In the lakou, under a mango tree

Haiti, May 27, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Discussing a cash-for-work project with a community in Sarazin, in the Central Plateau. Mercy Corps will offer cash-for-work income to 20,000 people in the Central Plateau, assisting those who fled here from Port-au-Prince after January 12, as well as those families who took them in. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Anderson Jean, a member of our Central Plateau team, explains to the group that they will need to prioritize their own needs and decide amongst themselves what kind of project will benefit them most. Then Mercy Corps will provide them with the technical support to complete the project. Photo: Fabiola Coupet/Mercy Corps

Outside of the town of Mirebalais, in Haiti's Central Plateau, we visit the small community of Sarazin. We are here to do a community mobilization — the first step in engaging a community in a cash-for-work project.

We’re offering this community a month’s wages to work on a community project of their own choosing. Over the next six months, Mercy Corps will be providing this emergency cash-for-work income to 20,000 households in the Central Plateau. Some of these people are those who fled Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, and some of them are those who took them in.

Even before the earthquake, life in the Central Plateau wasn’t easy. Now, prices for food have risen, and potable water and other resources are even scarcer with the influx of new residents. This income will help them better meet their families’ basic needs for food and other necessities.

When we arrive at Sarazin, there is a large crowd under two large, shady mango trees in the front yard of a house with a full porch that has a decorative woodcut trim. This is a lakou — Creole for “backyard.” A lakou is common living arrangement in the countryside, where 5-7 households are clustered together with a shared space between them. Generally lakou are made up of families who know each other well, have been friends for years.

In the middle of the gathering, a young man sits at a small table covered with a magenta tablecloth — a community member, he is moderating the discussion. There’s something of the showman to his manner and wide-brimmed straw hat.

The community members are all seated quietly under the tree, and at some point they all get up at once and move and I see that they are sitting on a bleacher, planks of wood running across a very simple frame. They have four chairs lined up for us sit on at the front, the typical Haitian kind with cane seat and thick rough hewn frame. There are young and old in the crowd, but not many children. The children who are present are on the fringes and very quiet. When introductions are made, everyone claps and says their own greeting in unison.

There is a special quality to this gathering that I can’t quite place. There is something very old about it — a sense maybe of how long gatherings like these have happened in this very spot. The air is dense and hot, and the colors of everyone’s clothes and the leaves above and the smooth dirt below are deep and vivid. It’s quiet, except for the passing bus or motorcycle on the road. In the background are high mountains, green now with the recent rain.

Anderson, one of our Central Plateau team members, explains to the group what Mercy Corps is and how we can help the community. He talks about the displaced people from Port-au-Prince who are now here, and how it has made conditions. He offers examples of what kind of improvement project they could do: they could work on an irrigation project or build a road. The community will need to decide, and then Mercy Corps will pay them for 30 days to complete the project.

Anderson tells them that one person from each family will participate in the cash-for-work program, and a young woman speaks up from the crowd. All are silent while she is talking. Her voice rings out strong and forceful, making the argument that they have large families and every brother and sister has separate needs within that family, it’s not fair to just choose one person. Everyone claps loudly after she finishes, in agreement. It’s a slight misunderstanding: Anderson explains that we consider each set of parents with children a family group — smaller family groups than they might have been thinking. Everyone seems to find that definition fair, heads nod.

A small black and white speckled chicken walks into the middle of the meeting space, looks around at us curiously and starts to groom itself, burying its head under its wing.

A man speaks. He says that two possible projects they could do is to clean an irrigation canal, or they could fix a road. He asks, “Which one should we do?”

Anderson says it’s up to the community to prioritize their own projects, and decide amongst themselves what they would like to do. There is a stir in the crowd, as they take this in. The meeting breaks up. Next the community will meet independently and choose for themselves what they would like to do.

I notice there are bromeliads — air plants — growing in the mango trees. There is a lush richness here that I’ve never experienced before, from the depth of color in the leaves and earth, and in the certain strength of the people around me.