Life in Haiti
By Dr. Brenda Flanagan
My niece’s son, a soldier, has been in Iraq twice since the last war began. He will not talk to me or to any other relative about his experiences. Having been to Haiti recently, I finally can understand why my grand-nephew seems shell-shocked; why he gets quiet amidst questions about what he saw in that war-torn country.
Like my grand nephew, I find that it is painful to talk casually about experiences that all begin with “d”-despair, deprivation, disaster, disease, death…Still, I need to try, not for myself, but for the Haitians to whom I made a promise that I would not forget them.
Two months after that massive earthquake shook Haiti to its core, I boarded a plane with about 400 pounds of toiletries that a few friends and colleagues had donated for me to give to the Rose Mina Diegue Orphanage in Petionville. I had wanted to go to Haiti weeks earlier during my spring break so that I would have a week to donate to what I thought would be efforts to clean up, but that flight was abruptly canceled.
Communication with the people at the Orphanage has been tentative–the woman who runs it speaks “Kreyol” and Spanish; her husband, an Argentine, speaks Spanish and some “Kreyol”; I speak neither. My college French is halting, but through a colleague, I have been able to get assurances that someone from Rose Mina would be at the airport to meet me. What I would do if no one were there was a question I refused to contemplate.
I was, after all, going to Haiti against the expressed wishes of the American Embassy in Haiti, which had issued dire warnings about kidnappings, and several friends whose expressions of fear for my safety were enough to paralyze the hardiest adventurer.
As the plane came in for a landing in Port-au-Prince–that most ingeniously misnamed city–I could see, from my window seat, oblongs of blue, a shade that Caribbean tourist brochures illustrate as the color of the sea. Were we over Miami, that blue would be the reflection of pools in backyards in Coral Gables, but we are over Haiti, and blue is the color of tarps barely covering lean-tos which houses thousands of people.
In customs, inside Toussaint L’Overture International Airport, hundreds of people formed orderly lines to get their passports stamped by weary-faced, sweating officers. The humidity is stifling, the overhead fan practically useless, and the officers know it, so with barely an official glance at my passport, or the form that says I am bringing in goods, I am allowed to head for the baggage area.
A man with whom I had been chatting has come down with a set of carpenter’s tools to deliver to missionaries helping to rebuild a church. Out of work in Indiana for months, his congregation sent him with the tools because three previous sets had mysteriously disappeared between Miami and Port-au-Prince.
In the baggage area, a tall man in an official yellow vest, similar to the ones worn by street workers who hold up Slow and Stop signs in the US, dashed over to me, a badge with his smiling face flapping over his heart.
“I am official”, he fingered his badge. “I get your luggage. Don’t worry. How many?”
“Five,’ I told him, and described them.
“Wait,” he commanded me, and added, again, “Don’t worry. I am official.”
With a swiftness that can teach many a bag handler in US airports serious lessons, the luggage came off the plane, and my official collected, straight from the truck, the huge plastic bin, a massive suitcase, and three sports utility bags that held hundreds of toothbrushes, tubes of tooth paste, bars of soap, women’s sanitary napkins, tee shirts, children’s sandals, small towels, body lotion, Vaseline, shampoos, conditioners, all the stuff that would make the recipients clean.
Only now, as I write this, does the embarrassing thought occur to me that these items might be insulting; that to some people, they might suggest that I thought Haitians needed to cleanse themselves.
What I was thinking, back in March, was that my volunteer work with victims of Katrina who were relocated to Charlotte had taught me that the items I had collected were not ones the Red Cross or other volunteer agencies usually distributed. Katrina victims were given cards with which they could purchase such items, but in Port-au-Prince, there had been so much devastation, that few shops selling these items remained, and what was available in the markets from underground sources was often prohibitively expensive.
As I waited outside the airport for Rolande, the wreck she had rented to retrieve me and the luggage had broken down. A sweaty hour later, during which I had to fend off numerous entreaties from desperate drivers, Rolande arrived. “Le truck est malade.”
Although I had not seen her before, I knew her immediately. A slim, dark-skinned woman, dressed in purple shirt and blouse–matching shoes–her eyes held a sad yearning that I would see in many other people during my four day visit.
In the car belonging to a friend who had rescued her, we trundled through the dusty streets of Port-au-Prince to Petionville. Along the way we passed Oswaldo, Rolande’s husband, attempting to repair the broken-down van.
Oswaldo is an Argentinean, a former soldier posted to Haiti, who fell in love with Rolande. They met at a dance Rolande was attending with one of her daughters–she has five children by a previous marriage, and, according to Oswaldo, it was love the first time he saw her. They married shortly after and moved to Argentina.
Rolande was determined, however, to return to Haiti to open an orphanage in the name of her grandmother, Rose Mina, who had reared her in the village of Diegue, after the divorce of her parents. Oswaldo resigned his commission, and they came back to Haiti. He confessed, a few days after I met him, that he was not always happy with Rolande’s devotion to the children at the Orphanage as this left little time for them to be together.
Rolande is obsessed–there is no other word–with Rose Mina du Diegue which is not so much an orphanage, but her home, and home also, to over 70 other people, 68 of them children. Her daughter Sandra, and her ‘husband’ also live in one of three main bedrooms in the upper level. There is one broken in-door toilet into which water must be hand-poured for flushing. A room that could be a kitchen is obviously not in use except for storage of boxes. A semi-opened space on the upper level serves as a daytime classroom. At night, benches and tables are stowed and blankets are placed on the concrete floor for the children.
Out back of the main building, most of the cooking, laundry, and personal hygiene take place. Each day, the children must bathe, then are fed. Then Rolande and Oswaldo leave them in the hands of three assistants while they go from place to place seeking help. Sometimes, she returns in a taxi with five bags of rice a priest has donated. Some days, she returns empty-handed.
My small bag containing my rations–two packs of water crackers, two packs of cheese, one small roll of hard salami, two packs of juice, and six small bottles of water–a pair of jeans, two shirts, and a small bag of toiletries, was placed on a cot in a tent put up in the yard of the Orphanage. This was to be my home for three nights, and as I looked up at the holes in the roof, I prayed that no rain would fall.
Rain came pelting down on the second night. Fortunately, I had packed a tarp that I had to borrow from Rolande to place over the tent. Still, the water came through the sides to flood the tent, and I could only wonder at the conditions thousands of Haitians were experiencing that night, for while the rain was a welcome respite to the dust, it would make for misery in the tent cities.
I went to one of those tent cities in Place St. Pierre where about 300 families live. Eli, the mechanic–driver of the rented van, lives there with his wife. His apartment, which I also went to see, is completely destroyed, as are most of the homes on his street.
When I asked him if he has received any of the tons of food or other relief items donated to Haiti since the earthquake, he showed me a pink World Vision card. The card was for food that he was supposed to pick up the day before in a village nearly three hours away from Petionville. Having no money, nor personal transportation, Eli was unable to get to Ti-Marche in Croix des Bouquet to collect the bag of rice, beans, gallon of oil, and corn meal the card promised.
“There is much corruption,” Eli said. He said foreign aid groups are trusting local Haitians who are upper class and can communicate with foreigners in English or French. These educated locals are selling rather than giving away the food and other goods coming in from abroad.
Eli took me to the market where, on the street, I observed dry milk that had been donated being repackaged into small plastic bags and sold.
Like many others, Eli depends on the goodwill of Madame Rolande for a meal and the occasional job. Thousands of other young men like him, out of school, homeless, jobless, wander the streets. A few are lucky to be hired to help remove some of the debris. In their blue or yellow jerseys, handed out by the supervisor, they comb through the rubble with rakes and picks, but most of the crushed buildings in Port-au-Prince are still visible.
No one could tell me why, with so much aid being poured into Haiti, so few are being put to work.
For three and a half-days I accompanied Rolande in the rented van-it lost its tires once-rocking and rolling up and down dirt roads filled with boulders, as the Orphanage’s night security officer used a bull-horn to announce to villagers that “The Doctors” would be at the Rose Mina du Diegue clinic, in the village of Diegue. In reality, the doctors were three nurses-two from Vermont, one from Massachusetts–who had volunteered to come to Haiti.
From 10 to 5 each day, they dispensed aspirins and vitamins in the top floor of the earthquake-damaged building that used to house a school Rolande had started in the village in which she had grown up with her grandmother. Parents, afraid that the building would fall, refused to send their children back to the school, but they crowded the yard to wait patiently to be called to see one of the nurses.
Around three one afternoon, I chatted with Victoria, one of the nurses, as she took a cigarette break. A tall, fair woman with salt and pepper hair pulled back into a pony-tail, she admitted that while she and her companions were doing the best they could with the suitcases of medicines they had begged for and bought out of their own pockets, there were limits to what they could do.
The children in the village suffer from severe skin rashes brought on by the lack of clean water. Most of the girls and women suffer from severe vaginal infections, again because of the absence of clean water. Most Haitians are unable to purchase, as I did, three large bottles of imported Evian from the supermarket to wash my body.
Victoria and the other nurses were sleeping on mattresses on the floor of a local school. In spite of the mosquitoes, the rain, and the utter despair they were feeling over the inadequacies of the health care they were providing in Haiti, she and her companions say they are determined to return before the end of the summer to help.
On my last night, just after midnight, I was awakened to the sound of loud singing voices and the beating of drums outside the Orphanage. Several Haitians were engaging in a ritual called “nine-nights” in which singing and drumming are done for the dead to help them on their way. This custom, familiar to me in my childhood in Trinidad, has died out there, but I left Haiti reassured that a people who take care of their dead, will survive.