I drew in my breath with awe as the beauty of the verdant mountain range came into view. We had Emerged from the congested streets of Port-au-Prince where we watched fathers precariously navigate the heavy traffic holding the tiny hands of their little girls in school uniforms and hair-bows. Street side sellers had perched water or dried plantains atop their heads as they skillfully wove through the crowd. The street art that brightened cement walls was half covered by myriad posters for presidential candidates. Heading out of the city we’d passed glimpses of the ocean peeking through breaks in the tree line or the walls, and then the view opened up to the majestic green mountains undulating off into the distance as far as we could see. Having read that Haiti has the highest deforestation rate of any country in the world with only 2% of it’s original forests remaining, it was greener than I had expected. During my week in Haiti I came to a deeper understanding of the Haitian proverb I had heard , “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, but this was my first literal interpretation. The mountains beyond mountains of this gorgeous view.
We came to Haiti to visit artisans with the Artisan Business Network who create products for the Heart of Haiti line of goods sold on-line and in Macy’s stores in America. Heart of Haiti began it’s partnership with the Artisan Business Network after the 2010 earthquake to aid in economic recovery by providing sustainable jobs and a market for the rich arts culture of the country. Art is everywhere you turn, from the walls of Port-au-Prince lined with steel art and hung with paintings, graffiti decorated buildings, to the colorful TapTap buses. Each region seems to have a creative specialty and our tour took us to several areas where we were able to watch the artisans at work, and follow their process of creation from start to finish.
The coastal town of Jacmel is known for it’s arts and charm. Mosaics like the stairs pictured above decorate public areas and historic French architectural influence reminded me of New Orleans. There we visited Paper Mache artists who demonstrated their craft using recycled materials such as discarded cement bags and layers of cardboard boxes which they seemed to magically transform into gorgeous works of art.
Paper Mache heart ornaments
We met the women of the PWOFAPLAS soapmaking collective in Mirebalais, who banded together to use their creativity to generate economic opportunities for themselves in an area without many options for women.
In Leogane, which was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake, we visited the river where soapstone is sourced. We then watched as the Heart of Haiti soapstone carvers transformed the rough rocks by hand-carving them into smooth hearts and bowls.
In Croix des Bouquets we were shown how a repurposed steel metal drum was cut, flattened, and worked into a delicately carved metal tray, christmas ornaments or wall art.
Every new area we visited exposed us to a new craft, but the ingenuity was pervasive throughout each art form. The goods created and sold provide economic empowerment through sustainable incomes enabling the artisans to provide for their families and send their children to school. It is inspiring to see that many of them are also teaching the next generation their craft.
Just a few weeks prior to our visit Hurricane Matthew, the strongest hurricane to hit Haiti in fifty years, had barreled down with 145 mile an hour winds. An estimated 1,000 lives were lost, regions destroyed, homes, livestock, and crops all gone. The rainy season has continued to flood areas affected by Hurricane Matthew, and I realized why the mountains were looking so lush and green at the moment. In Camp Perrin we visited Artisan Business Network embroiderers who were greatly impacted by the hurricane. The damage became increasingly clear as we neared the town and artists we visited had lost roofing and a season’s worth of embroidery work in the storm. When we arrived the artisans we met were eager to get back to work and busy rebuilding their lives, and their homes.
The Macy’s Heart of Haiti program currently employs 550 artisans, and by extension positively impacts the lives of their families. It is important to know that when you purchase their art and their work you are truly making an impact in the lives of the artisans and their families.
I feel incredibly grateful to have gotten a glimpse into the creative heartbeat of Haiti. It is tough for me to encapsulate the range of emotions upon visiting for the first time. It is such a tenuous time of political and economic uncertainty, compounded by natural disaster, yet seeing firsthand the raw beauty of this country, the richness in creativity and spirit of it’s people, and their passion for their homeland despite it’s flaws, I have to say I kind of fell in love. The proverb “Dye mon, gen mon.”, “Mountains Beyond Mountains” speaks to the peaks and valleys sure to come with life in Haiti, but really could work to some extreme for all of us, no matter where in the world we live.
Elizabeth Atalay is a Digital Media Producer, Managing Editor at World Moms Network, and a Social Media Manager. She was a 2015 United Nations Foundation Social Good Fellow, and traveled to Ethiopia as an International Reporting Project New Media Fellow to report on newborn health in 2014. On her personal blog, Documama.org, she uses digital media as a new medium for her background as a documentarian. After having worked on Feature Films and Television series for FOX, NBC, MGM, Columbia Pictures, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, and Castle Rock Pictures, she studied documentary filmmaking and anthropology earning a Masters degree in Media Studies from The New School in New York. Since becoming a Digital Media Producer she has worked on social media campaigns for non-profits such as Save The Children, WaterAid, ONE.org, UNICEF, United Nations Foundation, Edesia, World Pulse, American Heart Association, and The Gates Foundation. Her writing has also been featured on ONE.org, Johnson & Johnson’s BabyCenter.com, EnoughProject.org, GaviAlliance.org, and Worldmomsnetwork.com. Elizabeth has traveled to 70 countries around the world, most recently to Haiti with Artisan Business Network to visit artisans in partnership with Macy’s Heart of Haiti line, which provides sustainable income to Haitian artisans. Elizabeth lives in New England with her husband and four children.
As a global advocate and traveler, I have always wanted to visit Haiti and little did I know I would soon find myself there as part of the Macy’s Heart of Haiti program(#Bloggers4Haiti), an initiative to bring the artisan’s work to market in the US, and offer a sustainable income for the survivors of Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake five years ago. A small group of us landed in Port au Prince the Thursday before Valentine’s Day and the start of Haiti’s Carnival. I honestly had mixed emotions about what to expect.
The weeks before my departure the news from Haiti was more or less the same. Protesting, political instability, and the usual ongoing extreme poverty that gives Haiti a bad name. Being the poorest nation in the western hemisphere is not a status any country desires. Decades of political fighting, instability, foreign meddling, natural disasters, and poverty has left the country in shambles after the devastating earthquake a little over five years ago.
Reading all the terrible news that never seemed to shred a ray of light on Haiti obviously worried me. I honestly had no idea what to expect when I signed on for my trip with Macy’s Heart of Haiti program where I would spend five days in Port-au-Prince and Jacmel learning about the amazing partnership between America’s largest department store chain and Haitian artists. Would it be safe? was always my number one question as I finished reading the pages of Paul Farmer’s harrowing true story of the aftermath of the earthquake. Would I feel threatened? was another alarming fear I had in the back of my mind when I heard about the recent rioting and protests over the government and fuel prices. Lastly, Would it be depressing? I wondered as I pictured enormous squalid tent communities, slums and rubble.
How would Haiti truly be?
For me, that is the answer I wanted to find out. Whether “Hay-iti” or “the mountains place” as it was named after the long gone Taino people, was the frightening, poverty-stricken desperate place I’d read about over and over again in the media or was it a place of beauty, resilience and strength.
Our group meeting with the amazing women of OFEDA, all earthquake survivors.
As we landed in Haiti’s rebuilt airport in Port-au-Prince, I had just turned the last page of the powerful book “The Big Truck that Went By” by Jonathan Katz. Katz is a journalist who was based in Haiti during the earthquake and stayed on afterwards to document the enormous missed opportunity of governments and aid groups to help truly rebuild Haiti.
Despite the billions of dollars sent in aid money, Katz pointedly argues that Haiti is no better off than it was before the quake that killed over an estimated 220,000 people. Much of the promised aid money was never delivered, while Haitians scramble to rebuild, create jobs, and repair the horrendous lack of infrastructure that lead to such devastation in the first place. Five year later, running water and electricity remain a luxury to the lucky few. Haitians continue to leave the countryside and come to overcrowded Port-au-Prince to live in one of the many growing slums. Tent communities, although reduced in numbers, still exist. Medical care and treatment remain overwhelmed. And deforestation that makes the rains sweep away cities during the rainy season, destroying thousands of homes and killing people in its path, continues.
But “Dèyè mòn gen mòn”…a famous Haitian proverb that means “beyond the mountains, there are mountains”.
The “gingerbread” homes that rise up in the slums above Port au Prince, Haiti.
Haiti has a long way to go in rebuilding and ensuring that another devastation won’t destroy the progress that has been made. Haiti needs a stronger economy providing sustainable jobs.
Haiti needs better infrastructure on every level. Haiti needs investment in education, health care, water and sanitation, electricity, and transportation. Haiti needs political stability and a government that works for its people. And Haiti needs us to not forget her.
The mountains remaining are enormous and often seem almost impossible to pass. Yet the one thing that I learned after five days in Haiti is that the people are some of the strongest people on earth. They have witnessed so much hardship for centuries yet they persevere. Their strength and resilience is astonishing.
This is an original post written for World Moms Blog by Nicole Melancon of Third Eye Mom.
Third Eye Mom is a stay-at-home mom living in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her two children Max (6) and Sophia (4). Her children keep her continually busy and she is constantly amazed by the imagination, energy and joy of life that they possess! A world wanderer at heart, she has also been fortunate to have visited over 30 countries by either traveling, working, studying or volunteering and she continues to keep on the traveling path.
A graduate of French and International Relations from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she met her husband Paul, she has always been a Midwest gal living in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Chicago. This adventurous mom loves to be outside doing anything athletic (hiking, running, biking, skiing, snowshoeing or simply enjoying nature), to travel and volunteer abroad, to write, and to spend time with her beloved family and friends.
Her latest venture involves her dream to raise enough money on her own to build and open a brand-new school in rural Nepal, and to teach her children to live compassionately, open-minded lives that understand different cultures and the importance of giving back to those in need. Third Eye Mom believes strongly in the value of making a difference in the world, no matter how small it may be. If there is a will, there is a way, and that anything is possible (as long as you set your heart and mind to it!).
Visit her on her blog, Thirdeyemom, where she writes about her travels and experiences in other lands!