Charles Huschle is a senior associate with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, an international human rights organization based in Cambridge. He recently traveled to Haiti, where UUSC is leading a program to bring volunteers from the United States to help rebuild the lives and livelihoods following the devastating January 2010 earthquake.
Two of my UUSC colleagues and I led a group of 11 youth and young adults on a work trip to Haiti’s Central Plateau to build houses. UUSC works with the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) there on sustainable agriculture and housing for earthquake survivors.
As we prepared for the trip, we planned for hurricanes and closely monitored the track of Hurricane Irene. “We’ll be safe,'' we assured those waiting at home. "The buildings we’re in are of solid concrete brick.”
Our host and founder of MPP, Chavannes Jean Baptiste, was unconcerned. “At most we’ll get some rain,” he said.
We didn’t mind the rain, but because all the roads around us were dirt, rain meant mud, mudslides, and washed-out roads. We watched the dirt develop into a creamy, thick, slippery yellow-brown mud. For a day, we couldn’t work outside; instead we stayed in the MPP compound learning about peasant organizing, trauma recovery, and women’s issues in the countryside. We learned and sang a song in Kreyol: “Makonen fos nou/Kontinye lite pou Ayiti,” which means, “We put our strength together to fight for Haiti.”
After Irene passed, grazing Haiti’s north coast, we worked hard the rest of the week to help lay the foundations of 10 houses for earthquake survivors, city dwellers from Port au Prince who had relocated to the Central Plateau to start new lives. The experience was profound.
We drove in battered 4x4’s over roads with potholes and ruts that would have swallowed a truck. We saw naked children filling water jugs at the roadside wells. We visited a four-room mud-walled house that was home to 10 people (no electricity, no running water, the norm in rural Haiti). One of our team, a 19-year old college freshman from Connecticut, remarked, “This house is as big as my room back home.”
We walked through local markets where you could buy mirrors for a dollar and long machetes for four. We visited a local medical clinic that looked like your grandmother’s cluttered garage. The doctor there had studied in the United States. We looked over his tired equipment and a closet that functioned as a pharmacy. “I want to give all of myself to this work. It breaks my heart to try to treat a patient and not have the materials to do so,'' he said. He needs microscopes, antibiotics, drugs for hypertension, cough syrup, antacids. “Everything?” I asked. He nodded. “Everything.”
But whenever I’ve talked about Haiti in the past few days, I keep getting the feeling that some people here see Haiti as a hopeless case, pitiable and impossible.
“Poor Haiti,” a friend said, shaking his head. When I told him of the smiles I’d seen, he kept shaking his head. Haiti is beyond repair, he was hinting, Haiti is a hopeless case, the people of Haiti are fatalistic.
I’m coming to think it's as if we're somehow invested in seeing Haiti as poor and want to keep it that way.
Everywhere we went, there were smiling people. I saw light and hope and happiness, even in the most desperately poor situations.
There were singing people. We were greeted warmly with “Bonjou – ki jon ou ye?—(Hello, how are you?)” There was music, life, activity, energy, hustle and bustle.
The men and women who had moved to the Central Plateau after the earthquake literally shook with gratitude at their new opportunity to live in the country, grow their own food, be part of a sustainable community.
In Port au Prince, there was fantastic art being created by young Haitians. I visited a place called Camp Oasis, where 40 girls, aged 4 to 18, were being housed, cared-for, and educated after being rescued from their camps. Their smiles and laughter were bright and full of hope.
Yes, the government palace remains in ruins nearly two years after the earthquake. And opposite the palace is a huge tent settlement of earthquake survivors. The country doesn't have the infrastructure or the government or the wealth it needs. And maybe there is a sense of fatalism among some of people.
But I feel a sense of possibility. Haiti wants to grow and thrive, and we could feel that in the people, in their voices, in their amazing energy.
We came away from Haiti happy.
For more information about UUSC’s Haiti program and how to volunteer, visit www.uusc.org/haiti.
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