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Day 4: The Artibonite

March 2, 2011

4 AM

I realize that all my impressions are just that – impressions.  There is no way anyone can understand what is going on here is a few days.  I tend to believe that I will not completely understand things should I celebrate my hundredth birthday here.  But I do not discount my impressions either.  I am seeing things that make sense and others that make no sense at all.  I am very aware that some of those things that make no sense to me make a great deal of sense to others.

I don’t mean to be critical of anyone.  The people who are here to help, I believe, are, for the most part, doing the very best they can with what they have.  I believe that the Haitian people are, for the most part doing the very best they can with what they have.  But we all must be cognizant that we approach life with a set of beliefs.  These beliefs extend far beyond our faith; they touch upon every aspect of who we are and what we do.  When we encounter others whose beliefs clash with our own we most often assume that ours are right and those others should, or worse must, change.

Our beliefs have to make sense to us or they will drive us crazy.  Over the years of my Christian walk I have witnessed people hanging on to beliefs that make no sense to them, trying to live by them.  The result is deeply troubled people whose actions are sometimes very destructive to themselves and others.

I will touch upon a couple of things I have seen that make no sense to me.  I will state again that I don’t mean to be critical of anyone.  I know I am looking at things through the filters that have developed as a result of my experience of life, filters that help me make sense of the world.

It makes no sense to me to have Haitian children wear school uniforms designed for a British climate.  But I dislike the idea of school uniforms as a whole.  I believe they are driven by a desire to impose uniformity (the very word uniform derives from that) that comes out of a fear of the different.  I believe they stifle creativity and self-expression.  But I acknowledge that they are perhaps useful in stemming unhealthy competition and the development of a class structure based upon style.  Uniforms can also be cost effective.

I’m not sure it makes sense to withhold charity based upon our own beliefs about how the recipients might use it.  We are called to be good stewards but I don’t think there is much consensus around exactly what that means.  Making one’s charity contingent upon others espousing, at least ostensibly, our own beliefs leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  The parable of the Good Samaritan speaks to that I think.  Fearing that in the face of great need giving to one will touch off a tidal wave that will overwhelm us, I believe, makes us uncharitable.

Being here in Haiti, seeing what I am seeing, is causing me to struggle with these things and so much more.  It is 4 AM as I am writing this, and even though I know I should be sleeping because I have a long day ahead of me, I cannot.  There are deeper issues that I need to bounce off my circle of confidants to develop more clarity before I publish my thinking on them.

Well the roosters are crowing and I should think about getting ready for my day.   I should also go and discourage the rats I hear foraging on the cupboard outside my kitchen window; windows without glass do not keep them out.  The delivery truck is loaded and is leaving at 6 AM.  We likely will not be back until 8 PM.  I will join the Haitian workers in their prayers this morning and perhaps God will give me some answers.  May I find ways to communicate despite having only the most rudimentary grasp of Kreyol.  Perhaps my heart will speak when my lips cannot.

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This turned out to be an amazing day!  We traveled through Saint-Marc to the Artibonite Valley to install filters.   It was market day in Saint-Marc so the streets were filled with people and the edges of the road were crammed with vendors.  Driving in this city is akin to a cross between rally driving through an obstacle course and roller derby.  One must try to dodge trucks, tap-taps with people hanging off the back, buses letting passengers on and off in the middle of intersections (even while making a turn), motorcycles, with up to four passengers, bicycles with passengers and huge loads, pedestrians many carrying loads on their heads, people working on their vehicles, people loading and unloading their vehicles, donkeys with enormous panniers, horses, cattle, chickens, goats, construction and huge potholes.  The necessary hair-raising maneuvers are accompanied by frequent horn blaring.

The Artibonite Valley is the richest agricultural area in Haiti.  Aid groups have dug irrigation canals to enhance the area’s ability to raise crops.  Rice and sugar cane are the principal crops.  The valley was also the epicenter of the cholera outbreak in 2010, and although it has subsided as it is now the dry season, it will almost certainly spread again when the rains come.

Our arrival at each installation sight was greeted by large crowds, anxious to see and learn about the filters.  Local minor government officials are working very hard to promote them.  Haitians are understandably very cautious with their money.  Most want to see a product before they buy.  We left Pierre Payen with 34 filters (a 5-on load on our 3½-ton truck), but only 16 paid orders.  We returned with only one filter and that only because we discovered a part had disappeared.

I could not imagine the poverty had I not seen it with my own eyes.  No television news report, no full-colour magazine photo spread, no “first person” account could ever adequately depict what met me.  The tiny houses are crammed together often so tightly there is just enough room to walk.  They are constructed of concrete block with rusted corrugated metal roofing, stone held together with very poor mortar, weathered wood that was obviously salvaged from some derelict building or thin logs found somewhere.  We did an installation in a home that was barely eight feet square and built of mud and straw.  Yet they were neat and as clean as conditions allowed.  Most homes in Haiti are “under construction.”  I am told that remittances, money sent from relatives overseas, usually arrive over Christmas.  Since it is expected here that you share what you have, many sink the money into their home.  The build what it will allow and continue next year and next and next….  Ten years to completion is a fast build.  Something I found interesting is that despite the poor construction many homes have interesting architectural features – ornately carved doors, balustrades, gingerbread or ornate iron window grilles.

Despite their poverty the people are vibrant and charming.  Music is present everywhere and people, especially women and children laugh a great deal.  Since their homes are so small and the weather is so warm they spend almost all their time outside.  I did not see a house in the Artibonite with a kitchen; pots simmered in the yards over charcoal fires.

Apparently most people there don’t see white people.  I was constantly greeted on sight by squeals from the women and children, shouts of “Blan! Blan! Blan!” and fixed stares that sometimes lasted for an hour or more.  A crowd would immediately gather and eventually some brave soul would attempt to communicate.  I am so sorry my Kreyol is so poor.

The children were delightful.  Dozens would crowd around me, some venturing a smile.  The braver ones would speak to me and nod understandingly at my “Pa la Kreyol.”  (I don’t speak Kreyol.)  I quickly found a way to have a lot of fun with them.  I would ask (with gestures) if I could take their picture.  Often I was met with a “No” from most.  Some here still believe a camera can steal your soul.  But always at least one of them would agree despite the jeers and cuffs from the others.  As soon as I showed them the picture there were squeals of delight and laughter, and almost all would be calling for me to take their picture.  This went on all day until the batteries in my camera died.

I was greeted by groups of school children in uniform at two of our stops.  Not the “British” style ones but light shorts and short-sleeved shirts in oranges and blues on the little ones and navy and white cotton dresses set off by red and white ribbons in their hair for the older girls and lightweight grey slacks white short-sleeved white shirts for the boys.  Maybe I need to rethink my opinion on this; they did look very smart.  Haitians take education very seriously and make great sacrifices to assure that their children get as much education as possible.  Therein, in my estimation, lies the future of Haiti.

Despite the language barrier many of the children patiently continued to try to communicate with me.  Occasionally I would understand their questions and with a few Kreyol words and gestures I could answer.  Eventually an especially brave one would reach out and touch me to the delight of all.

I had one older gentleman come running after me to tell me he had heard I spoke English.  He was able to speak it as well and said he wanted to talk to me for a bit as he had no one to whom to speak it.

Unfortunately for some the appearance of a white person triggers begging.  Most are turned away easily but some are persistent and even hostile at being refused.  I was torn because I would have loved to offer something but knew that to give to one would have instantly resulted in a crush of bodies all with their hand out.  Far worse were the young women who made it clear that they were willing to offer themselves for whatever I had.

Modesty is not part of the cultural norms.  Many children, some I would estimate to be eleven or twelve, go about naked.  Since public washrooms do not exist, people have no qualms about relieving themselves publicly.

We stopped for lunch at a local “restaurant” – a tiny open stand where a woman cooked food for sale.   We had a delicious and very generous plate of rice with a spicy sauce topped with vegetables.  The cost was 50 gourdes — $1.25.   We sat and ate in the shade of a tree where a couple of local ironworkers were making rebar ties., cutting the bar with a cold chisel and bending it to shape in a crude wooden jig.  I noted the rebar the were intending to use the ties on was only ⅜”, far below acceptable standards in most of the world.  But steel is very expensive here, the only reasonable source a monopoly in the Dominican Republic, and people have very little money, so they are willing to bet their lives on dangerous construction techniques.

The Artibonite, like the rest of Haiti, is still under UN occupation and we saw Ecuadorian troops who have responsibility for the region several times throughout the day.  Foot patrols were escorted and followed by large groups of children.

I sincerely hope that Chris is planning to allow me to accompany the installation crew on its next trip next Monday.  I plan to work very hard at mastering at least a few specific Kreyol phrases so that I can speak to people.  Foreigners learning Kreyol is looked upon as a sign of respect and earns great favour with Haitians.  For me as well it is a sign of respect for these beautiful people.

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