Notes from Haiti
Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005:
This morning, I talked with a woman who lives in Petite Anse, the slum in Cap that floods. She tells me she lives there with hope that life will improve. “You have to look for life where it is. Only God knows if it will get better.”
When we arrived, traversing through the muck, winding our way around the houses to her home, she was sitting in the shade on a milk carton, breastfeeding the baby. Her little girl was sitting on a small wooden stool near her mother. The house is made as the others are, from twigs and cement stuffed into the chinks like a log cabin.
Her little girl starts crying. The boy lifts her into his lap to comfort her. He is a good big brother, taking care of her as the mother talks with us. We go inside the house. Ben is taking photos. She sits on the bed. She is a soft-spoken, articulate woman who is friendly, but she doesn’t smile a lot. I guess she has nothing to smile about. She tells us that when the baby cries at night, she lights up the hurricane lamp at night. The keroscene costs for the lamp costs more than a day’s wages. As she is talking, the priest’s cell chirps. It sings and chirps like an annoyed parakeet, an odd sound in this crammed space of babies crying and adults murmuring in Creole.
Inside it is airless, humid and stifling. The whole ceiling is lined with blue and white plastic to catch the dripping rain. The rain is the least of her worries. The tidal surges during storms are far worse.
“My biggest fear is for my children is the flooding, that the water will take my children away and they will drown,” she tells me.
We talk with some others and then take off for another section of Petite Anse. At the space where the driver parked the truck, a small group of UN soldiers walk past, patrolling the area. Their badges indicate they are from Chile. Ben chit chats in broken Spanish with them. He discovers they are here only two months and they spend at least half a day walking around this area. They say it is very quiet. We like hearing it’s quiet. Quiet is good. One soldier takes his water hose, attached to the canteen strapped on his back, and squirts water into the mouths of the delighted children. It’s brutally hot.
We walk along the shore, water lapping upon the sand, seeing more and more houses just like the one we left. And talk to more people.
5:30 p.m. Back at the hotel and leaving again. We are heading back to Petite Anse to see if the mom of the two orange-haired kids is back from the market.
I honestly don’t know what it is… that has left me feeling so numb this week… maybe I’ve just been doing this kind of work far too long or maybe it’s the grinding poverty I see time and again … I told myself before I came here that no one truly cares what happens… and part of me feels that is indeed true. And yet that is no excuse for me not to care and not to do my job. Sometimes I feel like I am a scribe writing in the wilderness. The trash-hewn streets, the pot bellied children with their blank stares, the oppressive heat and brutal sun, blaring horns, bleating goats, shouting voices, screeching music…does anyone really care?
The priest says the houses we have built already in this city are like a drop of water, but drops combined with other drops do make an ocean.
So what do I do? Can I in good conscience ignore the sufferings of a child who is in obvious need? God gave me a talent to write and help raise money for these people and put me here. I think he put me here for a reason this week… In a way I am sort of a translator of poverty… Do I turn my back on all this…and walk away? Can I turn my back on all this and walk away? What is the answer? I have none for now.
6:30 p.m. I have the answer. It’s a little boy. He is two years old and severely malnourished.
Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005
Sunrise over the flat ocean in Cap Haitian. I am sitting outside my hotel room looking at pink streaks of sun glinting off the shimmering ice blue ocean. About 1 million mosquitoes have decided I am lonely and joined me. There is music playing in the restaurant downstairs and the sound of silverware being set out for breakfast.
To me Haiti is all about sound. This morning, it’s the quiet raspy tones of Creole, the whump of lumber being unloaded, the clink of ice against glass, the huffing of joggers running down the waterfront street. The whirl of a bicycle passing. Slam of a car door. Metal tunes of brass playing on the stereo downstairs.
In the slums there is a different orchestra playing. Children chattering, grown ups murmuring, the wail of a hungry baby, the slush of the water lapping at the shore, the shuffling of feet in the sand, the slosh of legs moving through water, the sucking sound of feet lifted in and out of thick, fermenting mud.
Yesterday when we returned to Petite Anse, the ocean breeze had shifted. It was thicker and pungent, heavy and swamp laden. In the morning it is fresh, as if blowing in a brand new start to a hopeful day. At day’s end it is thick, sluggish and oppressive, veiling the slum with an oily coat of air. As if it too, has resigned itself to yet another day awash in misery and hunger.
But tomorrow, there is always fresh hope. And another cooling ocean breeze.