Heavy rains continue to fall in Haiti, slowing the recovery of people in hurricane-affected regions. But there is hope.
I’ve been back in Haiti less than a month, and already it’s been a whirlwind. With a lot of help from good friends, I moved into a new home, met Almand who is here to serve as “guardian,” someone whose primary job is to keep us safe and whose secondary mission is to become part of our family.
Paul Sinette continues to care for me — she has to be the best cook in Haiti, and she helps me navigate life. Her son Carlens is often here, playing Dominos with Almand.
They all teach me Creole, learn English from me and we take turns saying Grace.
It’s a good deal.
We welcomed a kitten to the house about a week ago. Kimberly, named by Paul Sinette, pretty much runs the place and brings much entertainment.
As you know, Hurricane Matthew did a number on several parts of Haiti, especially to the southern peninsula. The storm hit Oct. 4 and 5. The second weekend of November I was able to visit the South and Grand Anse departments that suffered catastrophic damage.
Fabienne Jean, coordinator of our network FONDAMA, and I traveled to Les Cayes and then onto Grand Anse to visit with partner organizations and also Luke Osikoye, international associate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
Passing Grand Goave on National Route 2, we began to see the damage Matthew left behind. The bridge at Petit Goave was washed out, and a detour was in place while workers replaced it.
Torrential rains have continued in the region, so beyond the obvious hurricane damage — destroyed houses, roofless homes and trees devoid of leaves and branches — we passed flooded roadsides, yards and fields.
Farmers who had access to oxen used them to plow fields. People of all ages walked the roadways carrying water, food and construction materials.
We passed a number of funerals — people wearing black and white, walking slowing in small groups. On the national highway outside of Les Cayes a beat up pickup carried a casket and followed a five-person brass band while friends and family of the deceased followed on foot.
In Moron and Marfranc, World Food Programme and USAID were handing out bags of rice and tarps. In both villages, people lined up in the hot sun to wait. We saw dozens of people carrying their aid home — many of them waste-deep through overflowing rivers.
The further we went, though, and the closer we got to the village of Chambellan located near the southern peninsula’s tip, I saw the bits of hope.
Clothes and sheets and underwear, washed in whatever water was available and simply hanging in the breeze.
Red blouses, green slacks, blue jeans, multi-colored sheets — waving as if a grand sign that in spite of it all, life goes on.
In clean clothes.
I will have more to tell you soon, including ways you can help. FONDAMA is working on a proposal through PDA to help people in these communities with recovery.
Please know that you are appreciated — for caring, for reading and for continuing to pray for all the people of Haiti and those around the world.
How do you do it? How do you cope with all that you see?
She was talking about the desperate poverty here in Haiti.
We were sitting on the great porch at the Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. I could see that she was trying to make sense of the troubles she’d seen here. “I’m processing,” she had said.
So then, as our dinner and general catching-up came to an end, she told me what she had seen. Her small nonprofit helps Haitians students go to school. She travels to Haiti twice or three times a year. She’s visited schools here, met people in communities, learned their names and been greeted with enthusiasm each time she’s returned to Haiti.
On this latest trip, though, she’d traveled beyond the schools and communities. She wanted to visit with a high school student who is a scholarship recipient. The girl was ill, so my friend was invited into her family’s home.
Forget your images of humble. Or modest. Most families here live in either cement block or wooden houses, two or three rooms at most. Windows are tiny. Doors are narrow. The floors, no matter how often they’re scrubbed, appear dirty. There are sheer curtains hanging there for privacy and to keep out the prevalent dust, but chickens still wander through.
Many people sleep in these small homes. The separate kitchen nearby serves as a place where women prepare meals and where neighbors and relatives often gather to chat.
The young girl my friend was visiting was in the throes of Chikungunya, the virus so many people in the Caribbean have suffered through. Even though she was feverish and achy, the girl came out to visit, to thank my friend for the precious gift of education.
And as she walked away, my friend was steamrolled by emotions: Guilt mixed with something close to but not quite pity is a powerful cocktail. We’ve all felt it, often more than once. We do not realize we are economically wealthy until we see how the world’s poor live.
It requires processing.
“So HOW do you do it?” she asked me again. “What do you do with all of this?”
I’m sure I gave her some lame response like: “I understand that together we can make a difference.” But I kept thinking about that question. And wondering.
How DO I cope with it?
As I write this, I think, “Not well.”
It catches up to me — this work, this mission, this obligation and joy. What follows are some thoughts on all of it. Only one thing is clear to me, a mission worker who still often wonders how she ended up in this gig: We are sent here to witness and tell the story. We are sent here neither to wallow in nor disregard the near constant mixture of beauty and pain.
We are here to be with others and to draw even more to come along on the journey.
We all are broken. We all need Christ. And one another.
Broken people. If you make the effort to open your heart along with your eyes, you will see them. And you will see yourself in them. They stand in the shadows, and they stand right beside you. Listen, and you will hear.
But hold onto your heart. Don’t close it off. Don’t protect it. Embrace yourself while you embrace others. Just as there is beauty amid heartache, there is a solace amid the pain. It takes strength to acknowledge it and courage to share it.
It hurts, this work. Poverty is everywhere, and while I walk through my new city and witness its pain, I carry bits of it home with me.
Then, what? Just what am I supposed to do with this? Witnessing the world’s brokenness is like touching a hot stove. Your first instinct is to yank yourself away from it and care for your own hurt.
My more finely tuned instincts tell me to hold on, feel what I feel and share it.
We can’t afford to ignore that pain or store it away. I can’t.
I remember all of those who stand by me in my own pain, feeling the white hot sensation of my hurt. They stay beside me and carry bits of my burning pain, taking part of the load from my fragile being.
So I see and feel the brokenness. I hold hands and touch faces until I see the beauty within again. I do my best to alleviate pain and suffering by sharing it, carrying it, telling stories of it in the hopes that someone who hears and feels can carry it further.
Maybe even carry it away?
It makes no sense that some of us have much and some of us have so little.
Why can I, when I fall ill, almost immediately be cared for and given adequate medical care while others fall into misery and lie there looking up?
It makes no sense at all.
So what I believe now more than ever is that those of us who have much are here to share and carry and alleviate the suffering of others.
It’s been a season of brokenness here in Haiti for me. In May, I passed the one-year mark of being here. I remember those early months of excitement and newness and finding solace in the rich, gorgeous landscapes of rugged mountains, finely rowed gardens, lightning quick grins.
Oh yes, I saw the pain. I heard the cries for hunger. I recognized the signs — the gesture of cutting a throat to signify a need for food or the rubbing of a belly. And, of course, I know the history of hunger in this beautiful place.
But those first months – wow – I just steeped myself in the beauty. I FELT the beauty. My heart filled when while driving on a dusty, hard road in the mountains we turn a corner and see majestic hillsides filled with gardens.
When we see low-lying clouds lifting from the green landscapes.
When we see small children running toward the vehicle because they know visitors might bring toys.
I take those photos and share them and say: THIS is Haiti!
Then, those gestures, the haggard looks of hard-working mothers and the dusty faces of children came back into focus.
This time, with a thud.
And this time, I see clearly, the brokenness not only of our dear brothers and sisters in Haiti, but also of those who visit with us. Something about being here, in this Land of Contrasts where beauty and pain co-mingle, shines on all our vulnerabilities. As Americans, often our compulsive desire (and opportunity) to collect stuff wins out over our desire to let go. It doesn’t take long to see a different way of living here.
But first, the brokenness shows. Or, because I am suddenly more likely to recognize my own, I now can see it more clearly.
At Trinity Lodge, my favorite guesthouse here, the walkway in front is made of broken tiles. It was cheaper to repurpose the tiles, joked guesthouse owner Daniel Jean-Louis when I told him how much I liked it. Maybe.
But the broken pieces of tiles laid together in the spirit of reuse you see all over Haiti represent the mosaic of relationships I find here. Without the safety net of government social programs, relatives depend on one another. Friends seek out each other when a need arises. The fabric of Haiti’s lower echelon of society is constructed of people depending upon one another — family, friends and strangers alike. And if you are lucky, you’re invited into this complex and hospitable network. You are needed. And you will depend on others.
The Luc Celestin family, who took me in my first month living in Haiti, share such stories with me. When Mama Luc was alive, she worried every day about all eight of her kids. When the older ones moved to Port-au-Prince to study or find work, she called each one every day, several times a day.
She would ask each one if they had eaten.
“If we said no, she wouldn’t eat either,” her son, Herns, told me. “She would say that if her children didn’t have food, she wouldn’t eat either.”
Most every day, one of Mama Luc’s children will call me.
They ask me if I have eaten.
A recent visitor to Haiti asked me how most Haitians make money. “It looks like they spend all their time selling things to each other.”
That might be true. Selling at the market or one to another is common. If you need something in Haiti, most likely you will find it somewhere. It’s a local economy at its simplest.
I attended a wedding not long ago. I first met Wilky Avril in 2010 when he was a seminarian, and in March, I attended the Mass where he was ordained an Episcopal priest. On May 1, he married his sweetheart, Dorothie. As her father presented Dorothie to Wilky, this lovely young priest embraced his new father-in-law.
On his face during that embrace, I could see his immense gratitude for the gift of his wife.
In marriage, family, friendships and even in the larger society, our greatest gifts are one another.
We all know that we need one another, but in a place like Haiti, that need is so evident. Americans value independence. Haitians value interdependence.
We have so much to learn.
Like the mosaic of broken tiles cemented into a strong and beautiful entryway to a comfortable guesthouse, we offer our broken parts and seal them together with one anothers’. Like the mixture of dust and sand makes cement, the mélange of our joys and sorrows is what bonds us as humans sharing the journey called Life.
And through all of this, we seek to be — and often are — healed.
I start this by acknowledging that you, Dear Reader, might not like me much by the time you finish this.
I need to go ahead and tell you that I am not suffering for Jesus like you might have thought.
I’m certainly not suffering like I thought I might.
When I first imagined living in Port-au-Prince, like full-time, every single day, I envisioned a small cinderblock home with Spartan furnishings, little and unpredictable at that electricity and maybe a small cookstove. I would be hot, uncomfortable and likely lose weight.
One of three ain’t bad. I’m hot. But when I’m in my home on Delmas 75, I’m very comfortable. And the big secret I’m about to let you in on — her name is Paul Sinette — is one of many Haitians apparently determined that I not lose any weight.
My first inkling that I would have someone cooking my meals came back in March. I was visiting Haiti to attend a conference and look for a place to live. The first property owner I spoke with told me I needed someone to cook and clean for me.
I resisted this idea. I am coming her to serve, not to be served.
Oh, I had so much to learn. It took many conversations, a lot of healthy mental gymnastics and education, but I settled on the idea of at least considering hiring someone.
My first full month here was spent in the mountains with the Celestin family. That’s when I learned that if I was going to trim down, I’d have to start running every day. Three meals a day. Three full meals a day. And Papa Luc Celestin left orders with the family that my work there was to:
And eat. Manje anpil. Eat a lot.
He quizzed me when he came home from work. He quizzed the people who were serving my meals. And when I didn’t put enough food on my plate when I was eating with him, he added more.
His son Herns helped explain the desire to feed people when it’s possible.
“Haitian people eat a lot when they can because they don’t always know if they’ll get to eat again soon,” he explained.
So I ate, or at least tried to convince Papa Luc I had “manje anpil.”
It became a running joke, but thankfully I was a bit glad to be in charge of my own meals. Which were starkly American. And not that good. The first few weeks I wouldn’t use my cookstove, so I depended on sandwiches and salads. My first Haitian guests got ham and cheese sandwiches. They were not impressed.
That’s when my landlady shared with me an idea about interviewing Paul Sinette. By this time, I knew the mutual benefits of hiring someone to help me. It provides an income for a family, it will help with my Creole (everyone tells me that if I eat Haitian food, I’ll speak more like a Haitian) and, the most startling reason of all — I can have all this for less than what I paid for my cable bill in the U.S.
Meet Paul Sinette.
She’s maybe 30 years old, has two children and goes to church at 6 a.m. on Sundays so she can spend the rest of the day helping me. She’s funny, loves to help me learn Creole and, oh yeah, she’s a fabulous cook.
While I’m writing this, I’m sipping on fresh squeezed orange juice. For lunch I had barbecued chicken, rice and beans with a tangy pepper and onion sauce, macaroni and cheese (yes, you read that correctly) and a huge fresh salad.
She buys most of the fresh fruits and vegetables, along with vinegar, oils, rice, pasta and sugar, at the street market. But she also goes through my pantry to find those old standards I’ve collected. Saturday’s lunch included a fresh salad with spaghetti served with a delicious tuna salad. I could tell she disapproved of the tuna fish, but I think she just wanted to use it up.
That was also the same day I reached for a Coke in the refrigerator and she calmly told me she was making fresh juice (that one was lemonade) and that I could have the Coke later ….
I’m still adjusting to the routine, but I can tell you that when I’m traveling one of the best parts about home that I miss is Paul Sinette. And not just for her cooking.
On Wednesday, she told me in Creole that she wouldn’t be here on Thursday because she needed to go the funeral for her mother’s brother. Without even realizing that I had seamlessly comprehended her Creole, I said, “Oh, I’m sorry your uncle died.”
Her reaction? She high-fived me and said, “Bravo!”
She wants me to succeed. She wants to learn her language. She wants me to appreciate the food and culture and life that is Haitian.
And she is grateful that I’m here, and, I believe, not just because she has a job.
I’m not sure how I feel about employing someone to work in my home. It still feels odd to me, off-kilter and strangely guilty. I, who came to serve am served, and I who eat so well, live very closely to people who might not eat much at all.
The dichotomy jostles me, and I hope it always does. Haiti is known as a place where hungry people live, yet the food here is some of the most delicious in the world. Strangely enough, the Creole word for hungry is grangou. And the word for delicious is gou.
But as recently as the 1970s, Haiti was able to feed itself, depending on the production of peasants in the countryside selling their goods. It was only after extended political corruption and greedy international trade agreements that the situation turned tragic.
My work is with agricultural organizations hoping to reverse that trend and provide more food for everyone here. It’s ambitious work, but I know that many good people are ready for this challenge.
This morning when Paul Sinette arrived with her trademark smile and “bonjou,” I asked if she’d already been to church.
Yes, she said. “Mwen te priye pou ou!”
“I prayed for you!”
Among the rest of her prayers, I’m pretty sure she asked God to make sure I chose juice over Coke and to help me with my Creole.
My prayer was simpler. I just thanked God for sending me her.