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Two Years Before the Mast

February 28, 2013

It was two years ago today I first made landfall in Haiti.  A lot has happened since then, and I couldn’t possibly have envisioned the uncharted waters I would sail with my Captain, the sudden tropical storms I would encounter, or the magical exotic latitudes toward which He would set my course.  As the past year swims back to me in memory, it seems to have been somewhat smoother sailing than the first, but perhaps it is just I have become better at reefing my sails and battening down my hatches.

My housing situation has seen both reversal and renaissance, starting with the arrangements for my beach house running aground last February.  I was immediately offered safe haven in the home of friends, a Haitian family I have come to know and love, and dropped anchor there for ten months.  November saw me again in a house of my own, two finished rooms and a bathroom as well as three in-the-rough but usable (although in reality, unneeded) rooms.  I loved it and it quickly became home.  Kay mwen (my house) has seen many changes since I moved in, as it slowly undergoes its transformation from the drab grey “ugly duckling” it was to my charming peach and white pied-à-terre.  I have been grateful for every halting step toward completion.  A month ago I finally had a permanent stairway up to my front door, and just in the past couple of weeks the cistern was completed and the floor of my front porch was poured.  Now, relaxing in my chair on my porch in the fading light of the evening, I can savour the cool breath of the trade winds off the Caribbean, be serenaded by the chirp of crickets, the kreek-kreek-kreek of frogs and, as Dr. Felix suggested when he recently shared the experience with me, “see the whole world.”  Although I still struggle at times with wanting my home to be “perfect,” most times I am very content with what is.  As I find with people, it is the flaws that impart character.

Our work at the COPSA-Haiti Nursing School and Laboratory has seen phenomenal success.  I am still finding my way at the helm as a surprising first year with 290 students has been followed up with a staggering enrollment of 450 in our second year.  We have had to make changes to accommodate the growth, renting more classrooms, finding more instructors, instituting security to assure that everyone arriving for classes was actually enrolled, and reconfiguring access to the office in an attempt to keep traffic flow under reasonable control, an adjustment that has seen only limited success in stemming the tide of passels of students looking to resolve tuition concerns, protest academic issues, recharge their cellphones, or simply visit.  We hired one of our graduates as our office clerk and he has proved himself invaluable as a bookkeeper, a student counselor and a traffic cop.  We continue to struggle on a shoestring budget, but survive on prayers.  We have been blessed with a solid teaching staff of doctors and nurses who amaze me both with their dedication to our school and our students, and with the distances some are willing to travel to work with us.  Dr. Felix is a man with a heart far bigger than Haiti and a tireless devotion to his dream.  I am so grateful that he offered to share the voyage toward that dream with me.  It is a real privilege to work with him and I am deeply honoured that he calls me his friend.  We have currently run into heavy seas, but the Lord is good.  We both know if we keep our eyes on Him, He will see us through, and the sacrifices we must make will seem trifling.  No matter how difficult things may get, I refuse to walk through the gate of hope’s own boneyard.

I have continued to build relationships in Pierre Payen where I live, and am now very familiar to most and feel very much a part of the community.  I have had opportunity to help a few of my neighbours through financial crises that to me were easily manageable, but to them in their circumstances seemed as insurmountable as Everest.  My home is routinely buzzing with visitors (some even invited) and I am often honoured as a guest in the homes of others.  I have again embarked upon assisting some to learn a bit of English, over the past few weeks tutoring a growing coterie of young men at a home in the neighbouring town of Montrouis each Sunday after church, and this past weekend agreeing to invest every Saturday morning in a coed group with an age range from 11 to 45 at The Body of Christ Church in a small community a short distance above Pierre Payen.  I was flattered to be invited by Women Stand Fast, a ladies’ group in the community, to attend their upcoming conference on women’s issues, particularly violence against women.

My command of the Creole language has not progressed to my satisfaction, but I can hold my own in most situations, and in general Haitians are very patient and cheerfully accommodate those who are trying to learn.  I am hoping to strike an arrangement with a young man I met in Saint-Marc who speaks English well to assist me to expand my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation.  I have found him to be a commendable teacher.  But to my disgruntlement, he has been impossible to locate lately.

A short time ago, I decided it was high time for me to see more of this richly historic and breathtakingly beautiful country in which I find myself, and have taken some time to explore a number of sites that piqued my interest.  Now confident in my ability to successfully reach any port of call independently, I am charting courses further afield, having researched a number of very intriguing possible destinations.   However, researching how to get to places in Haiti—what mode of transportation is available, where to make connections, what times buses run, how much fares will be—cannot be done on the Internet, and typically takes a lot of legwork and many conversations with many people.  But the end result definitely has its rewards.  To paraphrase an unknown source, the larger the island of knowledge (or in this case, my knowledge of the island), the greater the shoreline of wonder.

This past year I have run into a couple of storms with my health, but was always comforted in the knowledge that my Captain was standing watch.  In October, I spent a couple of days as an inpatient at my local hospital being treated for very low blood pressure (to the point of my passing out) as well as anemia, caused by a hemophagic parasite I had contracted.  I was grateful that friends, most notably Judy Douglas, my nurse friend from Vernon, immediately rushed to my aid, and the staff at the newly renamed Victor Binkley Hospital, including Dr. Dodly Petit-Frère, one of the instructors at our school, Dr. Jean-Gardy Marius, chief of staff at the hospital, and a very attentive nursing team, provided me with VIP-level care.  Dr. Felix was at my bedside frequently and immediately arranged a consultation with Dr. Serge Vertilus, a leading internist who is provincial Director of Health for the Artibonite, and the Medical Director of Saint-Marc’s Saint-Nicolas Hospital.

I continue to get exceptional care for my eye maladies from Dr. Dennis Cowley, the ophthalmologist at New Vision Ministries’ clinic in Montrouis.  Lately, a cataract has significantly clouded the vision in my right eye.  I will undergo surgery in Canada this August to remove it, as well as the one developing in my left eye.   Although I would readily entrust myself to one of the visiting eye surgeons, Dr. Dennis advised against it, since my glaucoma puts me at higher risk for postsurgical complications and there is no assurance someone with relevant expertise would be available should any arise.

I also enjoy Dr. Dennis’ leadership at our church, Montrouis International Fellowship, where I have attended since last February.  My little group of fellow congregants is a solid source of spiritual and often practical support.  Likewise it provides me opportunities to bless others.  MIF is a place where I can come together with like-minded people to express both my praises for what God has done in my life each week, and my requests for prayer for what I need to make it through life’s struggles.   As I prefaced my contribution when Dr. Dennis invited us to share last Sunday, “There’s always something.”  My one point of sadness as relates to the church is that Dr. Kerry Reeves, who spearheaded the planting of our church, assumed the position of lay pastor, and had become a great friend and a true brother in the Lord, has slipped anchor and left Haiti.  I sorely miss him and his “right on” practical messages.

I have continued to fit my ship for this unique country, discerning that my ability to thrive here is directly connected to my willingness to submit to this land’s terms.  To resist is to forever remain on the outside looking in, and eventually to break.  I gradually find my life growing simpler and simpler, and my needs becoming less and less.  Living a life at least somewhat akin to my Haitian neighbours suits me.  I have become less inclined to want things to work as they would in Canada and am more satisfied with sailing “Haitian-rigged.”  I have learned to deal with challenges such as the erratic availability of water and electricity, finding solutions that, although not always ideal, are perfectly adequate for my shrinking needs.  I have come to realize that Canadian methods of dealing with my problems are too often excessively expensive and simply don’t work well here.  I am learning that most times there are good reasons Haitians do things the way they do, even if at first I do not see them.

Although I truly love my life here, it is not without its tribulations.  I very much miss my family and friends in my homeport of Canada, and my grandchildren are fast growing up without me most of the time.  At times I am lonely and long for the company of those I love who are distant, and it is often difficult to resist burning up a lot of phone minutes.  Fortunately I am blessed with a few wonderful friends who take the time to keep up regular communication via email and occasionally Skype (when it works well enough to carry on a conversation).

I also wrestle at times with Haitians’ attitudes toward personal space, privacy and ownership of possessions.  As Canadians we tend to be very protective of these things, whilst here personal space is virtually nonexistent, privacy is a concept little understood, and my Haitian friends consider my things theirs to use.  Setting boundaries I can live with and making the necessary adjustments has been and continues to be difficult.  I have also had to accept that my ideas about common courtesy don’t apply here.

Financially I am managing surprisingly well.  As I stated previously, my needs are small and growing smaller and I have come to the realization that many of my desires are totally dispensable if not downright frivolous.   The starkness of my life here makes it possible to live with far less than I would require in Canada.  Currently, however, I am facing a drastic reduction in my small income that will necessitate further trimming my sails.

Over the past year I have taken extensive soundings into the reasons Haiti is the way it is, and have become increasingly aware that although the world tends to lay the blame at Haiti’s doorstep, many of the factors contributing to the problems here have external sources.  Viewing the world through a Haitian glass, I have come to recognize more and more that capitalism, the dominant ideology in our world, is based upon a very disturbing tenet:  in order that some get what they want, others must go without.  By definition capitalism must have winners and losers.  I have learned to my chagrin that the Canadian government, in a high-handed attempt to strengthen the position of Canada amongst the winners, has played a rather unsavory role in the affairs of Haiti, and has largely hidden that from Canadians through clandestine meetings and disinformation.

I continue to see the suspicious discrepancy between what is reported about this country in the North American media and the realities of Haiti.  Unfortunately, the filter of the media does little to communicate day-to-day life, thereby denying the world a clear picture of what actually occurs here.  Undoubtedly this omission is largely ratings related (to most How I Met Your Mother certainly has more appeal than a documentary about life in Haiti), but clearly some of the disinformation I come across is politically motivated.

I know there are aspects of the problems here that stem from the way Haitians think and act; this country has a long tradition of violation of the human and constitutional rights of farmers, workers, ordinary people, women, children, and poor people.  But just as we are shaped by our upbringing, so has Haiti been.  And Haiti has been a neglected and abused child from before its birth.  It will take time for it to heal and to learn how to take its rightful place in the world family, and its government and its people will need considerable support from the international community in their efforts to use their own natural genius to counter their own natural problems.

My two years here have convinced me that aid is not the answer.  For years now aid has been more in the interest of donor countries than Haiti.  Wealthy countries will only help if it doesn’t compromise their economy, their trade, or their place in the world.   Aid offered this country has been contingent upon Haiti staying dependent and poor.  For donor countries it has been a means to boost military spending, to stimulate economies, to undermine the national sovereignty of Haiti in order to crush resistance to neoliberal free-market policies, global capitalism and increased foreign investment, to further missionary enterprise and to extend cultural influence.  Most relevant to what I am doing in Haiti is that current aid policy kicks open the door for the West to mine Haiti and every other country in the world for skilled healthcare workers to bolster its own health care system.

As I suggested in my last post, nothing can turn me into a storm cloud faster than the machinations of world politics.  But I believe that politics is a proper province of Christians.  To deny that is to demean the likes of the Abolitionists, Martin Luther King and Deitrich Bonhoeffer.

My second year in Haiti is ending on a sad note.  Last Friday before going to our school, I stopped by Cité Dalencourt to say hello to Bill Cannon and his wife Cheryl, the couple who so generously invited me, then a stranger, to share their home after my parting of the ways with Clean Water for Haiti.  I found no one at home.  On Sunday at church I learned the reason.  Late Thursday evening Bill suffered a serious asthma attack, and with neither oxygen nor hospital emergency department care available, succumbed to respiratory failure.  The realities of Haiti can be just as precarious for those of us who serve here as they are for Haitians.  I pray along with Cheryl that the Lord will bring someone to continue the work Bill so loved, educating Haitian pastors.

My Captain has continued to use Haiti to teach me lessons about what it truly means to love my neighbour, and just who my neighbour is.  He has reemphasized that it is easy to love my friends, but it is much harder to love those who give me offense.  Living with Haitians and with the others serving in my area has at times severely tested my willingness to forgive, and again and again demonstrated His grace.  Sometimes I learn the lessons well and easily, and sometimes I balk before admitting His way is the best way, in truth, the only way.

My ministry here in Haiti is built upon my personal beliefs.  I see my role in a very uncomplicated way.  Ultimately what Jesus taught His followers can be boiled down to what He answered when questioned by a Pharisee as to which was the greatest commandment.  His answer can be summed up succinctly:  love God, and love others.  Without reserve.  All else is ancillary.  It is by our love that people know the God we serve.  My personal approach can be well expressed in words often attributed (incorrectly according to authoritative sources) to Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”

It is my soul’s delight to continue to sail before the mast under the flag of my Captain and my Lord, Jesus Christ.

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 2, 2013 3:24 pm

    I’ve been reading your blog for the last year or so. I really enjoy learning about another area of Haiti (I live on Rte de Kenscoff half way between Petionville and Kenscoff) and your ministry here. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what has changed, both in the physical realm and your psyche, for you in the time you’ve been here.

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