Last month I went to Haïti to lend whatever help I could as the country continues to rebuild after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. BIM asked me to contribute a piece summarizing my experience there but be quite honest, I couldn’t give anyone a quick retelling of my trip without leaving out hugely significant parts of it. Haïti, more than any other place I’ve visited, can’t be fully understood by anyone who hasn’t experienced it. That’s just one of the reasons I feel so blessed to have been able to go myself, and in the spirit of “paying it forward” I’ll do my best to share with you some of what I saw, felt, and did while I was away.
I traveled with a Toronto-based charity called Third World Awareness (http://www.twawareness.org). Having interviewed one of TWA’s founders a couple of years ago and attended some of their meetings, I did have some idea of what was in store. Still, I was very nervous in the weeks leading up to my departure for this, my first humanitarian trip.
Fortunately, it didn’t take long to get used to unexpected power outages at any hour of the day or night, non-flushing toilets, and never quite knowing what time it was (I‘d left my phone at home and wasn’t wearing a watch). I got used to being stared at; I got used to having to ask people to repeat themselves a lot because my French isn’t great and my knowledge of Haïtian Kreyòl is very limited; and I got used to the hot Caribbean sun. (Okay, that wasn’t so hard to get used to; I actually enjoyed that quite a bit!)
There were, of course, things that were not so easy to get accustomed to. One of these things is that hundreds of thousands of people and families still live in tents, which may be nothing more than pieces of metal, tarp or blankets strung together. In the cities, you’re likely to see dense pockets of tents stuck together on whatever land is available, like behind a marketplace or along a road. Downtown Port-au-Prince has huge tent cities, with rows of portable toilets lined up along the outside of certain blocks; and residents may or may not have fresh water delivered regularly. There are also thousands of tents spaced out among hills in the countryside. I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for such constant evidence of extreme poverty ahead of time — I know I never got used to seeing it.
But to be honest, there were also things that weren’t “as bad” as I had expected. For example, since the deadly earthquake and aftershocks created such widespread injury and illness, I had expected to see disabled or disfigured Haïtians everywhere we went — but this was really only the case in the healthcare facilities we visited. I’d heard stories about looting and political unrest, but for the most part I felt just as safe as I would in any other country I was visiting. Oh, and the food, the food was delicious!
The work placement I chose was a hospice/clinic for people with AIDS, tuberculosis, and other ailments. I spent most of my time with the younger girls, aged around six to 18, painting their nails and giving them massages. We had so much fun jumping rope and making little toys, and teaching each other words in English, French, Kreyòl, even Spanish. Some of our activities on our days “off” included visiting an orphanage, spending a day at a home for disabled children, and beginning construction for a new school which TWA is helping to build (the site for the school is shown in the picture above; in the distance you can see some of the tents nearby).
Despite the obvious signs of hardship, there was hope in the air in Haïti. There were so many stories of faith and persistence and rebirth. I met several orphans and former street kids who, with hard work and the help of loving benefactors, have blossomed into entrepreneurs, artists, community leaders — some of them, as members of a dance and drumming troupe which tours Canada and the US, are now international performers! One of the things I’ll remember most about the people of Haïti is their refusal to give up, even in the face of repeated heartbreak and adversity.
I truly hope to go again, and I’ll be forever grateful for this experience.