Haiti: The Vanilla Bean Project

Editor’s note: Back in 2008, we asked a group of people who worked in Haiti to record some thoughts and images with us. Little did we know that, less than 18 months later, the island would be in the eye of the world as it was rocked by one of the most powerful natural catastrophes in the Western Hemisphere. Today we look back at an island that was devastated by poverty and natural disasters even before it was completely knocked flat by the 7.0 earthquake.

Haiti is the most impoverished country in the western hemisphere, with more than half of the population living on less than $1 a day. It is claimed as one of the five most corrupt countries in the world. My pretrip research returned photo aſter photo of widespread deforestation, families living in garbage dumps and children eating mud cakes in place of food. One person I spoke with likened Haiti to someone on his deathbed, saying the best we can do for Haiti is “help it die peacefully.” When you’re fed information like that, you’re faced with a difficult decision. Will you believe what the media tells you, or will you question it? Sometimes it’s easier to turn your head and look the other way, especially in a situation like the one Haiti is in. But the choice we made took us down a much harder road. We went to find out the truth about Haiti for ourselves.

While many of those statistics are true, there’s a lot more to Haiti than numbers. Haiti is one of the most complex places I’ve ever traveled to, and trying to simplify it down to numbers and statistics is, in a word, impossible. We did find poverty, corruption and despair in Haiti, but we also found a wealth of amazing people, beautiful beaches, tropical jungles and, to our surprise, a functioning and widespread church.

Anne and Stephanie 

Anne Reynolds, a Montgomery, Ala., native, and her daughter Stephanie contacted us more than a year ago about their project in Haiti. They’ve been working in Haiti for seven years now, starting from scratch and paying for everything themselves. They make several trips a year to Haiti to keep the project rolling and even when a kidney transplant had doctors telling Anne she would never go back, they didn’t give up. Not once has it been easy—they’ve had money stolen, supplies stolen, a Jeep stolen and even two school buses stolen. But they refuse to give up.

For a multitude of reasons, Haiti is one of the most difficult places in the world to do humanitarian work. The corruption, the complete and total lack of decent infrastructure, and the acute poverty make for a people in desperate need, and a very tough place to work. Add to that a solitary international airport for the entire country and a never-ending stream of storms and you’ve got a place in need that tends to intimidate people. And those who do brave a journey to Haiti tend not to make a second trip—the land is littered with half-finished churches as evidence of past missionaries who never returned.

Allan

We had the pleasure of traveling with Allan who served as our guide and translator. Allan lives in a small room with his wife and newborn daughter, who he named Anne. He works as a radio dispatcher for the U.N. and takes off entire weeks of work (a lot of money for a Haitian with a family to support) whenever Anne and Stephanie are in town, just to make sure they’re taken care of.

The Elders

The first people we met at the village were Alfred and his wife, the village elders. They live together in a room the size of a walk-in closet in the school storage space and are entrusted as the caretakers of the property. Their nephew, who owns the land and is Anne’s connection to the village, had been withholding the money Anne sent them as salaries, and even told them they weren’t allowed to live there anymore. Alfred and his wife confessed they didn’t know what they were going to do. Their age leaves them unable to work and they have nowhere else to go.

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The Village Across the River

The school at Coco Beach draws students from all around, some walking as much as two hours by foot each day. A story we heard over and over while we were there was that of the kids from “across the river.” A few minutes’ walk from the school, the ocean connects to a lagoon by way of a small stream. During high tide, it’s very deep and rushes with the current, but during low tide, it becomes a small creek only ankle deep at most. That’s when the children cross, then they’re trapped on the Coco Beach side until the tide lowers again allowing them to go home.

We decided to check out this village for ourselves. When we arrived at the river it was low tide, so we walked on across, following a growing crowd of people.  Minutes later, we stepped into a beautiful village nestled between the ocean and the ruins of an old French fortress. Within seconds we were surrounded by every single person in the village. After a little discussion Allan turned to us and said, “You are the first white people that have ever been in this village.”

We talked with a family there, finding out what life was like in a place with no technology, no medical help, no food, no jobs—just survival. We found out they walk to a river 10 minutes away for water and when it storms, their village becomes an island surrounded by water and trapping them from any outside sources of food. We found out they’ve never received outside aid in any form.

I turned to Allan and asked him, “Are they Christian or do they practice voodoo?” A middle-aged man stepped forward from the crowd and spoke in Creole to Allan, who then turned to me and translated: “Of course we’re Christians.”

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