Getting to Northwest Haiti takes the strongest of wills and an even sturdier truck or SUV. The roads, all of which somehow lead to Port-au-Prince, amount to nothing more than occasionally paved gravel. You’ll get lost in miles of beautiful blue sky while passing one mountain community after another; you’ll almost forget that you’ve been clutching your seatbelt for the better part of five hours. But if you can get through it, you will be rewarded for your troubles by one of the warmest and most engaging women in Haiti: Rose Edith Raymonvil Germain.
For the past five years, Rose Edith has served as national coordinator of the National Congress of Papaye Peasant Movement (MPNKP). With over 200,000 members spread across 10 departments (regions), MPNKP is one of the largest Haitian peasant movements and a Grassroots International partner. Meeting and learning from Rose Edith was one of many highlights during my recent site visit to Haiti. As we chatted about her life’s path, Rose Edith casually mentioned that she was once a Catholic nun. As my eyes widened with curiosity, she explained, “From early on, I knew I wanted to serve people. I thought the only way I could do so was in the convent, free from the obligations of a family.” Her first encounter with one of Haiti’s oldest peasant movements, the Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPP), occurred when her parish sent her to MPP’s headquarters for a training-of-trainers workshop. Her arrival at MPP was well-timed because she had entered a period in which she “struggled with the disconnect between Catholic teaching and its application in the real world.” But what she learned at MPP “was practical, it was applicable and it was based on empowering peasants.” As she recalled her transformation at MPP decades ago, her eyes sparkled while a smile slowly spread from one corner of her face to another. As I watched Rose Edith, lost in her reverie, I couldn’t help but think that she entered MPP a nun, but left a peasant. Even by Haitian standards, Rose Edith works in one of the toughest areas in Haiti. Community after community explained they only have each other and the National Congress of Peasant Movement of Papaye (MPNKP) to rely on in times of need. The MPNKP has a more national focus than its sister organization, the MPP, but shares its principles and many of its staff. For its part, MPNKP has relied on Grassroots International’s longstanding support of the Haitian pig repopulation project to carry on its activities throughout the Northwest and six other departments in Haiti for the past 13 years. (The native, and hardy, Creole pig was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1980s following indiscriminate slaughter at the behest of the United States.) Without this support, rural communities would be left without a vital asset that’s often referred to as the peasant’s savings bank. Income generated by breeding and selling pigs help families pay for medical expenses, school and other costs, so the pigs quite literally are their “piggy bank.” Because of this historical relationship between rural communities and the Creole pig, it was heartbreaking to learn that Teschen, a disease that causes paralysis in affected pigs, continues to cause havoc throughout the country. In response to Teschen, MPNKP has decided to temporarily distribute goats until a vaccine is made available in the country. Although Haitian peasants prefer Creole pigs because their litters are much larger – thus allowing more families to own a pig – having livestock, even goats, is better than nothing. As we moved from one gathering to another, it’s obvious why Rose Edith is such an effective leader: she understands the communities in which she works. She uses Haitianism (speaking through proverbs), and she’s not afraid of asking men to step back so women can step forward. In meeting after meeting, she’d ask, “Where are the women? I see you but I don’t hear you, so where are the women?” Whenever a woman responded with, “What I was going to say has already been said,” she countered that with “Well, I’d like to hear it from you anyway, please say it in your own words.” This is one of the subtlest forms of women’s empowerment because often women are present at meetings, but their voices silenced for a number of reason: shyness, insecurity, male dominance, etc. Therefore, creating spaces where women’s voices are valued is extremely important. Rose Edith’s work is deeply rooted in Haiti’s rural communities, and her understanding of these communities is reflected in her approach to accompanying them in their struggle for land, water, and food. For me personally, meeting Rose Edith reminded me of the depth of our partners’ commitment to transforming lives through personal connection and community organizing.