Ke-nee deep in kenep season

Even as their lives are filled with often heartbreaking challenges, the people of Haiti seek out the sweetness of life. Often that sweetness grows on tress.

They just dangled there, tantalizing us with juicy sweet tartness. For weeks, so many weeks, we waited.

“Kenep pre?” I’d ask hopefully. Are they ready?

“Yo poko pare,” Garry would respond. They aren’t ripe yet.

A few times, I tried one, breaking the still supple green rind, pop the pulpy fruit on my tongue, and promptly spit it out.

The kenep is a tropical delight. It grows on a tall tree that provides lovely shade year-round. But by early August, its sweet fruit gets all our attention.

When ripe, the rind tightens so it is cracks open. The pulpy fruit covers a large round seed about the size of an ordinary marble. The flavor lasts a few minutes – something like the taste of SweetTarts candy.

To be fair, it’s not even our tree. It generously leans over the wall from the neighbors house. The low-hanging fruit goes first. Even the man who collects our trash lifts a hand up to pull down a bundle of kenep on his way out the gate.

In about a week after the kenep ripened, Nadia began using a long pole rigged with a Y-shaped branch to isolate and twist small branches and retrieve the bunches.

Small boys, and some not so small, gather at the gate asking if we can give them kenep. A glance up the street shows that another neighbor’s kenep tree has lured other boys onto the adjacent alow wall where they pick the fruit and collect them in plastic bags.

On a good day, the street is littered with the green rinds and crowded with happy-faced kids.

Even Bobby the half-grown pup gets into the action. He doesn’t stop to toss the rind. He just eats the whole thing.

As for the rest of us, we enjoy them one or two at a time, or gather a bunch to eat later.

Like the other best things in life, we know the season will draw to a close, leaving us waiting another 11 months.

Thoughts and prayers

They matter, too

A dear friend sent me a message the other day. We chatted. And she signed off by telling me that she prays for me daily. 

What a gift. 

Prayers, along with their sisters, Thoughts, are getting a lot grief these days. When something horrible happens, everyone from politicians to social media aficionados will respond with “Thoughts and prayers.”

It’s understandable that these words seem hollow, not enough to answer the enormity of whatever horrible thing just made headlines. Action is what is needed, we exclaim. Not thoughts and prayers!

Perhaps it would be better if we exclaimed, not JUST thoughts and prayers.

I am a pretty big fan of prayers. I’ve felt them, learned of them and heard them.

I’ve mentioned before that at our meals, my Haitian family takes turns saying Grace. This remains one of my favorite moments in any given day. I’m curious what will be shared with God. Sometimes my own prayers take me by delight. 

My favorite lately still is the time Garry prayed, after a period of criminal activity along the streets of Haiti, “Bless the police, and bless the bandits. Because, well, (pause)  you know, God.”

We pray for each member of our household, all our families, everyone in hospital or in prison, and their families. We give thanks for what we have. And we always remember to ask God to help understand that not everyone is as fortunate.

Each of us can do something to make the world better for our neighbors. And when we love our neighbors, as Jesus commanded, we must.

But there always is room for thoughts and prayers. When someone says, “I prayed for you,” what I hear is, “I remember you.” Gently, intentionally, kindly remembered.

I cannot think of a more sincere gift.

I remember you.

Seasons

Trying a new thing. This seems like a good time a new thing.

I’m going to write.

I know. Shocking, right?

Well, it’s not like I haven’t been thinking about writing. That’s why I made this blog years ago. But I never seem to actually write.

The problem — my problem — is that I believe I need to write about the big topics — poverty and injustice and ways we must change the world. And not surprisingly, I don’t write those things. Too big. Too sad. Too much.

A couple of events, tiny events really, clarified this issue for me the other day.

Tiny moments that on their own mean little.

So I’m going to write them, tell the story of them.

So here I am.

It’s Epiphany Sunday. The first weekend of the new year, and the day before life will roar to life. Plans to make. Stuff to do. It’s the season.

I’m thinking a lot about seasons these days. A wonderful aspect of living in Haiti means living in seasons: mango season, rainy season, dry season, kinep season.

Whether fruits or weather, it’s how we measure time. And if you don’t like the season you’re in, you just settle in to wait for it to change. For the new season.

January is the dead of winter here, too. Except that instead to getting blown over by cold winds, you’re subject soft, cool breezes.

The great thing about seasons and having to endure the uncomfortable, there are delights like soft breezes and cool weather and bright sun shining on the woven leaves of the palm plant on the front porch.

These little bits of life are important to me. I just wanted to share.

The other night as I tried to sleep I heard a child crying. On and on. It’s not unusual to hear crying here. It’s a hard land. I imagined all kinds of horrible reasons for the child’s cry, hunger, corporal punishment, abuse. But the worst part was feeling totally helpless.

And understanding that helplessness.

The cool breeze slipped through the window, the crying stopped, and I slept.

The next morning I tried to forget my privilege that I can sleep knowing horrible things might be happening so close to me. It’s part of the life in a place like this. It’s the reality. And the truth is, I have no idea what had happened. I only know that the reasons I imagined are quite possible.

The house next door has two stories. From where I sat drinking coffee that next morning on my porch, I heard a child’s voice. On the outdoor stairs to second floor of the neighbors’ house, a little girl about 10 was reading out of book spread over her knees.

She seemed to be reading from the book and repeating what she’d read.

I said good morning.

“Bonjou!” She responded in the sing-songy way of children.

I asked if she was studying.

“Wi!”

It sounded like “WEEEEEEE.” With enough breath to pierce a balloon.

Are you ready to go back to school?

Again, “WEEEEEE!”

She smiled. I think her mom cleans house for my neighbors. I only see her and her siblings on occasion, when they dance in those stairs or come over to our yard to gather the kineps that fall off the tree here.

Two little ones. Two stories. One possibly terribly sad. One definitely hopeful.

I remember how helpless I’d felt the night before. And I realized that helpless doesn’t mean hopeless.

And I wanted to tell you this.

I want to write again. Regularly. With big stories and little bit no less important moments.

I’m in my Haiti. I’m so grateful. I want to do more, and be more.

And all I know, is that in this season, I will write more.

Let me know what stories you want to hear.

Or, if not, I’m glad to choose.

Take care with tender shoots

In advocacy, as in mission, accompanying and being present is a big part of the effort. Visiting a small community in Haiti with local colleagues, I saw this in action. It was beautiful.

“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

— Isaiah 53:2 (NIV)

Tumors restricted my father’s capacity to take a deep breath. He could walk only about 10 feet before stopping. Taking a deep breath took too much work. My father who had worked hard every day of his life – building up the family farm he loved so much and watching his kids grow up – struggled.

The cancer didn’t stop him, of course. It only slowed him. Every morning that summer, he walked into the back yard of my parents’ small house to check on his tomato garden.

The grass had grown tall that August. When my brother David brought his lawn tractor over to mow it, Dad had a strict warning for him:
“Watch out for that little tree. Don’t cut it down.”

David later said he could barely see the tiny sapling for the grass. He carefully mowed around it, and he continued to watch out for it in the months that followed, after Dad died and before Mom moved in with another brother.

Twenty-six years later, if you drive past, you will see the tall maple tree looming over the small brick house.

Dad taught us always to look out for the tender shoot.

Fabienne Jean, Yvette Michaud and I visited with members of a women’s organization in Thomazeau on Wednesday. Stepping out of the Landcruiser, I saw a handful of students in beige school uniforms heading back to class. They waved shyly, expectantly, paying little attention to Fabienne, our network coordinator, and Yvette, a coordinator with another Haitian farmer organization.

I’m the blan, the foreigner.

The students went on their way, but one little girl remained. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, signaling that she doesn’t attend school. Her family might not have the money. She might not be able to learn as quickly as the others. She motioned to me that she was hungry, then she smiled.

Her name is Esthelande. She’s 10 years old. She walked with me to the meeting, holding my hand, speaking quietly. She waited for me when the meeting was done.

I introduced Esthelande to Fabienne and Yvette, and immediately Yvette greeted her, asked her questions. She realized she knows Esthelande’s mother, and she instructed the girl to tell her mother that she needed to be in school. That if she needed help, to ask.

Like my father, Yvette looks out for the tender shoots.

Driving home to Port-au-Prince, the three of us along with our driver, Louko, talked about the crops in the field.

Thomazeau is located on flat land alongside Goat Mountain, between Port-au-Prince and the border with the Dominican Republic. Like the rest of Haiti, the crops are subject to severe weather. Years of drought followed in cycles by heavy rains.

We passed fields of just-planted beans. The tiny plants are a few inches tall, in healthy looking soil now. Soft rains between sunny days will promote a solid bean crop, but that hasn’t been the case recently.

These tender shoots are at the mercy of a changing climate.

Fabienne is the coordinator of our advocacy network here. Fondasyon Ayiti Men Ansanm translates as the Haiti Foundation with Hands Together. It is an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program. Eleven grassroots organizations make up the network, and an executive committee governs it. Though FONDAMA was chartered in 2009, we’ve only begun the true work of advocacy campaigns in the past year, learning together the root causes of Haiti’s poverty (threatened land tenure, climate change and food imports are among them) and working with others to make positive changes.

It is challenging work. And in many ways, FONDAMA is a tender shoot.

I believe in tender shoots. I believe that we all are fragile and are made to look out for one another.

People often asked me what hope I find in Haiti.

My answer, always, is the people of Haiti I am humbled to accompany.

When I watched Yvette, who I had only until that moment seen in a board room, embrace 10-year-old Estherlande and encourage her, my heart filled with that same hope.

I pray for steady rains interspersed with sunny days so the tiny bean sprout will burst into goodness.

I pray for Estherlande to find encouragement and a healthy future.

I pray for the growth and continued partnerships of FONDAMA.

But I know that tender shoots, when recognized and care for, can grow tall and healthy.

My father taught me that a long time ago.

Hope on the line

Heavy rains continue to fall in Haiti, slowing the recovery of people in hurricane-affected regions. But there is hope.

img_2179

I’ve been back in Haiti less than a month, and already it’s been a whirlwind. With a lot of help from good friends, I moved into a new home, met Almand who is here to serve as “guardian,” someone whose primary job is to keep us safe and whose secondary mission is to become part of our family.

Paul Sinette continues to care for me — she has to be the best cook in Haiti, and she helps me navigate life. Her son Carlens is often here, playing Dominos with Almand.

They all teach me Creole, learn English from me and we take turns saying Grace.

It’s a good deal.

We welcomed a kitten to the house about a week ago. Kimberly, named by Paul Sinette, pretty much runs the place and brings much entertainment.

As you know, Hurricane Matthew did a number on several parts of Haiti, especially to the southern peninsula. The storm hit Oct. 4 and 5. The second weekend of November I was able to visit the South and Grand Anse departments that suffered catastrophic damage.

Fabienne Jean, coordinator of our network FONDAMA, and I traveled to Les Cayes and then onto Grand Anse to visit with partner organizations and also Luke Osikoye, international associate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

Passing Grand Goave on National Route 2, we began to see the damage Matthew left behind. The bridge at Petit Goave was washed out, and a detour was in place while workers replaced it.

Torrential rains have continued in the region, so beyond the obvious hurricane damage — destroyed houses, roofless homes and trees devoid of leaves and branches — we passed flooded roadsides, yards and fields.

Farmers who had access to oxen used them to plow fields. People of all ages walked the roadways carrying water, food and construction materials.

We passed a number of funerals — people wearing black and white, walking slowing in small groups. On the national highway outside of Les Cayes a beat up pickup carried a casket and followed a five-person brass band while friends and family of the deceased followed on foot.

In Moron and Marfranc, World Food Programme and USAID were handing out bags of rice and tarps. In both villages, people lined up in the hot sun to wait. We saw dozens of people carrying their aid home — many of them waste-deep through overflowing rivers.

The further we went, though, and the closer we got to the village of Chambellan located near the southern peninsula’s tip, I saw the bits of hope.

Clothes and sheets and underwear, washed in whatever water was available and simply hanging in the breeze.

Red blouses, green slacks, blue jeans, multi-colored sheets — waving as if a grand sign that in spite of it all, life goes on.

In clean clothes.

I will have more to tell you soon, including ways you can help. FONDAMA is working on a proposal through PDA to help people in these communities with recovery.

Please know that you are appreciated — for caring, for reading and for continuing to pray for all the people of Haiti and those around the world.

God bless.

Won’t be long now

img_2443I’ll be heading home soon

Their lives are built on poorly constructed roads. Or dust and rocks. Their lives are shaky, just like their homes made of blocks with too much sand, too little cement.

They work so hard, but are not employed. Not in the way we imagine. With job sites and time cards. Their work begins before the sun peeks above the horizon. In cities or villages or in clusters of homes far away in remote mountains.

Cleaning. Searching out food. Cooking what little they have. Sending children to school.

If they’re lucky.

The lives of the Haitian people are tender and unstable most days, but they are not unrooted.

No. The people of Haiti rise each morning, stretching sore muscles into another long day, anchored in the history and tradition of a people who won freedom from slavery while they still were in chains.

I am grateful to have been “home” in the U.S. for all these months. I still have a few presentations to make, even a sermon I am writing for my own home church.

But as September winds into October, I am preparing to head back to my other home.

Where people struggle daily with poverty and hunger and political and social instability.

And once again, I will join forces with them as they work together to make their lives better.

The fight for Haiti’s independence from slavery began 225 years ago, but the spirit of revolution still lights in their eyes.

Please keep all of us in prayers, friends.

Long way home

Quiet. So quiet.

DSC_0128
A young buck considers why there might be a stranger in his yard at Natural Tunnel State Park, Duffield, Va.

It feels like a confession. It has been nine months since my last blog post.
And I feel terrible about that. Truly.
I’ve been in the U.S. since May. I’m traveling to visit Presbyterian congregations and other groups about our work in Haiti. Even though I have traveled back to my U.S. home more than many mission co-workers are able to do, a multi-month stint here is — at best — startling.
I have just now found my first-country rhythm. And it has been busy. I spend a lot of time on the highways and country roads traveling to visit churches in several states.
I am spending a great deal of time with family, which is precious, but it makes me miss my Haiti friends and “family.” I am afraid I’m losing what little ability I had in Haitian Creole.
And I am trying to keep up with what is going on back in Haiti at the same time.
So about mid-way through my time here in the U.S., my best friend and I headed out on a week of respite. We traveled to the southwestern tip of Virginia to a state park where we spent our days relaxing at the pool, visiting small towns whose names end with Gap and enjoying the wildlife that appear in laid-back rural regions.
A handful of deer grazed on the lawn of the cabin where we stayed. Wild turkeys roamed through the wooded areas. A small turtle who crossed the road declined my efforts to direct him (her?) to safety.
In other words, in the all the hustle and bustle of traveling and speaking and preaching and praying, this week of respite was a true vacation.
And all of it gave me time and space to remember that I haven’t made a blog post in nine months! Unacceptable!
And in that realization, I thought about the title I gave this blog years ago when I traveled to Haiti to live and work.
The long way home.
I am so grateful to have two countries I now can call home.
I am grateful for the families who have taken me in during my journey — people who are in one moment strangers, and by the time they show you where to find the extra toilet paper, you suddenly are close friends!
This whole journey has been like that. I traveled into a foreign country and was received with great kindness and joy.
Then I traveled back to my home country, and strangers here receive me the same way.
It reminds me again and again how this Christian gig works — first we are strangers, then we find connections.
First God loved us, and then we connect with all those others who he loves.
And in the quietness of Natural Tunnel State Park, in a place so slow that wildlife checks us out as whether we should roam freely, I remembered all of this again.
I’m back to blogging. My stories are about Haiti and about this wonderful home of ours.
I’m grateful to be among you all.