When I first visited Haiti a decade ago – about two years before Margaret Trost's initial visit – one incident shocked me beyond all others: A man offered me his child. Understanding French, but not Haitian Creole, I thought I had misunderstood; a translator assured me that I hadn't. There was a drought; the man's crops had failed. He had five other children. He could not feed them all.
On the Day Everybody Ate: One Woman’s Story of Hope and Possibility in Haiti
By Margaret Trost
Piti piti na rive – little by little we’ll get there, a Haitian Creole saying
Little By Little – A Berkeley Woman Tackles Hunger in Haiti
By Judith Scherr
When I first visited Haiti a decade ago – about two years before Margaret Trost’s initial visit – one incident shocked me beyond all others: A man offered me his child.
Understanding French, but not Haitian Creole, I thought I had misunderstood; a translator assured me that I hadn’t. There was a drought; the man’s crops had failed. He had five other children. He could not feed them all.
What kind of desperation drives a man to give his child to a stranger?
Margaret Trost would understand.
In the slim tome Dr. Paul Farmer calls a “polished gem” – “On the Day Everybody Ate: One Woman’s Story of Hope and Possibility in Haiti,” Koa Books, 143 pages $15.00 – Trost describes the utter misery she found in Haiti and her initial reaction: hopelessness and helplessness.
As Trost’s story unfolds, the misery fades into the backdrop as Trost becomes energized with the optimism she finds among the Haitians she comes to know. Infused with the belief that she – with the help of a little magic – could relieve a small part of the suffering, Trost founded what would become the What If? Foundation with a gift of $5,000.
It’s painful to read Trost’s description of the hospice where she volunteered during her first days in Haiti. Her trip there was a personal one – an attempt to move past the overwhelming grief caused by the sudden death of her young husband.
“Back and forth the moaning woman rocked in the fetal position,” she wrote. “Weren’t there any painkillers? She looked over at me and I motioned to the lotion, [Trost had massaged other patients] but she shook her head no…Tears dripped down her cheeks. Her eyes were blood shot, revealing her physical agony and her despair.”
She looked at Trost and spoke in English “’I have nothing…No shoes…No dress…No money…’ …a coughing fit overtook her. Then she rolled over, exhausted, and closed her eyes.”
Trost describes the stench of the open sewers, the tiny tin-roofed homes where sometimes a dozen people lived sleeping in shifts, the ever-present hunger.
“I couldn’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to give birth or raise children here,” wrote Trost, facing the challenge of raising a son on her own.
The beauty of Trost’s book is her ability to show readers the miracle of Haitian resilience, to invite the reader to see how hope dominates the foreground of Haitian lives, while never completely eclipsing the misery. Piti piti na rive, Haitians say – little by little we’ll get there.
Trost writes about preparing to give manicures, a gift of glistening
red nails, to two hospice patients, “I handed them several cotton balls and a bottle of nail polish remover. The woman on my right carefully divided one of the cotton balls into four sections….With just one of these sections, she removed the polish from all ten of her nails. She handed the bottle and another quarter of the cotton ball to her friend. Then she handed me the other two sections and the other cotton balls I had originally given her.”
Trost never imagined removing nail polish could be done with such a minute scrap of cotton. It made her reflect on the food she scraped into the garbage disposal in her Berkeley, Calif. home, and the shelves of toys her son did not use.
She describes the wretchedness of a woman she met in the hospice whose body was covered in sores and her skin peeling. The compassion she felt for the woman’s suffering turned to admiration and amazement when she heard the woman’s voice in song: “In it was a strength and power that called out from her dark cocoon and clung fiercely to life,” she wrote.
Trost doesn’t avoid describing the quest for her own healing that took her to Haiti. She writes that, holding the hand of a dying woman, she felt the woman giving her strength.
Of course, Trost writes about Fr Gerry – the charismatic priest, Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste of St. Clare Church, who first suggested that it would be possible for Trost to feed the hungry of the church neighborhood.
“He described how he ‘saw’ the roads paved, the people fed, employed, health, educated and housed. He believed in a future for Haiti’s children and was committed to help make it happen,” she wrote. When Trost left Haiti after that initial trip, her despair was lifting, replaced by the vision of the food program she would launch.
\I first met Fr. Gérard Jean-Juste in February 2005, when Trost brought him to speak at a Berkeley church in a benefit for the foundation. He spoke in almost the same breath of the injustice of the Iraq War and the injustice of the coup in Haiti, where the U.S. had removed the democratically elected leader and his personal friend Jean Bertrand Aristide.
The next time I would see Fr. Gerry, he was in jail in Haiti on apparently trumped up murder charges. (The murder took place in Port-au-Prince while Jean-Juste was on a visit to Miami). Charges were later dismissed.
That visit was just after the hurricane had devastated New Orleans. Before the priest would let me interview him about being jailed and about the rumors that he might run for president – he was subsequently barred from candidacy because he was incarcerated – he insisted on talking about the tragedy for the people of New Orleans.
Whether the people were victims of Hurricane Katrina and inaction by the U.S. government, or political prisoners under an unelected government in Haiti – after the 2004 coup, the U.S., France and Canada appointed a government that served until May 2006 – justice was always on the priest’s mind.
“Fr. Gerry has told me he cannot separate his faith from politics,” Trost wrote. “His example for how to live his life is Jesus. Jesus was not silent about injustice or the oppression of the poor.”
Fr. Gerry’s message encouraged Trost to take on a totally undefined project, an act unfamiliar to the detail-oriented businesswoman. Fr. Gerry spoke “as if he was following inspiration, not an agenda,” she wrote.
“’Margaret,’” he told her, “’I see all the children fed and their parents working. Everyone has enough food to eat and electricity and running water.’”
Was it possible? she asked herself. “I looked with him into the neighborhood, past the piles of garbage and the dark interiors of the dilapidated homes, trying to imagine his vision.”
The What If? Foundation was born of Trost’s ability to meld the miracle of inspiration with the nuts and bolts of building a nonprofit organization.
While she sees the need to feed the hungry, Trost does not shy away from writing about the developed world’s responsibility for present-day misery in Haiti. She explains how Haiti’s rice production was undercut when the International Monetary Fund demanded it reduce tariff protections for its own rice and agricultural produce in exchange for loans.
“Since [rice] is heavily subsidized by the U.S. government and therefore cheaper than Haitian rice, within a few years most Haitian rice farmers went out of business,” she wrote.
Today the What If Foundation provides 6,000 meals a week, using Haitian-grown produce. It sends 200 children to school and offers day camp to 450 children during the summer.
In a quick phone interview from Texas where she was traveling, Trost underscored that what is important is to be unafraid to take the first small step.
“Eventually, we’ll live in a world where there is social justice and everyone eats,” she said. “One step at a time.”