As I previously reported, I was practically kidnapped by my brother, stuffed onto a red-eye, and woke up the next day in Haiti, where I was forced to spend the better part of a week far out of reach of my comfort zone. Here are 12 things I learned while I was there.
1. Work It Out, People
You know how here in the states we have laws regulating pretty much everything, and how despite that, lawmakers continue to meet together all the time to come up with more laws to fill in every possible gap between all the other laws? Haiti strikes me as being governed more by the principle of “we’re going to skip the whole lawmaking thing and just count on you people to work it out, OK?” If you come to a major intersection, there are no traffic lights, the are no traffic police, there are no rules that say the driver on the left yields to the driver on the right. Everybody just presses forward slowly and snakes their way around each other, encouraging people to move with two honks, thanking them for moving with one honk. There’s a certain efficiency to the approach, and far less call for lawyers. I think “work it out, people” is their “e pluribus unum.”
2. Teaching English is Hard
We spent a couple of sessions in the classroom trying to teach the kids three sentences in English that we would have them say to the camera to share with our supporters back in the states. This sounds a lot easier than it is. English, as it turns out, is a tricky language. Whom knew? Two words in our little script proved to be a huge challenge for the kids: “years” and “learn.” We pack a lot of sounds into those two single-syllable words. For a lot of the kids, “learn” turned into “love,” which is apparently far more manageable. Plus lovelier. In the end, we decided to go with creole with English subtitles, but we’re keen to see how the experts from ILP will go about teaching the kids English. They have our respect in advance.
3. Plate Direction 101
Our meals were served in the kitchen/dining room of the guest quarters and were always delicious. Turns out I’m a fan of Haitian cuisine. Even had goat for the first time of my life, and I liked it. To help keep the food insect-free until we arrive to eat, the food would be set out for us underneath a wide plastic covering and our plates would be placed upside down on placemats. On day 1, I was fairly exhausted after arrival (airplane sleeping is not my strong suit), so when we sat down to our meal, and I started serving myself, Fritzner had to point out to me that I was serving my food on the bottom of the plate. I looked down and realized that I had actually put two menu items on the bottom side of my plate. He gently showed me how to turn it over and how that it would work better that way. I apologized and tried to explain that I was a bit tired, but I’m sure the thought he would have to keep an eye and me and that maybe he should remove my fork before I stabbed it in my eye. Call me Ruprecht.
4. Haiti Had Uber Before Uber
Haiti is full of tap taps (“quick quicks”), these privately owned taxis that are typically these little pick-ups, ornately painted with a religious message (“Merci, Dieu” for example, was common, and which I always looked at as a prayer to let us please, please somehow arrive safely, despite all odds), that are sometimes packed with so many people, inside and outside hanging on, the front wheels barely manage to stay on the ground. Sometimes, they are large trucks or vans. But perhaps that most common form of taxi is the back seat of a scooter/motorcyle. People hail them like taxis, the driver stops, the passenger gets on (sometime side-saddle for the ladies in their nice skirts), and off they go. I think I saw one person wearing a helmet the whole time I was there, but usually it’s the wild wild west. I saw as many as six people riding on a single motorcycle.
5. The Notes in Hymnbooks are Really Just Suggestions
We went to church (the Haute St. Marc branch), which was held in this large house right on a main road. I’d ballpark 150 in attendance. Open windows, because it was a little toasty, meant that the service had to compete with traffic noise, including honking horns, loud radios and loud engines. To give the noise a fair fight, the hymns were sung in full voice – there’s no room for shyness here. No piano, so the chorister sings as an intro the first and last line of the hymn for pitch and tempo, then counts us in (“trois, quatre”) and off we go. With no piano, I noticed there were some variations here and there in the melody of a given hymn that had crept in over the years of acapella-ing it. But as I thought about it, I became impressed the hymns were sung as true to the music as they actually were. I also notice the hymnbooks, which are in French, are very well worn, with browning, weathered pages. We love our music in Haiti.
6. The Haitian Weight Loss Program
I was an involuntary participant. I thought I was being careful, but I guess I wasn’t careful enough. Who knows what caused it? But my leading theory is that I am an idiot. Of course, I didn’t brush my teeth with the tap water, but I rinsed out my toothbrush with it. Please don’t ask me to try to explain the logic. I guess I thought that as long as I wasn’t full-on ingesting the water, I’d be OK. But no. I had about 24 hours during my trip, including what will forever be known to me as the long, dark night of my soul, where I never wanted to even look at food ever again. Ever. I’m better now. Almost.
7. Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute
I vaguely recall when I was little that littering was a thing. You eat a burger in your car, you roll down the window and you toss the wrapper. You weren’t being a terrible citizen, you were keeping your car clean. Of course, over time that created some significant pollution problems. And I think we had to be educated (the owl saying “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” I think came from this effort) and threatened with fines over the course of many years to get us to the point where it would feel just wrong to throw a can out the window. Now our country is cleaner because of this, although the insides of our cars are probably messier.
Haiti isn’t there yet. It’s still OK for decent people to throw a plastic liter bottle into the riverbed when you’re done with it. As such, the side of the road and riverbeds are amazingly littered. I understand that when the deluge comes, it sweeps all the river trash away, turning it into ocean trash, of course, but their options are limited at this stage. To be fair, there is no trash removal service that I could see in Haiti. Think how that would impact your family. Now, when you kitchen garbage is full, you take it out to the big garbage can by the back door. Then once a week, you take the big garbage cans to the curb, and the big garbage truck comes by and makes your garbage magically disappear. What if those trucks stopped coming?
I asked Fritzner what responsible people do with their household garbage. He said that they let it accumulate awhile, then burn it. This probably explains the random field fires I saw as we were driving.
I understand the new primary platform of the newly inaugurated president of Haiti is to tackle the litter problem. I hope he is successful. We can talk about the roads later.
8. I Should Use Caution When Viewing Haiti Through My American Lens
It’s easy to compare how they do things in Haiti compared to how we do things here. But I needed to keep reminding myself that we’re talking about a completely different lens that we’re looking through here. For example, I noticed the bedrooms where the kids sleep. The paint job is dark and dingy. The lightbulb was missing. The are four beds (two sets of bunkbeds) for the girls and a similar set up for the boys. Typically two kids per bed. Not much bedding, just mattresses. I mentioned it to Ken, and he discussed it with Fritzner, and I think the plan is to give some attention to that as we can, but Ken also pointed out to me that it is worthwhile to remember that before these kids came here, many of them were sleeping wherever they could on a dirt floor or on the ground. What they have now is a life-changing upgrade.
Same goes with laundry. There’s dust and dirt everywhere, and ideally everything would be washed every day. But when your laundry service is a nearby river, the factors of the equation are just different. Same goes with the construction. We have different standards in the states, but apply those standards in Haiti and shelter would become cost-prohibitive, leaving people to live in improvised shacks, where many of them already are.
Must remind myself not to judge or compare with standards from a different world, just pitch in where I can.
9. PAP is an Unsubtle Reminder You Are Not in Kansas Anymore
Toussaint Louverture International Airport, with the airport designation PAP (Port-au-Prince), provides a slap-in-the-face welcome to Haiti’s Third Worldiness. Small. Crowded. Hot. So many checkpoints. And then, once you do emerge, there’s the gauntlet of people that must be run to get to your ride. They’re just trying to help you out with your luggage and get you where you need to go so you don’t have to deal with all the other people behind them in the gauntlet, while making a buck or two for their trouble (amount negotiated upon exit and subject to haggling). Just keep moving. Haiti gets considerably better after PAP.
10. Kids’ Dreams Deserve a Chance
One meal time with Ken and Fritzner, I posed the question for discussion purposes about whether we really should be seeking to teach the kids English. Many Haitian people may be living largely in extreme poverty, but people seemed fairly content. Happy, even. Is seeking to teach them English imperialistic on our part? It was an interesting discussion. It was clear from our on-camera interview with the kids that they have dreams of what they want to do with their lives. Some of them big, even. It would be nice to give them a fair crack at those dreams. Plus, Fritzner pointed out that it is easy to forget, because of their smiling faces now, that before these kids came to the orphanage, they weren’t doing OK, with many of them suffering from malnutrition and neglect. And, at some point, when they’re of age, it will be necessary for them to leave the orphanage. If we want to give them a fighting chance to break this cycle of poverty, then proficiency in English is the key.
When we arrived at the orphanage, after we presented the shoes and books and other things that had been filling our luggage on this trip, the children all rose to their feet. I thought maybe they had been taught to say “thank you” in English or some other phrase. Nope. They sang to us “Je Suis Enfant de Dieu” (“I Am a Child of God”). (That’s the video above. Sorry it is so grainy. It was nearly dark when they sang it. Hopefully you can feel the spirit of what they’re singing coming through anyway.) The next day I noticed the kids had gathered for a a self-directed hymn practice session in the courtyard below. “Je Suis…” was again the first song they sang. In church on Sunday during Primary, guess what was the first song sung in sharing time. I believe the kids love that song. Perhaps because it is a good reminder for them. But it is also a good reminder for me. These kids deserve a shot.
11. If You Want to Feel Loved, an Orphanage in Haiti is the Place to Go
When we got to the orphanage, it was just past dusk. I followed Ken with the video camera up the stairs to the main courtyard. Instantly, he was swarmed. Kids glued themselves to him. He could barely move. Then, before I realized what was happening, I looked down to see a small army had encircled me. I was engulfed in a sea of hugs. There were no signs that the hugs would ever end. In fact, there were more kids joining in. I started to worry that I might topple and annihilate a child or two, which seemed like it would be bad form for a guest on his first evening there. So I found a place to sit that would accommodate about a dozen.
It wasn’t just this one time. Every time I entered the courtyard, it would take about 12 seconds before I would find myself engulfed. The white skin was a fascination, as was the fine hair. But mostly, it seemed like they just wanted to let us know we were loved and that we loved them. If you want to feel loved like a Beatle in America in 1967, look into volunteering at Foyer Coin des Cieux orphanage in St. Marc.
12. 2017 Is the Year of Haiti
Ken bumped into a guy at the PAP airport who served a mission there about a decade after Ken did. He was delighted to hear about our efforts there. He was likewise engaged in some good efforts of his own, and was familiar with several other efforts going on this year in Haiti. He said there was a convergence going on, and that he believed that these were not coincidences, that 2017 is the year of Haiti. I think he may be onto something. I hope he is.