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.
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.
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!
We’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: