In the midst of Cité Soleil—the worst slum in Haiti—gardens of hope and peace are growing on what was once a garbage-strewn acre where gang members executed their enemies.
The site, called SAKALA, an acronym from Haitian Creole meaning “Community Center for Peace and Alternatives,” was founded in 2004 as a Pax Christi Haiti project to counter gang violence and promote peace in Cité Soleil.
I learned about the site when I was serving in Haiti in 2015 and looking for a project in which to engage the elderly with whom I was working. I was introduced to Haitian agronomist Wozlò Laurent and her husband, Herode. Herode was one of a group of nine Haitians who started SAKALA by, among other things, planting gardens within old tires. They helped me and fellow Maryknoll Sisters Susan Nchubiri and Susan Wangazi, and our partner in mission, Sister of Charity Dianne Moore, adapt the concept for the elderly.
We Maryknoll sisters left Haiti early in 2016, but during a recent trip back, we were delighted when Wozlò and Herode invited us to visit SAKALA and see how the site has developed. On our arrival, we met Daniel Tillias, one of the nine co-founders of the project, who served as our guide. He took us across a cement court where a soccer playoff game was just beginning. He told us the court also accommodates basketball games and that some 250 young people, mostly former gang members, participate in SAKALA’s sports programs.
Then Tillias ushered us through a gate into a green paradise!
On this half-acre plot were 600 tire gardens. Each tire held up to four different crops and around them was a veritable forest of neem trees, a hardy plant that can grow to a well-developed, medium-sized tree in three years. Neem leaves, flowers and wood, we learned, have multiple medicinal and nutritional benefits. In one area shaded by neem trees we saw benches where groups of young people gather to chat.
Nearby we saw a tire garden with four saplings in it. “This is our moringa-in-a-tire project,” Tillias said.
The moringa tree, which, like the neem tree, originated in India, is drought-resistant and grows in tropical and subtropical regions, which are some of the most economically depressed places in the world. The moringa can help fight malnutrition because of its edible seeds, leaves and seed oil.
“It’s like God says, ‘Here, don’t worry; I’ll give you this tree to take care of many of your physical needs,’ ” Tillias said. “In Cité Soleil, where people are still living in tents or shacks of tin and cardboard, they can have a tire garden right outside their door, with these nourishing and medicinal trees.”
Tillias explained that the youth who come to SAKALA learn to care for the gardens, with even the youngest children tending the seedling beds.
The message of peace is incorporated throughout the site, with peace poles declaring in multiple languages, “Keep peace always and everywhere.” Images of famous peace and ecological activists, including Mahatma Gandhi, Vandana Shiva, Martin Luther King Jr., Rigoberta Menchú and Nelson Mandela, also adorn the site.
“All of these expand the young people’s horizons,” Tillias says, “connecting them with those around the world who foster projects that create life.”
The food produced by the gardens feeds the youth who participate in the sports and gardening programs, he said. Extra food is given to soup kitchens around Cité Soleil. Two young men from the project are already studying agronomy at the University of Haiti, Tillias said.
As we emerged from the gardens, the soccer tournament was just finishing. The team members sported T-shirts bearing the names of famous peace activists, including those whose pictures we had seen in the gardens.
“The level of gang violence in Cité Soleil has gone down because the young people, formerly gang members, are so anxious to belong to the program,” says Herode Laurent, who is in charge of the sports program. “They actually play with others who were once in rival gangs.” To remain a member of a team, players must promise not to take part in gang-related activities, he said.
A few months after our visit to SAKALA, Hurricane Matthew slammed into Haiti as a category 4 storm and killed as many as 1,600 people. Fortunately, SAKALA did not sustain serious damage in the hurricane and was able to shelter people in the area who needed it.
Now, post-hurricane, Tillias reports that in the spirit of Haitians helping Haitians, he and other SAKALA members are traveling to the storm-ravaged areas in the south of the country to share their expertise in providing assistance planting trees, helping with school supplies and offering whatever support they can to the farmers there.
What a privilege it was to have visited SAKALA, once a place of death that now fosters life.
Featured image: Wozlò (yellow shirt) and Herode Laurent teach people to plant tire gardens. (Courtesy of T. Kastner/Haiti)