Tuesday, March 1, 2011


By Ruth Anne Olson

I'll tell you a story of Haiti. This tale includes the usual bad guys: hurricanes, earthquake, poverty and corruption. But so, too, does it include good guys: Haitian teachers, market women, farmers, masons, artists and religious leaders. It's distinctly possible that this story is unlike any you've heard about Haiti. This story is true.

Bigonet is a small mountain village between the cities of Leogane and Jacmel. Most people get there by foot, some by donkey or motorcycle. The few who travel by truck must watch the sky, for rain can make the route: dirt road, narrow jeep trail, and eventually riverbed impassable.

Bigonet lies near the epicenter of last January's earthquake; much nearer than Port-au-Prince.

But you've never heard of Bigonet. Only a small handful of aid workers have ever been there; I'm certain no reporter or photographer knows of its existence. Few government officials know of Bigonet either for, like virtually all rural communities in Haiti, it enjoys no public services. No roads, telephones, water or sanitation. No post office. No government support for education, health care or reforestation. Bigonet's quality of life depends on its own people, along with often-disjointed but nevertheless welcome support from a small handful of nongovernmental organizations.

I was first in Bigonet in 2008, returned in 2009. Two travel companions and I developed friendships of sufficient affection to make us wring our hands with worry for weeks after Jan. 12, 2010, when using every channel of modern communication at our disposal we were unable to learn anything about damage and death.

How they fared
Eventually we heard that everyone in Bigonet had lived. Most of their homes had collapsed.

Their school had fallen. So, too, their church, with its high "cathedral" ceiling. In due course we learned that families had cobbled together a modicum of shelter; hand-woven walls of palm leaves, tarps tied to tree branches, even a few tents. By September our friends made clear they were eager to have us come.

As we approached the village in mid-November, I felt a rising tide of apprehension, even fear.

Was I prepared to see the destruction that my friends live with every day? Would I make a fool of myself by bursting into tears?

When we rounded the corner to the small familiar cluster of homes, my jaw dropped in momentary confusion. Most everything I'd known had simply disappeared. Where two buildings had stood was an orderly array of tents and tarps delineating spaces: for sleeping, bathing, cooking and socializing. A large concrete slab, once the floor of a family home, was now bare and clean; the base for the tent we'd brought to be our home for the next several days. One two-room building, badly damaged, still stood. But the junk of disaster; mountains of broken concrete and twisted metal that I'd expected to see? All was gone hauled away by hand. We saw not destruction and sadness, but order and community.

On the night of the quake and for many weeks after, 300 families had lived on the soccer field, without shelter and with only the food and tools people could scavenge from buildings they were terrified to enter. But Bigonet had lost no time in re-creating its community, and wherever we went we found leadership, organization and order. The school building was gone, along with the large and brightly painted church. Gone. No chunks of concrete tossed here or there, though maybe some twisted rebar was still visible. They had no machines. So how many people were required? Over what period of time? With how many trips by donkeys to move it all out of sight?

School re-started in April
Education has long been a passionate priority for the people of Bigonet, and in April they re-started their school. For five months 300 kids and their teachers met in a single large donated tent; cramped, noisy, moldy and unbearably hot. When offered materials in October to build eight temporary classrooms, Bigonet's citizens transported them up the mountain. With shovels and machetes they leveled the ground. They mixed concrete, poured foundations and, with technical assistance by the donating agency, constructed the classrooms.

Countless stories from Bigonet deserve to be told. Many are sad and filled with grief and misery. Many tell of worry and deep discouragement, some even of community discord. But through them all is the humor and joy that permeate nearly every interaction with the people of Bigonet.

It's clear that our friends understand the meaning of hope in the face of near-impossible adversity. "Where we find humor, we find hope. Where we find hope, we can see a future. And for the sake of the children, above all for the sake of the children, we must believe in a future."

Conversations in Bigonet, and later in Port-au-Prince, make clear that Haitians know that much of the world looks at them with near disdain. They grieve the absence of good government. They yearn for a president and officials who will value education, fair distribution of wealth, reforestation and the future of healthy families. But they know only too well the unlikelihood of that happening in the foreseeable future. In the meantime they do what they have to do, in their own small corners of the world.

Not an anomaly
Recently I've sensed increasing skepticism about Haiti among Americans. Cholera, Hurricane Tomas, protest against perceived UN injustices, a presidential election filled with uncertainty and maybe corruption. But Bigonet is not an anomaly; stories of energy, ingenuity and commitment exist throughout Haiti's rural countryside. Contrary to common wisdom, Haiti has little need for others to solve its problems. Instead, a healthy future depends on listening to Haiti's people, on providing a boost to those who know themselves what to do.

Embedded in the story of Bigonet, too, are critically important lessons for consumers of media.

The bad guys do, indeed, exist in Haiti, and they have no trouble attracting reporters. You'll have to work harder to find stories of the good guys. Doubt not that they abound.

I promised you a story about Haiti, unlike any you've heard before. A true story, one that contains the future of Haiti, if given the chance. Please don't forget it.

Ruth Anne Olson, of Minneapolis, is a retired educator who travels to Haiti in partnership with St. James Episcopal Church in Minneapolis and Legliz Bonne Nouvelle Episcopale in Bigonet Haiti. She has written life stories of Haitian people, Images of Haiti: Stories of Strength.

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