My friend Kathy at Reinventing the Event Horizon, asked her blogging friends to post something for Haiti on the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake there. Kathy and her partner, Sara, currently live in Haiti…Sara works for one of the aid organizations providing help to the survivors.
Back in 1967, my dad was a minister at a small Methodist church in Oregon, Ohio. I was six at the time…I asked my father to write this post, but he felt that I hadn’t given him enough time to do a proper job of it…this comes from a short interview I conducted with him:
Some of Dad’s friends from seminary were making a trip to Haiti in order to experience the abject poverty they’d heard about there. They invited he and my mom to go with them.
My younger brother and I were sent to stay with some family friends, and my parents set off (with 3 or 4 other people) in our 1965 Chevy for Miami. They survived their first-ever plane ride, landing safely in Port-au-Prince at the tiny airport. Before the trip, the travellers had contacted local doctors and dentists and solicited donations of their free samples, and collected cotton clothing from whoever they could hit up…the goods were loaded on to an Air Force plane for delivery to Haiti.
The 13-person delegation (mostly couples and one single) was met by its host, a man from Indiana who had been doing relief work in Haiti for a number of years. While they were there, this man was summoned for a meeting with “Papa Doc” (the Haitian dictator) – this caused a fair amount of concern among the visitors, but it turned out all right. Papa Doc’s secret police, known locally as the Tonton Macoutes (from a Creole term for bogeyman), patrolled the streets in their WWII army fatigues, their sidearms in prominent view. Dad reports that there was no trouble with them while he was there.
The group was taken to a hotel, which would be its home for the next week. According to my dad, the hotel was “nothing fancy”…he grew up in rural Ohio without indoor plumbing…I would imagine it was fairly rudimentary if that’s how he described it! He said that the electrical wiring was just attached to the walls of the hotel rooms (there were flush toilets, however!). The group was warned not to drink the water, or eat local fruits and vegetables. They ate all their meals at the hotel, and were surprised at the end of their stay to find that a young man who looked about eighteen had been their “chef” for the week! Sleeping was challenging…the locals would carry on vodou (the Haitian national religion) rituals late at night…my parents would often hear the chanting and the drums, something they’d never been exposed to in Ohio!
Dad and Mom travelled with the others when leaving the hotel…it was the only safe way. There were kids begging everywhere, and young people with pencils or chalk and paper who offered to draw a picture for money. “You could get anything for a dollar,” says Dad. There were open air markets where my parents purchased a large drum, two smaller ones, a small wooden statue, a large wooden mask, and wooden figurines of a Haitian man and woman to put on the wall (I still have those today). These items were all handmade. Most Haitians they encountered were very dark-skinned and very poor…they lived in “whatever they could scrabble together”. The average income at the time was less than $200 annually. The mulattoes (mixed black and white) are the privileged class in Haiti, and live in neighbourhoods with houses similar to what you would see in Miami.
One of the group’s excursions was touring the new Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince, which had been opened by International Child Care that year to treat children with tuberculosis. My mom was shocked to see three babies sharing a bed. My dad says the smell in the facility was unbelievable. There were also a couple of scary trips to the rural areas around the city on a rickety bus. Dad recounts that they visited a house where one woman cared for about 70 orphans. “She had a couple of women there to help her.” The group attended a church service conducted in a three-walled structure: “There was no fourth wall…it was so warm there, they didn’t need one,” says Dad.
While they were in Haiti, my parents took more than a hundred slides, and made tape recordings of some of the things they’d heard. The experience was life-changing for both of them. When they came back home to Ohio, they presented their “Haiti Programme” to local people, who were moved by the photos of children with pot bellies and insects crawling on their faces, to donate money to Haitian relief efforts (many children did not live until their fifth birthday because of malnutrition).
Fast forward to 2011…it doesn’t seem that much has changed in Haiti since my parents travelled there more than 40 years ago. The people there are probably worse off now…they are still dealing with corrupt politicians, natural disasters, haphazard infrastructure, high unemployment, low literacy, malnutrition, and now AIDS and cholera epidemics.
I don’t have the answers…I hope this post will move my readers to think about what they can do to help alleviate some of the suffering in Haiti.