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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Author: Cindy Corell

My journey began some time ago, through growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, through a 28-year-career as a newspaper reporter and editor and through my faith experiences. Now my journey takes me to Haiti where I work as a companionship facilitator with Joining Hands, a program through Presbyterian Church (USA). I work with Haitian farmer groups who strive to empower, strengthen and accompany farmers on their way to feeding their nation again. I am blessed beyond measure with a wonderfully supportive family, a host of close friends and an opportunity to work in Haiti.

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