Haiti, Service, and a Supper of Rice & Beans

Next week, on October 11th to be exact, I board a plane, mosquito repellent in hand, bound for Haiti. The reason for this trip is not tourism, rather is it to volunteer as part of a medical team for 12 days in Terre Blanche, a small village in the northern, rural part of the country. The medical clinic we'll be working in (and avoiding mosquitoes in) is run by Haiti Foundation of Hope, the steadfast, leading organism behind the bustle of the clinic that has been there for 15 years. They affectionately call it The Clinic of Hope To me the name rings of an optimism that I imagine is required to survive in this impoverished community. I am not totally sure what to anticipate, but anticipating I am. 

The Clinic of Hope 

 In case you were worried... the answer is NO. I will not be wielding any stethoscopes or scalpels; this writer/nanny/cooking type will likely be assisting the nurses and docs, counting medicine in the pharmacy, helping with children, and hopefully, if I'm lucky, with the cooking of some rice and beans. 

In preparation for the trip, my mind has been chewing on a few things: the act of service, the position of Haiti, and per usual - food. Today that means the giving and eating of Haitian Rice & Beans!
Note: If you want to scroll on down to the eating of (aka the recipe) the rice and beans... go ahead! I won’t even be offended. Or if you want to give some rice and beans to Haiti, go ahead on that too. (Got to that blue link). I won’t be offended on that either.

An inside view of HFH's feeding program that provides 800 kiddo a rice & beans meal every day. 
It is often their only meal of the day. 

Before the eating commences, let's rewind a bit… 
When I was 19 years old I went to visit my grandparents in Goshen, Indiana. At the time of our visit my two years at Hesston College were nearly over and I had no idea what to do next – geographically, professionally, or otherwise.  I remember lying on their living room floor, the soft carpet cushioning my melodrama, lamenting about my situation, which by the way was just dripping of my privilege… Whatever shall I do with my life?

My grandfather, the wise, non-melodramatic person that he was, very plainly said something to the effect of… Go and give something up for a year Katie. Do service. Change this question of yours to: “How can I help?”

Fortunately I was barely smart enough to take his advice, and so I went and gave what I had - my time, serving for a year in a domestic violence intervention agency in New Hampshire.  To be clear, service was a mantra of sorts for my entire upbringing; my teenage melodrama is simply a reminder of how quickly I can forget the mantra even exists at all.

My grandfather’s view on service was largely shaped by his Mennonite faith. And though the act of service is not an exclusively Mennonite value, it’s fair to say that they have certainly taken the thing and run with it.  For many years, to the far corners of the globe they have run. They ran with the thing strapped to their ankles and education system until service obtained a solid normalcy at the Mennonite table….
Go and serve.
Go and give. 
Ask them how we can help.

Photo by Linda Markee
Elimenz and her rice & beans. Photo by Linda Markee

It even comes through in Keturah’s diaries where she frequently makes mention of going to a church service where the Yoders/Millers/Swartzendrubers share about their journey to China, Ecuador, California, or their some other place so very far from her Kansas prairie.

Go and give - It seems such a simple task. But there are some very practical, often theological, questions that evolve within that task that Mennonites, and everyone with the intention of giving, have to answer: 
1. Who do we serve?
2. Why do we serve?
3. How?
4. When?
5. Where?

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) seems the most obvious place to look at how Mennonites have dealt with these questions... MCC was formed in 1920 and is arguably the pinnacle of all Mennonite service organizations. In 1920 North American Mennonites were faced with the call from hungry Russian Mennonite brothers and sisters from across the ocean. The task of helping took form, and the answers to the above questions went a little something like this…
1. Who? Russian Mennonites.
2. Why? Because there is a famine. Hence the hunger.
3. How? Send resources for food.
4. When? Now.
5. Where? Russia.

Photo from MCC website 

So perhaps the cultural value of service started then, with MCC in 1920, and has been evolving ever since. A quick peak at what they do today is certainly evidence of that.
But then again… maybe service has priority because Mennonites are pacifists, and thus opt to not serve in the military, and thus have found alternative forms of service in wartimes… “We will not kill, but we'd be happy to work in a hospital, forest, kitchen, etc.” Or something to that end. 

Patients waiting to be seen at the clinic. Photo by Krista Nelson
During the cholera epidemic. Photo by Levi Cole
Known in Terre Blanche as Papa Joe - Joe Markee - one of the founderss of HFH. Photo by Rob White
 There’s also the emphasis that the Mennonite church puts on verses like Luke 3;11, “He who has two coats, let them share with him who has none; and he who has no food, let him do likewise…”  
Well that seems pretty clear: At least give your extra clothes. And some food. 

And food as a mode of help has long been a modus operandi of many…
Take my mother, who for as long as I can remember delivered her homemade suppers to folks in the community - births, deaths, sicknesses, disasters, and so on. It was just part of life - A pot for us. A pot for the neighbors.
Take my friends who put on a dinner party to raise money for a Guatemalan host sister’s necessary but expensive (by Guatemalan terms) surgery.  
Take MCC’s mobile meat canning tradition.
Take next weekend’s Oregon Mennonite Festival for World Relief. All the proceeds, most of which are generated from selling food, go to MCC who years after the Russian famine still give much in the way of food.

2009 team

Portraits by Levi Cole

Among the many incredible things they do for this Terre Blanche community in Haiti, they also give bags of rice and beans to those most in need. I call it their Rice & Beans For Haiti Drive, during which their answers to the above questions on service go something like this…
1. Who? The people of this northern Haitian community
2. Why? Perhaps it was the colonization, slave trades, occupations, hurricanes, earthquake, cholera, and of course – hunger.
3. How? Give rice and beans, set up a permanent medical clinic, send volunteers, etc.
4. When? Now.  
5. Where? Terre Blanche, Haiti

March 2011 team. Photo by Rob White. 

I feel thrilled (and a little anxious) to be part of this team with HFH. They’ve done the amazing job of asking How can we help?, watched the answer evolve since 1996, and have been hard at work ever since. Now this here post is not meant to be a call for donations, but I'd feel strange not telling you that the Rice & Beans for Haiti Drive is going on now! You can donate by going here and give your own pot of supper if you’d like. 

Speaking of supper... I went on a search for a traditional Haitian rice and beans recipe, and the following was what came to my email’s doorstep. It’s from a friend’s mother’s acquaintance’s husband who spent his childhood there. Follow?

This supper’s simplicity has me hooked, but even more than that it was the flavors that lay underneath. It struck me that the elements of rice and beans are like this wonderfully blank canvas that every culture can heartily and economically make its own. Here the Haitians chose select spices. The cloves and chili powder held hands with the garlic beautifully, and the thyme spoke of a French influence that my garden and I appreciated.

Tasting the real thing is just a few days away, and word on the street is that the Haitian women who do the cooking, Elvire and Francis, are women I’ll want to talk to, cook with, write about and then emulate. I’ll definitely let you know.

Ok... Suppertime!

Haitian Rice and Beans

Yield: 4-5 servings

½ onion, diced
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 ½ cups uncooked white rice
2 ½ cups cooked beans, red or pinto*
1 to 3 cups chicken stock (optional)
4 whole cloves
1/8 tsp chili powder
1 ¼ tsp thyme
salt and pepper

*I’ve included directions on how to cook your own beans. You can also use canned pinto or red beans. If doing so, remember not to discard their liquid; save it as you’ll be adding to the rice for cooking liquid.

1. Soak ½ cup of beans in 2 cups of water overnight or for at least 8 hours. When you're ready to cook – Add 1 teaspoon of salt to soaked beans, bring to boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer for about 1 hour or until beans are tender.  Taste – the texture should be totally soft, with no bite.

2. Drain beans but save the cooking liquid to be added later to the rice.

3. Heat oil in medium-sized pot at medium temperature. Add diced onions to pot when the oil is hot. Place garlic slices on top of onion and then a pinch of salt. Turn heat to low, cover, and let cook until onions become translucent. Take care that the garlic does not burn… it has the tendency. Add a touch of hot water if they are beginning to brown.

4. Add the rice to the pan, stirring so the grains are evenly coated. Continue to stir till grains look white, about 5 minutes. Do not let them burn or brown.

5. Add the cooked beans and 3 cups of liquid (using a mix of liquid from beans, chicken stock, and/or water). I used 1 cup of liquid from beans and 2 cups of stock. Stir to combine.

6. Add the whole cloves, chili powder, thyme, and salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Bring to boil, reduce to heat to low, cover, and allow to simmer for about 15-20 minutes or until the rice is thoroughly cooked.

7. Stir thoroughly and serve! I put a bit of avocado and fresh tomato on mine (I know, I know… NOT Haitian).

Hopefully we’ll talk from Haiti… wifi withstanding.


  1. Katie- I am very excited for your trip and can't wait to hear/read all about it when you get back! I hope that you are able to experience the culture and the people in such a way, that long after you're back you remember their sweet faces and their precious stories. Wear lots of bug spray and apply often, for those little misquitos will sense your sweet skin! Be safe and know that I will think of you all week! - Jessie Cole

  2. This is quite exciting, I can't help but think that the Katie that goes will not be the Katie that returns. Keep us informed . Go softly, breath deeply and love expansively. - Rich Crockett

  3. I spent 3 months with MCC in Haiti 35 years ago. You have a rich experience ahead of you, Katie.

  4. Rich, I agree... Though it's difficult to even fathom the changes from my current seat. Your advice may become my mantra. :) Thank you for it and for taking the time to share it!

    Sem, What a great connection... thanks for sharing it. If you feel inspired, I'd love to hear more about where you were, what you did, or even what Haiti was like 35 years ago. Thanks for your words Sem!

    Jessie, Thanks so much! I appreciate the love... Looking forward to seeing you soon!

  5. Katie, in spring 1976 my then-wife and I spent 3 months as volunteers in the MCC unit in Grande Rivière du Nord located in the mountains south of Cap-Haïtien. She was finishing her medical residency and worked in the MCC hospital. I was a history grad student with little to offer, but I tagged along with the MCC agriculture and reforestation specialist on motorcycle and on foot on mountain paths.

    If your experience is like mine you will see abjectly poor people who are remarkably happy. You will hear singing. You will smell food cooking over charcoal stoves. Your rice & beans recipe is dead on as one thing I ate. Also typical was chicken stewed with onion and thyme. And green beans garnished with toasted local cashews.

  6. Sem, Your time there sounds wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing. Glad to hear the rice and beans seems on point... I'm so curious to see their methods and flavors. The chicken and green beans sound great. I love a cashew!
    Your writing is beautiful by the way. Thanks again for sharing!