At night, I sleep in a comfortable bed with a sturdy roof over my head. Come morning, I take a hot shower and eat a wholesome breakfast. I brush my teeth using the clean water from the faucet in my bathroom, and wherever I happen to be that day, the odds are high that I’ll have access to a toilet. And toilet paper.
For many of us in the U.S., all of these things are a big part of our daily routine. So much so that we can press the autopilot button and fly through the motions, opening our refrigerator doors to shelves of food, pressing a couple of buttons on our microwaves to heat up leftovers, flipping through the channels on our televisions, putting the trash out by the curb for the dump trucks… We tend to forget how much of a privilege it is to wake up in a country where a simple and healthy lifestyle is attainable. Where there are systems that provide clean water, electricity and garbage disposal. It’s not until you’ve stepped foot in a third-world country that you begin to appreciate what you have.
Two weeks ago I took part in a mission’s trip to Haiti with members from Valley Brook Community Church in Granby, Conn. and Beraca Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. For five days, we stayed in a two-story, five-bedroom compound in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, which was at the epicenter of a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that took the lives of 300,000 and displaced a million others in January 2010, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Every day, we commuted to and from a town 30 miles south called Léogâne where we worked together in a makeshift clinic administering medication and providing physical and spiritual relief to nearly 800 Haitians.
Waking Up in Haiti
Long before the sun rose on the first morning, I woke up to a rooster crowing and the soft sound of gospel music coming from the church choir at the end of our street. My watch read 5:30 a.m. I rolled out of bed and took a short cold shower in the dark because the power went out during the night.
Each morning would be similar. Around 7 a.m., we all gathered around the long kitchen table for breakfast: coffee and a buffet of mangos, bananas, pineapples, hotdog buns, peanut butter and jelly. We prayed for the food and the day ahead of us.
Life on the City Streets
After breakfast, we piled into a 15-passenger van and headed for Léogâne. Speeding down the bumpy streets of Port-au-Prince, our driver skillfully played chicken with oncoming vehicles as the rest of us gripped the seats and held our breath. Almost instantly, the cacophony of honking rang in my eardrums and gave me a piercing headache. Through the windows, my eyes strained to catch the sights that flew past.
Droves of people crowded the side markets and streets, squeezing and weaving in and out of the stop and go traffic, and hopping on and off vibrantly decorated taxis called “tap taps.” Shelters made out of scraps of tin, sheet rock, cardboard and tarp held together with sticks and rope stretched for miles on either side of the road. Personal space doesn’t exist here for the living quarters are so tight. And the Porta Potties baking in the heat produced a putrid smell worthy of singeing nose hairs and turning stomachs.
Further into the city, it was a hard and confusing scene. The earthquake reduced most of the small businesses, buildings, schools and churches to rumble where people hung around socializing, buying and selling. There were piles of used clothing and shoes, bags of chopped sugar cane and fried plantains, bread and a myriad of processed snacks such as cookies and chips. Raw cuts of chicken, goat and fish lay uncovered underneath the unforgiving Caribbean sun. Stacks of mangos, breadfruit, pineapples, carrots, cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes shared the ground with the muddled garbage that’s been accumulating from the lack of a waste management system.
Many Haitians didn’t match this backdrop of crumbling buildings, heaping garbage and dirty streets. Some men walked with purpose clad in pressed business suits and shiny shoes and carrying briefcases, and women swayed in fluttery dresses and skirts while skillfully balancing oversized baskets of goods on their heads. They seemed to take good care of their appearance, but the ground was their trash can, which doesn’t help plaguing health issues such as cholera.
Serving in Léogâne
By midmorning on the first day, we arrived at a church in Léogâne where we held our first medical clinic. The walls and roof of part of the second story collapsed during the earthquake and a set of stairs led up to the concrete floor looking out over the town.
That day there were already at least a hundred Haitians sitting patiently on the wooden benches under the tin roof built off of the church. We set up the sections of our mini medical clinic: a registration table; a triage station where we checked blood pressures and glucose levels and took temperatures; an exam room where the patients met with the nurse practitioners from Beraca Baptist Church; and a pharmacy station where they received the necessary medication, vitamins, ointments and creams. There was even a counseling area reserved for those who simply needed a shoulder to lean on.
Of all the sections, the registration table was a challenge. A member of Beraca ran through the Creole version of the main questions including names, ages and whether they were saved.
Kijan ou rele? – What is your name?
Kilaj ou? – How old are you?
Eske ou convetti*? – Have you been saved?
*I’m not quite sure if I spelled this word correctly, but it was my way of remembering how to pronounce it. And, aside from my terrible accent, the Haitians seemed to understand what I was asking.
Haitian Creole is easy in that each word is written phonetically and pronounced how it is spelled. However, I didn’t take into account how difficult it would be to understand their responses. Their accents were thick and their words were swift and fluent. Despite how many times I was told how to say “slow down” or “how do you spell that” in Creole, my mind went blank when they began speaking, and all I could remember were those initial three questions. On occasion, the feelings of frustration were mutual. One woman even took the pen from my hand and wrote her own name in perfect penmanship: Albertina.
The Little Girl with a Fever of 105 F
Nearing the end of the third day at the medical clinic, the heat made breathing a task. The slight breeze that was there the days before had disappeared and left the air eerily still. We had seen more than 150 people and our supplies were dwindling. We even had to send some people away with nothing because we didn’t have the necessary medications left. Although they remained calm and expressed their gratitude with a faint merci, it pained me to watch them leave empty-handed.
As we reached the end of the list, a mother came in with her young daughter cradled in her arms. She had been waiting patiently for more than a few hours in the blistering heat. The little girl was barely conscious and her eyes were rolling toward the back of her head. Her temperature read over 105 degrees Fahrenheit. We didn’t have any children’s medicine left. Without missing a beat, we concocted a treatment by blending pineapple juice and water with one crushed adult Motrin tablet and the powder from the inside of an amoxicillin pill.
Within minutes, the little girl’s fever broke and her eyes slowly came back to focus. The pain and helplessness on the mother’s face receded as vitality returned to her daughter.
This was one of the more powerful moments in Haiti because of the instant gratification that we were making a difference, even if it was just one little girl and her mother. It was as if we gave their weak bones strength, and watching it all happen gave me a little bit of hope for the future of Haiti.
Visiting the Children of Haiti
A short walk from our medical clinic along a dirt path road surrounded by fields of corn, coconut and palm trees was the Paradise of Children School in Léogâne. About 300 kids attend the school, many of which had been affected by the earthquake.
Through the entrance, the kids clad in their pink uniforms were running around, laughing and playing with each other. We walked in and were immediately taken into their grasps. Their tiny fingers clawed at my arms as they each fought hard to hold our hands. They kissed and touched our light skin, and wrapped themselves around our waists. This response tugged at my heart, but it didn’t take long to feel a bit overwhelmed.
In the beginning, I felt intimidated by the language barrier. I had no background in French to pull from, and my Haitian Creole was iffy. Combine that with the small amounts of English that the children knew and verbal communication was next to impossible. The more they tried to speak to me in Creole or French, the more I longed to be able to understand and converse with them. But the frustration subsided when we joined their game of Duck, Duck, Goose. It was enough to feel the elated emotions spread throughout the school yard as the children smiled and laughed with us.
After recess, we visited one of the classrooms, which were not so much rooms, but tents shielding chalkboards and five or six rows of wooden desks from the sun. We pulled out a bag of crafts and the children intently watched us crumple pieces of colorful tissue paper onto sticky cardboard cutouts of the cross. It was their turn. With very few words, I was able to show and help some of them design their crosses. In the end, a mosaic of purple, orange, green, blue and red crosses lit up the classroom.
As we were getting ready to leave the school, I noticed a group of girls crowding around a large bowl of white rice sitting atop a rickety wooden table. They were reaching for the small serving bowls when a teacher scolded them to step away. It wasn’t lunch time yet.
I later learned that bowl of white rice, accompanied with hot sauce, would be the only guaranteed meal of the day for most of the children at the Paradise School because they were either orphans or their families were homeless and couldn’t afford enough food.
Regardless of these unfortunate circumstances, the children are happy and eager to learn. One could say it’s a product of innocence that disappears as they grow older and come to understand their misfortune. But I believe these children’s smiles and joy provide hope for Haiti’s future.
In a Perfect World
This morning, I rolled out of bed, took a hot shower and made a steaming cup of green tea with the water from my faucet. I thought about how only a four-hour plane ride away, millions of Haitians have already been awake since the rooster’s crow. Many without the luxury of a hot shower or a cup of tea, they start their day on foot to fetch water for boiling rice and washing their clothes.
The week I served in Haiti opened my eyes to a world of pain, poverty and misfortune. I live a simple and easy life, and everyday I do my best to remain humble and appreciative of what I have, but often it doesn’t feel like enough. I can’t help but think of how perfect the world would be if it was free of disease, burning trash, soiled water and empty stomaches. But without these flaws the value of helping each other and making a difference in the lives of other people would be lost.
In the News
It’s been two years since the devastating earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing a million others. While disease and malnutrition still plague the men, women and children who reside in tent camps next to mountainous rumble and garbage, and bathe in and drink contaminated water, hope for reform and infrastructure development in the future remains, according to an article on the Foreign Policy website.