Part One: The Smokiness of a City
It was 3 A.M. on December 26 and instead of finding myself tucked away in my bed, full of Christmas dinner and desserts, I found myself on the road to Logan Airport. With butterflies in my stomach and tears in my eyes, I boarded the plane in Boston. I had traveled on a service trip two years ago, but this time was different.
I would be traveling to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I would be there for 14 day instead of seven. And I wouldn't pick up a shovel the entire time.
Instead I had a different mission. For my senior capstone project, I would be producing a short documentary about the people of Haiti, specifically those involved with Partners in Development.
Partners In Development, Inc. (PID) is a nonprofit organization that strives to help impoverished communities attain independence and whole life improvement. They are currently focused on serving some of the poorest areas of the Caribbean, Central America, and the United States. Since whole-life change is essential in order for the extreme poor to escape poverty, they have strategically designed sets of programs to meet the specific needs of the populations they serve. Through economic development, children’s programs, housing and medical assistance, they engage communities in whole-life change, ensuring a better quality of life and a more promising future.
For the next 14 days I would be meeting with Haitian community members to hear their stories of struggle, survival, and hope. I am also focusing my documentary on the success of PID in establishing multiple programs in which the people of Haiti can work their way out of extreme poverty. Finally, I will showcase various SJC students who participate in this year’s mission trip, and their experience embracing the poverty and the people of Haiti.
That's a tall order for one person. But I was determined to get done.
As we stepped off our plane in Haiti, we were immediately surrounded by chaos. The Haitian airport is probably one fifth of the size of Logan Airport, but had just as many people inside of it, and we stuck out like a sore thumb. It didn’t take long for security to take advantage of this massive group of white people and we quickly found ourselves putting our luggage through security once again. When we finally exited the airport we were greeted by hundreds of locals trying to carry our bags, sell us souvenirs, and lead us in every direction except toward the PID vehicles, which were parked what seemed like a mile away. Even as we boarded the PID bus, vendors tried to hop on the bus or sell through our windows... all desperate for just one dollar.
Our drive through Port-au-Prince was quiet. The eyes of the students were glued to the poverty outside their window: trash burning on make-shift sidewalks, stray goats and wild dogs staggering through the streets, and locals staring as a bus full of white people drove through their town. It was also an interesting drive for another reason: street laws do not exist in Haiti. Cars, motorcycles, and tap-taps swerved amongst each other until they got to their destination. There were stop signs, but I don’t recall every stopping at one.
I quickly realized that the aesthetic of Haiti is a smoky one. The combination of kicked up dirt from the roads and smoke from the burning trash puts the entire country in a gray haze that seems never-ending.
As our bus pulled into the PID compound, I think we were all surprised by its size. The medical clinic was the largest building on the site, fully equipped with an emergency room, pharmacy, medical lab, doctor’s office, wound care, three maternity rooms, triage, diabetes center, and waiting area. The compound was home to the field director and her husband, the head of security, as well as the team members who traveled down each week. There was also an office, cafeteria, educational center, and a small storage closet that was currently home to one of PID’s small business programs.
After the team finished unpacking their personal items into the bug-netted beds in the bunkhouse, we took a quick tour of the neighborhood, and found ourselves playing soccer with the local children.
The power went out frequently, but the only thing we really missed was the fan. The stars, unhindered by city lights, illuminated the compound each night as the team bonded through conversation and cards on the roof of the clinic. And the view of the mountaintop was breathtaking enough to distract from the sounds and screams of the voodoo being practiced on the streets. Thank God for our gated community.
The first day of work found the team divided.
A few members headed out to Canaan, to start building the foundation for a brand new house on the mountainside. Eight-year-old Johnsly and his mom, Veronic, are the recipients of the new PID house. The family has been living in a one-room tent every since the earthquake of 2010 destroyed their home in Port-au-Prince. Thanks to the help of PID they will be receiving a two-room house with a porch and a foundation built three feet into the ground (None of PID’s houses were destroyed in the earthquake, so this has become their standard for construction).
A second group began the construction of the Lapidary Arts Center within the compound. This building would eventually become home to the small gem-cutting business operated by PID. The business, which was founded a few years ago by SJC Professor Dr. Steven Bridge, employs a handful of Haitians part-time. The small business initiative is a sustainable one: the workers find glass shards in the streets of Haiti and transform them into beautiful gemstones. The workers have been able to enhance their craft under the supervision of Dr. Bridge, and have been producing beautiful pieces of jewelry from the most unexpected items. However, the Haitians have been working in a small storage closet with minimal lighting and space. The new building will be able to house more people, more gem cutting machines, and even showcase the work of the gem-cutters.
Finally, the third group got to work in the medical clinic. Closed for the holiday, the clinic needed to be cleaned and painted before they opened for the New Year. The team quickly learned that the paint was mixed with gasoline, and found themselves taking frequent breaks throughout the day.
As for myself, I began to work on my documentary. I sat down with my translator, Maxime, and learned about his life story as well as his involvement with PID. I also was able to interview a few of the Haitians working with PID, including Rosemarie, the bunkhouse supervisor, Jean-Phillipe, a gem-cutter, and a few of the other cleaning ladies. These interviews were the first of many over the next two weeks, but they allowed me to get comfortable with the task.
As the sun set on our first day in Haiti, I had a lot to reflect on. However I couldn’t contain my excitement about what I would be seeing and learning during my time in Haiti.
The next morning I was greeted by Michaelange, one of the gem-cutters who had been working with Steve since he founded the small business a few years ago. She was also Rosemarie’s daughter, and thus had been involved with PID since she was a child. However, I was taken by surprise when I saw that Michaelange had a newborn baby on her hip as she walked into work. I watched as she placed the baby on a thin mattress on a shelf in the workshop and immediately sat down to begin her work. I was informed that the baby was only 22 days old.
When I got the chance to interview Michaelange myself, I learned that she was a single mother with four children, including her newborn. The father was out of the picture and she had no money to pay a babysitter to watch her son. She barely had enough money to feed her children. And when she learned that Steve would be in Haiti to teach new settings, Michaelange knew this was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I am the mom and the dad at home,” she said, “the kids need to go to school and they need to eat, so I don’t have any other choice. I have to work.”
Michaelange’s story is not unique in a country like Haiti. Many fathers abandon their families when they can no longer afford them, leaving the mother to take care of the children. I learned in my interviews that on average there can be up to 12 people living in one household, often times trying to survive on only one income. One Haitian adult may have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and other family members living in a house at any given time.
Rosemarie, a 66-year-old woman, is the sole caregiver to a handful of her grandchildren as well as other younger family members. I was able to visit Rosemarie’s house and saw fist hand all the children who ran wild while she was away at work. Rosemarie’s story was special: she has the first house ever built by PID in Haiti and she couldn’t be prouder of that fact.
Like all PID houses, there were two rooms and a porch. However what made Rosemarie’s house different from the rest was that she had a fairly decent sized yard in which she had planted a garden. Yard space is very difficult to come by in the city and Rosemarie took full advantage of this opportunity. At first glance any American might have confused the garden for weeds as it was littered with trash, but flowers bloomed nonetheless. Rosemarie’s house was also unique because she had a blackboard placed on the wall of her porch.
Although Rosemarie only went to school up until the fourth grade, she had always valued education. Public schools do not exists in Haiti and many children are forced to drop out when the tuition becomes too expensive. However, children are always welcome on Rosemarie's porch where they can practice their math late into the night.
Like many of the other Haitians I met on my journey, Rosemarie always put others before herself.
To be continued...