Welcome to our family blog!

We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Martha's first trip to Haiti, May 2012

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…
May 16
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.
May 17
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
At the end of the day we visited some of the 54 homes that have been built by PID and some of the microfinance clients. PID has made a tremendous impact on the neighborhood. Though people are incredibly poor, there are bright lights where people were assisted by PID: vendors with a full display of products, houses that provide clean and adequate shelter for families.
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
Last night, I worked late into the evening on the reporting system for the small loan program.
May 19
Today was very gratifying. Early in the morning, we met with the entire microfinance team for the first time. We were able to tell them about the PPI program and explain how to use it. (PPI, Progress out of Poverty Index, is a very abbreviated questionnaire, adapted to specific countries by Grameen Foundation, that gives a quick and accurate estimate of the level of poverty of a household. Such an objective measurement is useful for measuring program impact and for determining which programs would be best for which households.) The staff connected right away with the possibilities of the PPI to compare groups and to measure improvement in a group over time. Then we went to visit some families who have received loans and we conducted a pilot of the PPI program with them. The team asked them the questions on the survey. It was great to interview some of the households who have received loans and to learn about the impact of the microfinance loans on their lives. When we came back to the office we tallied the results. They confirmed what we would expect from the visits – the households that seemed better off had higher scores on the survey. The staff got excited to see the results and were talking about how they could use the survey to improve the program.
In the afternoon we took a break. We hired a “tap tap” (local bus with benches) and drove to the center of Port au Prince where we saw the museum and visited a handicraft market. The museum was very touching with an excellent survey of Haitian political history. So sad to be reminded of the oppression that has followed Haitians during their entire history. One of the most moving displays was the list of heroes of the revolution. Many of the names were first names only, because they were people who were escaped slaves. Others were indigenous names, some of the few Taino people who had survived the European invasion. Then to see the stream of presidents from modern times, from the Duvaliers to Preval, to the current President, Martelly, and many others who lasted only a few months.  Martelly, a former popular singer, is generally well liked and is called “Tet Cale” or shaved head. Political hopes appear higher than they have been for some time. And yet, in the elegant reflecting pool outside the museum, a man was doing his laundry. Right behind the museum with its flags flapping in the warm breeze was a huge tent encampment, housing people who have not yet found homes, more than 2 years after the earthquake. Many of the tent camps have been dismantled home by home, as people find more appropriate dwellings.  

When we came back, two girls who live nearby went on a walk with me – we went to “flaner” or stroll around the neighborhood. They introduced me to lots of people and it was really fun. We laughed and talked a lot. They were so sweet and welcoming to me and helped me though my Creole is not very good.
May 21
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.
May 23
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.
Most overwhelming was the sheer scale of the city, and to my eyes, the lack of any defining features to make the scale understandable. I am not alone in this. I am traveling back to the US with a Haitian man who grew up in Port-au-Prince but says he no longer can find his way in the city at all. The population has grown from 100,000 to almost 5 million, about half the national population of 10 million. It is incredibly dense and for the most part, extremely poor. The city has grown very quickly, each new disaster bringing hungry people to the city to try to make a living or find help. There is no central organization, few major roads, and no government systems that I could see. NGO projects stand out: hospitals, clinics, solar lighting fixtures, and the like. The roads are mostly dirt, limiting speeds to 5 MPH.
What stays with me most strongly are the people I met. People with such fortitude to bear incredible hardship, yet with a sense of humor and compassion for others that is incredible. When we discussed program ideas, the staff frequently brought up the importance of the organization’s mission, helping the poorest of the poor. With frequent power outages and the incredible heat, it is hard to concentrate on one’s work. But they carry on and they have achieved so much. First thing every morning, there is a large crowd of people standing under the tree in the courtyard waiting to be seen in the free clinic. The dispensary is full, well organized, and the staff operate efficiently to see everyone. This morning we traveled around the neighborhood, visiting the families who have received a recent shipment of water filters. We visited them to see how they are faring with the filters and whether they are being used properly. Monsieur Genoit, an elegant older gentleman who is at the heart of the PID organization, led us to each house that had received a filter. Even without any street names, he knew exactly where to go. We were able to advise people on how to keep the tubing clean. Most were using the mechanism perfectly and were appreciating having clean water to drink.
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.

Laura and Mom in the Badlands and with the Lakota people

We stumbled out of the van, dazed. The sun blinded us. It filled the sky so we had to look down at the gravel at our feet. The prairie stretched out all around us, with only a few hills interrupting the flatness of the landscape. Every now and then, the grass would rustle in the wind, but for the most part, it stayed still and silent in the heat. One by one, we walked up the dusty gravel path towards the top of the hill, towards an arched entrance flanked by concrete columns and a large blue sign explaining the history of the “Massacre of Wounded Knee.” The chain link fence that surrounded the cemetery at the top of the hill was ornamented with brightly colored cloths. A small stone monument stood beyond the entrance, portraying the names of the men, women, and children massacred by the United States Government one hundred years ago in that very spot. I had never learned about this incident in my history classes, yet here it was, proof that these deaths were not completely forgotten.
            We wandered around the cemetery in silence for a few more minutes, looking at the broken down grave stones, decorated with soda bottles and pictures, flowers and flags. As I was exploring these unkempt, weedy grave stones, I began to realize for the first time my complicity in this massacre, and all the other ones my government had made against the Native Americans in the years before and since. It was on this day that I started to more fully comprehend not only my country’s foundation in centuries of exploitation and oppression of a people, but my own reliance in this system as well.  For, as my existence had been shaped by my country, I was undeniably guilty of benefiting from its actions. A few days before, I had boarded a plane to Denver with my mom, excited for the upcoming two weeks of community service on the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, imagining something similar to the community service work I had done with the recycling team at my school. But just two days into the trip, I began to understand the complexity of the situation I had entered. I was suddenly a little afraid of what the people I was supposed to be helping would see in my presence. Would they look at me and see just another rich, white person, invading their land and stamping out their culture? At twelve years old, I was still very much a child, obliviously stepping into a complicated adult world.
            The group we were traveling with consisted of three adults: my mom, a Quaker man coordinating the group, and a younger Native American woman. My mom was my mom, a sometimes embarrassing, but very confident and friendly woman with light brown, curly hair. Our coordinator was a heavy, serious man, who, being probably in his late sixties seemed to have diminishing patience for the teenagers in our group. The young woman had short black hair and an intimidating, stormy temper. There were also four teenagers in our group, including myself, a thirteen year-old girl and two sixteen and seventeen year-old boys. We had all met up in Denver, Colorado and traveled by van up to the Pine Ridge Reservation of South Dakota, constituting a boring drive filled with long, rolling hills, cows, and lots of corn.
This drive finished in the Wakpamni district of the Pine Ridge Reservation. We drove off the main road to a dirt one and soon after, pulled up to a long square concrete building, with a corrugated tin roof. The building was isolated in a field, but a little further down our dirt road, we could see a gate that opened into a community of mobile homes. We lugged our suitcases out of the trunk of the car and brought them in through a small kitchen on the side of the building to the room where we would be sleeping. It was completely empty, except for one wooden folding table and a few plastic chairs.  It would have easily fit twenty or thirty people, so the seven of us spread our sleeping bags around the room. The cracked concrete floor was painted red, giving the already dim room a darker, more ominous feel. I learned later that when the building wasn’t being used to house community service groups, the town used it as the local morgue. These were the kinds of things that floated by me on the trip, something that I’m glad of, because I don’t think I would have gotten any sleep otherwise.
Many of the people I met on the trip left a lasting impression on me. There was Sky, a fifteen year-old who had wandered over to our building on our first morning on the reservation. He brought his two dogs, a big hit with the teenage girls in our group, and asked if he could come along on some of our trips to see the reservation. We explored the reservation’s history museum and its community college with him, and one very hot day, he took us to go wading in “the white river”, a shallow river whose water actually ran white because of the clay in the riverbed. Sky was constantly telling us jokes and getting us to laugh, helping us to look at the positive side of every situation.
We also met Sheryl, a friend of our coordinator, and a woman who was said to make the best fried dough on the reservation. She invited us over to her house for dinner one night, and, after frying wheel after wheel of delicious, soft, dough, she let us try what is to this day the best fried dough I have ever had in my life. It wasn’t only the amazing dinner she made for us that had a lasting impression on me, but also the warm smile with which she welcomed us into her home. I realized that I had little reason to be afraid of what the people we met on the reservation would think of me, because no matter how violent our two cultures’ histories with one another were, in the end, we were all just people trying to make the best of our lives. In this way, the similarities between our two cultures overwhelmed the differences. I stopped thinking about our two cultures as warring teams, as “us and them,” and instead, I started to see one team, one universal “us.
            Our service to the community ended up being the completion of a few manual labor jobs that the tribal leadership of the town needed taken care of around the area. One chilly morning, we woke up to find our coordinator enthusiastically loading our van with heavy-duty gardening tools. We were repairing a cemetery. The tools had been hard to find, especially the lawn mower, one of the many resources no one seemed to have on the reservation. But once a working mower was found, we were out on the cemetery, with the summer sun beating down on us as we donned thick gardening gloves and tried to yank stubborn weeds from the ground and from the cracks of gravestones. The smallest gravestones tended to be the saddest, memorializing the deaths of infants, such as “Freddy Running Horse,” who died at age two. The high numbers of these kinds of gravestones made me realize the poverty of the area, as our government couldn’t even seem to provide enough health care to lower the reservation’s rate of infant mortality, while back home, I had a hospital down the street from my house. These two contrasting worlds opened my eyes to the sheltered qualities of my own life, and I was able to see that poverty still exists in the United States on a very large scale.
Another day, we were asked to help clean up the ritual grounds for an upcoming Native American spiritual gathering, a job that consisted of clearing shrubs and building outhouses and sweat lodges. The ritual grounds we were working on were totally isolated from the world, nestled in between soft, grassy hills on one side, and the unforgiving landscape of the Badlands on the other. Our first day volunteering, we took a break from our work and picked our way down to the Badlands.
The sharp, dirt hills of the Badlands stretched up and fell down like drip-sand-castles. When I saw them, I imagined some giant hand scooping up a fistful of wet dirt and letting it drip slowly to the ground, creating spire after spire of steep, twisting mountains. Sunlight rained down on the peaks, and shadows welled up like puddles in the valleys. We stood on the edge of it all, where the dry, crunchy grass slipped to dry crunchy dirt, hard and red under our feet. Our hosts had told us to be careful: people had gotten lost in the maze of canyons, had gone out exploring and never come back. So we stared out into the jagged mountains, striped with millions of years of dirt and we didn’t say anything for a few minutes, amazed by the foreign beauty of the scene, so different and new.
This image stayed with us as we continued working on the grounds for the rest of the day. As we were about to leave, our hosts asked us if we wanted to join a sweat lodge they were doing in preparation for the spiritual gathering.
We had to wait until after sunset had painted the edge of the sky pink and filled the falling sun with a fiery red, until all of the colors melted into black, speckled with so many stars.  In the middle of a field sat the two sweat lodges we were to use, one for the men and one for the women. They had frames made of sticks and they were draped in blankets to create a dome that was about six feet tall and six feet in diameter. Outside of the two lodges, a campfire had been built, around which we told stories and jokes while we waited for dusk to fall. When it had become completely dark, we entered the sweat lodges. It felt like we were entering a dark, warm cave. There was a pit in the center of the dome for the fire, and a hole at the top of the dome to let the smoke out.
My mom and I sat down cross legged around the pit, along with the other women in our group and our hosts. The coals were heated, and a bucket of water was handed in through the blanket flap that was the entrance to the sweat lodge, which was then closed. An old woman leaned forward and threw water on the coals, creating a sizzling sound that died out. She repeated this action until the air around us felt heavy and hot, and more humid than anything I’d ever experienced. The sound of the water on the stones was calming, like breathing. The woman then started praying in the local tribal language of Lakota, praying, she said, for our ancestors. “Mitakuye oyasin,” she said, “we are all related.” She and the other women started to sing Lakota songs, singing in their ancestors on the seven winds from the seven directions of the world. I listened, feeling myself become completely drenched with sweat, feeling the world concentrate into our safe and dark dome. I tried to pray, the best I could, for our shared ancestors, for each name carved on to the memorial of wounded-knee, for each small grave in the cemetery we had cleaned. Finally, once they decided we’d had enough of the heat, they let us climb out of the lodge. The cold night air met my skin, refreshed me. I felt lighter and cleaner than when I had entered.
On the trip to the Reservation, I learned how easy it was to get wrapped up in anger and guilt about past and current injustices. I saw many people on the Reservation who had lost hope, lost even their own self-motivation, after having been denied respect for centuries by an invading force that mercilessly  took their land and ignored the requests of their people. I learned how easily I could let my own guilt about my government and culture’s actions overwhelm and intimidate me from trying to change the situation in which I play an integral role. But this trip taught me the value of working through these complicated feelings of anger and guilt and starting to mend the relationship between two seemingly contradictory cultures. The people I remember meeting on the trip were not the ones who were disheartened and bitter about their situation, even if they were rightly so, but the people who persisted against all odds to stand up for their rights and continue to have pride in their traditions. They did so with such a positive attitude, that despite all of the centuries of differences between my culture and theirs, I felt immediately welcomed into the community. Lakota beliefs explore the concept of a simultaneous past, present, and future, a continuous moment of creation, in which all beings are interconnected. This concept helped me to replace the words “us and them” with a universal “us”, and realize that while we cannot change the actions of the past, we can mend and celebrate our relationships in the present.