A number of my friends have commented on the images of Haiti I show on my blog and Facebook.
The beautiful vistas, rugged mountains that rise out of green valleys, stark trees against the bright horizon, sunrises and sunsets that astound with deep hues and — almost always — set behind a palm tree.
Readers like the bright colors of clothing women wear on their way to and from market, and the images of the ample sacks of goods they carry on their heads.
Or the strikingly beautiful smiles of small children just happy to have their photo taken. These are not the images seen on the news, friends say. These are the truth of Haiti. The rest of the story.
And that is true, but just like the photos of poverty don’t show the whole truth, neither do these photos I capture. Like any other culture, unless you physically spend time among Haitians, you will not see the whole truth. And I know that I risk oversimplifying — or worse, sentimentalizing — the Haiti that I want you to know.
I have a friend in Cherident who is an artist. His name is Felix Celestin. His work is beautiful — brightly colored images of rural life or of flowers or women. But recently, he showed me a new painting, one that made me cringe.
As a piece of art, it’s effective. But its effectiveness conjures the emotions of that other part of Haiti — the part I don’t like to show. The part I’m just realizing I want to shield, even from myself.
The painting is broken into thirds. On the left side, he shows the remnants of the 2010 earthquake, above it all is the fire in the Iron Market and the flowing floodwaters of a hurricane washes through the middle.
I am afraid I upset Felix when I cringed. But it wasn’t only the image that affected me. It was the sudden realization that I am here to face the ugly truths as well. And to do my job, as my brothers and sisters both in Haiti and the U.S., I have to tell these “other” stories.
Perhaps I’m worried that the images will be TOO stark, perhaps more painful that the truth, because even a photograph shows one quick glimpse of the whole story.
More than likely, I’m worried if I snap these photos and show them without the full story I’ll be guilty of impressing only with painful emotions. I’m not sophisticated enough to tell you what I need to tell you with only pictures — or even words and pictures. Every day I realize how much more I need to know about this culture before I will understand it myself, so I’m a long way from explaining it all to you.
If I call these people my brothers and sisters, as I do, I cannot risk diminishing their dignity through careless documentation. And at the same time, I cannot wait to share their stories. They are too important.
So I will do my best here to use my words.
The jagged edge of extreme poverty is all around me. In Port-au-Prince I see it in the faces of children who race from car to car in traffic, rag in hand, to wipe the ever-present dust off windshields. They’re working for handouts. When I first moved here, they were all boys, now I see young girls out there. It’s heartbreaking. But in the countryside, it’s even more apparent.
I spent most of last week in the northern mountains. I went with Mark Hare, a mission co-worker with the Presbyterian Church (USA) who works as an agricultural technician. And as informal trainer for me. Mark has worked in Haiti for years with other ag technicians and local families who are building and maintaining yard gardens so they can produce food year-round. Where we would go, into the mountains above Verrettes, the conditions would be difficult, Mark explained.
As it turns out, he might be the king of the understatement. The mountains were like nothing I’ve ever seen. The roads — or what passes for roads in rural, mountainous Haiti — tormented the Toyota LandCruiser. We made it up winding, gravely pathways on nothing short of a powerful 4-wheel drive system, an ambitious driver and the will of God.
The farther we drove into the mountains, the more apparent was the harshness of life here.
At the edge of the narrow roadways, children peeked out from behind trees to see what was causing the ruckus. Small children, some wearing few clothes, perched on the dusty banks or on clusters of large rocks. Some waved shyly or grinned, but most just stared. The further we got into the mountains, the rarer the sound and sight of a vehicle, so some children laughed to see us.
The most startling image was that of about a dozen men carefully walking down the gravelly road as we climbed one of the steep hills on the way to Decomb. Six men walked behind the other six or eight who carried and old door above their shoulders. All I could see of the woman lying covered up on the door was a quick glimpse of her face and her hands gripping the wooden sides. Mark stopped the truck well away from the group, and we waited while they passed.
Later, someone in our truck said it looked like the woman had cholera. He said he could tell by her face.
And driving slowly along these rural roads, I saw the faces of those walking. I saw fatigue on their sweaty faces and dusty clothes. They have so far to walk. Their load is so heavy. And a strange and unrelenting guilt washes over me as I go by.
At an intersection in Verrettes, a reasonably sized town, several members of a family sat on a concrete porch very close to the road. A toddler played with what looked like a Fisher-Price baby stroller. Except it wasn’t the whole toy stroller — it was one handle, connected to one red and yellow wheel. That was all. The boy grinned as he pushed the broken piece of a toy along the porch.
There are so many other moments that startle me — and I hope they always will.
This is a cruel land. I often catch myself confused by the feelings of joy of being here, of the blessings I find especially in juxtaposition with the cruelties of a developing nation and the vulnerable people trying to make it through another day.
There is hope here. I have no doubt of that. And there is the hope in Christ here.
On any given morning you will see someone carrying a Bible or hear a piece of Scripture in conversation.
“Byen, gras a Dye,” someone will say in response to my greeting. “Very well, by the grace of God.”
Or they will answer that they will be to see my, “Si Dye vle.” “If God is willing.”
Felix told me the reason he painted the photo showing the disasters of Haiti. He is aware the image will take the audience aback. But he has to, he said, to honestly depict his country.
“I want people to think about this,” he said. “I want people to wonder how we can change things here.”
I admire his tenacity to use his God-given talents to tell the story of Haiti. That earthquake — he was here. Those cyclones? He and his family have felt them and feared them. Like all our brothers and sisters here, he is well poised to tell those stories, and all I can do is listen and learn how to help.
Bondye is in all of this, and I will do my best to tell the stories of when and where and how I see Him.
But until I can do without diminishing the dignity of those I see and meet, I will not show you the images of where, at any given time, He is most needed.