They say that if you stay a week, you have lots to report. If you stay a month, less. And if you stay a year, you realize you cannot possibly summarize it all, so you say nothing. I stayed a week in Haiti. Some of my comments follow…
The journey continues, el camino sigue adelante. I find myself sitting in a quiet yard at night in Blanchard, one of the countless densely inhabited communities of Port au Prince, Haiti. There is no electricity tonight but the sky is providing plenty of it in the form of a heat lightning show. Every few seconds the fluffy clouds are lit up by lightning, after which the clouds recede into the dark night sky. It looks like a movie is about to begin. In the distance people are singing, part of a religious church service. Nearby, the other volunteers are laughing and chatting in the dark, planning their work for tomorrow.
I’m here to assist Partners in Development (PID), an NGO that provides child sponsorship, a medical clinic, and the program I’ll be helping with, a microfinance program that provides small loans to individuals to help them build a business and provide themselves a living. The programs are run out of a simple concrete compound in the residential neighborhood. I arrived today, in time for dinner. So far, I have much to be thankful for. First, a clean bed with a mosquito net. Second, running water in the building. Though it is the rainy season, the ground is dry with no mud. Gravel and grass coverage in the quiet courtyard promise escape from the mud, even if the rain comes as it probably will soon.
The team is a great mix of ages and abilities. A solar energy group who will put panels on the roof this week, a counseling group providing post-trauma counseling, a physical therapist and our microfinance group.
Over the wall comes the mellifluous sound of Haitian Creole being spoken. Besides the microfinance work, my other hope is to learn more of this beautiful language. It is like French with a twist, like a twist of tropical lime. Many French words just receive a little alteration to become Creole. The written form can be worked out like a puzzle by anyone with a good knowledge of French. Understanding the spoken language is a different story, however. It is a very streamlined language, with short syllables each of which has a function. Past marker, subject pronoun, indirect pronoun, each quick sound has a role to play. I speak it haltingly as a result.
Yesterday we had a full day learning about the microfinance program here, meeting with the staff and brainstorming ideas. As expected, the progress was very slow and disjointed. But the staff were beyond kind in helping us with all our requests. We are trying to get a handle on what THEY think is wrong with the program and what could be changed, not just our own ideas. It’s very easy to jump to our own diagnosis and suggestions. Another challenge is that the Haitian staff are not experienced with summarizing their work, so that it appears that less is done than is actually the case. For example, Jean Ones summarized the loan processing for us but did not tell us right away that he gives all the clients receipts and inputs all the borrower activity into Quickbooks the same or the next day. He keeps excellent records!
|A family that benefited from a PID business loan and home|
|A business owner|
Pictures I did not take: A woman organizing a wheelbarrow full of emerald green bananas and mangoes to sell. She was wearing a bright orange dress and her brown skin was shining bright in the late afternoon light against the fruit. Another picture: three little girls who had set up their front stairway as a pretend store, with miscellaneous old bottles standing in as items for sale. They sat quietly waiting for customers, staring straight ahead, as do their elders.
|Some of the PID houses|
Yesterday we went to church and then to the beach. The beach was as expected: not particularly refreshing or calming, but an interesting cultural experience. On the ride, I got to talk with Marcelline, one of the PID staff who would like to go to medical school. She is wonderful.
Later, I visited with the Oden family on the corner. They have five kids. They lost their house in the earthquake and had to live in the yard several months before they could rebuild. Mme. Oden wore a crisp sport shirt on the weekend, and her husband had clean pressed jeans. Their children were so polite and welcoming. They showed me their photo album and the children made their beautiful rooster dance for me.
I’m in the airport awaiting the plane home. It was a busy final two days. Each night I stayed up late putting together directions for the staff on some of the new systems, and writing a final report on what we visitors from the US and the Haitian staff came up with this week. As we wrote, ideas changed. We came up with a new program, micro-franchising, to help families who have no assets to begin a business. The staff will offer them a packet of products to sell and they will receive a commission. I look forward to returning later to see the progress .
As we fly out of Haiti and I see the raw, denuded hills with tiny roads snaking up them and the little villages with their tiny tin roofed houses, I’m thinking about what I’ve learned since I last saw this view, a short week ago. First comes the notion that I have some small amount of first-hand experience of a place that I had thought of so often but was a complete unknown to me. Once you have been someplace – even though it may have been to visit only a few small urban neighborhoods – it is no longer a complete unknown. The map of Haiti makes some sense to me now.
The shocking pictures of Haiti after the earthquake – we saw nothing that looked like that at all, thankfully. There were some few buildings, including the symbolic Presidential Palace across its elegant front lawn, that have not been touched since the earthquake. We passed numerous large buildings that are in complete disrepair, and many that are closed. But much of the rubble from the earthquake has been carted away and land is being, if not rebuilt, at least re-used. Some building ruins serve as informal shelters to people who have set up tarps under them to sell merchandise. Private enterprise seemed to be very strong everywhere we went. The street markets are organized into departments: mattresses, then bed frames, then wooden furniture, then electronics. I tried to support the economy by buying some artwork to resell in the US to benefit PID.
What could I do that might be useful in Haiti? I am so glad to have been able to take this short trip, to experience Haiti and to be able to consider what I could do that might be of some value. One of my fellow visitors, a Christian student from Messiah College, remarked that it is so important to quit looking at the valley where we are but instead to look up at the hill that is our goal. Good advice, indeed.