Rice and Beans and Apple Cores
Just one of Haiti's foibles, I'm told, is an addiction to rice-and-beans. They're everywhere. On the street, you can buy them from a thousand vendors, and most everyone on the island of Hispanola eats them--it. A veteran missionary from the other half of the island, the Dominican Republic, told us that when his kids come home they can't wait to buy rice-and-beans, sometimes right there in the airport.
Haitians love rice-and-beans, and it makes sense because meat is a luxury most can't afford, as is milk or fish or eggs. People are poor. Getting real numbers on how poor is slippery because some experts judge that somewhere in the area of 60 percent of the nation's economy is "informal sector activity," business on the street of all types. Just over fifty percent of the populace is literate, in part because education is costly in Haiti, where there are no or few public schools.
Here's how World Vision describes economic life in Haiti:
--Haiti is the least-developed country in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. About 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
--Despite the economy's small gains since 2005, a huge income gap still exists between the impoverished Creole-speaking majority and the more affluent French-speaking minority.
--More than 120,000 Haitians are currently living with HIV and AIDS--the highest rate in the Americas. Fear of HIV and AIDS dramatically impacted Haiti's tourist industry, contributing to the rise of unemployment to about two-thirds of the labor force.
--The World Food Program estimates that about 2.4 million Haitians cannot afford the recommended minimum daily calories.
--The 2010 earthquake leveled most of the country's capital, Port-au-Prince, killing around 220,000 Haitians and leaving millions homeless. Land rights issues and rubble removal have complicated earthquake relief and rebuilding efforts, but progress is being made toward transitional homes and shelters.
[Really cynical Haiti observers, people who have actually lived there, claim no one really knows how many people died in the earthquake. Worse, they wonder whether the numbers aren't inflated: the higher the numbers, the greater the aid.]
I was talking about rice-and-beans but it's not hard to wander away into endless, mind- and heart-boggling facts and figures about an impoverished nation where 76 kids per thousand under the age of five die every year (seven in the U.S., five in Canada).
The thing about rice-and-beans is that rice while can be grown in Haiti and is, U.S. aid regularly "dumps" tons of its rice on the island at such low prices that local rice farmers can't compete. While, of course, our dumping makes the staple more affordable for Haitian masses, it essentially closes out local producers. So, people get rice, but only two groups get richer--American rice producers who get healthy farm subsidies, and local importers and distributors, basically six or seven already large corporations. The rich get richer and, well, you know the rest. Haitians love food they don't grow, natural resources they don't have.
So much about Haiti is so complicated and so heart-wrenchingly difficult.
One day I was out and about with one of our local hosts who, as if out of nowhere, produced two apples. Now I've been an apple-a-day man for years and years, so a good apple was as much a joy as a surprise because I know apples are not grown on Haiti and therefore have to be imported, which means they're expensive.
When I finished mine, I held on to the core, didn't know exactly what to do with it. There are times, in Haiti especially, when one needs both hands to stay balanced while seated in a vehicle, even--maybe especially--if you're a passenger. I looked to drop that apple core somewhere onto the panel between the seats when I saw the host's core already sitting there.
No stem, no sign of peel, just a seed core, maybe an inch long and half an inch wide. He'd eaten it all, every tiny bit of meat, gnawed it down so exclusively that I wouldn't have dared to lay my still fat one beside it.
Just so happens I know this man's father, know his father likely knew some want himself when he was a farm boy a half-century ago in Minnesota. It could well be that my friend the driver was raised by his parents to eat his apples down to nothing, to the absolute core. It could well be that if my friend was in Las Vegas he'd eat an apple that same identical way.
But there I sat in a dusty SUV, bumping along on the streets of Port au Prince, holding that embarrassingly fat core, ashamed to put it beside his lean one because its meatiness reminded me somehow of Pharoah's dreams of fat cows and scrawny ones, nightmares about years of plenty, years of woe.
Those two apple cores may mean nothing at all finally, but standing here right beside me this morning, as I type, is yet another apple, this one half-eaten, still full of apple, a visual reminder of Haiti, of dire want and meaty abundance.