Coming home to Kabay

How MCC programs helped bring life to communities once considered hopeless

Remis Pierre, 23, lives in the house where he grew up in the farming community of Kabay. It’s only 8 a.m.  when we visit, but the sound of a soccer game can already be heard from a radio inside the house: the World Cup has just started. Pierre supports Brazil, as do both my MCC colleague and my motorcycle taxi driver, who are also sitting with us. The two countries have a long history together. Everyone in Haiti knows someone who has gone to Brazil—or the Dominican Republic, or Chile, or Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince—to find work and send a little money back to their families.  

Remis Pierre in his garden in Kabay, Haiti. Remis returned to his home community of Kabay after a stint working in the neighboring Dominican Republic, and has now been able to make a living for himself at home as a result of an MCC agroforestry project. He wants to encourage other young people in his community to "take heart and work together" to make a better future for themselves and their families. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Seeking a living elsewhere

Pierre himself left Kabay, in Haiti’s Artibonite department, for the Dominican Republic in 2014. At that time, life in Kabay was a constant struggle. The community is remote, without electricity, drinkable water, hospitals or schools. Like many mountainous areas in Haiti, it had been largely deforested, leaving it vulnerable to erosion and landslides – a bad storm could wash away an entire crop in one evening. Free-ranging goats would make their way into gardens and eat vulnerable seedlings. And without easy access to clean water or latrines, water-borne diseases like cholera were a dangerous reality. 

Faced with these struggles, Pierre made the same choice as many friends and family members in Kabay before him: he dropped out of school and traveled to find a work in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Haitian workers frequently find themselves at a disadvantage in the Dominican labor market, as they often lack formal documentation and identification papers, making them vulnerable to exploitation and deportation. Theft, exploitation and discrimination against Haitians also are reported commonly.  

“Life was not good,” he says. Eventually, it all became too much, and Pierre decided to return home to Haiti.

New beginnings in Kabay

What Pierre didn’t realize was that, while he was away, MCC had started a community development project in his home community. New hope and change had begun to take root in Kabay. This project, funded through MCC’s account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank, works to improve living conditions for the entire community by increasing agricultural productivity and protecting the environment.

During the time Pierre was gone, MCC’s work allowed previously unproductive and abandoned land to begin producing again. Participant groups received training and coaching on conservation agriculture techniques that prevent soil erosion and increase crop yields. Simple barbed-wire fencing was installed to keep free-ranging goats out of gardens, and tree cages had been used to protect saplings.

A seed bank now allows farmers to keep seeds safe and dry from one planting season to the next. Simple latrines, built with materials provided by MCC and labor provided by the community, keep water sources clean and protect the community from cholera and other waterborne diseases. The rate of children attending primary school, increased from a mere 3 percent at the beginning of the project, to 79 percent.

The community of Kabay has seen significant improvements to the livelihoods of its residents as the result of an MCC project that accompanies participants in agricultural training, garden and latrine building, conflict resolution, and environmental protection.MCC Photo/Paul Shetler Fast

And In 2016, MCC joined a group of other NGOs in advocating on behalf of peanut farmers in Kabay and Haiti. A U.S. government program would have dumped surplus U.S. peanuts in Haiti, undercutting the local peanut market and the farmers supported by MCC. The program was ultimately canceled.

The MCC projects in Kabay work to improve life from all directions, and the economic and living conditions have improved significantly.

Louiskiya Annè described the change in Kabay this way: “What has changed in my life in the last two years? The way that I work the land has changed and the land has started to give a bigger harvest! With MCC’s accompaniment, I was able to put in terracing that holds the soil; I was able to put in a fence to protect it from goats. Before this, I got nothing from the land. Each year I worked, but I got nothing. With MCC I have a garden;I have a fence to protect it. The life of my family has become better – we now can find food all of the time.”

MCC representative for Haiti, Rebecca Shetler Fast says, “It has been truly remarkable to see the transformation in communities like Kabay and the new hope people have for making a viable livelihood in places that had been written off as ‘hopeless.’ When we are able to work not just with individuals, but with entire communities, there is incredible potential for change at the community level.”

Bananas are almost ready for harvest in Remis Pierre's garden, which he has recently expanded to almost double its previous size. The garden is part of an MCC-supported project that provides residents of the community of Kabay, Haiti, with training and basic materials to increase agricultural productivity and protect the environment. MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Making a life at home

Pierre and other young people are returning to Kabay and because of the MCC project they’re now able to build a life for themselves. Gerlande Bienne, 25, recently returned to Kabay from the city of Arcahaie, Haiti. When she was 18, her parents fell on hard times, and Bienne left home to find work. When the cleaning job she had found in Arcahaie fell through, she was forced to depend on a relationship with an abusive man. Bienne recently returned home to Kabay.

Like Pierre, Bienne returned to find the conditions in her home community much improved. Her father gave her a small plot of land, and Bienne learned conservation agricultural techniques through the MCC project. The new techniques help her grow plantains, peanuts, sugar cane, and, most importantly, cassava, which she uses to make and sell cassava bread. Even though she’s just started her business, she’s already turning a profit, and dreams that cassava can play a bigger role in Kabay’s agriculture in the future.

Gerlande Bienne is making cassava bread in Kabay, Haiti. Cassava is Bienne's principal crop, and she is able to make a profit from selling the bread she makes with it and even employs others. MCC photo/Fritzner Estilus

As for Pierre, with training from the project, he’s recently doubled the size of the garden. He shows off banana plants almost ready for harvest in the new garden, as well as corn, manioc, jack peas, and fruit trees like guava and mango.

“I didn’t know much about working in the garden before,” he says, “but now I feel comfortable with it. To come home and work in my own country is a dream come true.”

Migration as a way of life

Throughout the world, MCC advocates for the human rights of people in transit, including economic migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people, and at the same time addresses some of the root causes of migration through long-term development projects like the one in Kabay, Haiti. Without these long-term projects to help people develop sustainable sources of income, migration will always be a necessary part of life for residents of remote communities in Haiti’s countryside.

Pierre acknowledges that he can’t say for sure if he’ll stay in Kabay forever. For now, he’s committed to making a difference in his community by sharing what he’s learned about good agricultural practices and encouraging other young people to work together to achieve a better future for themselves and their families.

 “Before, I didn’t have very much hope for the future, but now I have a lot.”