Fiona McGarry in Haiti – Report 2
Haitians cling to rural life in Kenscoff mountains
Rural Haiti is a place of sharp contrasts. In the village of Kenscoff, 19 km to the south east of the capital Port-au-Prince breath-taking mountain scenery and fertile agricultural soil are scant compensation for a lack of basic services like running water, roads and electricity. Poverty in the mountains above Port-au-Prince is no less grinding than that it is in the sweltering city. It is simply less obvious. Rural communities can be dispersed and are often isolated by distance and almost impassable mountains. In Haiti, the saying: ‘Deye mon, gen mon’ (behind the mountains, there are more mountains) is nowhere more true than 5,000 ft above sea level in the Chaine La Selle mountain range. Spectacular views have earned it the moniker of the ‘Switzerland of the Caribbean’, but the comparison begins and ends with scenery. This is the area where the notorious dictator Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier built his grand residence, and where many of Haiti’s wealthy one per cent continue to build their villas – bolt-holes offering relief from the heat and over-crowding of the city.
For the majority who live in abject poverty, rural life is a constant struggle.
While fertile soil produces a range of vegetables, fruit and coffee, agriculture is back-breaking and labour intensive and farming the steep mountain slopes – particularly when heavy cloud descends – can be treacherous. A lack of proper crop rotation continues to be a problem and harvests can fail when the ground is not allowed to recover nutrients.
Deforestation is another, more serious issue. Since the era of the French sugar and coffee plantations, tree-felling has resulted in the annual loss of an estimated 6,000 hectares of soil. Today, tree cutting is illegal, but with traditional cooking methods relying heavily on charcoal, the activity continues on an almost daily basis. Tree-planting charities and conservation groups are doing their best to replace the forests, but soil erosion and the resulting risk of landslides is a stark prospect.
Getting to school is a major undertaking. Many rural children rise before dawn, braving treacherous local roads, to reach the few schools that remain standing, or that have been rebuilt since the 2010 earthquake.
Midday travel by car or bus between Port-au-Prince and Kenscoff can take up to three hours. As I found out on the day of my journey to the St Helene Orphanage, run in Kenscoff by NPH [Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos] and the Silesian order. The minibus fought to keep on track and avoid some of the craters that still remain in a road recently reconstructed after the earthquake. The ascent into the mountains was slow and swirling. Our expert driver, Josier, faced many hazards. Traffic bound for Kenscoff – through the congested towns of Tabarre and Petionville – moved in slow convoy. As we rounded every corner, we are greeted by heavy trucks careering down the middle of the road, stray animals, motorcycles weaving chaotically through the throng. Every so often, an emergency convoy forced its way through – the UN, the local police, even the embassies – brought traffic to a standstill, and it took several minutes before things began to move forward – still at a snail’s pace.
Emergency travel for healthcare is fraught with similar delays, and tragedies result all too often. In the mountains, there is no healthcare. Doctor’s surgeries and hospitals are located exclusively in the larger towns and cities. For those in need of services, arduous journeys – often on foot – are the only hope. It is estimated that Haiti has one doctor per 5,000 of population. In the mountains, where a traveling GP or dentist may happen by twice a year, it is little wonder that the local witchdoctor is a more attractive option.
Rural Kenscoff is one of Haiti’s voodoo heartlands. With around 80 per cent of Haiti’s population calling themselves Roman Catholics and the remaining 20 per cent claiming to be Protestants, it is widely accepted that the vast majority also practice some form of voodoo. The belief system, which combines elements of ancient African religions, is seen as reasonably compatible with Catholicism – though less so with Protestant religions.
In the mountains, where there’s no electricity, and the darkness holds many dangers, it is hardly surprising that people believe in the spirits – or loua.
The more problematic aspect of voodoo is well documented by aid organisations working in Haiti. When a child falls ill, medical treatment – which can be difficult to access, and sometimes expensive – is often regarded as a last resort. Parents will take their children to the local witchdoctor and receive extravagant promises if sacrifices – and money – are offered. By the time it becomes clear that the voodoo treatment has failed, it is often too late for medical intervention.
Members of the organization NPH – who work in Kenscoff, as well as in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti – found that voodoo threw a significant hurdle in their path when they first began their work in the country. Followers of Baby Doc, who styled himself as a voodoo ‘houngan’ or high priest, spread the rumour that the aid workers were ‘blancs’ [whites] who ate Haitian babies. It took time and trust to dispel that myth.
To explain the country’s beleaguered status, Haitians also bought into the belief that the new republic was the victim of a voodoo curse imposed after the 1804 revolution. While it was said the curse would be lifted in 2004, the country has only seen its fortunes deteriorate since then.
In a region without electricity, heavy darkness falls shortly after 7pm. In the mountains, cloud can descend at any time. Kerosene lamps and candles are the only light sources, and these precious commodities can only be sourced by a trek to town. Water is available at communal village pumps and taken away in urns that are carried on the head in the traditional style.
The sounds of the rural night are a symphony for western ears. Crickets and frogs serenade the night, accompanying the voodoo drums on faraway hills.
One saving grace for the rural inhabitants of Kenscoff was that they avoided the worse of the force 7.3 earthquake in January 2010. Fragile looking buildings, clinging to the sides of mountains moved sideways, but most hung on. And despite all of its challenges, rural life in north western Haiti is still clinging on.