Haiti, March 2011

March 9, 2011

It’s hard to believe it’s been a month since I landed here in Leogane, Haiti, and I don’t want to leave. I’ve said all my goodbyes and packed all my things, but I don’t feel ready. So much is left undone.

This place has undoubtedly changed me. Physically, I’m a little stronger, and a little more battered–my skin is unseasonably tan, my legs are covered in scratches, and I still bear the last remains of blisters on each hand and foot. I’ve taken three kinds of prescription medication in the last 24 hours–anti-malarials, antibiotics, and anti-parasiticals, along with some advil for my shoulder, and somehow that doesn’t seem abnormal. I still have glitter in my hair from the Carnival celebration.

The real changes, of course, are inside, and not so easy to name. As my shuttle pulls out of the All Hands driveway for the two-hour drive to the airport, I peer out the window, trying to take it all in one last time. The goats wandering along the road, the hand-painted signs on shuttered businesses, the dust that coats everything, including me. It’s a typical Wednesday. A woman gracefully dodges traffic carrying at least a hundred eggs stacked on her head, and a man attempts unsuccessfully to keep a load of wood from falling off his wagon. The bright colors of clothing–red, teal, pink and yellow–stand out against the grey-brown of the dust. A pile of garbage burns on the side of the road, and across the street a young man lathers up under the flow of water from the pipe that serves as shower and launderette for much of the neighborhood. I choke on the fumes of traffic and burning trash, and realize I’ve made a habit of shallow breathing.

The hip hop remix of Forever Young by Alphaville on the radio somehow seems like a perfect soundtrack as I look around at this place that has become so familiar to me, trying to put a name on the feeling in my heart. It wasn’t so long ago that I found these streets uncomfortable, intimidating. Now some mixture of sorrow and joy fill my heart as I say my silent goodbyes, and my eyes don’t quite succeed in containing the tears. The car rounds the corner to the left and I wave goodbye to Maritess, onto whose little benches we huddled many a warm evening after work, sipping rum and coke, or Prestige, the one beer he sold. The faces of all the people I’ve so quickly grown to love flash through my head, and I wonder if I’ll see them again.

My driver doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Creole or French, so I am left to my thoughts as he weaves in and out of the insanity that is daily traffic. It reminds me of bumper cars, except that people aren’t trying to hit each other.

I think back over the month, and realize how my time here exceeded my expectations in so many ways; with the projects I worked on, with the connections I made with people, with experiencing Carnival, and with how much I enjoyed my days. I found work that felt perfect for me; first with the garden and compost, then building biosand water filters, then helping to paint murals on one of our newly-finished schools. From there I joined the furniture-making team, and enjoyed playing with power tools as we completed the desks, benches and windows for School 9.

During my last week I got to lead a “creative reuse” project. While working with All Hands in Sumatra last year, I redesigned their trash system to be more environmentally sound. So before I had even arrived, I’d been recruited to figure out what to do with the overflowing mountain of non-burnable trash in the front yard. Haiti has no trash collection services, so it’s a problem throughout the country. With a team of three other people, we started by emptying the metals bin, pulling out any tin cans that were in decent shape, and cleaning them for a second life. We sorted the aluminum cans, which are the only thing that is recyclable in Haiti. Anything we thought someone in the community might want went into a free box outside the back gate. Misplaced plastic bottles were cut in half and used for planting seedlings. The day before, we’d poured two large metal tins with concrete and set wooden handles in them, so now they were dry enough to be used to smash the unusable metals flat, thus reducing their volume. When we were done, the overflowing mountain had been reduced to about a sixth of its original size, fitting neatly into the bin with plenty of room to spare.

The most fun part of the project came last. We painted the small tin cans blue, filled them with used cooking oil, set wicks using wires and cotton strips, and added a few drops of citronella to make mosquito-repellant oil lamps. Local volunteers were invited to take them home, and the first batch disappeared immediately. The project was featured in Greening the Beige… http://www.greeningthebeige.org/gtb/node/793.

In my last few days, I got another chance to utilize urban sustainability skills. I was recruited to help design a permaculture-style organic garden to teach both the adults and the kids at the local orphanage about how to grow food. The orphanage and garden are not “priority projects” for All Hands, because most of our funding is earmarked for schools and biosand filters. But I think one of the things at the heart of Haiti’s economic, environmental, and social problems is disconnect from and destruction of the land. Years of deforestation, monocrop agriculture, and waste mismanagement have devastated the natural environment, and much topsoil has washed away to the sea, leaving Haitians largely dependent on foreign food imports.

Permaculture is a style of sustainable land use design based on ecological principles, mimicking patterns that occur in nature to maximize desired effect while minimizing work. Several permaculture organizations are working in Haiti, aiming to create more stable, productive systems that provide for food and housing needs, rebuilding the soil and harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants. I can’t think of anything I’d personally rather do than help share those ideas in Haiti, and empower people to grow their own food. Unfortunately, I only got to work on it a couple days before it was time for me to leave. I’ll still be helping with design from afar, but I would have liked to be there planting with the kids. Instead I am in a car heading toward the airport.

The driver catches my attention as he swerves to the right and up onto a small mountain of trash and rubble to pass a slow truck. It would have been an insane and illegal move back home, but here it is normal. This section of the main highway to Port au Prince is an unpaved, congested mess of dirt, traffic, and gravel. His radio plays a catchy tune, “I love my life, so I live my life today.” I know it is a common philosophy here, perhaps not always the best for building a better future, but nevertheless, a brilliantly adaptive way to keep smiling, and if we can’t keep smiling, then I suppose we definitely won’t build that better future.

We are closer to Port au Prince now, and we pass through a market that strikes me as somewhat apocalyptic. Underneath the roughly-built stands where women and men are selling their cabbage, clothes, or toiletries, every spot of ground that does not sit in putrid water is covered at least a foot deep in discarded plastic bottles, rubble, and unidentifiable waste. Could a scene be more dismal than this, I wonder. And yet it is somehow beautiful, too, as markets are always beautiful, with the meeting of people, the center of social life, the smiles and the chatter. I want to take a picture, to capture that surreal mix of beauty and horror, but I can’t bring myself to turn on my camera. It seems wrong, immoral, to take a picture of people in the midst of times like this, like taking a picture of someone naked. I put away the camera.

Someone asked me why I do this work, three thousand miles from the place I call home, when there are people down the street who are homeless. The short answer is need, and responsibility. While need certainly can’t be quantified, I feel there is a need here that can’t really compare to the need of the people down the street, who haven’t just suffered such large-scale disasters and who aren’t dying from the drinking water.

The second is responsibility. This destruction is not the fault of the Haitian people, the people whose ancestors were kidnapped from Africa to work the plantations centuries ago, then made to pay France for the financial loss their freedom cost the kidnappers. Blacklisted from international trade because an independent black republic was seen as a threat to the white ruling class of the time, the fledgling nation never knew a day that wasn’t plagued with debt and poverty. The economic and political manipulation has continued, changing only in form, up to the present day. I won’t try to encapsulate the history in an email, but I highly recommend Paul Farmer’s book, “The Uses of Haiti.”

Haiti was devastated to the extent it was due to poverty, and that poverty was created by corporations and governments as they manipulated the world to maintain their wealth and advantage. Perhaps it’s not “my fault” or “your fault,” and perhaps fault is a useless paradigm at this point, since nobody will claim it and it only serves to deflect responsibility. Regardless, human beings have created this poverty, in Haiti and throughout the world, in our inextricable web of interdependence, and thus Haiti is in part a creation of all of us who participate in this global economy. I did not intend to profit off the land and struggle of the so-called third world, but I have, through the low-cost goods and resources that make our lifestyles in the global North possible. And thus these are our problems to solve, not for the people of Haiti, but with the people of Haiti, in solidarity, with the respect we would want were it us in their shoes, with a willingness to share what is not entirely rightfully ours. We could all be the next to find ourselves downwind or downstream, and whether we like it or not, the earth will teach us the inescapable truth that we are all interconnected, and none of us is safe when it is acceptable to turn a blind eye to those who are suffering. That is why I am here.

But I guess there is a third reason, too. Everybody has different gifts, different skills, different interests, and different ways to contribute to the world, and we need all of it. In Sumatra and Haiti I found that disaster relief work is a good match for me. It stretches my horizons, makes me stronger and more adaptable, keeps me from getting too comfortable. Through experience it teaches me about the world, and puts me in touch with the bigger picture of humanity, what it means to be alive in different parts of this planet. This work makes me want to get out of bed in the morning.

Once again, Haiti has given me far more than I have given her. I am taking home new skills, new friendships, new strength, and new perspectives. Maybe that indescribable feeling in my heart that straddles sorrow and joy is the deep peace of feeling that I am exactly where I am supposed to be at this moment in my life. Nothing is more valuable to me than that. And I can’t shake the feeling that my work in Haiti is not finished yet…