a reflection for Oma

Note: I wrote the essay below for Mennonite Central Committee, reflecting on my two years in Haiti and the influence of my grandmother (Oma), Lois Kreider, an extraordinary badass who passed away in late January. This version has a few more fun photos!

On my first visit to Ramon St. Hilaire’s workshop, in a narrow alley in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, I remember it smelled of fragrant, fresh-cut wood. Sawdust sparkled in the tropical air. Outside, stacks of wood from the obeche tree cured in the sun, waiting to be shaped into elegant bowls. During this visit, St. Hilaire showed me a newly sanded platter. I took it and turned it over in my hands, feeling something familiar in the smoothness of its form.

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I had held a nearly identical platter, mahogany with a time-worn patina, just before departing for my Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) service in Haiti in 2016. My Oma, Lois Kreider, had shown it to me, explaining that my Opa, Robert Kreider, had visited MCC’s first projects in Haiti in 1962 and had made a stop in Port-au-Prince to visit a cottage industry of woodworkers.

Impressed with the quality of their work, he packed a suitcase of the mahogany pieces to show both my Oma and Edna Ruth Byler. They were involved with a fledgling MCC project that became today’s independent fair-trade organization, Ten Thousand Villages, which sells crafts from all over the world.

Holding St. Hilaire’s platter in my hands, I thought of Oma, who traveled the world working with artisans. Through her work, Oma was a bridge between those artisans and customers in Canada and the U.S. Her legacy is thousands of connections, linking people and cultures through the exchange of handmade goods. This same desire to support these meaningful global connections motivated me to work with artisans in Haiti.

From Bluffton to around the world

Oma’s history with fair trade started when she saw a beautiful piece of Palestinian needlework Edna Ruth Byler had hung on her wash line in Akron, Pennsylvania, while Oma and Opa were living there in 1961. Oma offered to lend a hand ‒ and her entrepreneurial spirit – to Mrs. Byler’s project: The Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project (eventually SELFHELP Crafts and now Ten Thousand Villages).

When Oma and Opa moved back to Bluffton, Ohio, Oma organized annual SELFHELP Crafts pre-Christmas sales in the basement of First Mennonite Church.

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Oma (far left) with wood platters from Haiti at an early church basement sale in Bluffton.

After several years of successful annual sales, Oma and other volunteers began to dream of having a shop selling fair-trade goods year-round. Oma came home from a trip to Manitoba, where she had learned about the first MCC Thrift shop, and eagerly advocated for the new store to be a combination of SELFHELP Crafts and a thrift shop. Oma volunteered to manage the innovative new shop.

Oma in early Self Help shop

In 1974, the Bluffton Et Cetera Shop opened as the first store in the U.S. to sell secondhand clothing and housewares, generating revenue for MCC’s programs, and fair-trade crafts, providing a steady sales outlet for artisans.

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Oma and a giant basket in Bangladesh

That year, Oma and Opa took several months to travel around the world visiting MCC projects. Opa described the trip as taking them “from the border of Somalia to the Kalahari Desert of Botswana to a then-peaceful Kabul in Afghanistan to the slums of Calcutta to tropical villages in Java to the mine-infested paddies of Vietnam.”

In each place, Oma put her master’s degree in textiles and her eye for design and craftsmanship to use. She met with craftspeople, especially women, making connections that would blossom into long-term trading partnerships with what is now Ten Thousand Villages.

Walking in Oma’s footsteps

Holding St. Hilaire’s platter was not the first moment I realized that I was walking in Oma’s footsteps. As a child, I loved accompanying Oma and my mother to volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages. I learned about the lives and traditions of artisans as I wandered among Bangladeshi baskets and Indian necklaces.

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Oma taking a break from quilting to teach me how to sew a rag doll.

I followed my passion for handmade traditions and fair trade all the way to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to serve with MCC partner Comité Artisanal Haïtien (CAH; Haitian Artisan Committee). This Haitian fair-trade organization represents over 125 artisan workshops and has been a Ten Thousand Villages partner for decades.

Haiti has a rich creative tradition in which the island’s artisans make inventive use of materials, transforming cement bags into papier-mâché masks and discarded steel oil barrels into intricate metal art. St. Hilaire’s bowls and platters show ingenuity, too, because artisans have replaced the now-scarce mahogany with fast-growing obeche trees as a sustainable resource.

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With cut metal artist Jonas Soulouque in Noailles. photo cred: Annalee Giesbrecht

At CAH, I used my experience with Canadian and U.S. businesses and consumers to help artisans translate their creativity into designs marketable to a foreign audience. I played many roles: designer, curator, trainer, coach, storyteller.

As a curator, I selected pieces with unique appeal from artisans’ galleries, like Jonas Soulouque’s cut metal Tree of Life, which stood out for its intricately hammered, twisted trunk. As a designer, I imagined new ways to adapt specific skills, for example, inviting papier- mâché artists to create Christmas decorations like the dinosaur ornament. And as a trainer, I created workshops where I taught design ideas like seasonal color trends, helping artisans create new products in color schemes unfamiliar in Haiti’s bright tropical environment.

Over the course of my time with MCC in Haiti, I often imagined Oma interacting with craftspeople on her trips. As an accomplished craftswoman and curious traveler, Oma became a bridge, linking these artisan communities for the first time to customers in Canada and the U.S. through handmade objects that signified dignified income and a sense of global community.

Access to markets

In early January, I led an MCC Haiti learning tour to Cormier, a village a few hours south of Port-au-Prince renowned for its stone carving. There, we met master carver Heston Romulus, who leads a team of four artisans in creating innovative pieces like a leaf-shaped stone incense holder developed for Ten Thousand Villages.

This learning tour group, made up almost entirely of Ten Thousand Villages volunteers, gathered in a circle, admiring the stone pieces that the carvers exhibited on a table, as Heston talked about his creative process.

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“Sometimes even from far away,” he told us, “I can see the piece that lies within the stone.”

Fair trade advocates like my Oma and Mrs. Byler understood that craftspeople around the world have no lack of talent. Instead, they suffer from unjust global systems: wealth inequality, lack of access to education and infrastructure and unbalanced trade policies. Fair trade recognizes the skill, creativity and resourcefulness of artisans and provides the missing link: access to a market.

For a craftsperson like Heston, access to a market like Ten Thousand Villages means months of income for him and his team—and even more if the orders continue. Given this, Heston was delighted to hear from our group that his leaf incense holders had been popular purchases during the holiday season.

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Learning tour group in Cormier. Master stone carver Sheena Gilles, center, insisted on a photo “just with the women!”

Being a bridge

In the years between Oma’s travels and my service in Haiti, fair trade has grown and evolved. Locally run organizations like CAH coordinate their own production and logistics. Opa’s suitcase has been replaced by shipping containers.

In Ten Thousand Villages stores, paid staff now work alongside volunteers. Similarly, MCC’s approach to relief, development and peacebuilding evolved over time to focus on supporting visionary local partners, valuing community-rooted expertise and wisdom—a philosophy very similar to that of Ten Thousand Villages, which values the beauty of community craft traditions and dignity of craftspeople.

Yet through these changes, as Oma said in a 2014 speech honoring the Bluffton Et Cetera Shop’s 40th anniversary:

“There are some things we do not want to see changed: The commitment of so many dedicated persons. The consistent vision of shops to care about local and global communities. The satisfaction of working together with those of other churches. The meaningful program of MCC and the awareness it brings of needs and challenges from around the world.”

This is what I learned from Oma: that we each have an opportunity to be a bridge. Oma saw that a handmade platter is not just a beautiful, functional object but is also a source of dignity, a spark of global curiosity and a vessel for human connection.

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In the last few decades, my Oma– who passed away recently, just a week shy of her 95th birthday– dedicated herself to a new project benefiting MCC. At the Et Cetera Shop, she set up a weaving studio, transforming jeans and corduroys too ratty to sell into rugs, placemats, and table runners. Like Haitian artisans who transform oil barrels into works of art, Oma saw the potential for new life (and a new revenue stream for MCC!) in items that others would discard.

world environment day in photos

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“Chi-chiri!”

The first time I hiked Mon Sejou was with Francklin, one of MCC’s agroforestry program managers.

It was the height of the dry season. Grasses crunched underfoot as we hiked up the firebreak that protects Mon Sejou’s fledgling forest from the seasonal wildfires that whip through the parched Haitian hills.

As we crested the ridge and descended into the grove of 3-year-old trees that already reach several feet above our heads, Franklin stopped me for a moment, gesturing for silence.

“Chi-chiri!” he trilled. After a moment, a bird nearby warbled its answer. Another responded further down the hill.

“You see? The birds have returned. When there were no trees, these hills were silent.”

Francklin’s work in Mon Sejou consists of supporting a community organization that is responsible for mobilizing local support for reforesting the mountain. They operate tree nurseries and carry out outreach to help neighbors understand the economic and environmental benefits of planting and caring for trees.

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These pictures are from last year’s World Environment Day celebration, an annual event celebrated on June 5 in which community members come together for a massive tree planting effort on the slopes of the mountain. A parade begins in town and winds up the rocky road, down into a gully and back up the steep slopes of Mon Sejou. Everyone in the procession carries a tree seedling (or a whole flat of seedlings), singing songs as they walk up the mountain to honor the growing forest.

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Below, ever-enthusiastic MCC Desarmes program coordinator Jean Rémy encourages tree-planters toward the end of the celebration, as the sun climbs higher.

This year, instead of celebrating World Environment Day with Francklin, the MCC team in Desarmes, and the Mon Sejou community organizers, I’m on my way to Guatemala! I have an MCC meeting with colleagues from around Latin America who also work in the global service learning program. I’m also retracing the very first steps of my Watson fellowship journey in 2010, and am doing some interviews and research on effective training strategies for talented artisans with low levels of literacy and numeracy.

But I still wanted to share a few of the photos I took last year, lest everyone forgot about this blog (I nearly did).

Happy World Environment Day!

the calm before the storm

Hi friends- as I’m sure you’ve seen, Category 5 Hurricane Irma is bearing down with record windspeeds, carving a path through the Caribbean islands on the way to Florida. Port-au-Prince and all of southern Haiti is under tropical storm warning, while a hurricane warning has been issued for the north. I’m gearing up for wind and rain starting in a few hours.

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I will be fine: my second-story apartment has a good roof, low flood risk, and I have plenty of clean water and food and friends to keep me company.

Not everyone is as fortunate. Any level of hurricane will mean devastation for lots of Haitians: those who live in fragile shelters, those whose neighborhoods will flood, those who rely on farming for survival and will go hungry without this harvest.

In the aftermath of last October’s Hurricane Matthew, MCC Haiti responded to immediate effects of the storm with food, hygiene kits, water purification tablets, and blankets. MCC also addressed the more hidden, equally insidious aftereffects: we funded a domestic violence shelter in response to the uptick in intra-familial violence that corresponds with natural disasters and displacement. We assisted families in replanting gardens that were destroyed, using agroforestry techniques that will hopefully make the land more resilient in the long term.

I’ll check in after the storm passes and let you know if there are ways you can help. For now, send your thoughts to those who will be affected by this storm, in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.

 

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written in stone: a day in cormier

I hopped out of the truck on Thursday morning at the Léogâne junction, a corner busy with fruit and vegetable merchants. My mission for the day’s visit was to shoot some video clips of stone carvers for Ten Thousand Villages, one of Comité Artisanal Haitien’s export clients.

Léogâne was historically a center of sugar and rum production, and more recently became infamous as the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake. It’s also “the bastion of stone carving in Haiti,” in the words of Reginald, a skilled stone carver who served as one of my guides for the day.

Reginald and I took motos thirty minutes into countryside, crossing a shallow river several times, before arriving at his family’s home in the village of Cormier. There we met Heston and Guerline, two other stone carvers. Reginald showed me around the house and lakou (yard), where I saw small stone figurines peeking from behind foliage. Several generations of his family have lived on this land, farming small plots of land while passing down the stone carving tradition.

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Heston and Reginald are neighbors. In Heston’s lakou, peanuts were drying in the sun. Behind Heston’s house is a structure with a caved-in tin roof: a casualty of 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Heston’s wife still manages to cook meals beneath the bowed remnants of the roof, but they hope to rebuild soon.

Heston, Reginald, Guerline and I set off for the local mine, the source of the soft grey stone that carvers often use. Our path traced the riverbed that winds through terraced hillside fields of pwa kongo (pigeon peas), peanuts, and manioc– hardy plants that can thrive in thin soil.

We passed small, brightly painted houses and a majestic mapou tree at least twelve feet in diameter. I half-jokingly threatened to steal a puppy playing near the path. As we walked, Reginald pointed out features of the landscape– exposed bedrock, a small spring, a new training center for local young people.

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Large stone statues stood as sentinels along the edge of the riverbed. Encountering these pieces of public art in such a rural place felt magical. “This one is mine,” said Heston, resting a hand on the stone shoulder of a woman cradling a child. “That one, too.” He pointed across the river to a three-foot-tall bust of a woman’s head, her neck arched gracefully.

I wonder if the statues will ever move from the riverbed. Heston said he sells these large sculptures sometimes, but it takes a special buyer to pay the high price of transporting the huge pieces from the remote countryside. He loves making them nonetheless.

After a gravelly scramble past braying donkeys, we arrive at “the mine,” a small slash of bare grey rock in the green hillside.

We paused to chat with a man quarrying pieces of stone using a sledgehammer and chisel. There at the mine, he makes a rough cut of the intended final product– in this case, stone plates. Often, the stone carvers buy these rough cuts rather than quarrying the stone themselves.

Reginald pointed out evidence of a recent rockslide that buried much of the workable rock face and caused the carvers to be late in fulfilling a product order. “The work of carving stone sculptures is no problem. It’s getting the rock from the mine to our workshops that is the real issue,” Reginald mused.

While wading through the river on our way back, Guerline bent down and deftly scooped a handful of water onto the shore. Along with the splash of water there was a silvery wriggling– a fish! She picked it up gingerly to avoid being pricked by its dorsal spines. Poking out from its mouth was a half-eaten crayfish. “Li tap dine, yap supe l!” Reginald joked. He was eating his lunch, but now they’re going to eat him for supper!

 

IMG_3933We’d been walking in the midday sun for two hours when we stopped for a quick rest in a shaded area of clean-swept dirt that served as a community space. We each sucked down a sache dlo (plastic packet of fresh water) and watched an animated game of dominoes: four men playing at a table, with several heckling onlookers.

Back at Reginald’s house, we sat on the veranda drinking fresh coconut water and discussing plans for new product designs. I left them with sketches and a promise to come back for more hiking someday, waved goodbye, and hopped on a moto, then a public van, then another moto to get back home to Port-au-Prince before sunset.

I love days like Thursday. Sweaty, scrambling over rocks, soaking up Haiti’s natural beauty, experiencing the generosity of near-strangers willing to welcome me into their homes and stories.

Check out a rough cut of some of the video clips:

A Day in Cormier from Madeline Kreider Carlson on Vimeo.

What I’m Reading: May, June, July 2017

I skipped a couple months! In the meantime I’ve read some good books and joined an English-language library at a fancy private country club that once hosted Sean Penn’s post-earthquake refugee camp on its tennis courts and golf course. It’s a weird place.
  • Edwidge Danticat, Haitian-American author of Krik? Krak!, is one of my recent favorites. I read her beautiful novel The Farming of Bones in January before coming to Haiti and will definitely be reading more of her work (including a Royal Diaries young adult chapter book that she wrote from the perspective of a Taino princess living on the island at the time of Christopher Columbus’ first landing! I loved those books when I was a preteen).
  • I also read & recommend this super interesting article about intersections between the United Nations, the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and U.S. foreign policy in the age of Obama and Trump.

Now that I have TWO libraries at my disposal (MCC has a pretty good collection at their office, plus the aforementioned club library), who has book recommendations?!

mural, mural on the wall

I moved into a new apartment recently, in Pacot, an old neighborhood full of hills and historic homes. I’m really happy about the move (I can walk to work!), but the place doesn’t have a lot of character. So.. I decided to paint all over my wall!

Here’s the finished product: inspired by mountain silhouettes, with a whole bunch of different freehand patterns. I mostly just made them up as I went along.

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Painting is not my strong suit (believe me/ask my mom, who recently unearthed all my old canvases from Painting 101 freshman year of college), but I loved the process of freestyle pattern making. I painted a lot of this in the morning, with a cup of coffee in hand, during the time that I would have spent braving Port-au-Prince morning traffic on the back of a moto.

Here’s the evolution in gif format!

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I kinda love the idea of continuing to spend an hour every morning on a creative project– something low-pressure, just for fun. What should I tackle next?

apre dans, tanbou lou

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Here is some cut-paper art, because cut paper is the latest craft technique in which I am dabbling, and because nothing chases the blues away like tedious creative work.

IMG_2491There is a Haitian proverb, Apre dans, tanbou louliterally, ‘After the dance, the drums are heavy,’– that describes the feeling of letdown and melancholy after a big event. The drums felt heavy this week returning to Port-au-Prince after a whirlwind weekend in Pennsylvania with many of my favorite people, celebrating the wedding of my beautiful friends.

But:

  • On the plane from Ft. Lauderdale I made friends with four Haitian-born American men who were seated around me. They were all functionally illiterate, and it made me so curious about the story that each of them might be able to tell me about their path to becoming American citizens. I didn’t get their stories, but I helped them fill out their customs forms and one of them gave me a pack of gum as a present!
  • Wednesday was the first (exhilarating/vulnerable) meeting of my new writing group, inspired by Women of Letters, a monthly performance/literary salon in Brooklyn. Our theme this month was A Letter to my Unexpected. I’m grateful for the space and the push to write! There’s something really meaningful about sitting down to make narrative sense out of my scattered thoughts.

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    Filmmaker Raoul Peck at FOKAL
  • Also on Wednesday, I went to a great free concert at the Institut Francais featuring Leyla McCalla, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
  • Yesterday I miraculously got in to an invitation-only screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with director Raoul Peck (who is Haitian). Go see this documentary if you haven’t– based on James Baldwin’s final, unfinished manuscript. It is incredibly powerful. I can’t stop thinking about it.
  • The flamboyant trees are still blooming! Living in a place that is painted in such vibrant color makes me deeply happy.

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So even though the drums are heavy, I’m grateful for the patchwork of unexpected and thought-provoking experiences that make every day in Haiti a learning experience.

moto musings

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Pie chart inspired by Ann Friedman.

IMG_2130I’ve been riding moto-taxis every day this week to and from Noailles, in Croix-des-Bouquets, where I’m spending the week working with cut-metal artisans.

Motos are by far the fastest (though certainly not the safest) way to get around the narrow, transportation-challenged, blokis-clogged streets of Port-au-Prince. There is a death-defying smugness to weaving through a thicket of idling Land Cruisers, missing collisions by inches.

Alongside the adrenaline rush, I love expanding my knowledge of the PaP urban landscape, getting to know new routes and observing the rhythms of daily life:

  • In my opinion, Croix-des-Bouquets has the second-best painted tap-taps in the greater PaP area. My favorite is one that features a portrait of Serena Williams about to rip a backhand. I also appreciated the Legolas/Jesus piece below.
  • On Monday, the roadside drainage ditches (canals? open sewers?) of Croix-des-Bouquets were overflowing with plastic bottles. Disheartening, but unsurprising in a country with very limited trash disposal infrastructure. On Tuesday, backhoes and people were digging all the sludge-covered bottles and trash out of the ditches. Today, the piles of garbage sludge lined the streets. I’m curious what will happen next: if the trash will be removed, or if it will be allowed to slowly tumble back into the ditches.
  • On Tuesday, the road was blocked by a manifestasyon (protest) outside a high school. Students were protesting because they have no teachers: the state-funded school doesn’t have enough money to pay teacher salaries, even though students also pay to attend this public school.
  • I have yet to ask my moto driver to stop so I can try on a romper. I’ll keep you updated as this situation unfolds.
  • Every morning as we take the final turn into Noailles, I can’t help smiling as I hear the ting-ting-ting of hammers on steel, the sound of cut-metal artisans practicing their craft. More on this soon!