|HOME LAND: Lamaty Cherrty exits the cabin in which she lives with her son and his family. At left is her granddaughter Herlin. PETER ANDREW BOSCH/HERALD STAFF|
GAUDO, Haiti –
They work the rich soil of this mountain until their fingers grow as rough as the landscape, their nails thick and splintered. It is a hard and isolated existence, perched in a setting of staggering natural beauty.
Blue spires of smoke twist up from endless folds of green — a scene unchanged since their ancestors torched their slave owners’ plantations 200 years ago and came here to re-create the life they once had in Africa.
The majority of Haitians still live like this — in remote, self-sufficient settlements called lakous, often miles from any road, governed and policed only by themselves.
In the recent months of insurrection that swept through this country, the village of Gaudo never saw a rebel, never saw a U.S. Marine, never saw a murder.
But the events of urban Haiti always catch up to them.
”You see we’re not cooking rice right now,” said Manasa Dorisma, watching his wife shell a type of string bean they had grown. “This is all we have to eat.”
Inflation over the past few months has put the price of main staples such as rice and cooking oil out of their reach and rendered them unable to eat anything they cannot grow themselves.
But Dorisma is in some ways lucky. He has plenty of fertile land in an area that gets plenty of rain.
The mountainside is so lush that a breeze sets the whole place aglitter.
In other parts of the country, hungry peasants have ravaged the land, cutting trees for charcoal until little is left but desert and famine.
Dorisma has been planting trees since he was a child. Coconuts, mangoes, oranges, cacao, avocado, gourds, chestnuts.
His arms are wound as tight as cable. But he is getting older — over 60, he figures. And his only son has left to work in the city.
He struggles to keep his family from feeling the pangs of hunger.
”I can’t say that things are going to get better,” he said. “I can’t say anything because I thought things were going to get better last time.”
”Last time” was the election of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide, who inspired the poor, from the slums of Port-au-Prince to these mountains on the north coast, but ultimately did little to help their lives.
”The government was taking all the money,” chimed in Dorisma’s cousin, LeJess Dugere, who stopped by Sunday to help plant sweet potatoes.
The two smoked homemade cigarettes in front of Dorisma’s stick hut as his wife, Marie, and her ebullient 85-year-old mother, Lamaty, sorted beans and danced to their little Sonivox radio inside.
Normally, they would have been selling their food in town that day. The marketplace in the valley below is their connection to the outside world, where national events ultimately filter down to their hardscrabble lives.
But this month, the market bears only bad news — high prices for rice. So only one of Marie’s daughters made the trek.
The journey to the market is rough. They load up a donkey with fruit, sugar cane, corn and other vegetables until its back sags.
They prop buckets of fruit on their heads and descend four miles of steep trail — past mud huts and plots of corn and playing children — to the flat valley floor.
At the bottom, they wade through a river, the Grande Rivire du Nord, to get to the old plantation town of the same name.
When the river runs high, there is no way to cross. Those who try sometimes drift away forever. During the rainy season, Gaudo can be cut off for weeks, and fruit rots in the fields.
The market sits on a muddy road, blackened by the sale of charcoal and riddled with heaps of trash.
The women sell their fruits and vegetables, hoping to get enough to buy some rice and food for the pigs.
These past few months, though, inflation has racked the nation, with the violence having made the transport of goods nearly impossible for weeks.
So far, the new government that replaced Aristide has opted not to intervene and force wealthy importers to lower prices. Rice — the main staple of the Haitian diet — now costs twice what it used to.
That’s an insurmountable obstacle for the people of Gaudo. There is no margin of error in their lives, no way to pinch a little here to buy a little there.
So Marie has had to return home recently with no rice. All the money she earned she had to spend on food for their three pigs — because if the pigs starve, they will lose their only investment.
Remarkably, the reason Marie has to spend her money on her pigs is a result of a decision made in Washington, D.C., more than 20 years ago — and a prime example of how global politics, in strange and insidious ways, reach hamlets like Gaudo.
In the early 1980s, the U.S. government feared that black Haitian pigs carried African swine fever and might infect U.S. herds.
So they pushed the Haitian government to eradicate them.
By 1983, the native pigs were gone, and the U.S. Agency for International Development began a program to replace them with American pigs.
But while Haitian pigs survived on fruit rinds and whatever refuse they could find, the U.S. pigs are pickier.
”The pigs from the United States have to be fed,” said Dorisma. “The creole pig ate anything.”
The move hit the region so hard that many people fled to the slums of Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince looking for work. Things have been stagnant ever since.
”The mountain has been bad for years,” Marie Dorisma said. “I want things to get better, to have a road, or just a bridge to walk across.”