A real-life loaves-and-fishes story

An MCC partner in Haiti is helping families restore their livelihoods with small-scale agriculture products more than two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Matthew

ST JEAN DU SUD, Haiti—“When you do good works, God will multiply them more and more.”

The disciples replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And Jesus said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. — Matthew 14:17-20

St Jean du Sud is a picturesque fishing community at the very southernmost tip of Haiti, where brightly painted homes sit just metres from the Caribbean Sea, and fishing boats sway gently in the surf. During a recent visit, spring rains collected in heavy clouds over the water, a reminder of how dangerous proximity to the sea can be in the late summer hurricane season.

The area was devastated when the eye of Hurricane Matthew roared over Haiti’s southern peninsula in 2016. But with the help of an MCC-supported agricultural project, St Jean du Sud is starting to recover—thanks, in part, to the generosity of the project’s participants, who are turning this project into a real-life loaves-and-fishes story.

Hurricane Matthew

On October 4, 2016, when Hurricane Matthew struck St Jean du Sud, Louisa Georges was in her house with her family. “I was shaking with fear,” she remembers. “All we could see was rain everywhere.”

Hurricane Matthew was a strong Category 4 hurricane when it made landfall over Haiti, the strongest hurricane to hit the country since 1964. Its wind speed was estimated at 240 kilometres per hour, causing high winds, heavy rainfall and deadly storm surges. In the two departments most affected by the hurricane, including St Jean du Sud, crop loss was estimated at between 90 and 100 per cent.

When Georges and her family emerged after the hurricane-force winds and rain had died down, they found almost everything they owned had been destroyed. Their house was ruined, their garden was flooded and, worst of all, all their livestock had been lost. The livestock had been the equivalent of their life savings, and without goats to sell at the market, they had lost their means to buy food to eat, pay school fees or access medical care. Like thousands of residents of southern Haiti, Georges and her family quickly found themselves in a state of crisis.

Louisa Georges received a goat as part of an MCC-supported project after Hurricane Matthew caused immense damage to Haiti in 2016.MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Long-term recovery

In the fall of 2017, MCC was in the early stages of establishing a partnership with AVOREDES (“Volunteer Association for the Reform and Development of St Jean du Sud,” by its initials in French), an agricultural association formed by members of the Assemblée de la Grâce Mennonite Church in St Jean du Sud. The Assemblée de la Grâce network of churches is part of Mennonite World Conference. AVOREDES had been working in the community since 2013, assisting families with small-scale agricultural projects. Given this previous work and association with the Mennonite church, AVOREDES was a good fit for MCC’s post-hurricane relief efforts.

Together, MCC and AVOREDES have crafted projects reflecting the needs identified by residents of the South: not temporary shelters or emergency food, but rather the rebuilding local agricultural livelihoods. In their analysis of the initial damage done by Hurricane Matthew, AVOREDES noted that even though emergency food had been distributed, hunger, vulnerability, conflict and dependence would continue without long-term investment.

AVOREDES’s projects approach relief from a different angle. By distributing seeds to restart ruined gardens, banana plants to replace the ones that had been uprooted and baby female goats to replace the ones that had died in the hurricane, AVOREDES is ensuring project participants have enough to eat not just today, but also long into the future.

Along with these distributions, AVOREDES provided training on nutrition, conservation agriculture techniques, disaster mitigation techniques, goat breeding and veterinary care for the animals. The initial relief project, running from 2016-17, was so successful that MCC initiated two more projects with AVOREDES: a second project that ran from 2017-19, and a third starting in April 2019.

Marcelin Pierre-Fritz received seeds to restart his garden from MCC partner AVOREDES. In turn, Pierre-Fritz and others have shared their seedlings with nearby families, expanding the reach of the initial project.MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

Difficult choices

Any relief or development project is necessarily limited by available funds. When an entire region has been brought to its knees after a disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane, establishing the limits of a project can be extremely challenging, logistically and emotionally.

Paul Shetler Fast, at the time MCC Co-Representative for Haiti, remembers how AVOREDES went about this difficult process of choosing who would be supported by the project.

They created a process that was open and transparent, without giving unfair preference to friends, family, or members of any particular church. — Paul Shetler Fast

“They wrestled with the challenges of deciding what measures of need would be used to give families priority, including single-parent families, families with disabled or elderly heads of household and families whose homes and gardens had been destroyed in the last hurricane,” he explains. “They created a process that was open and transparent, without giving unfair preference to friends, family, or members of any particular church.”

Still, this meant many people in need were unable to participate in the small pilot project. But AVOREDES, its local board and the first group of participants had an idea rooted in their faith: they would share the first fruits of their harvests with people still in need.

Expanding the garden

I met Marcelin Pierre-Fritz in his garden, where he’s growing eggplant, okra and Scotch bonnet peppers—staples of Haitian cooking. He remembered the days after the hurricane all too well—how the destruction of the gardens meant that not only money to buy food, but food itself, was nowhere to be found.

Pierre-Fritz restarted his garden thanks to seeds he received from AVOREDES in the initial 2016-17 hurricane relief project. Through careful management of funds, AVOREDES expanded the the reach of their project from 50 to 85 families, including people like Pierre-Fritz in a second round of distributions. Later, when the AVOREDES team suggested he the possibility of sharing some of his newfound resources, as some of his neighbors already had, Pierre-Fritz eagerly agreed. First, he shared some seeds and seedlings with families identified by AVOREDES, and then, with others he knew in the area.

“When you share with others, it pleases God,” he says. “And when you do good works, God will multiply them more and more.”

Louisa Georges (third from left) and her family with a goat provided by a nearby family. MCC partner AVOREDES has encouraged participants of their initial small-scale agriculture product to share baby goats with their neighbors.MCC photo/Annalee Giesbrecht

A gift that keeps on giving

During the follow-up project, which ran from 2017 until January 2019, AVOREDES added goats to the project to help families regain their livestock. Inspired by the success of participants sharing in the first project, AVOREDES met with the participant families in the new project and discussed ideas for how they could something similar with goats. It was decided that, when the female goats had babies, one of those babies should be given to a family who had yet to receive a goat. Participants agreed, and as a result, several additional families have received a baby goat in addition to the original 150 families.

One of those baby goats went to Louisa Georges. It’s now a healthy, lively adult goat which will soon be able to have babies of its own. AVOREDES predicts that in the next two years, as a result of successful goat breeding, there will be over 400 baby goats in the community.

Georges and her family can sell the goats at the local market like they used to before the hurricane. Goats aren’t cheap these days, she tells me. By selling goats, she’ll be able to make a good amount of money—enough to make sure her family has enough to eat. If she’s lucky, one day they’ll have enough to rebuild the house that was damaged by the hurricane.

“If I were to make money from selling a goat, I would share it,” she says. “And if the goat had babies, I would share the babies. When people have nothing, we have to share what we have with them.”

Annalee Giesbrecht is MCC’s Advocacy and Communications Coordinator in Haiti.