Planting corn in Haiti, and the pebble in my sandal

ImageFour seeds, if you’re talking about corn. Two seeds if it’s congo beans. Those were my only instructions. The rest I figured out by watching Papa Luc as he planted one of his many gardens around Cherident.

Two men were working ahead, using pick axes to dig shallow holes about a foot apart. Our job, Papa Luc’s and mine, was to drop seeds in the holes and cover them. Papa Luc had a small stick to shove loose dirt back over the seeds.

I used my right foot.

I had a pebble in my sandal the rest of the day. I didn’t try to lose it. I wanted to remember that feeling — planting corn in Haiti.

I’ve been living and working in Haiti for 10 months now. It’s been a whirlwind. On my off days — when I’m in my comfortable apartment in Port-au-Prince — I remember and go through my many photos. And as I long to be back “out there”, out in the countryside with Haitian farmers not unlike Papa Luc.

But Papa Luc is special to me. I spent a month living with his family in Cherident, a small village along a ridge in the southern mountains, when I first moved here. My work is with FONDAMA, a Joining Hands network of grassroots farmer organizations. So before I began traveling the country to meet people from the 11 organizations, I needed time to live like a rural Haitian and study language and culture. And along the way, Luc Celestin and his grown children adopted me.

When I arrived for my month-long stay, it was early June. The cornfield beside the house was almost fully grown. We already were pulling ears of corn to eat – either dried and ground or roasted.

My first conversations with Papa Luc were slow-going. He doesn’t speak English, and I was becoming more comfortable with Kreyol. So we talked about a common subject — farming. I grew up on a farm in Augusta County. My father had what I was sure was the world’s largest garden. At least it felt that way when I was 8 and had to help plant peas, green beans, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, cucumbers, melons, carrots …. Early spring was for plowing the ground. Then Dad would level it out and begin hoeing the rows. I would help drop the seeds, carefully, and then cover them over with the hoe.

For corn, of course, Dad plowed, then dragged the fields smooth and attached the corn planter to the Massie Ferguson tractor. I would go with him to Eavers warehouse  to pick up the corn seed. It was in huge burlap sacks. When I was a preschooler, I remember Dad taking days off from his day job to plant corn, and I would go with him. While he worked with the tractor, I’d crawl up on those sacks of corn seed in the open trunk of the Ford Galaxy and doze while he worked.

I remember the sun and the breeze and the look of satisfaction Dad always carried that he was working his farm.

He loved that work.

And so does Papa Luc. A garden means food for your family — and if you have the land and resources for more seeds, it can help feed the community.

During my month stay, Papa Luc’s eight children each spent time with me. Many of them speak English, so while I was taking a break from Kreyol lessons, they taught me about the community. We went on long walks across the fields and hills around Cherident. Just about everywhere we walked, one would say: “That’s Papa Luc’s garden there.” Miles away on the other side of the ridge: “Papa Luc planted this field, too.”

And that is how I learned — talking and walking.

On evenings after supper, Papa Luc and I often would be the only ones still at the table. I would ask him about the crops he grew (corn, black beans, congo beans, white beans, pumpkin squash). I’d ask about growing seasons (two for corn, sometimes three for beans). And I would tell him about my father. I was learning language, culture AND getting a basic education about my work with FONDAMA.

After leaving Cherident, I began traveling the countryside to visit with the organizations. I met people in formal and informal meetings. I walked with them through their fields and visited their seed silos. But these were quick visits — usually only three or four days. The way I learn about how crops grow in Haiti is by visiting Cherident. I want to see entire growing seasons. At Cherident in June, the corn still was growing tall. By September and October, the stalks were brown. I missed the harvest season, but I know how it works — stalks are cut and gathered into bunches, then the bunches are raised far above the ground by a rope and pulley.

This past week, I had another opportunity to visit Cherident. A friend from Arkansas was there with a church group that partners with a nearby school. When I called Papa Luc to say I was coming back, he said he was planting corn. He graciously agreed to let me help the next morning. Though I was staying at the rectory and guesthouse, I was eager to work in the cornfield early Thursday morning. The group wasn’t going back to Port-au-Prince until about 9:30, so after breakfast, I set out to find him.

Lucson, Papa Luc’s oldest son, told me his Dad was working in the field beside Madame Pepe’s house. I took my camera with me, along with a water bottle.

The road through Cherident is wide and dusty. It didn’t take me long to find him. Papa Luc was down in a field with two workers. The workers walked ahead digging small, shallow holes in the rocky ground with pick axes, while Papa Luc dropped a few seeds into each hole and covered them back over.

I thought of the many fields he plants. Every seed. Every tiny seed. By hand.

It’s difficult not to remember my own father’s garden when I am in Haiti. So much is the same.

There is a joy in the backbreaking work of tilling land and nursing seeds to harvest.

“Four seeds,” Papa Luc said, using his thumb to separate four corn kernels from the handful he held. With a gentle flick, he dropped the yellow seeds into the hole, then used the stick he held in his right hand to cover them with dirt.

“Four seeds.”

He handed me half his handful, and I set to work on the unplanted holes, covering the seeds with my sandaled right foot.

In the upper part of the field, we planted congo beans along with the corn. I’d drop in two bean seeds; Papa Luc carried a handful of corn.

We worked steadily. The morning was cool. A slight breeze fanned us. The soil felt moist, but I know many people are concerned about drought this year. The northern part of Haiti had little rain throughout the winter. The government has had to bring in food for families there. The FONDAMA organization in the North have few seeds in their silos — the last season’s crop burned up from lack of rain.

No food. No seeds for the spring.

It’s a little better in the South, but not by much. We will wait and pray and see.

When 9:30 came, the vehicle taking us to Port-au-Prince stopped at the field so I could leave.

I kept the pebble in my shoe the rest of the day. I look forward to my next trip to the mountains to watch the corn and beans grow.

Please join with us in prayer for rain for all of Haiti. So much work is done — seed by seed — all by hand to feed this country. All we need now is rain.

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We are all the Others, an opinion that matters

She only spoke a few sentences to me, but I remember them still. Her unwillingness to agree to be quoted, and her willingness to explain why not, taught me a lot about how we treat people and that treatment’s impact.

It was back in the days of print journalism. You remember. When if you wanted to read what was going on in the world or your hometown, you picked up a newspaper — either at your doorstep on in a box downtown.

The assignment is what we used to call “man on the street.” Sexist, I know. We should have called it “person on the street,” but it wouldn’t have been any less boring.

Who really wants to read what random people think?

Or, maybe we were just ahead of our time. Now when we log on to read our news — available fresh at just about any minute of the day — we click to read what lots of random people have to say.  

In those days, though, reporters would ask a simple question to anyone who agreed to participate, write down the answer on a reporters’ notebook and take a headshot to publish.

So, on this chilly fall or winter day in maybe 1989 or so, I was out on Beverley Street, the main thoroughfare in Staunton, Va. The question was mundane, something like, “What are your holiday plans?” or maybe “How much Christmas shopping do you have left to do?”

Most people in those days were gracious with their time, and they would stop to answer the question, though a few balked at having their photo taken.

It was cold out, and I wanted to get my half-dozen interviews done. I noticed two women approaching. They both were in their 60s, wearing well-worn coats and carrying purses. I stepped toward them and asked I could speak to them a moment. I introduced myself and said I worked at The News Leader.

They listened to me, and when I asked if I could interview them for a short piece in the paper, one of the women stepped back. She looked embarrassed. Instead of just saying no, she said, “No one wants to know what I think.” She had a downcast expression.

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, we do.”

I’ll be honest and say that I wanted to encourage her because I needed these interviews done so I could go back to the newsroom.

But I also was curious. I’d never heard this excuse before.

“Why wouldn’t we want to know what you think?” I asked her.

“I live back there,” she said. “The Stonewall Jackson. I am not the kind of person you want for the newspaper.”

It was one of those comments that stay with you.

The Stonewall Jackson Hotel, now once again a mainstay, upscale landmark in our beautiful hometown, was then a rundown lodging, a low-rent apartment house for people receiving assistance from the state. Many of them had been “deinstitutionalized” from the regional mental hospital. Others simply had no other place to go on their meager assistance checks.

Poor people, in other words.

The Others.

I tried to encourage her, but this time not because I needed my half dozen people. I wanted her to know that yes, people want to know what she thinks. That she matters.

And further, people need to know what she thinks.

But my words fell on deaf ears. Gripping the arm of her friend, she walked away. Maybe I imagined it, but I think her head bowed a bit more as she walked away.

 

So … why is this tiny memory lingering still?

Because so often in a day I read why people like this woman are reminded daily that what she said is true. That other people (we are ALL the Others, by the way) take cheap shots at what Others have to say. We judge their grammar, their statements, their opinions. We judge them by their addresses, their occupations, their statuses.

We judge.

And because we can toss out our opinions so easily, we just as easily can torpedo Others’ ideas of self-worth by rudely criticizing what they have to say.

To read Facebook threads and online comments, it appears we delight in knocking Others down, but I do not think there is delight in it. More likely, I think it’s a reaction to the last time we were knocked down or our fear that Others will knock us so we choose offense as a defense.

What struck me the most about this woman’s remarks is that because I either purposely or accidently missed what she thought must be obvious — that she lived in subsidized housing for the “downtrodden” — that she felt the need to correct me. That truly she was not worth my time. That truly her thoughts did not matter in the larger world. Someone, probably a lot of someones, had instilled that in her. The way we do when we cast about negative reactions to the vulnerable among us.

If I could see her again, these two decades later, I hope I would say, “you know what, ma’am? You are the one who is wrong. Many people in the world want to know what you think. You have the choice whether to share your thoughts, of course, but please never forget that it is your choice, not anyone else’s.”

As I write this, I also am reminded of the family who owned the Stonewall Jackson Hotel at the time. Allen Persinger Sr. purchased the grand building in the late 1960s when he left the U.S. Navy. The Persinger family operated it during tough economic times, but finally reverted it to a low-income rooming house. A contract with the state made room in it for many people who had been diagnosed with mental illness and others who received aid in their elder years.

The once stunning hotel had fallen into disrepair, until it was purchased by the city and a hotel chain and returned to an upscale lodging.

I’m reminded of Mr. Persinger, because when he died in February 2007, his family asked his memorial be kept private. He had become an important person in my life through a number of stories about his Beverley Manor High School Class of 1943 that he helped hold reunions once a year in those later years. He was a classy guy. We had a warm friendship. I was honored to have been asked to attend his graveside service.

And when I arrived at Thornrose Cemetery, I was delighted to find that the others invited to his private sending-off were his tenants, those who so many of us think of as the Others, but those who Mr. Persinger and people like him embraced as valued members of society.

I stood among many of them that chilly winter’s day safe in the knowledge that all of us are important, and our thoughts all are worthy.

The truth, as Mr. Persinger well knew, is that opinions are free and available. We do not have to listen to them, read them or see them.

But the better response is to disagree with the opinions, not  reduce the person. When we reduce the Others, we reduce ourselves as well.

And when we lift Others, we lift the world in which we live.