This is Haiti...
The last members of our team arrived Friday evening, and we all went for a walk through the hills behind the hospital. While Haiti is indeed very dirty, overcrowded, and still in disrepair from the earthquake, there are still pockets of beauty. The view was spectacular. From the top you were removed from the noise, the smell, the taste of poverty and witness to the unveiled beauty of this country. Corn was growing on the hillside, the city was far below, the ocean and port beyond, all mixed with the colors of the sunset. As we continued, the hum of thousands of Creole voices could be heard so distinctly from the tents and shacks lining the hills that, although we were on the other side of a valley, it was as though we could speak back and be heard.
You knew that in each of those shacks was a family, or, more likely, families, living daily life in 100 square feet of cinder blocks, cardboard and tarp. Preparing for another evening of maybe food, maybe bed, maybe neither, and no lights. Yet viewing it from above was surreal. Suddenly, as if to remind us, "this is Haiti," a yound girl, not older than 12, walked up the steep hill that took us nearly 30 long, gasping minutes to scale, carrying a bed frame on her head...
The girl, the bed frame, the backdrop, the sunset, "this is Haiti."
The Pearl of the Antilles
Haiti, or the Pearl of the Antilles as it used to be known, was once a lush tropical island that held all kinds of natural wonders and resources. In its day, Haiti was the single most valuable colony of the French Empire, but due to numerous years of corruption, mismanagement, and misfortune, the Pearl lost its luster. Haiti today is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. Almost all household energy comes from charcoal, and as a result rampant deforestation, and consequent erosion, have decimated this nation's once abundant resources. Corruption permeates all levels of government and business and has resulted in poor, or more often no, infrastructure and a stagnant remnant of an ecomony. Yet through their poverty the Haitian people remain remarkably resilient. Visiting Haiti, you quickly sense a strong feeling of pride among these people, but even more so, an inner joy. Haitians are quick to flash their bright smiles, and you will never hear more genuine laughter. It initially puzzles you because, despite our possessions, this joy rivals that of most Americans. It is derived, however, not from possessions, but from relationships. The bond between Haitian people is strong, and they have come together to move forward out of devastation. Their joy and togetherness form the core of their resiliency and perserverance. As Scott Nelson, Orthopedic Surgeon and a local hero due to his efforts immediately after the earthquake at Haiti Adventist Hospital, so eloquently described this characteristic of these amazing people, "Cutting open (surgically) a Haitian compared to an American is like slicing a bagel compared to a piece of white bread." We would experience firsthand the truth behind this statement during the coming week.
I don't remember taking a breath the entire ride to the Hopital Adventiste d'Haiti in Carrefour. If it wasn't for the jolts of car-sized potholes, and frequent car horns pushing pedestrians aside, I don't think my body would have initiated the involuntary activity we so often take for granted. We take it for granted until we've seen, felt, and breathed Haiti. I have never seen such poverty.
Mile after mile of tents, shacks, tarps, cinder blocks, tin sheets, plastic bottles, cardboard, tires, and trash covering the streets. Fires were burning. All sprinkled with street vendors, their goods lying on these same streets. Now imagine weaving and dogding this congestion and chaos at 100 kph from the back seat of an ambulance, the siren screaming its warning, "Move aside!" Overwhelming.
HOPITAL ADVENTISTE D'HAITI
To the volunteers here, the Haiti Adventist Hospital is an oasis in the middle of urban destitution. To Haitians, it's a beacon of hope and restitution. After the devastating earthquake these grounds were flooded with need, and it was due to the extraordinary efforts of Scott Nelson and those around him that transformed this building from a mass grave to a place of refuge. Today it is where orthopedic surgery of the highest standard can be found being performed on indigent Haitians for no cost, and where we will call home for the next week. Specifically, a modular building dedicated to housing short-term volunteers with 7 bunk beds, a refrigerator, air conditioning, and even a hot water shower. You quickly become aware of the precarious state of these amenities, however, during the few minutes between each power failure and the 200 KW generator taking responsibility. Above all, this place is a foundation of faith. The sound of voices singing praises from the small chapel can be heard every Sabbath; a reminder and a pronouncement of the building's framework: faith, hope, and love.
Walking through the doors of the hospital each morning, we were greeted with the above scene: Haitians, young and old, lined the halls in quiet anticipation of being able to see a doctor that day. Parents held lethargic but curious children in their laps, and many times waited patiently from early morning until evening to be seen by one of our team doctors. To the Haitians, today was a great day: their loved one was getting a chance to receive medical attention, a rare privielge in Haiti. Young girls took to this occasion by dressing in their Sunday best: a crisp dress and several bright, colorful hairties adorning their braids. Evidence of progress was seen in patients who wore the Taylor Spatial Frames or external fixation devices, put on months before to begin the long process of straightening a limb. As we walked down the hall, friendly and appreciative eyes fell on us, giving strength and hope to our team as we prepared for another day of clinic or surgery.
MARY LOU’S ORPHANAGE
From day one it was difficult to ignore the signs leading us to Mary Lou's orphanage. While hiking through the hills above the hospital the first day we arrived, we felt drawn to the steep sides of this valley lined with cinder block homes, one of them being this orphanage. After visiting orphanages that appeared content to rely on our help, Mary Lou demonstrated a love and sacrifice for her children we had not previously seen. Once we set foot inside it was clear we were captivated, both literally and figuratively. The 16 children were the most active and exciting group we had encountered, and wanted nothing more than to hold on and never let go. They would jump off of chairs, tables, and walls and latch on to you wherever they could. The only defense was to tickle them into submission.
Due to its location on a steep cliff, Mary Lou's orphanage often gets overlooked and has received the least outside assistance compared to the other orphanages we visited. The small cinder block home is 12 feet wide by 30 feet long and carved into the hillside. It is a several hundred-foot climb up steep slopes to reach the home. The area in front is steep with loose rocks, and there is only a two foot gap between the back side of the house and the vertical wall of the hill. The only place for the children to play is on the roof, but there are no walls, low hanging bare electrical wires carry electricity at random times of the day, and unfinished reinforcing bars remain exposed. Our primary project for the week was to build a wall around, and generally improve, the roof to give the kids a safe area to play. Mary Lou's kitchen was tucked into the small two foot gap between the building and the hillside, and was adjacent to the toilet. We decided to incorporate an outdoor kitchen into the roof project giving her a clear, sanitary, and open place to cook for the children. We also decided on several smaller projects such as new stairs for roof access as well as two new bunks beds with mattresses for the kids.
BUSINESS IN HAITI
Our first task was to convert the US dollars we had brought into Haitian currency, or Gourdes. The conversion rate was 1 US dollar to 41.5 Gourdes. Sounds simple, except everything in shops is priced not in Gourdes, but in Haitian dollars. One Haitian dollar is equal to five Gourdes. In reality, there is no physical monetary unit that represents a Haitian dollar. It is imaginary. This creates further mental gymnastics in order to ensure you aren't overpaying for something when you finally hand over your Gourdes to the shopkeeper.
Once we had Gourdes, we needed to purchase the materials needed for our project. This involved numerous trips into town to purchase all of the raw material: 230 cinderblocks, 1,500 pounds of bagged dry cement, a truckload of sand, lumber, tin, nails, bunks and mattresses. What should be a single trip to Home Depot is an all-day affair in Haiti. All prices are negotiable, but not just anyone can get a fair price. In Haiti there are three prices: the price for a Haitian is the lowest and fairest, the price for a wealthy/foreign Haitian is higher, and the price for a blan is higher still. What is a blan? It means white in Creole, and as in English, refers to skin color. In the United States we have eradicated this type of segragation to the point where it is either a non-issue, or polite taboo. Here, there is no such tiptoeing. Walking down the street often incites cries of "blan, blan!" I have never been more aware of skin color, or felt more segragated. Yet a blan is even more than a white person. It is any foreigner, even a black Haitian-born individual who has lived abroad and come back. Blans are clearly viewed differently. In Haiti, a lighter skin tone is associated with higher socioeconomic status. When it comes to shopping, this means we look like bright dollar signs. Thankfully, there were two trustworthy and hardworking Haitians with us, Gregory and Jean Marie. We would ask them to go ahead to a street vendor or shop to negotiate a price while us blans would stay out of view, often around the corner of the block. They would return, tell us the price, and if it was fair we would join them and purchase the goods. As soon as the vendor saw that blans were paying, though, an argument would always ensue in an attempt to shake the American money tree. Once the supplies were purchased, we loaded the truck down and punished it with numerous trips up the poor Haitian road to the orphanage. After a few trips it gave in and broke down...twice. The first issue wasn't too serious; an electrical problem with the fuel pump which was fixed with a plastic bag and some wire taken from the headlamps. It drew a crowd, and of course an argument about payment afterwards. We were back on the road in an hour, only to break down again, and this time for good. The clutch burned up and we rolled backwards down the hill until we came to our final resting place. This incited Jonathan's customary outburst of, "Problem, Problem!" and meant we had to unload the blocks and wait to hire a tap-tap to carry them the rest of the way (tap-taps are brightly colored, open air canopied pickup trucks, and the official taxi of Haiti. Seen everywhere, most have designated routes and you can hop on and off as you please. Simply hop on, tap twice to go, tap again to stop, hop out and pay the driver a few Gourdes for the ride).
LET THE GAMES BEGIN
The local Haitians living in the neighborhood surrounding the orphanage made it clear from the day we began unloading supplies at the site that they would take great offense if an outside team were to perform the construction work. Jonathan was instrumental in the negotiation process as he had over a year of experience working with Haitians, including time spent managing a large construction project. He knew how to play the game. We projected a team of four people, working for two days, could accomplish our goals of constructing the wall and tin roof, and would pay 500 Gourdes per man, per day. This was agreed upon, and the work/games began.
The men worked very hard, when you found them working, but each day we came to expect at least one, typically two, stoppages due to bickering over payment, arguments with neighbors who saw a couple blans and wanted money, etc. It was game on, and the blans couldn't rest otherwise they would be exploited. The language barrier did not help matters. The men oftened demanded more money asserting, "we are professional, but in Haiti, roofers are paid much more money, as this is a specialized skill," or, "it is very hot and the scope of the work much larger, we will need more money to finish." These complaints were coupled with the constant interruptions from neighbors, and the battle between Good and Evil was made clear.
On the first occasion a man arrived and stirred up our crew, causing a large argument. He then proceeded to tell us he was an houngan, or voodoo priest, and that evil had brought him to us. Jonathan, bless him, proceeded to tell the man that, "our God is bigger," but the events unfolding left us uneasy. Finally, Mary Lou became tired with the man and jumped in the argument, and thankfully, with her backing, the man left. The very next day, however, two young Haitians came up the hill demanding money and a job, neither of which we were going to give them. This, of course, incited an argument among everyone, causing the young hooligans to claim they would return with a gun. They were talking big, and full of hot Haitian air, but it created another uneasy situation and further delayed our work. Not to be outdone, though, our construction crew's favorite game themselves was to try to delay the work in hopes that they could take a break, extending the contract, and therefore demand more money. But the blans can play this game too.
The team only consisted of three men, instead of the four we advised. Further, the crew continually said they needed more supplies, and could not continue until they were provided. We knew better, and for that reason slowly fed them supplies in order to give the impression that they had to use everything they had. There could be no waste. The two pictures above of misplaced nails demonstrates what we were dealing with. Thankfully, Gregory was on our side, and wasn't having any of their games. The arguments would rage on, but in the end, after working alongside these men for three days in the hot and humid conditions, they earned the 4,000 Gourdes originally agreed upon. They accepted this payment, approximately $100 US, without any further negotiations. The silence, and acceptance of the original contract, was beautiful.
On the second day of construction, after the job site was cleaned, a spontaneous soccer game erupted on the roof. These children had never had a flat area to play and now they have a safe, sunny and spacious area to run and simply be kids. The experience may have been more rewarding for us than the children. The joy on their faces was so special. Clearly their joy couldn't quite be contained as we spotted one boy peeing from his new roof!
Aside from hosting soccer games, the new space maintains the great view of the ocean from the hillside and provides for a clean, adequate space to prepare food previously being prepared in a narrow space between the back of the house and the toilet. As an added bonus, the roof was built to provide a slight overhang to carry away water from the front steps below. Mission accomplished!
A NEW DAY
The rising sun paints a stunning view from the roof of the orphanage, and marks another day in Haiti. But this day is different. The children wake on new beds and mattresses, fill their bellies with plenty of food, brush their teeth with new toothbrushes, put on new clothes, and look forward to coming home from school to another game of soccer on their now completed second story. Much has been accomplished in seven days, but an even greater transformation has occurred in our hearts. God has blessed us beyond measure, and shown us His love through the Haitian people. God bless the Haitians.