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Jwaye Nwèl

Warm Christmas Photo

Jwaye Nwèl or Merry Christmas!  We are celebrating our first Christmas in Haiti.

Our tree may not be pine, but it is still a Christmas tree.  There may not be snow outside, but it still feels cozy with friends gathered and some real Haitian hot chocolate.  We may be experiencing some different traditions, but at the core Jesus is still the reason we celebrate.

We hope you have a memorable Christmas this year, wherever you may be.

 

The value of supporting local efforts

Marseille (left) and Jean (right) discuss with the other members in the background.

Marseille (left) and Jean (right) chat.  The other members are in the background.

In Haiti I am learning how crucial it is to work through existing channels, whether government or non-government partners, when implementing a project.  The sad reality is that in Haiti some (not all) projects fail to achieve the long term impact envisioned at the beginning.  This happens for a variety of reasons however one is that organizations and ministries often do not put the effort into understanding what channels or systems or initiatives already exist within a given community and then working through and alongside them.

Since Haiti is impoverished it may be tempting to assume that functioning channels do not exist but this just isn’t true!

One example is a local organization in the village of Lavaneau in south east Haiti.

I first visited Lavaneau in June 2012 on our initial trip to Haiti with World Concern before moving here permanently.  The community’s irrigation canal had been destroyed during hurricanes in 2008 and they were left to rely on rainfall for all their water needs.  World Concern offered materials and technical support but the organization was responsible for the construction and management of the canal that brought water down from the source and for four newly built water fountains.

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A couple weeks ago Martha and I had the opportunity to return to Lavaneau and were pleased to see the irrigation canal and four water fountains still serving the community.  But I was more pleased to see the quality of this local organization which World Concern worked with on the project and how they are still active, with no plans to slow down.

The organization is headed by a man named Jean Metelus.  He commands respect but is not intimidating.  When we arrived on this particular day he and other members of the organization, including the secretary, greeted us.

As we reached the canal and began chatting, Jean instructed the secretary to take notes of our meeting.

Organization members share about the project and their work.

Organization members share about the project and their work.

“The organization will celebrate its 23rd year of existence in 2014,” Jean shared.

Continuing he said, “Our organization has farmers, engineers, teachers, masons, pastors.  We work on projects in agriculture, small business, buildings.”

What tremendous human capital!  It was encouraging to hear the organization speak of the skills and resources that exist in the community and it was particularly impressive that these have been so clearly identified.  Although each community possesses certain strengths and resources, not all know exactly what those are and who has them within the community.

In addition to constructing a new irrigation canal that is 92 meters in length and four water points, the organization established a system for collecting fees which are used to help maintain this infrastructure and fund other projects in the community.

Farmers pay a small annual fee and in return can have access to two hours of water a week.  The water is disbursed by small gates that are built into the canal.  When a gate is lifted, water flows from the canal into the farmer’s field.  When we visited, some of the gates were not working properly but the organization says they plan to fix them.

The water collected at the four water points is free however a family can pay a fee of almost $2 a month if they want water piped directly to their home.

Girls collect water at one of the four water fountains

Girls collect water at one of the four water fountains

One thing that caught my eye was how clean the canal was.  I saw very little leaves or rubbish in the canal.  In Haiti canals are often used as dumping grounds.  I asked one community member about the cleanliness and he responded, “People are responsible for cleaning the section of canal in front of their house.”  This is an example of the far reaching impact this organization has had in the community.

When we were leaving Lavaneau I asked Marseille, World Concern’s project coordinator in south east Haiti, what it was about this organization that made it work.

“The strength of this organization is its history and that its members equally represent all 18 localites [small villages] within Lavaneau,” he said.  “Everyone in Lavaneau has a say.”

What do you think the outcome of this project would have been if World Concern came to Lavaneau and began work how they saw fit without consulting and working through this local organization?  At best the physical work would have been completed and may have lasted for a couple years before deteriorating.  At worst the project could have completely flopped early on leaving the community disempowered, disenchanted and still without consistent access to potable water.

I am not so naïve to believe that this local organization in Lavaneau is without flaw or that World Concern always does things well.  However I will say that World Concern in Haiti does understand the importance of community based action and the need for working through and supporting existing channels and Lavaneau is an example of this.

As we were preparing to leave Lavaneau one representative from the organization asked, “What do you think of our work?”

“It is good.  It is very good,” I said.

Driving through Lavaneau

Driving through Lavaneau

On The Road in Haiti: A Week In Review

The first week of November Martha and I had the opportunity to host a lovely couple named Adam and Wendy from California and a colleague from Seattle named Dave.  Adam’s family has been involved with World Concern for over 30 years and although Adam had traveled with World Concern previously, this was Wendy’s first trip.

This was Martha and I’s first donor trip to help coordinate since moving to Haiti so we were excited but a bit anxious as well to see how everything turned out.  Well I’m happy to report that other than one flat tire and a little motion sickness on my end, the trip was smooth and without any hiccups.  Our colleagues are diligent and gracious, which we were reminded of constantly throughout the week.

Here is a look at our five day trip together stretching from Les Cayes to Jacmel and then back to Port-au-Prince.  As always, photos were taken by my talented wife.

Tuesday
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Our day started with a presentation of all World Concern current activities in southern Haiti given by our staff in Les Cayes.

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We visited Morency, near Les Cayes where Adam’s family helped build this water well in 1998.

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Just up the road from the water well in Morency is this primary school which World Concern also built in 1998.  The school is currently a partner in our Hope to Kids program which provides goats and husbandry training to students so they can generate income and pay for school.

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Here students line up with their goats so Bernard (pictured far left), the Hope to Kids project coordinator, can give vitamin and deworming shots.  Most of the goats do not like the shot at all and afterwards jump around frantically, which the kids get a kick out of.

Wednesday

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What a good looking group!  West of Les Cayes World Concern leases a few acres of land that is used as an ‘outdoor classroom’ where our staff hold trainings for local farmers.  We had the opportunity to visit the farm and speak with staff, farmers and interns from a couple local agronomy universities.  The tractor you see above is one that is used to provide plowing services for farmers.

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Last month southern Haiti received a lot of rain…too much rain in fact.  You can see that there was some flooding at the farm when we visited.  The staff were draining the field and focusing on their raised beds.

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To thank the World Concern staff in Les Cayes for all their hard work and to enjoy some fellowship, we shared a delicious meal at Gelee beach.  This small restaurant is owned and run by a World Concern microcredit client which is awesome.  Rolande, the owner, has been a client since 1998.  We were happy to support her business and eat her delicious food!

Thursday

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Thursday morning we drove from Les Cayes to Jacmel.  We took Route National 2 which is well paved and provides some spectacular views as you zigzag up and over the mountains.

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Once reaching Jacmel and meeting up with Marseille, World Concern’s project coordinator in south east Haiti, we drove to the community of Lavaneau just outside the city.  Here World Concern helped a local organization rebuild their irrigation canal after it was destroyed by hurricanes in 2008.  The local organization is 22 years old and works on a variety of projects in their community.  In this photo we’re speaking with the president of the organization and other members.

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In addition to the construction of a new irrigation canal, World Concern supported the local organization in Lavaneau to build four water fountains like this one which we visited.

Friday

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Friday morning we drove to the village of Figue, high up in the mountains east of Jacmel. This is the inside of the church in Figue that was rebuilt following Hurricane Sandy last year. The congregation did an awesome job painting the church and making it beautiful.

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World Concern also helped Figue build a new water system which brings water from a source in the mountains to this water fountain.  You can read more about World Concern’s work in Figue by clicking here.

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Haitians are very generous and the folks in Figue were no exception.  Here’s the remnants of the coconut that we enjoyed during our visited.  A guy will take a machete and with precision cut off the top so a small hole is exposed; perfect for drinking the cool contents.

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Friday afternoon we drove back to Port-au-Prince.  This was the leg of the trip where I got pretty motion sick.  As we drove through and around and up and over the mountains from Jacmel to Port-au-Prince I was sitting in the back with the luggage.  The Dramamine I took apparently didn’t do its job.  Adam was nice enough to swap seats on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.  In the photo above you can see one of the many taptaps (the public bus in Haiti) we encountered upon reaching the capital.

Saturday

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Adam, Wendy and Dave flew out Saturday evening so we had all day to explore some of Port-au-Prince together.  Here is a panoramic shot Martha took of the city from a popular lookout.

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Before heading to the airport we stopped for a late lunch.

It was a fantastic week.  Adam and Wendy were able to see firsthand how God is using World Concern to serve and equip communities in Haiti.  It was an honor to introduce them to this amazing country.

Eloude & Loulou

Driving through Tapion.

Driving through Tapion.

In the coastal village of Tapion in southern Haiti lives a sweet, soft spoken woman named Eloude.  She and her husband Loulou have five children and have lived in Tapion for just over 15 years.

I first met Eloude and her family in June of this year.

In October 2012 Hurricane Sandy ripped through southern Haiti destroying more than 18,000 homes.  Eloude and Loulou’s home was left largely intact however the roof was completely destroyed.  World Concern helped them put on a new tin roof and also gave Eloude some cash to get her small business up and running again.

This was a family that left an impression.  Honestly not everyone does.  I meet many people and some interactions are impactful and others are indifferent.  However their relaxed and inviting nature, coupled with good conversation is what made the difference.

Eloude and Loulou outside their home.

Eloude and Loulou outside their home.

Well last week I got to visit Eloude and Loulou again which was awesome.  Martha and I were traveling with a colleague from Seattle and a couple donors from California in the south and stopped to see them.

Four months on since I first met Eloude and Loulou they are doing okay.  All five of their kids are attending school this year at the national school down the road which they’re proud of.  They are also adding on to their house slowly.  Eloude continues to run her small business on the road in front of their house selling pate, a popular Haitian snack, and other items.

Several years ago Loulou received a cow from World Concern through an animal husbandry project.  At the time he decided to sell his cow and use the income to purchase a motorcycle which he uses to this day as a moto taxi; giving rides to people from Tapion to the city of Les Cayes which is the largest in southern Haiti.  This consistent source of income is huge for the family.

“It [income] allows me to send my kids to school and give them food,” explained Loulou.

Although the motorcycle is still serving him well, Loulou said that people prefer to ride newer moto taxis so that’s a challenge for him.

“They say mine is granmoun,” he chuckled.  Granmoun is the word typically used to describe an elder or older person.

This family is an example of how World Concern stays involved with people over time.  Dips in private giving and grant cycles that inevitably end are challenges of course but the goal is to continue to invest in the same families and communities, and it’s encouraging to see that play out in the life of Eloude and Loulou.

As I revisit people and churches and communities that I’ve been to previously it brings a lot of joy to see relationships form.  My Creole is far from perfect but improving (albeit slowly) which really opens up lots of doors relationally which is exciting.  Not sure when I’ll see Eloude and Loulou again but I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Eloude, sporting her huge smile, and her children.

Eloude, sporting her huge smile, and her children.

Happy International DRR Day

DRR Day Intro -blog

Today we celebrate the International Day for Disaster Reduction.  I have to say that before coming to World Concern, I was not really aware of disaster risk reduction (DRR) and the magnitude of its importance.  I knew that prevention was important but I often only thought of it within the realm of health.   The more I see and hear about DRR and the devastating impact of hurricanes and other disasters, the more I believe that we can no longer be a people of reaction.  We have to think ahead–imagine the unimaginable.  Not for the sake of freaking ourselves out and burdening ourselves with worry but for the sake of being prepared and preventing unnecessary loss.

“Every time something very dramatic happens we hear people say, ‘Oh we could not have imagined that this would happen.’  So I would say really the first thing that we have to do is to start imagining what can happen.  To actually acknowledge that this may happen to me as well.” 1

– Margareta Wahlstrom
Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction

DRR is one of World Concern’s largest focuses here in Haiti.  Community meetings, trainings, building canals.  Yes, it’s nowhere near as glamorous as digging wells or giving goats to young children so they can go to school (both of which are very important to development), but sometimes we need to take off our “I-only-see-glamorous-development glasses” and ask ourselves what is important.

So what does DRR actually look like?  Take a look at some ways World Concern is working to decrease the risks and improve preparedness vulnerable communities in Northwest Haiti.

11-DRR Training for Staff_NW Haiti_CIDRR Presentation Photos_2013Knowledge is power safety   Community Mobilizers are trained in topics related to DRR as well as water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).  They then go into the communities to hold trainings in order to raise awareness and increase preparedness among the vulnerable population.

16A-Canal Construction Djerilon_NW Haiti_CIDRR Presentation Photos_2013Canals to prevent flooding   This canal in the community of Jerilon, which is located in the city of Port-de-Paix, is one of several being constructed in Northwest Haiti to prevent flooding in surrounding homes.   They are carefully built at the right capacity and strength to handle heavy rains during rainy season and hurricanes.

Loading Materials_NW Haiti_CIDRR_8-13__26A shelter during natural disaster   Roofing materials are loaded into a truck headed for Northwest Haiti.  There, schools and church buildings are renovated to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes to ensure the whole community has a safe shelter to go to during the next natural disaster.

SchoolsPreparedness in schools   We are working with schools in five different communities in the city of Port-de-Paix to create emergency plans that they can use in the case of disaster.  Administrators and teachers are also given training in disaster management.

Xavier Alix farmer_NW Haiti_CEDRA_5-13Agricultural security   In 2012, drought caused $20 billion dollars of economic loss in the Americas.  Yes, billion.  Drought resistant seeds which require less water can help farmers like Xavier Alix feed his family despite changing weather patterns.

So Happy International Day for Disaster Reduction!  Thanks for taking the time to be informed and consider imagining the unimaginable.

Want to dig deeper?

*  I would recommend this 5-minute video based on the 2013 Global Assessment Report for Disaster Risk Reduction.  It touches on some of the different issues in DRR across the world today.

*  This is not just an issue affecting Haiti.  It must be considered in the US too.  This Guardian article talks of urban areas like New York, Boston, and Miami and the dangerous combination of their high risk of flooding and low preparedness.  “Inaction, could lead to losses in excess of $1 trillion a year [across the world].”

Compost: It’s More Than Just Dirt

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Of all the challenges farmers in Haiti face—poor infrastructure, inconsistent rainfall, and limited access to modern farming tools just to name a few—a lack of affordable fertilizer was not the first obstacle that came to my mind.  However in fact this is a huge hindrance for farmers.

“In Haiti we don’t produce chemical fertilizer so small farmers, even poor farmers, when they are poor they cannot afford to buy a sack or a bag of chemical fertilizer.  That’s too expensive for them,” explains Pierre, World Concern’s regional coordinator in southern Haiti and an agronomist by trade.

An alternative to expensive and imported chemical fertilizer is organic compost.  Compost is not commonly used currently in rural Haiti but the benefits are numerous which is why World Concern is introducing it to small farmers.

“There are many advantages to compost.  First compost provides nutrients for the plants, helps to rebuild the soil, reduce soil erosion, and compost helps in the structure of the soil.  Also when we plant it can last more; it can improve the soil longer than with chemical fertilizer,” according to Pierre.

Perhaps most importantly, the materials needed to make compost—animal manure, straw, moisture, ash—are common things that even poor farmers have access to.

On a warm Friday morning in September, twenty-four small farmers and agronomy students from two local universities gathered together on a farm outside the city of Les Cayes in southern Haiti.  This four acre farm is leased by World Concern and serves as a training center; a place to educate and teach agricultural techniques.  On this particular day this group was gathered to learn about organic compost.

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Huddled under a simple tin covering, the group listened carefully as Pierre began sharing about organic compost—the definition and theory, and especially the process of making it.  It took a bit of improvisation but eventually a makeshift screen was erected to display images on a projector.  Several participants raised their hands to ask questions which sometimes produced a lively debate.  The teaching and discussion was rich.

It was obvious these farmers and students were eager to learn.  As I was observing, a thought arose; although most definitely poor and vulnerable to uncontrollable forces, the people in this group are not passive.  They chose to spend their precious time, one whole day, coming to this training to glean new insight and to discover a new technique.  This is encouraging and challenges the notion that the poor are only waiting for the next handout.

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After a couple hours of teaching and discussion, everyone piled into World Concern vehicles and drove to the nearby Université Notre Dame d’Haïti (UNDH), one of two local agronomy universities World Concern partners with.

Here a demonstration took place, putting into practice what was taught that morning.  Pierre and the other World Concern staff put emphasis on actually doing the work of making a compost pile.  So before long, farmers and students were moving compost bins and digging in the dirt to the tune of instructions.

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Pierre, far right in striped shirt, and others getting dirty.

Later in the day Pierre summarized the process of making compost.  “There are different ways we can make compost but this is one of the ways.  We make compost in bins.  In the piles we make some straw first, we add animal manure, we may add also some ash.  And again repeat the same layer of straw, layer of animal manure, layer of ash and so on until we get it high and then we stop.”

“Usually it takes 3 months but in the process we have to turn it perhaps one month, second month and third month.  After the third month, it is usually ready to use.”

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Brunelle, 30-year-old husband and father of one, was quiet but attentive during the demonstration.  He is trained in administrative management and was formerly a teacher before beginning to farm full time.

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Brunelle, all smiles

“From November we will start to plant tomato.  Now we are getting ready for the new season.  We are making nurseries and preparing seeds,” he shared.  “The harvest is very useful because we eat it and we sell it as well.”

“This is my first time to work with compost,” continued Brunelle, “But the training is really good and I am learning a lot and I will try and implement what I have learned.”

21-year-old Fontaine (pictured below) is a third year student at UNDH and was equally interested in what was being taught.

“I had some knowledge about compost but today I went deeper.  Today I had a better understanding of compost because they taught us the theory and now we are getting the experience,” she said.  “Compost helps the plant to grow better and also it ventilates the soil more and brings more nutrients.”

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This young woman was inspiring.  Our conversation moved beyond compost to her interest in agriculture and her dreams.

“First of all, I decided to study agronomy because I like it very much.  Secondly, because of the situation in the country.  Haiti is not even able to feed itself so we would like to produce more because we are an agricultural country.  This is how I would like to help Haiti,” she shared.

Wow.

Continuing Fontaine said, “We would like to feed our own population.  I am not saying importation will be over but we can decrease it.  We just want to feed the population and produce more so everyone can eat better.”

It was an honor meeting Brunelle, Fontaine and the others at the training that day.  You begin to see how incredible of a resource the country of Haiti has in its people.  Although they may lack material wealth, they possess sharp and eager minds, gifting’s, and a desire to improve their lives and their country.

With an estimated 60% of the population—nearly six million people—in Haiti engaged in agricultural activities, supporting small farmers and Haiti’s future agronomists is crucial in moving the country forward and helping people feed themselves and earn an income.

“If they can make their own compost with the residues from their crop they only need a little technique to do that so when they get this technique they can produce their own natural fertilizer and improve their soil, increase their production and also protect the environment,” said Pierre.

World Concern is walking with individuals like Brunelle and Fontaine; encouraging them and providing them with skills and resources.  Conducting a compost training in one example of what this looks like.  Who knew a pile of dirt could be the source of transformation?

Oh and according to Pierre, another thing Haiti has going for it is that there is no snow…..

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Goodbyes and what we can learn from them

My parents can attest that I have always had trouble staying in one place.  As a youngster I was always on the move.  As an adult, although I’ve bid farewell to (most) of my bad fidgety habits I still have trouble staying in one place, geographically speaking.

In the past four years Martha and I have lived in three different cities, in three different countries.  Port-au-Prince is home now and while I am confident this is where God wants me to be and I absolutely love the excitement and adventure of living in such an interesting and vibrant place, I don’t enjoy the frequent goodbyes that come with living in a transient city or with moving every couple years.

Goodbyes are bittersweet.  There is a sense of excitement for the person who is leaving and beginning a new chapter and at the same time a sense of sadness knowing that your relationship with this person will look different in the weeks, months and years ahead.

Haiti is one of those places where people, namely foreigners or the Haitian diaspora or educated Haitians, come and go.  You often to have look hard to find people who have been here for longer than a couple years.  This is for a variety of reasons but the proximity to the U.S. and Canada, and the “short term contract/commitment” culture are major players.

Thankfully Martha and I have found great friends in Haiti and are slowly building a strong community here.  However recently we did have to say goodbye to one of our friends, Dr. Joanne, who was also a colleague at World Concern.  Dr. Joanne served as World Concern’s health program coordinator and was a wonderful friend to Martha and I since our first days in Haiti.  She is the kind of person that always lights up a room when they walk in.  Her godly leadership and sweet spirit will truly be missed.

Dr. Joanne will be staying in Port-au-Prince.  Haiti is her home.  So we’re happy about that and we will likely stay in touch.

Although we’re excited for her as she steps into a new ministry role with another organization, we’re also saddened by her departure.  Her leaving not only has made me think about my mixed feelings with goodbyes, it has also reminded me of the importance of being present.  Meaning, I need to make the most of the moments I do have now with the people in my sphere or office or apartment building or church.  This is something that takes practice and I am still figuring out but am seeing the importance and value of it more and more.

Here at the World Concern office in Port-au-Prince we had an awesome party for Dr. Joanne last week that honored her very well.  It had some serious moments and some hilarious ones.  There were speeches, prayers, stories, snacks, and laughs shared.  One highlight was the ‘dancing game’ that was organized beforehand but that no one knew about.  I had no idea some of our staff could move so well!!  Unfortunately there’s no video footage of the dancing but I did want to share some photos of that party with you.

What a good looking bunch!  World Concern staff surround Dr. Joanne (center, holding plaque).

What a good looking bunch! World Concern staff surround Dr. Joanne (center, holding plaque).

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Out of Chaos, Light

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cha·os  noun  /ˈkāäs/

complete confusion and disorder : a state in which behavior and events are not controlled by anything

Confusion and disorder were some of the many words coming to mind this past week as I read the tragic headlines coming out of Nairobi, Kenya.  The Westgate shopping mall was sieged by militants from the radical group al-Shabaab, resulting in dozens of deaths and leaving at least 170 injured.  The firsthand accounts that have emerged are absolutely chilling and paint a picture of utter chaos.  As the attack finally comes to end, the process of grieving will undoubtedly begin.

Following such an evil act, I find myself looking for answers to make sense of it all.  Why?  What was the motivation?  How can this happen despite all the technology and surveillance and security measures available to us in the 21st century?  Was this preventable?  Although I was not affected personally by the attack, it is heart wrenching to see such senseless violence carried out against innocent people.

Thankfully there have been no mass shootings in Haiti recently on par with what happened in Nairobi this past week.  However even this week, I have asked some of these same difficult questions as I learned of tragedies here related to sickness, injustice and spiritual warfare.  It seems that both at a collective (macro) and personal (micro) level, chaos is very present.

So how can we deal with and respond to and overcome tragedy and pain and confusion and unanswered questions and heartache and darkness in our world?

The natural solution to darkness is light and I love how God uses this imagery throughout His redemptive story, beginning with creation.

The first two verses of the book of Genesis read, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

Our pastor in Haiti has been teaching on this theme of light and explained recently that the Hebrew word translated as formless in this passage actually means chaos.  In the beginning the earth was in chaos.

And what was God’s answer to chaos?  Light.

Verses three and four say, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.”

Light brought form and stability and hope and goodness into a previously dark and chaotic place.

And this light and its life giving nature is available to us today through Jesus Christ.

Jesus said himself, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

So how can we deal with and respond to and overcome the difficulties and darkness in our world?  By turning to the author of life, the only one who can bring light to chaos.

Do questions and uncertainties remain?  Yes.

Does pain and grief disappear immediately?  No.

Honestly I still struggle with trying to understand tragedies like Westgate and also the everyday tragedies that we hear of in Haiti.  However I take comfort in knowing that there is an answer to all the chaos.

Note:  I should say that thankfully, all World Concern staff members in Nairobi have been accounted for and are safe.  This is certainly a difficult time for many people in Nairobi, but as our friend and colleague Kelly Ranck who is based in Nairobi recently wrote in a beautiful blog post, “Kenya will rise again!”  I encourage you to read more by clicking here.  

An empty downtown, crowded tap taps and sleeping police: Sights on a road trip across Haiti

The beautiful southern coast of Haiti near Aquin along Route National 2.

Four o’clock in the morning is early even for a morning person like me.  Yet last week this is precisely the time of day I found myself crawling out of bed and into our car.  Martha and I do not usually get up this early.  But on this particular day we were headed to the city of Les Cayes which is located in southern Haiti and needed to be there by 8:30am.  The trip can take over four hours, depending on the traffic or blokis, hence the 4am wake up.

World Concern has been working with small scale farmers near Les Cayes for over 15 years providing training, seeds and tractor services.  We last visited Les Cayes in June and you can read about three gentleman we met then in a previous blog post by clicking here.  Our purpose in traveling to Les Cayes on this occasion was to document an organic compost training for farmers and agronomy students from local universities.  More later in a separate post on this training specifically.

This was our fifth trip outside of Port-au-Prince for World Concern since arriving in Haiti nine months ago.  After four trips we have figured out travel essentials versus what can be left behind.  Sunscreen is always a must.  We’ve made the mistake of forgetting this precious item before only to pay for it for the next two weeks.  On a personal note, it is especially sad that I have recently needed to start applying sunscreen to the (little) bald spot on my head.  Forgetting that has proved disastrous as well.  I often opt for a hat nowadays.

A notepad but also several pens are also at the top of the list because pens seem to disappear when meetings, road trips, hotel rooms and farm visits are involved.  We used to always carry a small English-Creole dictionary but found that it was a bit impractical to pull out a book and look up a word mid-conversation.  I often feel like an 8 year old when speaking Creole but we are improving slowly so this last trip we left the dictionary at home and did fine.

I always insist on bringing my Leatherman knife which Martha doesn’t feel as attached to (shocking I know!).  Maybe it’s a guy thing but I just feel so much more prepared for whatever may happen when I bring my knife along.  Of course it is not only a knife.  It is a can opener, filer, screwdriver, pair of scissors, and saw.  And it fits in my pocket!  Definitely a must.

Lastly, pre-charged batteries.  It’s amazing how fast Martha flies through battery packs when she is using her camera for 8+ straight hours.

The night before we left was busy as we made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast and iced coffee for the road.  Martha was kind enough to iron a couple things because despite often being in very rural areas when we travel, a pressed shirt is nearly always expected.  Haitians are very clean and great care is taken to look nice.  I dress nicer in Haiti than I ever did in Seattle for most occasions.  Okay, Seattle is a bad comparison because jeans and a REI button up with UV protection is considered business casual but you get the idea.  Since we would only be gone for one night we shared a small backpack and easily fit in our clothes for the next two days.  Martha’s camera bag and stand were set by the door.  Extra water was thrown in the car and the gas tank was filled.  We were ready.

As we drove through Port-au-Prince in the pre-dawn twilight the city was uncharacteristically quiet.  Streets that are usually bustling with cars, public buses or tap taps, and street vendors were almost completely vacant.  It felt like we could have been the only ones in the city at that moment.  We passed the Champs de Mars plaza and the National Palace or at least where it once proudly stood pre-quake.  It was damaged badly and eventually torn down with the help of Sean Penn’s charity in 2012.

The wind kicked up dust in front of us as we continued on which made the car’s headlights appear dimmer, only adding to the eeriness of driving through an empty downtown Port-au-Prince.

With no blokis we quickly found on our way out of downtown and onto Route National 2, heading west.  We passed the city of Léogâne which was closest to the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake.  Next came Grand Goâve and Petit-Goâve.  Interestingly, the road only gets better on Route National 2 the farther you head west from Port-au-Prince.  By the time you reach Grand Goâve the road becomes consistently smooth.  In fact, Route National 2 is one of the best stretches of road in Haiti (at least that I’ve been on).

At this point the sky was showing hints of light which we were both thankful for.  With little street lighting, especially outside Port-au-Prince, driving in the dark can be a chore.  Pot holes and speed bumps are extra hidden so we found ourselves consistently praying that we did not blow a tire.  In Creole speed bumps are called polis kouche—literally, ‘lying down police.’  It was explained to me that it’s called that because the speed bump is like a policeman sleeping in the road forcing you to slow down.  I love it!  The Creole language never ceases to amuse and amaze.  Thankfully the car did great through the entire trip and we would make it Les Cayes safely and san pwoblem.

Although the sun was still rising, Route National 2 became increasingly busier as we kept driving west.  Men and women, although mostly women, waited on the roadside for the next tap tap to pass.  If one did, you would see all hands go up and begin waving in unison signaling to the driver that they wanted a ride.  Often the passengers were carrying totes, bags, produce, or even chairs that are accompanying them on their journey.   Buses and tap taps in Haiti are often painted vibrant colors and it is not uncommon to find Justin Beiber or Lionel Messi’s face plastered on the side.  They are also notoriously filled to the brim with everything you can imagine—people, goats, charcoal, clothes, and produce to name a few.

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There’s always room for more.

Not in an overwhelming way like in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, but the smaller cities and villages we passed were certainly teeming with life and activity as a new day began.  I have found Haitians to be proactive and industrious people.  I would confidently say the vast majority of Haitians I have met are not waiting for a handout despite what I hear from the occasional visitor or in the news.  They are busy and proactive, trying to make a life for themselves and provide for their families despite living in a country where ‘getting ahead’ is only possible for a privileged few.

I am always confused when someone makes a comment about the lack of work ethic or ambition of Haitians.  I completely disagree.  A few months ago we met a woman who lives near the city of Port-de-Paix in northwest Haiti who works seven days a week frying food and selling it on the street to earn enough money so her kids can eat and go to school.  She is always up before dawn and rarely takes a single day off because if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.  This woman is not waiting for a handout.  The people we passed who were obviously busy getting ready for a new day reminded me of this woman and once again I was impressed by the diligence and fortitude of many people in Haiti.

We eventually reached the port town of Miragoâne.  At this point, Route National 2 veers inland taking you south and west across what I would call “the panhandle” of Haiti.  If you are familiar with Oklahoma or Texas you will know exactly what I mean.  Leaving Miragoâne you definitely feel like you are in a rural area.  There are a series of small villages on this nearly 50 kilometer stretch from Miragoâne to the small seaside town of Aquin on the southern coast but that is about it.

The contrast between the busyness and density of Port-au-Prince and the open space and vistas nearly everywhere else outside the capital still amaze me.  I am not really a city person.  I almost always prefer smaller towns and the countryside.  Therefore getting outside of Port-au-Prince is like a breath of fresh air.  The Haitian countryside is absolutely beautiful and the area between Miragoâne and Aquin is no exception.  Soon, the sun was peeking over the mountains giving us quite the show.  This part of the country has a decent amount of tree cover remaining which only added to the beauty.  The car had to work harder as we climbed then descended the numerous hills and mountain passes.

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This is where, as a driver, you get lots of experience passing and getting passed by vehicles of all shapes and sizes.  There is no real concept of leaving room between cars in Haiti.  It is one of the things about driving in Haiti that I am still trying to get used to.  In the U.S. we generally like our space when driving and expect other drivers to give that to us.  There is almost a sacredness with the small area around our rear bumpers.  You know what I mean.  In your rear view mirror you notice car closing in pretty quickly and that isn’t necessarily bad.  But then the car keeps coming.  As it gets closer and approaches that invisible sacred line of “that is way too close to my bumper man” the driver’s blood pressure quickly rises and even the nicest of people can turn into absolute tyrants.  Ever heard of a “brake check” or better yet used it?

So in Haiti I’m training myself to think not so much about what is happening behind me and instead focus on what’s ahead.  When another car is passing you they will often get right on your bumper and then move slightly into the opposite lane to see if there is room to pass.  Even the smallest gap in traffic is often enough.  As the car picks up speed and flies passed you, the driver will honk multiple times which basically means “I’m coming so get out of my way.”  Martha and I are learning quickly.  Martha learned to drive in the Philippines so she definitely uses her experience from there in Haiti.  I tend to be a more aggressive driver than Martha but together we’re a nice team, whoever is driving.

You know you are getting close to the southern coast when you descend and descend and keep descending.  As you approach Aquin, out of nowhere, the Caribbean Sea reveals itself.  It is a real surprise; and an awesome one at that.  The sun was now shining brightly which gave the sea an incredible blue hue.  I finally decided to pull out the coffee at this point.  I had resisted for the first couple hours of the drive out of fear of an 11am caffeine crash instead of the more bearable 3pm one.  Thanks to my well insulated mug, there were still a couple chunks of ice remaining which was refreshing.

From here Route National 2 hugs the coast for the most part for another 55 kilometers before reaching Les Cayes.  Although Les Cayes feels quite small compared to Port-au-Prince and has considerably less traffic, entering the bustling city reminded me that I was not on a rural mountain road anymore and I needed to pay attention.  The World Concern staff had moved offices in the couple weeks prior so Martha acted as my navigator as I dodged motorcycles and mules and street vendors.

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The new office! A local artist hand painted the World Concern sign.

We eventually found the office on a well paved and charming street in the heart of “downtown.”  Only the guard, Gino, was there when we arrived.  As we waited for the others I reflected on our journey that morning.  It was only shortly after 8am but it felt like noon.  I was certainly awake and ready for the day right then.  I was excited to see the World Concern staff in Les Cayes again and also the whole idea of an organic compost training sounded fascinating.  Mostly I was thankful for an uneventful and generally pleasant drive from Port-au-Prince; our first outside the city since moving to Haiti.

I like long distance drives because there is so much to see and observe.  Haiti is a small country with a largely homogenous culture but driving the four hours from Port-au-Prince to Les Cayes reminded me that it is also a place of contrasts.  Landscape, population density, wealth, tree cover, road quality and even fruit varieties are different depending on where you are at.  One thing is for sure.  I am looking forward to my next road trip in Haiti.

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A couple of our fun loving and exceptional colleagues in Les Cayes.

Photo Essay: Honoring our staff in Haiti

Today, August 19, is World Humanitarian Day.  According to the United Nations (UN), World Humanitarian Day is “a day to commemorate all people who have lost their lives in humanitarian service and to celebrate the spirit of people helping people that motivates this work.”  It was on August 19, 2003 that 22 aid workers were killed by a bomb in the UN headquarters in Baghdad.  So today we remember those who lost their lives and give thanks for all those who are serving each day.

At World Concern, Martha and I get to work with some incredible people.  Worldwide World Concern has approximately 1,000 staff members serving in some of the harshest environments. Call us bias, but we are especially blown away by World Concern’s staff in Haiti.  Our colleagues in Haiti are doctors, accountants, mechanics, engineers, agronomists, and business professionals. They are committed to doing their work faithfully and with excellence.  They also love Jesus and want to see people transformed spiritually as well as physically.  We have witnessed this firsthand since moving here in January.  To celebrate the World Concern staff in Haiti we wanted to share some photos with you of the people we have the pleasure of working with.  It is because of their dedication and hard work that many lives are impacted across Haiti.  On the World Concern blog today there is also a great post about a young man named Jean Berlin who Martha and I got to interview earlier this year.  His story is incredible.  I encourage you to check it out here!

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