Haiti and the Power of the Human Spirit
Haiti, as advertised, is nothing like anywhere else. It’s a country that’s 75% poorer than any other in the western hemisphere, has suffered many natural disasters, and is accustomed to high levels of government corruption. None of the 50+ countries I’ve visited before prepared me for this land of crumbly concrete-metal infrastructure, hand-painted signs and cars, and beautiful, proud and well-dressed people who’ve miraculously managed to work their way back up since the 2010 earthquake.
The Haitians I encountered and observed were sweet, and seemed hard-working and highly social. As a French speaker, I enjoyed the sing-song near-familiarity of the Creole dialect, and found I could communicate well with the locals through a mix of pidgin French, English, Spanish and hand gestures. Dozens of strangers - kids and adults alike - gave me a smile, a handshake, a high five, or a fist bump. I was never hassled, hustled or threatened in spite of very obviously being from another country and skin tone.
I was greeted at the Port-Au-Prince airport by Junior, the friendly and talkative director at a local high school, who moonlights as the Vertile kids’ counselor. He speaks excellent French, and we chatted about Haiti’s current state, his work to end corporal punishment in schools (which he’s successfully done at his institution), and his optimism about its future. We piled into Ti-Jaques’ car and were off to Carrefour for a delicious meal of rice, beans, chicken stew and plantains before my first visit to the Vertile house.
I joined the other volunteers, Fred, a 73 year-old who repaints the house; Tom, a videographer; and Serina an accounting student, each of whom come annually to spend time with the kids and generally help out around the house. We spent our days interacting with the kids that live there, playing guitar, soccer, dominoes, and any of the other pastimes that can be played without the need for power.
The kids are bright and funny, if shy at first. Since the other volunteers had all been before, they had an instant in, immediately jumping in to take photos and teach English. The staff - consisting of house moms, cooks, and maintenance workers - was welcoming as they hustled around preparing food, cleaning, doing laundry, maintaining the house, and tending to the kids.
I was surprised and impressed by the tranquility of the house, much quieter and cleaner than the streets right outside its gate. Walking or driving up to it is a bit daunting, navigating cramped, unpaved pathways filled with hundreds of vendors lined up along the stretch of road immediately in front of the house. To get inside at all requires communication; people station themselves right in front of the gate, and had to move their stalls and goods in order for us to get in.
One of the most memorable parts of the trip was the sharp contrast between daily life in Haiti and three critical, yet largely invisible systems that support our modern lifestyles in America: plumbing, electricity, and waste removal. They are partially, largely and completely absent, respectively, from Haiti. An example of each:
Plumbing: The Vertile kids are clean and well-dressed, with access to working toilets, water in which to bathe, and clean drinking water. Something like 40% of Haitians don’t have this access, using the same streams for all their needs: drinking, sanitation, and bathing. Outside of cities with wealthier populations, plumbing is largely absent.
Electricity: The government can be mostly relied upon to provide electricity between 11:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. (when people are asleep), sometimes the whole night, but often for only a few minutes. And it can be completely relied upon not to provide any electricity at any other time (when people are awake). Sunlight, solar, batteries and other hacks are not optional – they’re a way of life.
Garbage collection: There is no garbage collection. In fact, I saw only two trash cans in my week in Haiti. Trash accumulates everywhere and it’s periodically swept into piles on the street or in medians, and turned into fresh meat by way of free-ranging pigs, with the remainder burned nightly.
To my surprise, I fell in love with the country and its people immediately. Rather than being depressed or overwhelmed by the squalor I encountered, I was inspired by the power of the human spirit to transcend material deprivation; humbled by the randomness-of-birth-circumstance that led my children and me to be born into a very different environment; and deeply grateful for the opportunity to experience such a different environment. It was incredible to share my experience with others, and to contribute in a small way to making things just a bit better for just a few of these wonderful people, who, like me, bear no fault or credit for the circumstance into which they were born.