I just returned from an amazing experience in one of the twenty poorest countries in the world, Haiti. I have been to poor areas, poor cities, even poor states, but never an entire country of extreme living conditions most of us would consider incredibly inadequate. Trash and rubble amass the streets and sidewalks, much of the debris still from the 2010 earthquake. The trash serves two main purposes: it feeds the emaciated dogs, goats and chickens roaming the streets and it serves as fire for cooking. People live in sheds similar to what I keep my wood in at the cabin (the one that wasn’t rainproof enough for a litter of kittens). Yet a structure in worse shape than my woodshed serves home to the eighty-five year old woman we visited to give medical attention. According to the two neighbors who took care of her, she had been lying there, sick, for about the past six years. She had a rusted metal roof. I could see beams of light shining through nail holes and deteriorated spots. One neighbor had tarps as her roof and another no roof at all. But she stood outside, proudly, in her bright blue headdress, smiling for a photo. Most sleep on blankets on dirt floors with their kitchens as outside communal areas made up of a metal frame over a fire with a pot simmering over it. These areas are often roadside, on the sidewalks. In the mornings and evenings there are always small groups huddled around sharing that day’s soup, or fried goat, or chicken, or whatever comes out of those pots.
There doesn’t appear to be much law and order. In Port-au-Prince, the capital and most populated city (around 2.6 million), there are hundreds of motorcycles and “tap taps” which serve as share taxis. The tap taps (colorful buses and trucks) are usually crammed full, with people hanging off the back. (Every time I saw one chock full of people, I got anxiety about the person crammed farthest in and had flashbacks to when we piled into a stretch limo going to see Madonna in San Diego; and I had made the mistake of getting in first. I thought “what if we crash?” and freaked out, envisioning a giant fiery coffin, and climbed over all twenty excited concert-goers so I could get out and ride up front with the driver.) None of the people in those overstuffed tap taps seemed to share the same anxiety, rather they rode quietly in the heat and fumes to their destination, which I’m confident wasn’t a music concert.
We once counted six people on one motorcycle….a baby on the handlebars, a woman behind her leaning to the left so the driver could see, two small children behind the driver and a man in the back sandwiching them all in. Oh, and no helmets. There are no stop lights or traffic signs and few street lights, only in the main parts of the city. The streets (which I mostly experienced from the back of a pickup truck) reminded me of being on the midway at a giant fairground, with loud noises and random lights and thousands of people standing around and walking amidst smells of diesel fumes, dirt and fried turkey legs.
Despite the chaos and hunger and unhygienic living conditions, I found the Haitians to have a strong sense of pride, community and warmth. They typically come across guarded, but if I were to smile or wave or say “bonjou” or “bonswa”, they would give a quick toss back of the head and open into a smile and usually wave back. They were probably laughing at my awesomely terrible Creole, but still they smiled. Everyone is relatively thin, but there was never a clamor of people begging, like what I’ve experienced in Mexican border towns and most major cities in the US and other countries. If a bike or car were to break down in the middle of the road, guys would rush to help the driver push it to the side or push start it. (I once waited an hour and a half before someone stopped when I broke down on I-75N between Macon and Atlanta…and that was the AAA tow truck, who was of course getting paid to stop.) In Haiti, there isn’t an expectation of something in return. They help each other then chat a little Creole and smile, then scatter about their ways. The only common expectation seems to be that of helping one another. It appears to be their way of survival. In the face of all the poverty, there is still smiling and laughter and playing in dirt yards. The kids were content with a bicycle rim and stick as a toy, a huge contrast to excitements and disappointments at Christmas back home the week before.
I went with a medical group called Champs in Haiti and a mission team called Luke101. Our crew consisted of people from Arizona, Minnesota, Tennessee, Colorado and Georgia, along with an amazing Haitian dentist named Vava Résidor, who’s family lost everything in the recent hurricane…still, he had offered to work for free that week. We held clinics at churches and schools in remote villages. Hundreds of families and friends would walk battered roads then wait patiently outside all day long to be seen for an array of health conditions including infections, digestive problems, high blood pressure, std’s, worms, scabies and general malnutrition (and motorcycle wounds!) We saw approximately 1,500 people in the four and a half days of clinics. Vava pulled more than 190 teeth. Seriously. The people would just sit in an upright chair, holding onto the sides with their heads back, while he pulled and rocked and twisted and yanked rotten teeth then popped them in a trashcan. He was set up right beside the pharmacy station, which is where I was helping dispense antibiotics and dewormers and Tums. I saw tears flowing discretely down a few faces, but not one person ever made a sound. I grimaced more than any of them. Afterward, they would stand up smiling, saying “mesi, mesi” as they walked away, “thank you, thank you”.
We made several house calls to people who couldn’t walk to the clinics, like the elderly woman I mentioned earlier. One young lady was sitting in her hot shack on a bed, which pretty much took up the space of the entire house. I noticed a tiny baby wrapped up sleeping quietly behind her. The interpreters spoke between the provider and the mother and another lady standing beside her. I was shocked when I thought they said she had just given birth four days ago, until the interpreter corrected us that she had just given birth four HOURS earlier. Right there in that dark, hot little room…with nobody around except the woman who served as the neighborhood midwife. She hadn’t been able to complete nursing school, but she had apparently done a fabulous job with this delivery. No noise. No motion. No drama. Just a four hour old baby with no name yet and her mother in a tent. On a bed. In the dirt. We left the mother with some rehydrating packs, water, and vitamins, along with a dose of antibiotics in case she developed any infection. That was it. I couldn’t help but compare the scenario to a mother giving birth back home, who would have sixteen people doting over her and the newborn, with epidurals and IV’s and pain medication and a bright room full of flowers, family and friends.
The thing I missed most on the trip was warm water, though we were fortunate to have running water at Deller’s Hotel, which served as our headquarters. Most locals walk with their plastic containers each day (yes, on their heads) to get water from wells, which are randomly scattered along the streets. We used distilled water for drinking and brushing our teeth to prevent stomach problems. We also had the luxury of warm meals prepared for us by local hands, as well as access to a few Prestige beers and Cokes each evening. There was even a guitar, so we got to listen to Topher playing and singing each night before going to bed. That was all behind the giant metal gates that locked us inside and them out. A constant reminder of the underlying turmoil and despair surrounding us. The high walls were covered in pink bougainvillea, only their bright colors were muted by years of dust, like the rest of the town.
Still, among the dirt, nauseating fumes, gates and cold showers, I shared Nicola’s sentiments when she said she felt at peace being there. (Nicola is an ER nurse from Phoenix.) The experience branded a life-long imprint on my heart and I look forward to going back in the spring. I was able to capture some of the beautiful faces and landscapes in photos, and put together a video montage using one of my favorite songs called “Shine On”. My friend, Jacquelina Clemons and I wrote and recorded it in my living room in L.A., back in 2008. Who knew God put it on my heart for people I would meet almost ten years later. Thank you Champs in Haiti and Luke 101 and the women, men and children of Haiti for lighting up my life; thank you Pam Fields for connecting me with these benevolent people; and thank you God for your grace and impeccable timing.
Sho-Bud Music is collecting musical instruments and art supplies (brushes, paint, small canvases) to take to schools and churches, in an effort to help promote art programs in their communities. One of the schools we are working with is called “La Reference”, which now has 225 students. The director was excited to report they now have four flutes and one saxophone for the school’s marching band he is organizing. The other instruments are shared with neighboring schools and churches. So if you have an instrument lying around the basement or garage or under a bed because Suzie didn’t like practicing the clarinet, please consider donating it! Or feel free to give a cash donation to sponsor an instrument (paypal account “firstname.lastname@example.org”)