Given what some may know about Haiti (earthquake, cholera and poverty), we might consider terms like "food safety" and "meat quality" ironic concepts for their situation. However, based on recent outreach trainings across the country, these concepts are gaining popularity and trainees see great potential for implementation. While improvements will not occur in a rapid fashion, the people there are learning they have options. While there are many misconceptions regarding people and conditions in Haiti, once a person actually visits the various parts of Haiti they are surprised at its charm and the beauty of the beaches and mountains. While the country may not be as nice as its neighboring Dominican Republic or other islands in the Caribbean Basin, it has its own lure.
For five years, I have been with Alabama Cooperative Extension System (Urban Affairs and New Nontraditional Programs) and have volunteered my expertise in Haiti. This expertise is volunteered through Partners of Americas (USDA/USAID) Farmer to Farmer Program. While in Haiti, I work with Makouti Agro Enterprises, an informal farmer’s cooperative, whose members offer a variety of products including rabbit meat, honey, coffee, cocoa, jellies and much more. They have some of the most wonderful coffee and honey of various flavors (mango, coffee, citrus and other tropical fruits) including what we know as mimosa trees, which makes wonderful-tasting honey. Their various products are in high demand, and every time they take the rabbit meat to local markets it quickly sells out.
During my visit we visited with Makouti’s leaders to determine their meat-related issues and concerns, visited individual farms and agriculture schools raising rabbits and other forms of livestock (generally goats, sheep, hogs and poultry), developing educational presentations and presenting them during seminars, and ate lots of good food. Yes, their food is full of flavor and tastes wonderful! Meat rabbit production continues to gain popularity throughout the entire country; it is practical for small-scale and limited-resource farmers, does not require much space, and can easily feed families, friends and communities. Issues relevant to rabbit production, meat quality and food safety were the primary areas addressed. I generally spent two to three weeks during my visits. Although two to three weeks may not seem like much time, the training seminars were thorough enough participants gained a strong knowledge-base they could share with others.
During my most recent visit, I spent time at the Makouti Learning Center to document how they currently process rabbits, as well as opportunities for improvement relevant to processing rabbits and food safety. I took numerous photos to be utilized in electronic presentations regarding process improvement. Three days were spent developing five presentations on meat quality, food safety, processing rabbits and process improvement, zoonotic and biologic diseases, and consumer options on meat products. The remainder of the two weeks was spent conducting educational seminars utilizing the various presentations, interacting with attendees and traveling from one end of the country to the other (north to southwest). The cities we visited included Cap Hatien (North Providence) and Port aux Prince, Les Cayes and Aquin (Southern Regions). My favorite aspect of these seminars was the extensive interaction between audience members and the presenter. These seminars run from four to six hours for several reasons: (1) the amount of material presented and (2) the amazing number of discussion and questions generated by the information, and people’s sincere interest to understand and implement these concepts. This time I was the sole speaker for five seminars with a total of 119 participants. Attendee backgrounds varied each time and included producers, agriculture students, food vendors, employees and owners of restaurants and hotels, and people of public service relevant to the food industry.
While I don’t speak much Creole (Haitian language, a variation on French), there was always a translator on hand to interpret the material presented and the questions from the audience. I would generally entertain any and all questions, whether relevant or not. Some of the most-recent bizarre questions were, "Is it safe to eat meat washed in bleach?" to "What type of woman would you marry, a beautiful one who cares nothing about her husband or a not so beautiful woman who sincerely cares about her husband?" I answered them all to the best of my ability, with total respect for their sincerity. When listening to their questions one must remember, the majority of these people do not own refrigerators, ovens or vehicles, and can’t rely on electricity 24 hours a day. Those without ovens and electricity, cook over charcoal fires, unless they have access to propane or liquid gas to cook with. Some tend to assume buying bad meat at the market is practical because it is cheapest, and occasionally eating food that has gone-bad is a normal part of life.
I enjoyed every one of my visits; the people, their spirit and culture are endearing. I consider my departure the saddest part of my trips and look forward to returning as soon as possible. In an odd sort of way, I now consider myself part Haitian; as my friends in Haiti tell me, I speak some Creole, eat their food, spend time there, therefore I am Haitian.
To learn more about Partners of Americas, visit their site at http://www.partners.net and take time to visit their blog site to learn about details and experiences of other volunteers.
Robert Spencer is a contributing writer from Florence.