Last week took us from the airport through Port au Prince and Carrefour to the road that would end at the site of our school.
We began our ascent to Riviere Froide and the site of the future Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School with heavy hearts humbled by what we were witness to in the streets below.
We were two among tens of thousands come to a nature-ravaged Haiti to assist in whatever way each could. Some came to rebuild hospitals and orphanages. Some came to heal bodies. Some came to share their faith and pray with the Haitians for the strength to carry on. We came to build a school.
I was humbled by the extent of the destruction. Humbled by the magnitude of the work which lay ahead. I would soon be humbled by the strength and faith of the nuns who worked all their days with the peasants of Riviere Froide.
I was humbled by the strength and faith of the Haitian people themselves; humbled by their deep, even unrelenting, belief in a God of love and mercy; humbled by their patience; humbled by their pain. Haiti humbles.
The streets and roads were teeming with people engaged in the business of staying alive. That mayhem diminished significantly as we started to climb. Scattered people were walking, most carrying some element of their lives they'd need to greet the following morning. Some carried food, many with it balanced precariously in bundles or baskets on their heads; some carried firewood and some had heavy bags of charcoal in makeshift sleds or wheel barrels they were dragging or pushing to whatever now passed for their homes. I'd like to say that, despite all the drudgery and misery, there were smiles everywhere but I'd be lying.
Our first of glimpse of the former school, the College St. Francois de Sales, where 144 children and six adults perished, would have gone unnoticed had not our AQANU partner, Reg Sorel, pointed it out to us.
Much, not all, of it had been cleared so that instead of mountains of rubble, there were stones and fragments of stone rendered such by man and machinery after the shock and awful of Jan. 12.
Everywhere the detritus of a school was strewn about. There was no evidence of a building having once stood on the site, but there were shadows and signs of children having occupied some of that space.
There were two wooden elementary school desks metres away from the welcome sign to the school which featured a picture of a smiling, pointing Mickey Mouse and the words "Bienvenue."
The ground was littered with papers and notebooks with test scores and signatures. Later in the weekend I picked up some of these papers and wondered if the owner of the hands that signed the name to the test would ever again be assessed for his learnings.
Ruben Jolidia had scored 60 per cent on a Grade 9 Latin test. Had he survived? Had his parents survived? Did his siblings survive?
Everyone has siblings in Haiti. Not everyone has parents anymore. Not all of the bodies of the lost children had been recovered and everyone who walked on or near the site was cognizant of that fact. Think about that for a moment.
The nuns live in a compound - a short walk up from the school. The security wall which once surrounded the compound now only exists in fragments of stone and memory. That wall needs to be rebuilt before anything else is even started.
Also destroyed was the novitiate where candidates for membership in the order of Les Petites Soeurs de Sainte Thérèse were nurtured and trained for their lives of servitude to God and the people of Haiti. The novitiate needs to be rebuilt. An administration building has to be built. This building and the wall are priorities that will determine when we can get started with construction on the The Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School.
The people the nuns serve are the peasants from the countryside which unfolds in the landscape visible from the area of the compound where Brent Shaw and I shared one side of a two-roomed tent. (Brent Shaw, former president of the New Brunswick Teachers Association and member of the committee raising funds to build the school, accompanied Blaquiere on the trip to Haiti)
Peasant is a word we rarely use in the west except for lessons on the Middle Ages in history classes, but the term fits in this context. The nuns live among these paysans. Many were born among them. Most will die among them, as did their sisters on Jan. 12.
Our truck stopped just before a makeshift gate of canvas strung across the road by clothesline. Two people sat at a small card table. We passed through the gate, rounded a corner and were met by the site of a three-storied intact building that was the home for the nuns.
Several tents punctuated the ground aside the walkway to the entrances to the building. The building had been deemed structurally sound by engineers who managed to get to the site within days of the cataclysm, yet much of it now remained vacant.
The nuns had lived in residence on the third floor with their own small rooms and the facilities for the personal routines of life giving them some semblance of security, privacy and personal comfort.
Most were now bunked in a large hall on the second landing. Neatly made single beds and side tables strung in two rows marked their personal spaces.
Many of the nuns were so traumatized by the earthquake that they refused to enter the building even to eat. They slept in some of the tents that were like annexes to the main structure.
There was a dining hall on the second floor where we ate lovely meals of goat and chicken and lots of fresh fruit and some vegetables.
The nuns grew everything they ate, including the goats and chickens. We met our pre-harvested Sunday meal on Saturday, two chickens squawking upside down in the hands of one of the young persons who worked with the nuns in return for food and lodging.
About the nuns
These nuns are incredible women; incredible human beings. Most were raised in poverty themselves. What was interesting though was that once we became acquainted with those assigned to work with us on this partnership, we discovered that almost all had gone off elsewhere to study.
Sr. Gisele had attended both Laval University in Quebec City and the University of Ottawa. Sr. Lops had just returned after six years in Rome. Sr. Bernadette received a degree from a university in White Plains, New York.
They were bright, competent, passionate, committed and focused women of God. I developed a deep respect and affection for them.
On Saturday they went off to market and returned with basic supplies that included a case of 24 beer "for the Canadians."
They made their own peanut butter and jam. They grew grapes and made the sacramental wine for the mass. One nun had a degree in museum curation and was the archivist for the order.
Not far from the main building was a home for aging and dying nuns. All of these nuns survived the earthquake and were still being looked after by a small group of sisters designated for this service.
Before the earthquake they had power but now all of this work was being done without electricity and running water. The generator ran a few hours each evening to get the water up from the wells and the food prepared for the next day. There was wireless Internet but it was slow and depended on electricity to operate.
With no power and few automobiles in operation after dark, once the generator was shut off the only sounds, apart from human conversation and movement, were the sounds of the night.
Roosters, chickens, dogs and goats were everywhere. I expect that each asserts its own existence in specialized manner but let me tell you about the roosters.
A living alarm clock
As I was asleep until the first cock crowed, I can't say whether it was the same rooster who fired up the chorus every morning at 4:30 or if they took turns or if it was first up, first cluck, but man it was something.
Sounds came from all directions and it was all so random, so spontaneous, so really very funny. The roosters would awaken the dogs and the dogs would bark and by now people were stirring and with the first glint of light, the cycle of survival for the peasants began anew.
We showered from a rain barrel and I watched lizards crawl across the bathroom wall as I toweled off. On Saturday morning we took a walking tour of the school site with Sr. Gisele.
It was already extremely hot and humid by 9 a.m. Sr. Gisele, the principal of the former College St. Francois de Sales, showed us where the school was and would again be and where she thought the Sgt. Mark Gallagher School should be.
As we walked on, past and future students came running over to hug and be hugged by her. She made no mention of our school but said that we were Canadians here to help.
While on this mini-tour we noticed people lining up near the chapel. Sr. Gisele told us it was a makeshift clinic with a U.N. team of doctors scheduled to arrive around noon. Some people had left their homes the day before and walked all day and part of the night.
They slept outside near the chapel/clinic. The nuns inside were, in effect, triaging, trying to sort out the most needy of the needy and have them ready for the doctors. The team led by a tall, handsome middle-aged Spanish doctor was scheduled to leave the next day and this was their last visit.
By all accounts this was an extremely dedicated group of foreign volunteers who had come to Haiti to make a dent in the overwhelming stockpile of pain and suffering.
On Sunday morning I wanted, needed even, to attend mass. It was important to me as a Roman Catholic, but also as someone who was developing a profound affection for the people. I wanted to be with them, to sing with them and to pray with them.
Too many local worshippers would not go into the chapel after the earthquake so the masses are held outside, across from the school.
I arrived while those gathered were being led through the decades of the Holy Rosary by a very animated nun who was probably in her 60s. She prayed in Creole and despite the connection between Creole and French, I understood little.
Noticing me, she found a moment and brought me over a Missal and pointed to a spot on the page while still reciting the prayer. I found the spot and I jumped in. It was a powerful moment for me. The U.N. mission arrived before we finished and mass began shortly thereafter.
I am not sure how they did this but every child and every adult at mass was dressed in the cleanest and neatest of clothes. In front of me was a gorgeous little girl of three or four years with a bright yellow dress and her hair done up with multi-colored pins and clips.
Her little brother kept staring at me and I made faces and played peekaboo with him. Their mother had her hands full but never raised her voice and the children always came around when she asked. I wondered if their father and husband had perished in the quake.
The priest delivered the service in French, Spanish and English. I found myself in tears several times during the mass. Just being amongst these people in that place at that time moved me deeply. As well, the words of the priest affected me in ways I did not expect. The children's' choir led by a beautiful young director of 14 or 15 sang throughout the service and each time their voices were raised to heaven and the glory of God, I wept.
Never have I felt closer.
We left the following morning. My narrative started with me crying three weeks ago and I am afraid that I must leave you on that note.
The rains began that Saturday night. It rained intensely for two or three hours and the rain washed downhill into the tents of those peasants who had moved up the mountain to be away from the chaos below. The same happened that Sunday night.