Haiti… I’m not really sure where I should start in my feeble attempt to describe what I saw, experienced and smelled, but here goes. During my thirty plus years on this earth I’ve been afforded the opportunity to see a lot of different countries. I’ve seen Mayan ruins in Belize, the pyramids of Egypt, and the Haiga Sophia in Istanbul. And, as you might have expected, in many of these countries I’ve seen alarming poverty. Garbage city in Egypt, the mud huts of El Salvador and the Kurdish immigrant camps in Turkey, all contained abject poverty. However, it was localized. It wasn’t spread out to the whole country. What I saw in Haiti was different. Even in all my travels to and fro, I’ve never come across anything quite like it. It was dreadful, shocking, awful, and sad, yet in some odd way, I saw hope.
I guess I started to realize that I wasn’t in the US anymore when we started to make our descent into Port au Prince. As we were approaching the runway, I could see tents all along the ground. I came to find out later than these tents where emblazoned with “US AID” or “Samaritan’s Purse” logos. Most were blue, some were gray, and they were all dusty and worn.
Our landing was met with raucous applause from all the Haitians on board. I had forgotten that folks do that. It was refreshing to see and hear people who were thankful for something as common-place as a good landing.
After we got off the plane I had this sinking feeling in my gut. I saw bags scattered all on the ground and Haitian airport “workers” gathered all around. They had taken all of the bags off the conveyer belt and I didn’t see mine. However, two days later, I did see it. Luckily I had packed some spare clothes in my carry-on (fool me once…). After a pleasant discussion with the nice lady in the lost baggage line, who informed me that my bags were “probably” on the next flight, we headed out to Grand Goâve (Gran Gwav in Creole).
The 40 mile drive from PAP to GG was roughly three hours long. The “highway”, the only highway we could take to get to GG, is called Route National One. I’ve read that this highway was built by US Marines (with Haitian labor) a long time ago and it shows. Honestly, to call it a highway is a bit of an overstatement. Throughout the drive we dodged axle-breaking potholes (many of which were there before the 2010 earthquake), goats, pigs, chickens, and at one point we had to ford a river (well kinda). While those things were indeed memorable, and at times humorous, the thing that I can’t get out of my head was the absolute and abject poverty. There were rivers of trash, tent villages that stretched for miles, and smoldering piles of debris everywhere. Oh, and then there was the smell (imagine burning plastics, dead animals mixed with rotten fruit). With my jaw situated somewhere near my belly button, I asked Mike, our missionary on site and chauffeur, what had all the relief money gone towards? Why are people still in tents? Why hasn’t someone fixed something? Where is Sean Penn!!!! Mike, an eloquent Englishman, gently scolded my idealism and remarked, “You should have seen it six months ago.”
Six months ago, when Mike and Brenda came to Haiti, things were a lot worse. There were tents in the medians of Route National One, hungry people at every crook in the road, and, of course, Cholera. As we drove from PAP Mike showed me dozens of sites that used to have temporary tent homes. Many of those folks had now found permanent housing, people were being fed, and cholera had been contained and had not spread to GG. It seems the major news outlets failed to mention these accomplishments in their “Haiti, a Year Later” specials.
When we got to our base camp at Siloé, we were hoping for a nice relaxing evening and a sumptuous Haitian meal after our long and dusty drive (dusty for some…I was in the cab of the pickup). However, much to our surprise, a truck with two-hundred bags of cement (each weighing 100 lbs.) arrived on site. As you might have guessed, we unloaded all of it.
The next days were filled with hard work. We sweated, hauled rubble, bent iron, pushed wheel-barrows, built porches, saw patients, ran electrical wires, dug canals, fixed water pumps and played with the children who seemed attracted to us blancs.
Siloé is actually a school that is run by Temple Baptist Church in GG. The school and church were both damaged severely during the earthquake (they were fortunate that no children were in school when the quake hit). The school children were an anomaly in this country. Everywhere we looked we saw thousands of Haitians in second-hand t-shirts and blue jeans from the US and other benevolent nations (apparently, former US president Jimmy Carter had set up a “market” of second-hand clothing). However, the children were dressed to the nines. The boys had pressed white shirts, nice gray slacks and clean shoes. The girls came complete with ornate hair bows, collared shirts and matching skirts. School was important. Check that, it was essential. They realized that there was no way out of this hell-hole without an education and so they dressed the part.
When we finished our cement-unloading and fared sumptuously on our delicious Haitian victuals, we made our way to the compound. Our sleeping quarters were quite meager by American standards (yet quite regal by a Haitian’s). We only had power (and consequently water and lights) if the battery system was charged and since someone had stolen the solar panel from atop the roof (twice); we had to rely on a generator for power. Through some cruel twist of fate, I was in the room right outside the noisy generator. Needless to say sleep was hard to come by. Around 2 am, Jeanson, our translator and guide, would turn the generator off. This reprieve was short lived. For seemingly as soon as the machine turned off, the cockerels, mongrels and goats started up. The second night I found ear plugs.
So each morning, despite the sleep deprivation, sore necks and backs, we loaded up the truck and headed out. As we turned the corner out of our “sub-division” we started to hear small voices in the air. These voices seemed to be speaking English and quite loudly. When we saw the children we could hear them clearly. They were screaming, in unison, the only English words they knew, “Hey you, hey you, hey you…” This celebratory parade would be our daily vitamin that gave us the strength to work hard each day and it was our reward each evening as we came home.
We went to Haiti because we had to. We’re Christians and that’s what we’re supposed to do. We help out, or at least we’re encouraged to. We love the widow and orphan. We hug the cold and clothe the naked. We do it because of the love that God has for us. And out of that love we have the capacity to give love to others. Hopefully others will see our good work and give praise to the one who works in and through us.
The story of Haiti is now part of my story. It’s a sad part, but an important part nonetheless. I anticipate it’s the story I will turn to when I’m being selfish, over-indulging or lazy. I pray that her story will remind me how to listen to the narrative of the poor and marginalized.
In Haiti, nearly every building has rebar sticking out of the top. When I first saw this I thought, “That’s just lazy. Why don’t they just cut it off?” Yet when I asked about this phenomenon I discovered something quite interesting. The builders told me that the rebar was left so that the family could build a bigger house later on. They had hope that they would have enough money to build a better home. Hope, I guess it springs eternal everywhere. Hopefully I can find that ridiculous Haitian hope in my story.
Monday was a challenging day for Team Haiti. Temperatures skyrocketed, and it seems as though the pressure of day upon day of backbreaking work in the midst of overwhelming poverty was beginning to take its toll.
There were some high points, however. Specifically, Michelle got to spread the love of Jesus among many of Haiti’s children. In the morning, she visited a kindergarten. Class after class full of little faces.
And in the evening, she experienced the great joy of simply playing with a group of kids after after dinner.
Gallons-3 Milo-7, Ismyla-3, Imagene-9. They were at the school, Siloe, getting water at the well.
Otherwise, Michelle and the team spent their time building the rubble baskets that, when filled with rubble, will serve as the walls on new houses for lucky families. This one took three hours to build.
Team Haiti sustained a few minor injuries on Monday, as well, but don’t worry. . . Jen spent part of her lunch doctoring the wounded. Nothing too serious.
All in all, the Team continued to be well, hot, tired, worn out, happy and grateful for out prayers.