Storytelling for Resilience

“I have been baking bread since I was fourteen. Now I’m 23 years old. My mom buys the flour, and I bake the bread so she can go sell it. I’m still in school too. I’m in 10th grade. I’m good at what I’m doing, the only problem is the heat. I would like to have something else that would ease the heat because it’s too warm inside. I think that I can be sick because of that. There’s another style of oven that I can use but you need to spend a lot of money. I already have this one, I’m not ready to spend more money. The other type of oven that other bakers use is bigger. Me, I only have space for one batch of bread. The other one, I could work with it too. It can get from 7–8 batches at a time. The way I did mine, it’s with a barrel that I flattened on both sides so the fire can be sustained on the bottom. The fire on the top I light it with wood. After it’s started I put charcoal on the bottom part. I crush charcoal to a powder so it doesn’t burn too hot and after that I close the grill. My livelihood doesn’t stop here — I also work as a plumber and I’m learning about [that] too. As soon as I find something else that gives me more opportunity I might leave the bread making business. The people around me will miss me (regret this) because my bread is good. But for now that’s what I have and that’s what my mom and I have and I’m keeping it and getting better at it every day.”

— Antonio Saintyl, 23, Corail, Haiti

After Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti on October 4 of last year, Internews, in collaboration with popular Haitian blogging platform Ayibopost, sent reporters out to hurricane-affected areas in order to collect feedback from local communities and report on the damage.

Ayibopost published stories of loss and resilience after the natural disaster, and readers were touched by the narratives of ordinary Haitians — as told in their own words — that emerged in the wake of Matthew. One story in particular moved the audience to want to take action: that of a young baker from Corail, a fishing village in Grand’Anse that was left devastated by the hurricane.

Journalist Ralph Thomassaint, who is part of Internews’ training program, had come across the baker, Antonio Saintyl, while on a reporting mission in Corail. Thomassaint heard voodoo music from the distance and light coming from a partially-destroyed house.

“There was an immense heat coming from the inside of the house,” Ralph Thomassaint said. “It was the first time I saw something like that — the oven — it was a barrel that he re-purposed. What shocked me, too, was his youth. I saw that he was a modern young man — with piercings and youthful clothes — but he was a very hard worker.”

A man puts a wooden utensil in a barrel oven
Ralph Thomassaint/Internews

Curious, Thomassaint interviewed the baker for a storytelling initiative that Internews is doing in collaboration with Ayibopost, in the style of the famous blog Humans of New York, which lets ordinary people tell the stories of their lives.

Readers connected with the young man’s entrepreneurial spirit and his work to improve his and his family’s lives, especially after his house was damaged in the storm. Soon after the story was posted, journalists working with Ayibopost received a barrage of messages asking how to help the baker.

Ayibopost co-founder Jetry Dumont attributes his readers’ overwhelming enthusiasm to help 23-year-old Antonio Saintyl rebuild his livelihood to the power of storytelling.

“The ‘regular’ news that tells us the certain quantity of houses damaged, that there are 1.4 million people who are affected. It doesn’t touch readers,” Dumont said. “But when they read a story directly from people who are affected, it touches the people more. There is a personal connection there that’s especially interesting.”

The Ayibopost audience, which is comprised of mostly Haitians and Haitians abroad, wanted to get involved in alleviating the hardship Antonio faced in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. In response to overwhelming enthusiasm to help the local entrepreneur, Ayibopost organized a fundraiser at Port-au-Prince café Yanvalou, with dozens of Ayibopost readers, bloggers, and Internews alumni in attendance.

Two people read a story posted on a wall
Community members at an exhibition of Ayibopost images and stories, including Antonio’s, at a fundraiser event organized by Ayibopost. Credit: Ayibo Post

At first, the young man did not understand what Ayibopost wanted to do for him, or why. After some additional explanation, he approved of the fundraiser, and agreed to an evaluation of re-built over, to make sure it was built successfully with the donated funds. By the end of the evening, which included live music and an exhibition of photographs by Internews-trained journalists Joel Fanfan and Ralph Thomassaint, 48,000 HTG (around $700 USD) was raised to help purchase materials for Antonio Saintyl to build a new, more efficient oven for his bakery.

During the event, Dumont was met with great enthusiasm from attendees, who expressed interest in learning more about stories from other communities affected by the hurricane, and how they could help. Displayed on the café’s walls were photos from other people whom Ralph Thomassaint and Joel Fanfan had interviewed, and fundraiser guests eagerly approached Dumont to know more: “’Is there follow up with this person?’ ‘Can we know what’s happening to this guy now? Is he better?’” Dumont recounted.

“It shows that sometimes people don’t need that much help from humanitarian organizations, they only need to bring back some structure. They only need a push. They don’t want you to feed them, just a helping hand. They will follow through; they will do the rest. Haitians are very resilient people.”

“It shows that storytelling is amazing,” Dumont said. “When you allow the person to talk, to make his voice count, it’s very powerful. Especially in troubled times like these it’s very powerful.”

Ralph Thomassaint echoes this sentiment. “In Haiti, it is not a common practice for journalists to tell other people’s stories. Most of the time, it’s the journalists who talk instead of the people. Antonio’s story demonstrated how powerful storytelling and how practices of journalism in Haiti can be useful in some way.”

This story is an example of local media’s role in humanitarian relief and rebuilding. Too often the focus of recovery is placed on how the humanitarian community is providing aid, forgetting that communities themselves — who are always “first responders” — are resilient. Internews Humanitarian Programs work to connect communities in affected areas, believing that helping them to share information is the best way to support resilience in the long term.

Internews’ Haiti Humanitarian Information System improves the quality of timely and actionable information exchange with Haitian communities affected by Hurricane Matthew, in order to reduce vulnerability, improve protection outcomes, and promote accountability in the response. The work is supported by DFID. Rose Foran is Internews’ Humanitarian Liaison Officer in Haiti.

(This story was originally posted on Medium)

Banner photo: Twenty-three-year-old baker and entrepreneur Antonio Saintyl, with the oven he designed in Corail, Haiti. Ralph Thomassaint/Internews