What do you talk about in a sandwich shop in Port au Prince?

Walking into the Epidor above the Tabarre Delimart, we began to speculate about what the NY Sandwich might be, or what exactly is the sòs franse, and why would it somehow accompany the NY Sandwich?

I at least, was a bit confused.

Mid way into our conversation, the man in front of us turned around:

“Where are you guys from?”

“LA.”

“New York”.

Man in front of us: “Yeahhhh! It’s been long time since I’ve heard a New York accent! I lived in the city for 8 years!”

(I’m actually from upstate, but there was no reason to be so particular.)

It turns out that while he enjoyed New York and his community in the States, he had come back to Haiti as a businessman who wanted to see growth in local Haitian enterprises, chief among them being his brother’s eco-friendly charcoal company.

This is one of those connections I look back on and feel really good about.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was eager to speak English with us, or that he had spent a long stretch of time in the United States, and that we had both studied similar subjects in college: all of these things made it easy to seek out points where our experiences intersected.

The easy back and forth generated by a mutual distaste for New York’s colder weather, interest in literature, and a variety of other small talk items, gave us time to get to another shared interest: chabon vèt.

Chabon vèt literally means: “Green charcoal” and is the type of charcoal that his brother’s company is working to produce and distribute in Haiti.

I already knew a little bit about chabon vèt after stumbling across a few different articles online and seeing it featured in the Bonne Nouvelle video series; it is unique because instead of relying on wood as the raw material, it uses bagas kan (sugar cane waste) which is plentiful in Haiti.

Chabon vèt is also supposed to burn longer and hotter than ordinary charcoal; nevertheless, the man said it’s a hard sell in Haiti.

Why?

Well, because it’s not the norm many people are worried about being cheated. Consumer education will be a big part of their efforts moving forward.

And this brings us to the point: community education seems to be a common theme for work in Haiti, but how often do we focus on what we need to learn to be more engaging partners/visitors/volunteers?

As I talk about the “feel good” nature of this connection, I’m very aware that this conversation came about mostly because of this man’s ability to reach out to me, and less so my ability to reach out to him.  I think it’s cool that I randomly new a little bit about chabon vèt, but I recognize how far his mastery of English and knowledge about the U.S. was able to drive our conversation.

By staying up to date on life in Haiti, building on our experiences in the country and working to achieve a greater mastery of Creole, we’re better positioning ourselves to be active and engaging participants in our conversations overseas.

We’re also more likely to be the ones ready and willing to reach out to new people, in the same spirit as this man who took the initiative to reach out to us.

by Erin Nguyen on February 5, 2015

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