November 2008

November 2008 Trip

Here are two trip reports from the November 2008 Haiti team. First is a report from Jake, a youth pastor:

When someone goes to Haiti they inevitably bring a bit of Haiti back with them to where they came from. Perhaps your first thought goes to the items made by Haitian hands and then bartered for, but that isn’t what I am referring to. Perhaps when I said that your thoughts went to the Haitian germs which, once they get into our foreign systems, act like an ex-Atkins diet person in a Subway sandwich shop, devouring everything in sight. That isn’t what I’m referring to either. I am referring to the faces. I am referring to the (good) smells. I am referring to the people and their intoxicating personalities and their obvious need.

I have to be honest and admit that I left Haiti with more questions than answers. The needs are astronomic and my pay checks are… well… not. What can I do? Even if I had a pile of money I swam through like Scrooge McDuck, where would I start? Do I stay and send, or go and give? Then it hit me, I’m asking the wrong questions. The right question is not how much you give, but how much you have left to give.

We do not live generously until we are sacrificing in order to give. I pose to you the question which has stuck with me like a rock in my shoe I can’t forget about. Am I living generously? That is the bit of Haiti I brought back with me. The people there, or people whose bodies reside here, but whose hearts reside there in Haiti, they personify living generously. Yes we built a roof the week we were there, and that was supremely gratifying, but my soul was built into as well, which was all the more fulfilling.
This second one was written by a government employee from New Hampshire.

Many people ask me, “How was Haiti?” “Haiti? Why did you go there…looks like you got some sun!” I reply that it was an interesting, fun and eye-opening experience. Even compared to my long ago Peace Corps days, Haiti was something else. But it’s the details that stay with me….

Walking down the street it was common for a small child to approach me and simply touch my hand or arm, or take me by the hand and walk with me a while. It didn’t matter that I spoke no Creole and offered nothing other than company, the kids seemed to want to do this very much. Some of the many adults who occupy themselves along the streets with very little would stare as we walked by. Offering for sale a variety of small items: oranges and limes stacked on the ground, meat covered in flies, brown red twisted lumps of fried pork rind on Saturday afternoon, soup base packs, matches and kindling, charcoal, bags of water, bottles of soda and wine, basic grains in bags and baskets, and the other stuff of the simple lives lived in the concrete and rebar. But for all the selling there seemed precious little buying of these things. I watched a woman sit inside a store doorway, day after day, and I never saw a customer. Some just stand around for hours with nothing to sell.

Still, there is joyousness about simply living, in Haiti. People seemed to smile a lot and laugh easily and chatter openly and fearlessly. Even the driving reflected this level of intimate and wild engagement with life and the community. The streets are filled with buses and pickup trucks extravagantly painted with stripes and colors and images of Jesus or celebrities or both, bible quotes and citations. Horns honking swerving fast moving traffic would come to standstill to allow a woman and a child to cross a busy street.

The children at Pastor Rigaud’s house expressed this joy in incomprehensible ways. When we were there they shrieked with pleasure and followed us around the house. While they ate their porridge for breakfast (or, one day, spaghetti with meat sauce) their eyes were fixed on the coffee deprived American “blans” moping through the dining room wearing – yikes! – shorts! (No sane adult wears shorts here.) The kids sing, they do their homework with enthusiasm, there’s little misbehavior. There are a handful of infants in Rigaud’s care – they contentedly sprawl on a blanket in the corner of the dining room. The women pick them up, hold them, cuddle and play with them. Every night at least one of the babies cries (which wakes the street dogs, who wake the roosters, who wake another child and so on…). Yet for all that’s missing in being an orphan in the poorest country this side of the planet, these children are living in a comfortable home, have regular meals, schooling, attention and love. Is it the loving embrace of a family? Not really. But compared to the alternatives some of these kids came from, it’s a miracle of love and luxury.

When people sing in church here they do so with all their heart and soul and they throw their bodies into it. People sing loud and fearlessly, they wave their arms and sway. The devotional songs sung in Creole shake everyone, whether you understand it or not. While working on the roof of the school one late afternoon, under the blazing sun of a day of throwing buckets of wet cement – “chop chop!!” – the boys began to sing together and all I could do was stand and absorb it, mouth open, until the next relentless bucket dropped in my hands, chop chop!

The work at the school is grueling. And the edifice is a monstrous and amazing thing. All concrete and rebar gray and rust reaching into the blue heavens above. Like everything else in Port-au-Prince, the school is half done, even the parts that are nearly finished. There’s no glass here, and except for the hard school benches, no wood. The classrooms are concrete and mostly unpainted. The only light is daylight though electricity is in the plan and there is “conduit” all over the place for it – in odd places messy holes are bashed through the concrete walls presumably to fish wire. At some point this place needs a team of electricians and a few miles of conductor to pull it all together. In another, a door to a room was smashed through with hammer blows as though an afterthought to the design.

We started by moving a pile of blocks the size of an outhouse and a mountain of sand and gravel to the third floor. Everything goes up the stairs by man, woman and child power. No pumps, no lifts, no hoists, no excavators, just hands and buckets. Hour after hour, day after day, I knew all 20 of those steel pails on a first name basis. Our motto came from Nehemiah, and this was Old Testament work indeed, but no swords, no trumpets. By the end of the week all the sand and blocks were part of the roof structure along with a ton of rebar, 50 bags of cement, and all the water from the baptismal font. I am assured that this place is built to high engineering standards with no skimping on the materials, even if the energy going it to it is all manual. Some things about it look primitive but overall it evinces strength and, if anything, appears overbuilt.

The kids in this school really are learning well. They come wearing orange and white uniforms. The girls with their hair tied in white clips, rag ties or beads. They study mathematics, sciences, French, English and Spanish. The school in its audacious way works for hundreds of kids of all ages; I never saw a public school anywhere.1 The kids seem to enjoy being at Rigaud’s school, though I’d bet to a one that they’d all vote for a nice clean bathroom with a flush toilet as the next project. Maybe with a primary education from here they can find their way out of the generational poverty they’re caught in. All this cement, all these buckets, all the sweat and sunburn on us, these ridiculous blans, the chalkboards (the only teaching aid) employed by the underpaid teachers, all the cash sent by the good people back home to make this happen, are creating success by any measure.

Hunger and poverty are a fact of life here. People don’t have cars, they don’t have trees or grass, they may have one shirt. One teenage boy in the bucket line had an mp3 player – he sang along with it while he worked – how did he get downloads? The aid community calls it “food insecurity” now, not hunger, not starvation. Most of the people we saw were experiencing food insecurity. Maybe that means they don’t eat much today. I might ponder how to juggle my bills from paycheck to paycheck, but these people wonder about how to fill their stomachs from day to day. The problem isn’t that food is unavailable, its that people don’t have money to buy it and in Port-au-Prince, there’s no way to grow any of their own on the stone and concrete. One afternoon in the open pickup bed we drove past la Saline, a neighborhood between downtown and the waterfront. Amidst piles of garbage and skanky dogs is a small city of shacks made from old advertising signs, corrugated metal roofing and plastic sheeting. The river is the sewer; kids wander in search of food. This place is where people have more than food insecurity. It really is shockingly bad. People more careful about this than I am want me not to focus on this aspect in reporting back home. The concern, of course, is that it evokes sympathy instantly and people here are generous and empathetic and will reach out and give, money, food, clothing, and medicine, toothbrushes, infant formula, candy, pencils, anything. But next month the rest of the country is still a mess, there’s no work, scarcely a functioning economy, food insecurity is still rampant and the people in la Saline and down in Cite Soleil and Martissant are still looking through the trash for something to eat or with which to patch the roof on the shack. Only now, something more horrible is needed to provoke people back home to do something. Maybe this place needs jobs as much as it needs bags of American rice – it needs someone to take a chance and open a business here and give people the power to buy their own rice. Wyclef Jean, the musician formerly of the Fugees, for example, owns and operates a successful trash collection system in Port-au-Prince through his foundation. He can’t possibly be making money at it, but he is taking the chance and investing in the future of this great and beautiful place. At the same time, it’s impossible not to respond to the story of an orphan, the story of a boy who needs $25 a month to go to school, or of a man who turns to you in church and asks for $10 because he has nothing at home to feed his family.

One evening I rode in the back of the pickup loaded with bags of rice for a few families in Cite Soleil. As darkness fell we drove in down a street crowded with people like the fairgrounds in summer. We beeped our way through and past the UN peacekeeper guntowers following a Doctors Without Borders jeep. Into the most notoriously dangerous place in the country. We stopped and Pastor Steve shouldered the big white rice sacks and we ducked inside a few simple one and two room homes. By oil lamp we held hands and shared prayers of thanks with the gentle people who live in these concrete rooms on these now somewhat tamed, but only weeks ago, very unruly streets. One home was a tin shack amidst a shopping mall sized block of them. We walked through darkened mud gangways by flashlight to a small room the size of my office and found a woman who owned an oil lamp, a brazier, a chair, a bowl and a spoon and a few blankets to lie on the floor, a few simple clothes hanging from nails. She was quite weak and sick and did not get up and the prayer seemed like a feeble but necessary thing for a very perilous situation. Now as I write this a few weeks later, I wonder whether any of the rice we gave the woman remains. But what of her? We drove out through the potholed dirt road, past the blown up factory building illuminated by trash fires and smoke, picked up speed on the paved road and I knew Id been struck through the heart by it finally. And of course I knew my miserable little life and its post-modern troubles was still a breeze, even if it does seem like it is always cold and dark here.

I still don’t understand Creole but it really didn’t matter. I was able to feel people and through their spirit understand them, by looking at the yellow light on the wall in the little rooms, by feeling their dry palms in my hand and hearing their voices in prayer and song, by feeling the sweaty touch of the children, smelling the offal, the diesel smoke and burning trash in the streets, tasting the incredibly delicious food prepared for us at the orphanage and guzzling the cool sweet Coca-Cola and drinking in the smiles and laughter, I came to know Haiti and its people.

1 For some interesting information and commentary on schooling in Haiti see this link.

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