Hand up, not a hand-out: forging solidarity in Haiti’s food programs.
By Wanda O’Brien | Photography by Scott Ramsay
In Dos Palais there is no such thing as a free lunch. Oslet Estinpil knows this better than anyone.
Plantain trees rise up like fruit beacons in the schoolyard of this remote community in rural Haiti. Students learn to care for the crops that become their midday meal and act as key players in growing their own food. Rows of tomatoes, eggplants, okra, and yams will be turned into hot lunches for more than 350 students.
Lessons in sustainable farming ensure students have enough to eat today and that they know how to grow nutritious food throughout their lives. Together, this adds up to what is known as “food security” among development experts—something that was once anything but secured.
Dos Palais graduate Oslet makes these life lessons possible because he’s gone against the grain.
As a boy, Oslet knew exactly what he wanted to be when he grew up—an agronomist. He wanted to figure out how to grow the best crops: how to get the most out of each seed. His parents farmed a small plot of land, and he was naturally inquisitive about what they grew and how.
But growing up in the rural countryside in Haiti, the odds weren’t in his favour. Both his parents came very close to graduating from primary school (rare in their community at that time), but neither went to high school. The high school was in a town outside the community, so it would cost room and board, plus school fees. And to get an agronomy degree, you had to study in the capital in Port-au-Prince.
This didn’t hold Oslet back.
His parent took a special interest in their son’s natural love of the land. His mother raised small livestock as a source of income to cover family needs outside of food from his father’s farming. They worked hard and saved. Eventually, they gathered enough resources so Oslet could graduate from a high school in a neighbouring town.
Oslet wasn’t finished. With the continued support of his parents—along with his older siblings, who rallied in support of their youngest brother’s dreams—Oslet graduated from a technical college in urban Port-au-Prince.
After that, it was time to bring all his outside knowledge back to the community. Now, Oslet is lead agronomist with WE Villages in Haiti. He heads up the school garden (otherwise known as the outdoor classroom) in Dos Palais. His deep community roots have established him as a role model—a status reaffirmed through every interaction with his garden apprentices.
His eyes light up when asked why the students are responsible for tending the garden. “Oui, bon,” he says, before launching into a 10-minute explanation on training techniques, including accessing water resources, how to grow effectively in the dry season, planting methods, and crop selection.
He loves teaching “the science of food” to others.
Creating self-sufficiency is critical in the context of Haiti, a country where emergency aid—intended as disaster relief after the 2010 earthquake—manifested into ongoing hand-outs. This gave way to dependency that had a crippling effect on local agriculture, rather than breaking the cycle of poverty in the region.
This is not WE’s way. WE wanted to create a food program with long-term impact.
Dos Palais was the first community WE partnered with after the earthquake, reconstructing the entire school campus. The food program is a cornerstone of WE’s mission in the country to provide rural, displaced and orphaned children with access to a quality education. By eliminating hunger, students can focus on their studies.
With WE’s support, Oslet makes it happen.
“I learned agriculture is the science of life,” Oslet says. “Coming back to work here was a dream for me. It’s very difficult for a child that does not have a nutritious diet to learn and focus in a classroom. It was very important for me to come back to the place where I was born and share my knowledge with the students here.”
Grade 5 student Laudine Delmas is an avid agro-learner. She joins her fellow classmates in the garden for the practical portion of class. Laughing and holding hands with her friends, she shows off the giant sugar cane stalks that compete in height with the plantain trees.
“I like using the tools to prepare the land, and I like putting the seeds in the ground and seeing them grown up in harvest time,” she says. “It makes me proud.” The young student’s carefree nature in the garden is even more compelling when you learn her back story.
Laudine’s parents died in the earthquake. She lives in an all girls’ home in Dos Palais, and although in her late teens, she is determined to finish primary school. “I got my strength from my parents,” she shares, her demeanor turned serious and sombre. “My mom used to tell me, ‘you are the oldest child that I have. I count on all of them, but I count most on you.’ This gives me courage, and this is why I really want to learn, so I can grow up to be strong and influential.”
School Director Jacnel believes the garden nourishes the mind more than the body, helping students establish a sense of self and resourcefulness.
“I’ve seen the confidence of the students improve, since they are the ones planting the seeds. They are the ones harvesting the vegetables and then bringing them to the cooks to prepare the school’s meal. They know it’s their food, and they’re responsible for growing it.”
The Director has been with the school for 17 years. He remembers Oslet as a youngster in his classroom being “very kind, and a very good collaborator.” The former student talked often of becoming an agronomist when he grew up.
Now, he touts Oslet as an example to the current students and their families: “At the parents meeting we use him as the role model to show proof. Here is a man who was part of the school. He got the knowledge he needed from somewhere else, and then he came back to the community to bring the knowledge to us. We’ve seen his dreams come true.”
The thriving school garden and newly constructed school kitchen (where all lunches are prepped) is a point of pride for the whole community. In addition to students learning from the garden, community training events take place at the school to teach parents improved farming techniques to test out on their home plots. Oslet’s goal is to kick-start school gardens in all communities.
Haiti continues to be hit by natural disasters and extreme weather that put crops at risk, even still, Dos Palais is not dependent on hand-outs. The reason for this can be traced back to a growing group of alumni returning to the community and constituting what feels like a true homegrown protégé program—a phenomenon that began with innovative local change-makers like Oslet.