It starts with a song. Soft at first, then louder, like slow-rolling thunder, gentle harmonies that keep time with the clapping of hands. Soon there will be time for serious talk — of politics, hard labor and the struggle to find food — but for now there is only the music.
Every Haitian man, woman and child knows this music, and during a recent trip to Haiti, I came to know it, too. I was there to visit several grassroots organizations that help Haitians — most of them poor, many of them hungry — develop the skills they need to improve their everyday lives.
Haiti, by all accounts the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is a startling place. Driving around, I found a vast, barren wasteland, what you would expect to find on a desolate moonscape or in some futuristic science fiction movie. Plagued by years of war, famine and political mismanagement, the country has been stripped of its natural resources, and with them, its industry. Electricity is undependable, and running water an unheard of luxury. With mile after mile of nothing but rocky dirt road, Haiti seems like a place without hope, and certainly a place without a viable future.
And yet, five minutes into a conversation with a Haitian woman, I realized my first impression was wrong. I visited a grain mill in the center of the country, where local women bring their corn. In Haiti, women bear the brunt of the work burden. They are responsible for milling grain and working as vendors at local markets, both while simultaneously tending to the needs of their families. The mill represents a significant improvement for the women who use it, and who previously had to walk great distances to process grain for family meals.
Despite their heavy loads, the women I met fairly bubbled over with enthusiasm. These were not bitter, defeated women resigned to a life of poverty. In fact, the women — and the men — were decidedly upbeat. They recognized that they were poor but not powerless, and that systemic change would have to start with them.
Take Marie-Carmel. A 35-year-old mother of three, she understood what it would take to turn her fortunes around. When we were first introduced, she did not hesitate to make her views known. “The politicians will do what they will,” she said dismissively. Then she pointed to the mill and said, “ This is my president. This is what I believe in.”
In the face of extreme poverty, Haitians retain a tremendous sense of dignity. They may be dressed in rags caked with mud and clinging to machetes, but their children are spotless, wearing immaculate school uniforms and clutching battered books. Like parents all over the world, Haitian parents will sacrifice everything to give their kids a chance at a better life.
Several days into my trip, I drove through a torrential downpour to visit an agricultural site in a mountaintop village. After my visit, I climbed back into a rickety van with threadbare tires and began to descend the mountain, which was rapidly deteriorating into sludge. Several miles outside the village, the van sunk into the mud and was stuck. Within the hour, what seemed like the entire village had descended to help me. There was a sense among these people of the need for collective action, of getting around a problem and solving it. As I stood getting soaked, pushing the van out of the muck, side-by-side Haitian men, women and children, I understood how poverty — unpaved roads, decrepit transportation — can be a physical obstacle to getting things done. But I also felt inspired by a sense of community and of possibility.
For weeks leading up to my trip, I wondered what relevance all of this could have for the American Jewish community. For me, the question was more than academic, since I have dedicated the last several years of my life to raising funds from the Jewish community and distributing them to fight hunger in our country and around the world. How does Haiti affect Jews when it is a country with so few of us?
I found my answer in the faces of the Haitian men and women I was fortunate enough to meet. We are a people consumed by a vision of a more perfect world, and we are a people — many of us blessed with abundance — who can help build it. As Jews committed to tikkun olam , we send food to poverty-stricken Haitians for the same reason we teach inner-city children to read and provide housing assistance for new immigrants in this country. We do it because we believe in kevod ha’beriyot , the respect due to every being.
Every meeting I attended in Haiti started with a song, and every song told a story. As I have replayed the lyrics in my head, I have become more convinced that the stories hold a lesson for us as Jews. It is true that we have our own stories, and our own songs. But ever since I have been back from Haiti, it has struck me that it is the overlap, where our stories meet, where the real work gets done.
H. Eric Schockman is executive director of Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger.