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Dorlette – Part 1

March 18, 2014

My weekend outing veered off in an unexpected direction.  My Haitian friend, Praubner, and I had discussed a trip to Haiti’s south arm, and there was considerable talk of Jacmel.  I had long heard the city was well worth a visit and was looking forward to seeing it.  However as the weekend approached, it was apparent from the tone of our discussions that my friend had something a little different in mind.  We ended up travelling to Dorlette, a tiny rural community about 200 km east of Port-au-Prince, 30 km ESE of Anse-a-Veau due south of Saint-Louis-du-Sud, high in the mountains approximately equidistant from the north and south coasts.

The journey from Port-au-Prince to Anse-a-Veau was very quick, only two hours, and relatively comfortable if one considers being wedged into the back corner of a van designed for 11 but now carrying 19 comfortable.  Thankfully, the trip was entirely on pavement.  But from my constricted position, almost entirely unable to move, I did not get to see much.

When we reached Anse-a-Veau, things changed drastically.  We found a motorcycle taxi for the trip to Dorlette.  The road was brutal—rocky, crossing several streams and severely muddy over one section.  As we crested the mountains, the road disappeared, and we followed what reminded me of the cow paths on the farm where I grew up.  A few kilometers further the trail merged with another road.  Over two hours after leaving Anse-a-Veau we arrived at our destination, the house of Pastor Essene Enel, our chauffeur demanding more than the agreed fare (that I already thought was high) due to the condition of the road.  The pastor and his wife (whose name I never learned, everyone addressing her as Madanm) have three daughters, Rosenaline, 12,  Mithela, 9, and a baby of less than a year, whose name both Praubner and I unfortunately forget.  The pastor was at work in his fields when we arrived, but soon returned to welcome me warmly as “a brother in Christ”, telling me as long as I was in his house I would lack for nothing.

Dorlette is truly hardscrabble country, probably somewhat similar to conditions on many small Canadian farms over a century ago.  Almost everything is done by manual labour with primitive tools.  Yet although there is always work to do, it proceeds at a gentle pace; no one hurries, and there is always time for conversation.  There is no electricity, water must be packed in by donkey from a river in the valley about 3 km below, and phone service is erratic.  The pastor has a small transistor radio, reception at most times being very scratchy.

Homes are built out of materials available locally, although metal roofing is now preferred for its being durable, easy to apply, low maintenance and vermin free.   However, it does not insulate against the tropical heat as thatch does.  The pastor’s house is larger than many, consisting of five rooms—a living/dining room, three bedrooms and a spare room used for storage.  Near one end of the house is a kitchen building sided with rough lumber that serves the same purpose as the summer kitchens I was familiar with in my youth—to keep the heat of food preparation out of the house.

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Pastor Enel’s home

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Kitchen

People here live by dryland farming, growing corn, beans, pumpkins, yams and pineapple.  Unlike those at Pierre Payen, farmers at Dorlette are dependent entirely upon rainfall; there is no water available for irrigation.  However, pasturage for animals is plentiful, and the people here are able to supplement their diet from an abundance of coconuts, oranges, caimite or star apples, as well as Haiti’s ubiquitous mangoes.   I was enlisted to help pick oranges, of which there were three types, dark green and bright orange sweet varieties, both excellent for eating out of hand, and greenish-orange sour oranges, sweetened for juice and used in cooking.

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Sweet oranges

I had never tasted star apples before.  The variety that grows at Dorlette is round, about the size of a tennis ball, lime green with white flesh having the texture of pudding, and large flat seeds.  Cut in cross-section, the fruit reveals a star-like pattern, hence the name.  I found it had an excellent sweet flavour. 

I was impressed with the level of cooperation between neighbours in the community.  They seemed to share work and possessions, and especially water.  If one ran out, a neighbour would readily share what they had.  Everyone was very friendly; it seemed unthinkable to pass a neighbour’s home without stopping to say hello and chat.  As a guest of the pastor’s family, I was treated like family, everyone greeting me as they passed.  Every evening during my stay the pastor’s wife provided a meal for others who appeared at mealtimes.  I asked Praubner whether enmities, common in Pierre Payen, occurred in Dorlette.  He told me he knew of none.

The south arm of Haiti is much greener than the area where I live, and at Dorlette the mountains were carpeted with a flush of new growth. But the abundance of agave and other succulents, along with several varieties of cacti, attest to the dryness of the area.  When I remarked at how well treed the area is, the pastor explained that people here recognize the value of trees, that they stabilize the soil preventing erosion, provide shade to reduce evaporation and cool the air, and yield a bounty of much appreciated food.  When necessary, mature trees are very selectively harvested for building material, but the fast-growing bamboo that reaches thirty feet in the valleys provides suitable material for rafters, fencing and many other purposes.  An additional benefit of the trees that I noticed was the great diversity and abundance of songbirds that provided a cheerful atmosphere, particularly a dawn.

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All is green

Praubner had grown up at Dorlette and took me around to meet all the neighbours (several kilometers of walking) and to see where his home, now gone, had been.  We trudged uphill to his grandfather’s home where a brother now lives.  The two houses there, the larger added as the family grew, were constructed in the traditional style, the walls of a rough wood frame plastered over and the roof of thatch.  I noted the Vodou shrine in the yard; many Haitians are syncretistic, professing Christianity while holding to Vodou traditions.  

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The second house

A highlight of the afternoon was spending some time with a neighbour, a gentleman of 87 by his reckoning, in love with life and full of fun.  He asked me how old I was, and when I told him he laughed that I was young enough to be his son.  He had one of those faces I love to photograph, filled with character and life, with wrinkles that are a map of a life well-lived.  When I inquired if I could take his photo, he enthusiastically consented, carefully arranging his side-whiskers in preparation.  A little dissatisfied with my first attempt at his portrait, he sent someone inside his house to fetch his hat.  Donning it, eyes twinkling, he then struck a jaunty pose that far more accurately reflected his character.  Very pleased with the result, he pumped his fist in the air and repeated over and over again, “Oui, blan, oui!” 

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A very engaging old gent

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Young at 87

Praubner then took me further up the road to see the community corn mill, a modern facility.   I did not get to go inside as it was locked at the time.  Cognizant of how long the walk back to the pastor’s home would be, I finally had to plead that my legs had had enough, my knees reminding me they had not fully recovered from my climb to Vielle the previous weekend.

When we arrive back, the pastor was feeding his animals and settling them for the night.  He tied his mule where it could graze and staked out the goats down the road a bit where they could browse.  The chickens of course could fend for themselves, scratching through the litter under the trees that here drop leaves year round.  His wife was busy in the kitchen cooking over a charcoal fire, preparing petitmi, a dish prepared from ground millet.  The girls brought a bar of soap and a jug of water, pouring a little over my hands for me to wash.  No towel was necessary; in the Haitian heat, skin dries very quickly.

Everyone said his or her own grace concurrently.  The petitmi was delicious, served with a thin sauce and vegetables, mainly onions, over it, and chicken prepared in strong minty tasting marinade which went well with the mild millet dish.  I am always taken aback by the size of the portions Haitians serve.  I explained that there was no way I could possibly eat all I was given, that in Canada it would be enough for an entire family.  Praubner and the pastor, however, had no problem polishing off the huge mounds spooned onto their plates.  Orange juice accompanied the meal, sweetened far more than I would have liked.  Only the men sat at the table; the children and Madamn ate when we were finished.

After supper, water was set out for me to bathe.  The bath area is a crude little affair outside one end of the house, a sheet of plastic wrapped around a frame of sticks.  Modesty is a very small issue in Haiti.  Since water is so precious, personal ablutions must be completed with a gallon or two, much less than I would use in my house in Pierre Payen.

In the evening after supper we sat in the yard under the light of a huge full moon, the air filled with the sound of crickets.  A couple of neighbours joined us and all had questions for me about myself and about Canada.  When the neighbours left, we moved inside, the family gathering round the table by the light of a kerosene lamp.  Rosenaline and Mithela began to sing their favourite hymns from Chants d’Esperance, the Creole hymnal used by all churches here.  Recognizing some of them, I joined in, singing in English.  The pastor and his wife and my travelling companion added their voices, and we spent an hour singing, the pastor always anxious to learn the words in English.  He has evidently learned what English he knows from reading, for although he has a good basic vocabulary, his pronunciation is terrible, to the point that it sometimes took several attempts to understand him.  He brought out a little book in which he had translated a few hymns; I found it a bit amusing, as he had translated them as he heard them, which made for some very interesting wording.

Our singing was brought to an abrupt end by the sudden dim of a torrential rainfall on the metal roof.  The family thanked God for the rain that would make the crops grow and would make the soil easier to work.

When the rain abated, the children headed for bed and Bibles were set before us on the table, English for me and Creole for the pastor, his wife, and Praubner.  We launched into a lively discussion of particular texts, each providing his or her own perspective.  After giving thanks for the day and asking blessing on the next, it was time for sleep; morning here comes very early, at least an hour before first light.

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