Ravaged by natural disasters and poverty, Haiti is nevertheless trying to revive its tourism industry. Here, the process begins with voluntourism.
Rebuilding Haiti, and Its Tourism
We spent each morning over the next week hauling rocks up the hillside for Let Haiti Live’s new kitchen—and after just a few days we could see staffers mixing the cement and starting to lay the walls. The kids who came to the compound every day for lunch and classes were eager to pitch in; many mornings when we showed up for the bucket line, eight or nine teenage boys had arrived earlier than us and had already started shoveling and carrying rocks on their own. Those who were too small to help would keep us company, or run to fill our water bottles with dlo—the Creole adaptation of “de l’eau.”
In the afternoons, we led classes for these same kids, about 40 of whom came to the compound for daily “summer camp” and hot meals. With the help of Creole translators, we each took turns teaching some subject in which we had expertise. Some of the sessions turned out to be great fun; a yoga class led by a group member named Nancy, for example, turned into a squealing giggle-fest as the young kids yelled out the names for each pose: “Tree!” “Frog!” Others, like the basic first-aid class run by a medical student named Stephanie, were met with rapt attention and energetic discussion (Do you cover a burn or leave it open to the air? What about a dog bite?).
Regardless of the subject matter, I was touched by the seriousness that many of the children brought to the classes. While some kids took part in a now nearly universal distraction—texting on their cell phones—I saw others taking careful notes in their composition books, or seeking us out after class to ask questions in halting English.
The spirit of earnest enthusiasm seemed to permeate all the endeavors at Let Haiti Live. We saw some of these, like the large nursery to grow crops for the community and educational programs in reforestation and conservation (Haiti’s forests have been decimated by the perpetual need for charcoal, the only cooking and heating fuel most residents have). But it was clear these efforts made a strong impression on the kids. Many of them said they wanted to be agronomists when they grew up; and more than once, as I was walking through the compound, a child would steer me away from stepping on a plant that had been intentionally cultivated.
The kids joined us on many of our after-class outings as well. One afternoon, we all loaded into a tap tap (a brightly painted local bus) and rode to see a local soccer game. Another evening, we went to see a band play compas (a percussive style of dance music unique to Haiti) at a neighborhood bar—and ended the night crowding a tiny dance floor with students and staffers from Let Haiti Live. A few days later, we took a field trip to a palm-shaded local beach, where the children danced for us, trounced us at soccer, and—despite lacking both swimming ability and bathing suits—jumped, fully clothed, into the surf with us.
“Bucket!” a deep, Creole-inflected voice sang up to me. “BucketBucketBucket!”
From where I stood, partway up a steep, crumbling dirt hillside on the south coast of Haiti, the owner of the voice was invisible. But then Ernst, a tall young man with bare shoulders like gleaming obsidian, rounded a stand of boulders just below me. From his hands swung two plastic five-gallon buckets, each heavy with rocks. Grinning, he thrust the buckets up toward me; I took them, staggering a little from their weight. Luckily, I had to lurch only about a dozen steps up the hill before handing them off to the next person on line.
It was the fourth day I’d spent on the hillside, in the small village of Cyvadier overlooking the sapphire-blue Bay of Jacmel. Each morning, before the late-July temperatures climbed above 100 degrees, some 25 locals and visiting American volunteers gathered at the base of this 400-foot slope. There sat a giant heap of rocks, next to a dirt trail that snaked up between slabs of porous stone, flowering shrubs, munching goats, and yellow butterflies. Our task was simple, and Sisyphean: move the rocks from the bottom of the hill to the top.
At the summit, a local community-building organization called Let Haiti Live had its headquarters. The compound consisted of two cement buildings—where dozens of village children attended classes in agronomy and environmental conservation—and a small lean-to where cooks prepared meals for the kids over an open charcoal fire. Our pile of rocks would form the walls of a new kitchen—one that could feed more kids, more ecologically and safely.
A backhoe could have done the job in an hour, if there had been a backhoe—and a road for it to drive on, and cash to pay the driver. But since there were none of those things, we had strung ourselves each day along the trail and, sweating through our clothes in the punishing heat, passed the load bit by bit, like an old-time fire brigade putting out a blaze.
The project, in the scope of things, was tiny; the effort required to achieve it, huge. But this, it seemed, was the way that things got done in Haiti: the hard way.