Friday, November 12, 2010

Haiti Trip, Days 1 and 2

Just got internet access, so here are the first two days of St. Andrew's mission trip to Haiti, 2010.

Nov. 11, 9:33 p.m.

We were up at 4 a.m. for a 6:50 flight this morning. That gave most of us five to six hours of sleep, but not Kathy Shaffer, who came in on the 11 p.m. plane and didn’t get to the hotel until 12:30 a.m. All were in good spirits, though, and we had very little drama in making the flight or getting to Port-au-Prince.

My greatest shock initially was simply getting off the airplane –- on a jetway, which I’ve never seen in Haiti before. The jetway led to an air-conditioned hallway, which led to a shuttle bus to customs and baggage claim, all new since the earthquake. Meanwhile, behind the new walkway sits the original terminal building, clearly damaged by the earthquake. However, the building isn’t badly damaged enough to be abandoned. In fact, the government now is housed there. It’s a perfectly Haitian solution to the problem: Use what you have, and improvise.

After customs, we met Zo, our driver, but we had to wait an hour in the parking lot for his assistant to return with the van, which the assistant had “borrowed” to earn another fare while he was supposedly waiting for us. It wasn’t that bad an idea, except for the reality of extraordinary post-earthquake traffic jams. Hence our one-hour wait.

To get from the airport and on the way to Cayes, you have to drive through Port-au-Prince. It was fascinating, as always. Most noticeable was the fact that there was less visible destruction than I’d imagined (or been led to believe by the media). Much of the rubble has been cleared, and some rebuilding is underway. It’s not the case that the city is leveled, but the reports we’ve heard of tent cities are absolutely not exaggerated. In virtually every open space (and many not-very-open spaces), there are tents, which have obviously been up since the earthquake, given their condition at this point. Next to the tent cities are a smattering of port-a-potties, but they’re clearly insufficient for the demand.

They will be even more insufficient soon, as cholera makes its way particularly through the slums and tent cities. The fears are great that deaths could be at the same levels as the earthquake – a quarter million people or so, over a few years. Once cholera is present in a situation like this, it won’t be eradicated or even dealt with quickly. It’s a frightening thought, on several levels.

Although many buildings remain standing, the icons of Port-au-Prince are gone. The presidential palace looks just as it did the day it collapsed, like a fallen wedding cake. The Roman Catholic Cathedral stands with exterior walls only, roof and interior destroyed. And Holy Trinity Episcopal Cathedral looks like the ruins of abbeys in rural England from centuries ago – only a few pieces of wall here and there remain. I took a piece of the floor tile as a keepsake, and I nearly cried. This was an artistic treasure, as well as a physical proclamation of the presence of the Kingdom even in the midst of extreme poverty, overcrowding, and disease. That reality is still true, of course; for God, too, suffers with the people of Haiti in the destruction of His house.

As we left Port-au-Prince, we began the drive on the one highway connecting the capital with the southwest of the country. In spots, the road is gravel and rocks, as it detours through rivers now spanned by unsafe or visibly cracked bridges. But most of the road is well-paved. That sounds like a good thing, but ... when you combine it with a total absence of traffic regulations and a driver who was born to race, and you have what became both the highlight and the lowlight of the day. It was alternately described as “a five-hour LeMans race,” “driving as an extreme sport,” and “a ride at Disneyland that you can’t get off.” We laughed more than I’ve laughed in weeks, I think. Thankfully, and literally miraculously, we also didn’t hit any of the hundreds of people we flew by, a few inches away along the sides of the road.

Once we made it to Cayes, we went to Pere Colbert’s rectory for dinner and an extended conversation about how to improve student learning at the school in Maniche. Because of cultural norms that see rural “peasants” as uneducable and unworthy of the effort to teach them, our educational enterprise in the mountains has a lot working against it. It’s very hard to find good teachers willing to go up to Maniche five days a week, and it’s hard to incentivize them to improve student learning. But that’s the work: Increase the number of kids who matriculate and eventually pass national exams at the end of sixth grade –- exams that determine whether the child will be a candidate for further learning and, thereby, socioeconomic progress. It’s a tall order in the face of cultural expectations and the reality of nearly complete illiteracy among the parents.

Before turning in, I have one interesting note for the people of St. Andrew’s, who are in the midst of an effort to raise funds to rebuild, restore, and renew our church building. At St. Saveur parish in Cayes, Pere Colbert’s flagship congregation, they, too, are raising money -– their goal is to expand their worship space. On the first Sunday of the month, they are asked to give toward this effort. Last week, the congregation gave between 12,000 and 13,000 Haitian goudes -– the equivalent of about $300 –- toward that goal. This happened in a place where the average income is $1 to $2 per day. I think they have a pretty good handle on the notion of giving back to God in joy and thanksgiving for what they’ve received.

Nov. 12, 2010, 4:58 p.m.

We’re back from a very Haitian day, with all its positives and negatives.

We left Hosanna House at 7 a.m., after negotiating last night with the innkeeper, Franchette, to arrange for a lunch packed early in exchange for her not having to prepare a breakfast other than bananas, bread, and peanut butter. The lunch was very typical –- hot dogs and onions, which had been boiled this morning and then kept in a “cold” chest; buns; crackers; and incredibly sweet fruit drink. Augmented by a protein bar, it made for a filling lunch, at least. And it was absolutely the envy of the kids at the school, despite the fact they had had their own lunch of rice and beans, with a little ham thrown in. That’s a very nutritious lunch, but it’s also what they have basically every day. Hot dogs must have seemed like Kansas City strips.

Back to the travelogue. On the way out of Cayes, we stopped at a building supply store –- the Haitian equivalent of Home Depot –- to get lumber for Bruce Bower’s playground projects. We’re building a teeter-totter and a small swing set for the school (or, more accurately, Bruce is), and that implies taking the equipment to the worksite. We left “Home Depot” with 14 2x4’s in the only length they had, 16 feet. Securing these in a short-bed pick-up was interesting enough, but it was greatly complicated by the terrain we traversed up the mountain to Maniche. To say we took “roads” is a little deceptive. None of it is paved; very little of it is graded; much of it is at dramatic angles up and down; and nearly all of it is made up of large, loose stones which pass for pavement. It’s like driving at 45-degree angles on a rough riverbed. It also included several actual riverbeds, complete with rivers. One of these was expected –- we always cross a river just before arriving at the school. But with the recent hurricane, the rivers are swollen; so the local experts felt we should take a detour to find a more shallow crossing. This added an hour to what’s usually an hour-long drive – but it was even this time because of the numerous stops to re-secure the 16-foot lumber sliding off the back of the truck. Anyway, we got to Maniche about 11 a.m.

Once there, we spent much of the time reconnecting with the teachers, Jude the “disciplinarian,” and Samuel the headmaster, while Bruce did his construction project. Our conversations culminated in a meeting with the teachers, in which Kathy Shaffer and I talked with them about what they think the school and the students need. Not surprisingly, more funding for salaries was near the top of the list (the teachers make about $100 a month, which is at least twice the per-capita income). But they also were concerned about other issues that would resonate with a teacher in the States: the pressure to improve student achievement, the need for parents to be more involved in their children’s education, and the health and well-being of their students. For the teachers in Maniche, the immediate health-related issue is the need to prevent the spread of cholera. We will raise all these issues in a meeting of parents and teachers we’ll host on Monday. We’re fortunate to have Kathy (a physician) here to provide expert advice on limiting the spread of cholera. It takes clean water, which is difficult enough to come by; but it also takes cultural change -– paying attention to hand-washing, especially after toileting and before food preparation. Things probably will get very ugly in Haiti before they get better.

While our meeting and Bruce’s building project were going on, Chris Nazar and Vanessa Jefferson interacted with the kids after school let out. I would say they “played” with the kids, but I think (based on Chris’ story) it turned more into doing wardens’ work in crowd control. We brought soccer balls, volleyballs, and equipment for games like ring toss, bean-bag toss, etc. Taking turns wasn’t exactly on the kids’ minds, so our “field day” turned into trying not to lose the equipment in its first use. Ah, well. Nothing is exactly as one might expect, and everything is an education. Welcome to Haiti.

After dinner of pumpkin soup (a Haitian favorite) and bread, our group gathered for theological reflection and Compline. It’s just about my favorite part of the experience here. Everything you see here is fodder for considering where God might be in it or what God might have to say about it. Our conversation ranged from educational practice, to denominationalism, to Voodoo, to how Haitians understand the question of theodicy -– how God can allow bad things to happen to good people. The answer to the last is especially worth sharing. They seem to have the spiritual gift of patience, even to a fault. The good side of this is that extreme patience is mandatory to live in this context without either going mad or turning on God; the shadow side is that it fosters an attitude of complacency and fatalism. But the best element of Haitian theodicy is its embrace of deep mystery: The Haitians manage to see God as the absolute provider of all things, giving us everything we have and (at least nearly) enough of it; and they’re authentically thankful for what they receive, praising God often and out loud. At the same time, the see their suffering as somehow within the will of a good and loving God, a deity they perceive as being actively involved in every element of life and in all creation. They simply don’t have trouble reconciling a reality that we analytic, scientific-minded Northerners can’t begin to wrap our hearts and minds around.

1 comment:

  1. John - So good to read your blog and hear about the first leg of your week's journey. Interesting to note that it isn't the same Haiti, but the people of Haiti are still the same. Life seems to go on in a beautiful way there amidst all the tragedy. It is reassuring to those of those of us who have not seen it to see it truly as it is. It is too bad we don't have some of the Haitian spirit to bottle up and take a dose every day. Will love to see the pictures of Bruce's project - that is truly a blessing for the children. Stay safe and well. With prayers for your return next week. - Bernie