment changed a lot, because they trained us how to use compost, ramps, building barriers, and grafts. If I had land where water used to wash it away, now I can protect the soil so it doesn’t wash away. I can plant seeds easily,” she smiled.
“I used to have no purpose,” she told me plainly at one point.
Now Gernita grows cabbages, carrots, potatoes, and a bunch of other veggies. She also makes compost soil to give away to her community, increasing the soil fertility overall. She started a small seed business and used that income to pay off her debts.
She also opened a small convenience store that she ran right out of her house.
"I learned the God is faithful – God is great,” she said. "Before we didn’t have anything and now we can improve our lives.”
She then proceeded to give me a tour of her home, taking me inside. She showed me the room where she slept, where her grandkids slept. She showed me the small kitchen where she prepared food over an open stove.
“You have a beautiful house,” I told her.
It was still a small house, made out of simple stone and concrete. It’s not the kind of house that a lot of people would immediately think of when they think of a beautiful house.
But telling Gernita that her home was beautiful didn’t even take a second thought. It came out naturally. And it wasn’t until later that night when I thought about how remarkable it was that I was able to tell her that, truly believing that.
I live in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S., and every day I pass by million dollar homes that don’t catch me by surprise. These homes have every single creature comfort and get great weather year-round. Yet, I’ve never once stopped to think, what a beautiful house. The moment I thought that was when Gernita showed me around.
The destination is beautiful when the journey is meaningful. I imagined what it was like for Gernita, during those times when she would have to work hard for no payoff. Those times where it felt like she was living with no purpose.
Gernita’s house was more than just a place to live. It was a reminder that as distant as progress in Haiti can feel, change is still possible. Change still happens.
And therein lies the beauty.