“Plant moringa; harvest community harmony” could be a good motto for Jaden Tap Tap, a green oasis in the tough, garbage-strewn eyesore that is Cité Soleil. The slum, in the north of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, is often described as the one of the most dangerous in the western hemisphere.
The Jaden Tap Tap, with its rows of quick-growing, nutritious moringa, known as the Tree of Life, is a community garden. Walking in from the sunbaked wasteland that is Cité Soleil, it is noticeably cooler. Like a leafy cocoon, it provides a shield from the harsh reality of life outside its walls. Its name is Haitian Creole for Garden Taxi – tap taps are the distinctive, brightly painted vehicles that ply the roads of Port-au-Prince.
The garden was created three years ago by three men with a dream, but without any official backing or even enough money for an irrigation pump. They still do not have a pump and the authorities allegedly remain uninterested in the project and its potential, but Daniel Tillias, Jaden Tap Tap’s director, is philosophical.
“Making a garden is about more than cultivating plants, it’s about cultivating people,” he says, quoting the late Japanese philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, famous for his book The One Straw Revolution.
Tillias, Herode Gary Laurent and Franz Francois, all of whom grew up in Cité Soleil, laid the first seeds in the garden on a couple of acres of landfill.
Tillias says the history of the land they started to till is symbolic of some of Haiti’s political turmoil. “People say that some wealthy businessmen abandoned the T-shirt factories that were here. People from Cité Soleil destroyed and ransacked everything after the overthrow of [President] Aristide in 2004. It became a landfill and the place in the neighbourhood where killings would happen.”
From the outset, the garden recycled decorated urban waste, with brightly painted tyres used for pots, for example. Also crucial was the willing labour of people who live in the tent camp across the road.
They straggle across, tilling and planting in the quiet green space, eventually harvesting the vegetables for the family cookpot, sharing fairly and equitably. They take home seeds and plants, and start container gardens. For them, it’s a chance to leave behind, even if briefly, the stifling reality of their lives in the plastic tents.
“I love to come here. It’s a pretty space for the community,” says Joseph Fanie, an elderly lady who appeared in the garden, hoe in hand, with other Cité Soleil residents. “I’ve started my own garden,” she says proudly.
It is proof, if any were needed, of the powerful example set by the Jaden Tap Tap, Haiti’s largest urban garden with aspirations to link up with American urban agriculturist Will Allen’s Growing Power movement.
“We want to give the people of Cité Soleil a model of success. Something to do. And something to eat too,” says Tillias. The garden’s abundant produce is shared by the community in an ad hoc but honourable fashion. There are 20 types of vegetables and herbs – aubergine, peppers, chard, radishes, potatoes, parsley and basil. And there is the moringa tree, its leaves rich in protein and vitamins, which poor Haitians add to juices, soups, cornmeal and rice. The Jaden Tap Tap shows that “something positive can come out of Cité Soleil”, says Tillias.
It is a bold statement. The neighbourhood, which is mostly hardscrabble land, with plastic tent camps as far as the eye can see, is routinely on every diplomatic mission’s red zone or no-go list.
“We’re trying to turn it from a red zone to yellow and then green,” say Jaden Tap Tap’s creators, pointing to at least 25 smaller copycat gardens that have sprung up in the slum.
Next to the garden is Sakala, a youth group that teaches peace and development initiatives using basketball. Young children from Fraternité, a church primary school next to Jaden Tap Tap, use the oasis to learn how to grow the future.
In the sewage-littered surrounds of Cité Soleil, the moringa forest is still just spindly rows of 10ft tall trees. “But they will grow to 20ft and they are a huge resource. Really the Tree of Life,” says Tillias. “Almost every part is of some use to man or animal.”
Part of the garden is a moringa nursery and people are encouraged to grow a mini forest in an old tyre. “You don’t need space to garden, we tell people, you just need to want to,” says Tillias.