A Song and a Smile Transcend All Language – My Time in Haiti
I decided to write about my trip to Haiti, to help me process it as well as let those who are interested know how it went. The phrase “It’s a whole different country” suddenly has meaning to me now. I’m just tagging people that I think might be remotely interested to read this. If I didn’t tag you, sorry, and if I tagged you and you don’t want to read it… woops. =P sorry for the length
Our journey started early Monday morning, June 28th, as 13 of us from Nativity caught a plane from Reagan to Ft. Lauderdale. Once there, we hopped on a bus to Food For The Poor headquarters where we met up with Nancy (FFP staff who would be joining us in Haiti) as well as several other staff members. We were treated to a tour of the facility and got to hear Robin Mahfood (President, CEO) and Angel Aloma (Executive Director) speak about their experiences, what we could expect, etc.
We had lunch there at Food For the Poor, where we also met up with Delane (FFP’s Haiti project manager), Lesly (another Haiti project manager, or asst. project manager..), and Ian – our FFP videographer, all of whom would join us in Haiti as well. I also was introduced to fried plantains, which I have to say sound better than they actually taste =P.
While there, we met a different group who would be traveling to Jamaica. This group was the family and close friends of Stephanie Crispinelli, a Lynn University student who died in the Hotel Montana during the January 12th earthquake. Although she died in Haiti, her heart belonged to the people in Jamaica; and so with FFP’s help, they were traveling there to build a school in her honor.
As I sat there looking at this group of 30+ people, most of them quite young, I recognized their painful situation. To lose somebody you love tragically, unexpectedly, and violently is something you never get over. Because of losing Emily, I understand that type of pain. Although some of these people may have been smiling, their trip to Jamaica was bittersweet, certainly not under the circumstances they wished for. My heart goes out to them and I hope they find healing and peace as they deal with their loss.
We checked into the Ramada for the night, had dinner, and waited for Father Martin (from our church in Virginia) to join up with us later that night. So there were 18 of us in total: 14 from Virginia, and 4 from FFP in Florida.
Our real journey began at 3:00am on Tuesday the 29th. Not much tastes good for breakfast at that time, fyi. We made it to the airport by 4:30 and were in the air by 6:45. It wasn’t until we were on the plane that we really felt we were headed to a different country, as we were pretty much the only white people by that point.
The airport in Port-au-Prince is… small, hectic, insane, lacking any security that our country would call adequate. But we all made it through customs and immigration. Our walk from the airport to our bus was made less intimidating by several Haitian police officers/airport security to keep people back, and one officer, Ponfil (sp?) would stay with us our entire time in Port-au-Prince. The dude was silent as the grave, the only thing I ever heard out of his mouth was his name one time, and he looked like he’d eat you if you looked at him wrong, but I guess that’s a good thing lol.
We drove to Food For The Poor in PAP, had breakfast, then went to their feeding center. They had tons of giant bowls of rice and giant pots of stew. Dozens upon dozens of people were lined up outside waiting for them to start serving. Each family brings whatever bucket they have (like old-school lunch pails) and we’d fill it up with rice and a couple ladles of stew. You could see the weariness in their eyes, the frantic hope that they’d get their share for the day before it ran out.
We then drove around Port-au-Prince for a while to see how it really is. From what I hear, the only real change in the city is that buildings are destroyed and rubble is heaped literally everywhere. You would think that with all the millions and millions of $$ people donated after the earthquake that the rubble would be gone, but it’s not. Buildings are still collapsed, the debris pours over the sidewalks and into the streets, mixing with the piles and piles of trash littered everywhere. Land that had once been green parkland is now covered with blue and white tent cities.
We were told that there were still some bodies trapped deep under buildings. I can totally see why… of course all the bodies once visible have been cleared, but nobody has gone through all these buildings; otherwise they wouldn’t still be there. It’s crazy – something like this wouldn’t be tolerated in America. But in Haiti? It’s just a fact of life the people have had to adapt to.
One thing I found remarkable all over Haiti is the traffic. There is actually a ton of traffic there! Some roads are decently paved, but even those have serious potholes; the rest are dirt roads gullied and chipped away at. Haitians have no concept of street lines – in fact there are none. You drive any direction you wish at any speed you want no matter if there is oncoming traffic or not. Cars literally scrape by each other with inches to spare. There are almost more motorcyclists (more like mopeds) than cars, and those weave in and out of cars, riding up on the sidewalk, not a helmet in sight, sometimes 5 people per bike. I think most of us got a few grey hairs from all the near misses; children would run up to the bus holding drinks or food to sell, they’d tap on the bus as it was moving, chase after it, sometimes climb on it – all while we’re moving – just to get our attention. I have never seen anything like that in my life.
After a while, we drove to Little Children of Jesus in PaP, a home funded by Food For The Poor for mentally and physically disabled children. In Haiti, disabilities are seen as shameful, embarrassing, horrifying, etc: children are either abandoned there or just tossed in a garbage pile in the city. This place is truly a blessing and the people who work there are angels in disguise. This place is an oasis – kids have beds, clothing, food, sanitation, a safe place to life, people who care about them. I must confess I felt a bit uncomfortable in there surrounded by kids with (mostly) severe mental disabilities I had never really encountered before. We got there at lunch time for them and got to help feed them – all got a huge bowl of white rice with a gravy of vegetables and chicken. I fed a girl around 12 years old who was blind and had some mental issues… some of the kids there were obviously unhappy, but others were adorably cheery – such as this boy around 4 who would lay on his bed and smile so brightly just because you were holding his hand.
Although I was relieved to leave (and I’d like to think that I’d get used to the place in time), you could see Christ in there. Not only in the kids themselves, but in the people who cared for them.
After that, we caught a flight north to Cap-Haitien in this rinky-dink plane only big enough to hold our 18 people and the pilots. Turbulence-filled ride, but we survived. Upon touching down, we got on another bus and drove to Shada, the site of my church’s newest project.
My church in Burke, VA has been heavily involved in Haiti for many many years now. Together through Jim McDaniel, a parishioner and FFP staff, with donations from our church, we’ve built several villages and fish farms, installed water pumps for clean water, and provided sanitation. We’ve taken people from the most desolate situations and transferred them to hopeful ones. We’ve taken people from tin shacks and placed them in cement houses.
And today, Shada is a dump. (see photos for evidence.) It is literally a garbage dump by the river filled with “houses” which are nothing more than 5×8 tin/wood shacks, in which a family of 3-7 may live. There is no sanitation, people go bathroom wherever they wish, pigs root around everywhere, and the flies are thick in the air. And in this area live thousands of people who have nowhere else to go. My church is changing that. We are in the process of building a village in Chastenoye where there is green grass, fruitful trees, clearer skies, and no garbage. (again, see photos of both areas for comparison.)
So in Shada, we just stopped by quickly to see the conditions, meet with the people a bit. The stench is something I will never forget. It literally is the worst thing I’ve ever smelt in my life. It’s enough to make you puke. Picture the worst porta-potty you’ve ever been in, multiply it by a thousand, toss in a couple pigs and ratty dogs, and you’ve got the smell of Shada.
Ignoring the odor, we were met with a group of kids playing soccer in the garbage by the river. A couple of us started kicking the ball with them while the rest either handed out sillybands or took pictures.
Before traveling to Haiti, someone came up with the idea of bringing tons of sillybands to give to the kids. To Americans, this may seem like nothing. But to the people of Haiti – who literally have nothing – it’s Christmas Day and Easter all in one. We had to be careful to only wear a few at a time, because as soon as you hand out one sillyband to a child, ALL his friends figure out that the pretty bracelet came from the “blanc” (Creole for “foreigner”) and they all crowd around you and demand one. Seeing the smiles on their faces is totally worth being mobbed.
We also showed the kids their picture on our digital cameras. These kids don’t even have mirrors, so most have rarely (if ever) seen what they look like; it’s something we Americans can hardly comprehend. But these kids loved to pose for picture after picture after picture and see themselves on the camera. It’s incredible how the simplest thing can by so cherished by them.
One guy in our group had brought of bag of Jolly Ranchers and he started passing those out. He pretty much got swallowed up by the kids; picture a chicken bone tossed into a sea of (adorable) piranhas – that’s what the JR distribution was like.
After a while, we finally checked into the Auberge du Picolet – a pretty nice hotel in Cap-Haitien by Haiti standards. We cleaned up, had a reflection meeting of the day, and had dinner. Although we didn’t have electricity at first (it comes and goes there), and although the precious air conditioning in our room didn’t work quite right, we slept soundly. And although it would come back to haunt me the next night, I accidentally brushed my teeth with the tap water. See in Haiti it’s not quite safe to drink their water. Although it looks fine, it’s not very clean. Haitiens drink it just fine because they’ve built up an immunity to it, but our bodies don’t tolerate it well. So, before we ever got to Haiti, we were told many many times not to drink the tap water. We had all the bottled water we could ever want. But I was tired and used the tap out of habit, not even thinking about that rule…
So on the morning of the 30th, we drove through Cap-Haitien to a tilapia farm sponsored by Nativity and FFP. The farm has several ponds that hold thousands of fish – it’s a self-sustaining way to feed the people. We also planted mango seeds.
Afterwards, we stopped at the Cap-Haitien prison to visit with the prisoners and release some. The smell there is truly awful, flies swarming the air, 20-40 men in each cell, which wouldn’t even meet health standards in U.S. prisons. As we walked by, the men would stretch their hands through the bars toward us, desperate for a single touch. We stayed with them for a while, and then saw 7 men released.
Normally, the prison only releases men on Christmas and Easter. They did this special for us since FFP paid the fines for these men, who couldn’t afford it themselves. While some men in the prison are hardened criminals, many are not, including the ones we released. Most of them young men barely out of their teens, some had been sitting in a cell for 8 months. Their crime? Picking up a refrigerator that had fallen off a truck, or stealing a chicken to feed their families. People can go years without ever seeing a judge or jury. These men were each given 2 pairs of shoes, a bag of toiletries, sleeping bag, some money, and a hot meal to get them on their way.
Also at the prison, for several hours we unpacked shipments of shoes (Crocs mostly), toiletry bags, and sleeping bags. Each of the 500 men imprisoned got one. Our job was to box up the correct number of each item for every cell until all 500 inmates had a new pair of shoes, fresh toiletries, and a new sleeping bag. It was hot, it was chaotic, it was fly-infested. Several bottles of water later, it was done.
After that, we drove to Prolongé – Nativity village II. On one side is the village we built. On the other – the swamp we moved the people out of. We first walked through the swamp and saw one of the “houses” there, which was nothing more than an 8×8 foot shack that housed 6 people. To Americans, it was a dump. Yet the woman who lived there showed us her house with pride, tidying it up when she saw she had visitors, holding her head high knowing she was doing the best she could.
We then walked back through the swamp across the street to the village that contained relatively large, solid concrete houses for each family, a school, a church, etc. The kids swarmed around us for silly bands and pictures. For a while, I just took pictures for the kids, enjoying the silly poses and faces they made for the camera, amused by their reactions to seeing themselves.
After a while, this adorable girl about 10 years old in a pink dress walked up to me. She shook her head and said, “No photo,” then held out her hand. I put away my camera and grabbed on to her hand, and a little boy took my other. We walked hand in hand for the remainder of our time there, neither child asking for pictures or food or money as most others did. All they wanted was to hold my hand and be loved. The image engrained in my mind most strongly from the entire trip was the moment when – as the sky around us turned ever darker with looming rain clouds, lightning forked the sky and thunder rolled overhead – I looked down at the girl as she looked up at me and we both smiled so openly at each other. Although neither of us spoke the same language, we understood each other. She and the little boy (who I think is her little brother) might’ve been living in the swamp, might’ve had little to wear, might’ve battled hunger and thirst every day of their lives – but at that single moment, they were happy. I asked our translator how to say “What’s your name?” in Creole, and although I butchered the pronunciation, I found out the girl’s name was Edna.
Leaving her and the little boy behind in Prolongé was tough, especially seeing how all the kids chased our bus for quite a while. We made a quick stop to see the archbishop of Cap-Haitien and then called it a day. Later on I regretted not getting a picture of Edna because I didn’t want to ever forget her face; but since she didn’t want one, I didn’t take it. But a couple days later as I was going through my pictures, I noticed that I had gotten one of her earlier in the day on the swamp side of Prolongé before she took my hand on the village side. Needless to say, I kind of love that picture.
Remember the night before, I had accidentally brushed my teeth with the tap water instead of bottled. So I woke up in the middle of the night and was pretty sick for a couple hours, feeling crappy enough that I thought I wouldn’t be able to go out the next day, but thankfully it was gone by the morning. And the same thing happened to a couple others, so I don’t feel completely stupid for that mistake lol. Won’t be doing that again.
So, on July 1st, we went back to Shada, this time to the other side of the river, which somehow smelt even worse than before. In my lifetime, I have never smelled anything as horrible as Shada. Along with 3 armed escorts, we walked through the muck and filth to see how these people lived. I honestly don’t know how they can still be hopeful after existing in that place, nothing but a clap-board thing to live in. It doesn’t even deserve to be called a shack, that would be too grand a term. They’re more like glorified boxes.
We talked with one woman who has 5 kids. We saw 3 of them. All boys, all lying naked on the ground, all severely malnourished, all looking lifeless. Ages: 18 months, 4 years, and 7 years. I was stunned to hear the oldest was 7 – as tiny as he was, he looked 3. And although their eyes were open, not one boy moved a hair the entire time we were there. No matter who kneeled down to touch them, talk to them, hold their hand, take their picture, smile at them – they hardly blinked. I can’t imagine living like that day in and day out. It was like the spirit had been sucked right out of them (see picture.)
After leaving “hell,” we drove to Nativity village VI – Chastenoye – also my favorite place we visited in Haiti. Maybe it had to do with just coming from such a horrible atmosphere, but the grass (there was none in Shada) was green, the sky blue, the air clear of flies, and it smelled so amazing and clean there. There was a water pump for fresh sanitary water, mango and breadfruit trees, corn, and rows and rows of beautiful blue houses for every family.
Chastenoye is where my church (with Food For The Poor) is moving the people of Shada. It’s an ongoing project, we are building more houses, and we will be moving more families out of Shada. In fact, the family with the 3 lifeless little boys was supposed to have been moved there on Tuesday July 6th. So, God-willing, they are now in a much better environment.
At Chastenoye, we broke ground for the new building site, planted trees, and visited the people, including many transplanted earthquake victims from Port-au-Prince. While we were in the field planting the trees, I discovered the hard way that there were very thorny vines everywhere. These thorns were sharper than nails, ranging from 1-3” long. Those thorns pierced all the way through the sole of my Keene’s and into my foot (not badly though). As I picked them out of my shoe, a member of our group remarked how the thorns reminded her of the crown of thorns worn by Christ during the crucifixion. And when I thought about it – she was right. They looked quite a bit like the crown of thorns you saw in The Passion of the Christ. Maybe I’m a wimp, but the ones that got my foot hurt like heck, and my thumb which barely got pricked was bruised for days. If that’s how it was barely getting scratched, how must it have felt to Jesus, who had a crown of them shoved on his head? The Sunday-school image of the crown of thorns is a slightly-prickly looking thing resting comfortably atop a soft bed of hair. But in reality, it was a thick twisted mass of daggers jammed halfway down his face, the thorns not resting comfortably but piercing his scalp.
I can hardly comprehend it. When I got home and was cleaning my shoes, I noticed that I still had several thorns buried deep in both shoes. Not long enough to pierce through the other side, but so deep that I’d need tweezers to get them out. I left them in.
After leaving Chastenoye, we made a quick pit stop at a Food For The Poor orphanage. We were running behind our schedule and were told to put our blinders on and not play with the kids, as we were apt to do. Well, as soon as we got within the walls, we were greeted by 30 little girls – all with their hair done up adorably in all colors – singing us a song in Creole (see video.) We were stopped in awe of the cuteness, and after they finished their song, they wanted us to sing them one. We broke into an impromptu Do Rei Me as it was the only thing we knew, and although we were off key and botching the words anyways, they still erupted in applause when we finished.
After the orphanage we moved on to Nativity Village V at Demier (where we were once again greeted by an awesome Creole song, see video.) Our church is funding two sewing centers – one in Prolongé and the other at Demier, the latter of which is called the Georgette Martin Sewing Center in honor of Father Martin’s mother, who taught sewing to countless girls in her lifetime. We stayed for the ribbon cutting, released fish into their lake for future harvests, celebrated mass with them, and had a feast for the whole village. Although I didn’t understand a word of the mass, I think I almost liked it better in Creole. It’s only slightly different than a traditional U.S. mass, but their singing is way cooler, hands down.
We made another very short stop at a village called Madras to see how the construction of a community center was coming along. There we handed out our bottles of water to the kids – not just new bottles, but ones that we’d already drunk half the water out of. Now in most parts of the world, that would be disgusting and rude and we’d never dream of drinking it. But did these kids care? They were overjoyed. Now I think twice every time I dump out a full glass of water after having taken only a sip or two.
It was our last night in Haiti. Our hotel, the Auberge du Picolet, was a beautiful family-run hotel with a homey atmosphere. That evening for hours on end, a Haitien band played and sang right on the hotel’s doorstep, eventually driving half our group to form a Conga line (see video, lol…), which made the band pretty happy.
After walking through Shada that morning, which is still the most disgusting place I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see in my lifetime, I scrubbed my feet several times before I went to bed. And even then, I couldn’t get all the dirt and smell off.
The next morning we took another tiny plane back to Port-au-Prince and I was very glad to get back on the ground because I thought we were all gonna crash that time because of the turbulence. Yeah yeah, Josh, if you read this I already know you think it was barely a bump lol – but the whole group wasn’t praying for no reason. =P
Once in Port-au-Prince, we went back to FFP for breakfast and visited their health clinic. Then we visited another clinic in PaP, this one run by some American university that I forget. There were many earthquake victims there receiving care.
Finally it was back to the airport for our flight to Miami. Security at Haitian airports is a joke; all a terrorist has to do to successfully infiltrate our country is fly through Haiti next time. We said goodbye to 5 of our group in Miami as they headed back to Food For The Poor headquarters, and we headed back to D.C.
It wasn’t until we were on that final flight that the weight of what I’d just seen finally hit me. Seeing all the “rich” happy people with all their belongings sitting so comfortably, me included, didn’t seem right. Why do we get to leave and the others have to stay? Why was I born in the U.S. and not in Haiti? Why do we get to have food and water and they don’t? It doesn’t make sense to me. And then the song “He Will Carry Me” by Mark Schultz came on my iPod. The chorus goes:
And even though I’m walkin’ through
The valley of the shadow
I will hold tight to the hand of Him
Whose love will comfort me
And when all hope is gone
And I’ve been wounded in the battle
He is all the strength that I will
And He will carry me
The people of Haiti truly are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. Many of them will die well before they ought to. I once heard it said that “When you feel like there is no more hope but you keep on anyway, that’s when you know you have it.” These people have been through hell and yet they still laugh, sing, smile, love, hope. No matter how many times they fall down, Christ picks them up. When they lack the strength, that’s when faith takes over.
If you’ve never heard that song before, I encourage you to listen to it. To me, it embodies the desperation and faith that resides in the people of Haiti. I saw Christ there more clearly then ever before.
That first day at Food For The Poor headquarters in Florida, we passed a man who had been on this trip before, and he said, “It’ll change your life!” He definitely wasn’t kidding. I think it’ll take me quite a while to figure out exactly how Haiti has changed my life, but I know that it has. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to have gone and hope to do so again next time.