As I read on, I was surprised by how deeply Dad had internalized the suffering of the Haitian farmers. As the drought worsened and his friends along the mountain paths grew weak from AIDS and tuberculosis, with no crops to sell to pay for their medical care, Dad gave out more and more loans—with no hope of repayment. One afternoon, when he learned that a six-month-old baby was about to die of AIDS, he hid in the thin shade of a guava bush and stared out over the denuded hills. Solitary mango trees stood over the clearings as smoldering charcoal fires drifted into lazy plumes. He could see all the way down the flood-scarred valley to the faint blue edge of the sea. He put his head in his hands and sobbed.
For the first time, I saw Haiti through Dad’s eyes. I no longer saw the country as my competition—only regretted that I had tried so hard to thwart his attempts to help. A man of few words, terrified by strong emotions, he didn’t know then how to vocalize his despair. I knew him only by his anger and his high expectations. I didn’t understand, as my mother later explained to me, that when the topsoil in Haiti washes away, part of my father goes with it.
In 2003, I returned to Haiti with Dad, along with my mother and my husband. We hiked to the villages where Dad used to pass out tree seeds along with Bible verses translated into Kreyòl. Everyone along the path knew his name and came out to greet him with big grins and firm handshakes. A few farmers took us to see tree-covered ridges that had been reforested as a result of Dad’s persistent prodding. Far more hillsides were still barren and despoiled, but it was a beginning. It wasn’t the rapid, recognizable result that Dad had once hoped for, but it was incremental change—the kind that lasts.
My husband, who had never been to Haiti, had heard me confess how much I hated living there as a teenager, but he surprised me by noting how often I smiled in Haiti—far more often than when we were at home together in Oregon. Mom just laughed: “She’s like her father. She feels at home here.”
Over the past 10 years, I have returned to Haiti several times. Each time I leave, I feel a sense of loss. Lush, verdant Oregon seems empty and quiet by comparison. Even after the earthquake, which I covered for Public Radio International’s This American Life, I came home with a renewed sense of admiration for the Haitian people—their resilience, courage and ability to laugh in the face of overwhelming odds.
On my most recent visit, I explored the country without Dad, for the first time in 30 years. My Kreyòl is nowhere near as fluent as his, but as I fumbled my way through boat trips and motorcycle rides, ate smoky kasavand savored the sweet-sour tang of abricotfruit, I realized how much I had inherited. It was Dad who had taught me to care about the earth and to value the stories of those who tended the soil. And while I would never have believed it as a teenager, I was finally converted to the gospel of trees.
In Gonaïves, an arid region just over the mountains from where I had grown up, I hiked for hours in the humid glare of the sun, past schoolchildren in matching uniforms, past old women with bundles of firewood balanced on their heads, to see a new soil--conservation site that Dad had insisted be planted with trees. The drought- and animal--resistant seedshad been sown by peasant farmers less than a year earlier, but already the glossy, dark-green leaves were as high as my waist. Those trees, like the Haitianpeople, had defied the odds. In a land of mountains beyond mountains, in a country both devastated and proud, maddening and beautiful, squalid and unimaginably heroic, the trees were survivors. The branches trembled delicately as a wind blew down the mountains and stirred the dry soil.
APRICOT IRVING is at work on a memoir.
Click here to read writer Krista Bremer's piece on traveling to Tripoli to meer her new in-laws.
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