Children and Farms
Of course, that is not to say that life is easy for the people of Bayonnais. Even though the valley is covered with crops, and there are three growing seasons a year, there is still not enough arable land to feed everyone. This problem gets even worse when you have, as they did 2 months ago, 3 hurricanes in a row that wipe out crops, destroy houses, kill people, and wash away what little belongings people have. The loss of crops is particularly devastating because that can mean that the farmer has no seed left with which to plant crops for the next season. The floods accompanying a hurricane, or even heavy rainfall can wash out the unpaved roads and bridges, cutting the community off from the rest of the world (as happened in September of this year).
This means that the nearby city of Gonaives is usually much better off than the valley, although this is not currently true. While the hurricanes caused great devastation in the valley, things turned out much worse in Gonaives. The city is in a basin on the ocean, and all of the rivers in the nearby mountains drain directly towards the city. This meant that, in the aftermath of the 3 recent hurricanes, Gonaives was completely flooded, with mud up to 10 feet high in places. This has completely shut down the city, including all of it’s services, such as electricity, water, and the local hospital, which apparently looks like a bomb hit it. Even though Bayonnais was damaged significantly in the floods, the valley has rebounded: new crops are planted, the road has been repaired, and things are more or less back to normal.
Besides the rich cropland and abundant water, Bayonnais’ biggest asset is it’s social strength. It is a small community, where everyone knows everyone else, and this leaves the community significantly happier and safer than in places like Port au Prince, which has more food and material wealth. There are no strangers in the valley, and if a new person walks in, they will quickly be asked why they have come. Since there is not much past the valley, they will probably either be here to sell goods in the marketplace or visit a friend or relative, in which case they will be quided to the right place. The people here don’t show any of the guarded wariness of the people in Port au Prince, or even in the small towns along Route 1 down the coast.
There is no need for a hi-tech communications system, since news flows quickly here. For instance, if Pastor Actionelle announces something in church, the whole valley will be aware of it in a day or two. One day when we where here, it rained in the morning and school was cancelled because the teachers couldn’t make it in from the city of Gonaives. When we asked how the children would know if school was cancelled or not, they didn’t really understand the question. After all, growing up in a farming valley, the children would simply know if they would be able to safely walk the 2 or more kilometers to the school. While students in America hope and pray for a snow day, I think the difference here is that the children here feel very privileged to be able to attend school, often as the first in their family.
My first experience with the kids in the valley was when I sat down on the front porch of the guest dorm at the school the first day. I quickly had several small children snuggled up to my sides, with the older children seated nearby, all eager for a glimpse of the newest strange blanc to visit their valley. The small children stroked my arm hair, and pointed at my earrings and tattoos, all rareties in the valley, while the older ones asked “What is your name?”, a refrain that would quickly become all too common. It was also very difficult to avoid slipping into the formal English that they had learned in school when replying that my name is Don, asking them “What is your name?”, instead of the more natural “What’s your name?
If you stop anywhere for long, you will quickly gather a crowd of interested children, the smallest of whom will reach up to hold your hand as you walk along. There is actually quite a bit of competition for the hand-holding, with the rule seeming to be that first come is first served, for the duration of the trip. That afternoon when we went to visit the newly constructed granary, we all walked with 3 or 4 children in hand, and several more crowded around; our own personal entourages.
The young girls seemed particularly interested in my earrings, since while many of them had their ears pierced, they rarely seemed to have earrings to wear. Quite a few simply had loops of string through their ears, while many just left them empty.
Aside from learning your name, the biggest thing that the children wanted was to be photographed. If you even showed the tiniest bit of camera, they would gather around you crying “foto, foto”. It was also almost impossible to get a picture of a single child in the school campus, because as soon as they saw that you were taking pictures, children would come running to make sure that they were in the photo, so a shot of a single child quickly became a group photo of between 6 and 12. After the photo, an even larger crowd would gather to look at it on the camera, with each child pointing in turn and saying “Moi” excitedly. Given that there are not a lot of mirrors in the village of Cathor, this may have been some of the few times they saw themselves. They all loved to pose, the boys with a googly-eyed hand sign, or simply the classic claw hands. The girls loved to squat down on the ground for their pose, or stand with jutting hips and arms akimbo.
One of the other engineers from San Francisco, Blake, had learned the national dance of the year the previous year, called Gai Pai, and would dance for the children. They loved it and instantly there’d be a throng of children twisting and spinning around him. Walking outside the campus, having heard of the Gai Pai’ing blanc, children would come up and ask me to Gai Pai, whereupon I would usually point over at Blake, not being as advanced in the local dance styles as he was. Several of us became known for several things; me for speaking Spanish, Blake for the Gai Pai, and Terry, our drag racing battery expert from North Carolina, for the balloons, chiclets, and recorders (fifa) that he handed out, and the children would come up to us hoping that we were the one they had heard about, causing numerous cases of mistaken identity.
Consistently, the one thing everyone can agree about in Bayonnais is that the children are the highlight of the trip, with their bright faces, beautiful smiles, and incredibly friendly demeanor. The adults are also among the friendliest people I’ve met, but they don’t walk down the paths holding your hand. Some might argue that we need to help the people of Bayonnais move towards a more sustainable future so that they’re not dependent on outside help, which is an excellent goal. However, these people fail to take into account the child cuteness and general friendliness trade imbalance between the US and Bayonnais. Everyone who comes there is glad to be there and tries to find excuses to come visit as often as they can so they can enjoy the cute child mobs and the relaxed atmosphere of the village of Cathor.