As you read this I will be on my fourth mission trip to Haiti; mission in the sense of a specifically and strategically planned trip to accomplish pre-set goals. Each time I go to Haiti, I like to write my column on some aspect of Haitian history or culture. This week, allow me to introduce you to a few people I have met since I began travelling to the poorest country in the western hemisphere in April 2010.
I get excited every time I go. Each time I return to Canada I leave a little bit of me behind in Riviere Froide and take a little bit of Haiti back home with me. I am lucky I have the family I do because, like so many others in Carleton County have come to realize, Haiti consumes a person. Ask the Gray family. I do my best, with varying degrees of success, not to bore my family and friends.
I have made friends in Riviere Froide. I have yet to master Creole but so many of the nuns speak standard French that I get by. The non-nun Haitians and I manage to muddle through. Yvon is the driver we are given when I am there. The only experience I can compare to maneuvering through the mean streets of Port au Prince would be participating as a driver in the Old Home Week Demolition Derby. Yvon is thirtyish, smart and engaged to be married. Speaks only Creole. Right now his fiancé lives with her family and he with his. His plan is to wait until he gets the money to build a house for himself, his bride and their future children. No one, but for the Haitian elite and foreigners, own houses, or at least what we would consider to be a house, in Port au Prince; shanties might best describe most structures that house multi-generational Haitian families. Yvon is lucky. He has been one of the drivers for the Petites Soeurs de Ste. Therese since he was 18. He has an income he can count on, albeit one in which building a house will mean he and Yvonne, his fiancé, an obscenely underpaid primary school teacher, when she is lucky enough to get paid, will need to toil and save, toil and save and still their future remains uncertain, as does that of the very country they were born into and in which they plan on remaining and raising their family.
Ania is a beautiful, smart and charming young woman of 18 or 19 years. Ania did well in school and has aspirations to become a doctor. She wants to stay and study in Haiti. I met her in July while she was staying with the nuns as her sister was being nursed back to health. She has no money. Her parents have no money. To be honest, I am not sure she has parents! Student loan? What’s that?
I have thought I’d like to find a local sponsor or sponsors from the medical field to assist Ania, even sent out an e-mail or two to local physicians but to no avail. I understand that, I guess. It is complicated but if she doesn’t find her way into college soon, the odds of her becoming productive in the way she wants to be productive are slim and that is a shame. Take Ania’s story and multiply it 1,000,000 fold and you begin to get an idea of the real tragedy of being young in Haiti.
Les Petites Soeurs de Ste. Therese (PSST) constitute one of the most amazing communities I have ever had the privilege to encounter and befriend. They are a Haitian order of nuns whose mission on the planet is to work with the peasants in Riviere Froide as well as with the smaller communities and families spread around the mountains surrounding their community. The Order’s work is not just in the area of Riviere Froide, however, although that is their centre of operations. They have nearly 30 communities spread throughout Haiti and each of these communities has as its goal, the amelioration of the suffering of the poor and destitute in their country. They run a number of schools, medical clinics and orphanages. They have a school for disabled children, several of whom just arrive unannounced and without ceremony on their doorstep. The parents cannot look after them and know the nuns will open their doors, arms and hearts to them. They have a hospice for sick nuns and provide palliative care for their aged and dying colleagues and friends.
Many of these nuns have studied in Canada and elsewhere in the West. Sr. Gisele Chaperon, current principal of the secondary school and proposed director of the vocational school, studied at the Universite de Laval in Quebec City for five years. Sr. Lopes spent two years studying in Rome; Sr. Bernadette, the lead nun in the community (I called her Mother Superior once but she corrected me saying that no one is superior to anyone else in that community) studied in New York state. These women could probably live and teach anywhere they choose but they choose home.
Haiti changes you. Haiti does something to the heart. It is subtle but deep. It settles in and is not easily dismissed. It becomes a filter through which we look at our comfortable lives. It gnaws, kneads, pokes and prods. It punctures our dreams, both day and night, and never allows us to become so comfortable and smug that we forget that the world is not a nice place for over half the people on the planet. As Thomas Hobbes noted, for far too many people, “Life is nasty, brutish and short.” The tragedy of all this, of course, is that it need not be this way.
Some people are motivated to help Haiti by their faith. Others, myself among them, work in Haiti because our sense of justice and fairness won’t allow us to not help Haiti. When people ask me why I do this work, I quote the 17th century poet John Donne who wrote in one of his meditations, “Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.”