A Mother in Haiti.

Madame Elliasain Wilson, Andrener & Cynthia

The first time I met the Wilson family of Degand, Haiti I was in a kind of rapture. We’d just seen the new Goat Breeding Center that Heifer International had built to help the town support its school, and met some gorgeous people living on small farms in this town overlooking the infinite blue sea. Madame Wilson’s daughter Cynthia dragged me by the hand to see their new goats, given by Heifer, who were all happily pregnant, and I took this photo of a family that seemed to have a good future ahead.

The Wilson family: Robinson, Madame Wilson, Cynthia, Andrener, Davidson & Monsieur Wilson (Makinley is hiding)

When I went back a week later to talk and visit at length, the truth of their difficult circumstances made me squirm, to think I’d been so oblivious to their real situation.

Elliasain and her husband have five children: Robinson, 23; Cynthia, 12; Davidson, 11; Makinley, 3; and Andrener, 1. In the terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010 (that Haitians called bagay la “that thing!”), their big stone house collapsed, trapping Makinley inside and crushing all their earthly goods: beds, clothes, dishes, cookware. Miraculously, when they were able to pull the heavy stones away, baby Makinley was without a scratch – just scared to pieces.

Where the Wilson home used to stand.

Despite that joy, the Wilsons’ loss was immense: also crushed were their pigs, goats and chickens – which is money in the bank to rural farm families – and their cistern, in this town where the nearest water is 4 kilometers away. Luckily, Heifer built a new cistern almost next door for four families, including the Wilsons.

The Heifer cistern that the Wilsons share at a nearby house painted with Georgia O'Keefe clouds.

But surrounded by banana, mango, coconut, cherry, avocado and jackfruit trees, the Wilson family often does not have enough to eat because the trees haven’t produced much fruit after the four hurricanes of 2008 and the quake of 2010.

The first day I met Elliasain, her eyes were bright and she was buoyed by her husband’s enthusiasm, the goats, and her children. The day I went back, she seemed exhausted, hungry and dull-eyed. I cursed myself for having left my protein bars in the hotel, and wondered how she could possibly breast-feed little Andrener, being so clearly hungry herself. And I thought how exhausting it must be to have to work so hard to merely survive.

Madame Wilson, Andrener & Makinley, the lucky survivor.

Then I thought about all the women across Haiti, trying to make a life for themselves and their children. If only they were able to practice birth control (80% of Haitians are Catholic – like me — so yeah, thanks, Pope Benedict, for the holy ban on contraceptives in this country the size of Vermont that has more than 10 times Vermont’s population.) If only the homeless families were given the materials to rebuild and once again live in a proper home. If only women in Haiti weren’t so overworked and undereducated (most girls receive only two years’ schooling), perhaps they’d have a chance to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

An uphill climb (with a load of bananas) is an everyday affair for the women of Degand.

I was feeling pretty low when I left the Wilson’s residence, but then I met Monsieur Wilson on the road back to the village.

I showed him the photos I’d taken of his wife and children and he was so excited, proud and happy, I could see he was anything but beaten. He had Heifer goats that were having babies. He had wood to build a new house, and his village had the Heifer Goat Breeding Center to support a school. He was standing tall.

And that made me remember this beautiful sign at the house painted with clouds that expresses the fierce independence, sense of community and astonishing spirit of the Haitian people, especially its women.

If you want some people serve you, you gotta serve them too.

The people of Haiti will survive. And if we serve, they may even thrive.


Categories: Animals, Food, Haiti, Heifer International, Hunger, Women | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 31 Comments

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31 thoughts on “A Mother in Haiti.

  1. Jeanne G.

    I am so excited to see all the good things Heifer is doing in impoverished areas, helping people learn to feed themselves with food they grow themselves, and all the other wonderful things that you all are doing. However, with all respect, I beg to differ with you on the issue of the Catholic Church and artificial birth control. The Holy Father is not personally prohibiting people from practicing birth control. The Church (the organization, not the pope) prohibits artificial birth control because it interferes with the life-giving nature of the Sacrament of marriage, because it goes against the way God created our bodies to work, and because marriage is supposed to be a total gift of self – birth control separates one aspect of the self (fertility) from the spouse. It says “I give myself to you totally– except my fertilty. And I accept you totally– except your fertility. The better question here is whether anyone is teaching Haitian women to practice natural family planning. It actually works, though it requires men and women to cooperate, and it doesn’t require formal education to learn it. Mother Teresa’s nuns teach natural family planning to poor and uneducated women and couples in India. It doesn’t even require regular menstrual cycles, because it looks at the symptoms of fertility, such as basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and cervical position, among others, rather than relying on the calendar or a record of past cycles. With perfect use, natural family planning is more effective than oral contraceptives, and even with less-than-perfect use, it doesn’t put any artificial chemicals into the body or waste into the environment.

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Jeanne, and I’m sure there is MUCH room in this world for lots of different opinions on this matter which affects so many women in the developing world. I was raised a Catholic and still practice my religion, but I have to say, I feel as if it’s a big disservice to women around the world to discourage birth control, and call it a sin. Just the use of condoms alone in Haiti (which has an infection rate of 1 in 50) is a matter of life and death … and should be condoned and encouraged by any humanitarian organization, in my opinion. Plus, I also think that counting on men to participate willingly in the birth control process is always a tricky, unreliable system … and puts the pressure on the woman to convince the man to abstain in fertile periods. So .. as much as I totally appreciate your heartfelt position (and I can feel that you are a very compassionate, loving person) I have to respectfully disagree. BUT .. I am really happy you are reading & hope you will continue!!!

      • Jeanne G.

        Counting on men is absolutely necessary if anyone is to use condoms. The only thing that the man has to do necessarily in NFP is use self-control.
        Of course I will continue reading… there is room for many opinions in this world, plus your photos are beautiful and your organization seems to be amazing!

    • farmer tom

      Thank-you Jeanne, for your clear response on the Catholic Churches teaching on Artificial birth control,and the correct option of Natural family planning. We can do it God’s way or our own selfish self- centered way, I choose God’s way,. Keep up the good work

  2. Oh, Betty, so beautiful. Thank you for your honesty and for your insight.

  3. Gosh, Betty, I hadn’t thought about the birth control issue. Great issue to identify. I visited a family near Cabaret that had 14 children, and they were living in the equivalent of one small room.

    Speaking of mothers, however, I thougt you might enjoy this post I did about how families live near the epicenter of the earthquake. It’s called “Haiti Needs to be HGTV’d.”


    I was disgusted by the kinds of kitchens we in the US think need a remodel, when I wrote it–even my own thinking that I needed one. Haiti made me reassess what I think I have to have to be happy.

    Have a great weekend!


    • Kathryn — I am always really reluctant to write about birth control and my strongly impassioned feelings about it (particularly since I know that Heifer International earnestly believes that the best birth control in the world is educating women — since when girls stay in school, they will have children later, and have smaller families simply by choice). Plus, I am always terribly conscious that I will sound imperialistic, culturally insensitive and ignorant (i.e. We in the developed world have had all the babies we want AND we have spent the last century chomping up all the world’s resources at a mad rate — but now you people in the developing world need to control YOUR population so it doesn’t threaten OUR stranglehold on the planet) … and that makes me feel kinda ill. But, it’s really hard to see women in positions of total stress, with so many children to feed, clothe and educate– and these deforested countries with burgeoning populations that aren’t being educated or protected … and not wonder if it might be more manageable if women had access to birth control and could decide the size of their families. BUT — in both Guatemala and Haiti, I cannot tell you how moving it is to see the love and strength and joy in these families, and what GOOD mothers the women are. So — maybe I am dead wrong. (It wouldn’t be the first time! ( : )

  4. Wonderful. I have thought about the birth control issue…last year when I got on Twitter and kept reading about plight after plight around the world, whether it’s food or water or weather. It seems the women and children suffer so much giving birth and no food or having so many children. Where’s the shoe…in a fairytale I’d say. I’m Catholic too and do not agree on the birth control. I feel as a woman if these ladies were taught or really knew that they could provide for the ones they have and love and care, they would see that as gods gift. Bible says God helps those that help themselves, so along with Christianity let’s give them modern medicine and let them decide how many they can care for. I bet they already know that, they just need a little help. God blesses us with children we can care for not dozens we can not.

    • Amen … and please read my comment to the above post. Above all, it’s something that the women themselves need to decide — and we certainly should not be the ones to dictate — on either side of the issue! Thanks for your thoughtful comment!!

      • Thank you. You know I have formulated my opinions without really being educated on the subject, so it is enlightening to put all the realities together. I just feel in my heart , whether it be natural or medicine or barriers, women are all the same and would do what they feel is right. Therefore education is wonderful, always!

  5. Ginger O'Neill

    Hi Betty,

    Leave it to these Haitians that have had more than there fair share of pain and suffering to apply the real principles of Christ and know that it always in serving others that providence gives back in multitudes a la` Heifer International. Thank you Heifer and all the foot soldiers that carry out their amazing global causes. Fabulous family photo, Betty!



    • Thank you, Ginger — I know YOU are my foot soldier, marching alongside me, every step of this journey… and that means the world to me! How glorious is the spirit of these people??

  6. Another beautiful post. You continue to inspire.

  7. God you’re good Betty – chills! You write to inform but it comes from your god given heart and you use this talent so well. (Of course I’m here in ski country feeling like a real schmuck)! Can’t wait to see the white of your eyes and hearing more and more and more.
    Thank you.

    • Darling Ivette — Have a beautiful time in Aspen, and before this year is out — I’ll get you to the REAL backcountry! I am so grateful you are reading my posts!

  8. Martha Radatz

    The human spirit is a beautiful thing to see. Another great post, thank you.

  9. Thank you for going back and telling us the real story. We have no idea….

    • Rosie — we really don’t have any idea about what is going on beyond what we simply observe in a flash of time. This story kinda broke my heart, and I did feel like such a schmuck for being so cavalier the first time we whizzed through … somehow I didn’t even see the rubble everywhere from their collapsed home! The daughter Cynthia was just a beautiful, shining girl — and I’m hoping that she will get to go to school. That’s the thing about this … the people just stay in your heart and you worry about them and want to know what is happening in their lives! But I feel so lucky just to have met them … and so happy the school will be supported by the Heifer goats!

  10. thank you for telling theses stories.. baby Makinley was truly miraculously saved.

  11. I agree! In all the loss and despair I’m sure the family felt to lose EVERYTHING they had, I know they were so thankful for the safe rescue of their baby — how terrifying, though, right??

  12. Betty, Thank you for the story, the pictures, and also sharing what you firmly believe in regard to population growth and family planning. Women regardless where they are located or where they were born deserve to make their own choices. I recently wrote an article about women http://www.huffingtonpost.com/twesigye-jackson-kaguri/global-motherhood-grannies-revisit-motherhood_b_1323665.html and used some of your pictures from when you visited Nyaka. Reproductive health will be taught in our schools and our clinic will have birth control pills for those who want them.
    Many women in poor countries have lost their children at birth or before they are 5 years old. Having more children is an insurance and an investment. Let us listen to these women and lend them a hand rather than making decisions for them.

  13. Jackson — first of all, congratulations on the article in Huffington Post!! I’m so glad to see my photo, since it was one of my favorites!! I am really happy that birth control will be available at the beautiful new Draper Clinic in Nyaka, and that you are teaching your beautiful girls about reproductive health and safety.
    I have the greatest respect for what you are doing at your school — as well as the rights of women everywhere to choose how many children they want and when. The best thing we can offer is education and choice, so they can make up their own minds! (And I have a horror of seeming to be “preaching” either having a lot of children or very few to women in a culture I am not a part of… that seems highly disrespectful to me). THANKS, Jackson!!!

    • The families pass on the gift of a falmee water buffalo at the same age as they received it so if they got a falmee that’s pregnant, they have to pass along a pregnant falmee, which will take a couple years since they can’t get pregnant til they’re about 2 years old. Heifer is also sponsoring an Artificial Insemination program for water buffalo, to keep the breed really robust and healthy. AND the beneficiaries also must pass along the trainings they’ve received, seeds to plant fodder for the animals, help in the construction of sheds & shelters for the animals as well as training in using the manure for compost (a huge plus with an animal this size). Anna was amazing .. what a face, right? She had had a few strokes so it was difficult for her to talk (her daughter and family are helping raise the water buffalo, of course) but she wanted to tell her story. She had lived through SO much!

      • Dear Parvez — you are obviously a knowledgeable authority on the Heifer projects and I am so grateful for your comment!! It does take a long time for the heifers and water buffaloes to get passed along, given the length of gestation, etc. but they are such a huge asset, it’s an enormous boon to the family that receives it. I totally love all the trainings the community receives, too — it makes a profound difference in the success people have in getting every bit of benefit from the animal! And I love that you brought up the manure part, too — it’s 3 tons of manure per cow — which increases crop production dramatically and organically — for free! Anna WAS amazing and I hope that my photos helped readers appreciate the incredible dignity and beauty of these people! THANKS, Parvez!

  14. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 Haiti Round-Up | Heifer Blog

  15. Diane

    I really like the work of Heifer, Inc. However, another charity I recently found is Mary’s Meals and I encourage you to check them out, too. I am impressed by how they make the money stretch. However, I still want to hear about Heifer.

  16. sarah

    I find it extraordinary that someone could read about the plight of these women and then think, “hmm, wonder what the birth control stance is here?” Is that really relevant? Really? Wouldn’t Jesus simply offer them love and help?

    • D M

      I know that Jesus would really help, yes. But can you ever remember a time when he gave false help, giving someone a rock when they needed bread? So the contraception programs I have seen, that push dangerous drugs and devices on poor people according to Western ideas and prejudices about what people need, are not true help at all. So how is it wrong that I want my money to go to programs I have checked out? We should just blindly throw money at places without seeing where it goes?

      You can’t give a woman back her fertility once it’s been stolen from her. And I’ve seen that happen too many times. My heart breaks.

    • D M

      And yes, Sarah, considering that children and family are the most important things in these women’s lives, I think it’s very relevant.

      I grew up in a large family. I find the modern Western idea that the children in my family were nothing but a failure of birth control highly offensive. I have never heard a woman in a poor situation wishing she had not had her children. Her children are her greatest gift. Her wish is that she will be given justice, a fair chance, to feed, raise, and educate them. The decision should be left up to her, not pushed on her as a condition to receiving help, the way it is in many places. That is truly unjust.

  17. Dear Farmer Tom (and Diane) — I will be sure someone from Heifer International gets in touch with you to elucidate exactly the organization’s position on birth control. I don’t work for Heifer and am independent from the organization, so I feel it would be much better if they articulated their position on this sensitive topic …. Thanks so much for reading — and for your big hearts in giving to others!!!

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