Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 6: Barbecue in the Hills

After a hard weeks work we get Sunday off. I spent mine hiking through the beautiful Haitian countryside in Guillaume, a 40 minute drive from Leogane. The experiences I had with the Haitian people today were probably some of the most illuminating that I've had to date. I think I have a better understanding of how despite of the destruction all around them Haitian attitudes remain resolute and hopeful.
We were invited to this barbecue by a man named Jean, a Haitian-American business owner from Orlando. Jean saves a small portion of each paycheck to support various projects to help his native country, which currently means building out a hospital clinic in this small, dispersed hill community. The building he plans on using could not have been larger than 1000 square feet but remains mostly intact from the earthquake. Jean's property has a stream running through it that is supposedly potable (We didn't test the water but farther upstream is the source for this region's now defunct public water system).
Jean's work here has made him a well respected member of the community. From what I could see there were at least two large families and 5 other individuals that Jean was allowing to use the facilities of his property. There were people bathing and swimming in his stream, children playing inside the clinic building (Jean had brought them toys from the USA), and a few elderly men were chewing the fat on his patio.
Jean had a full Haitian meal prepared for us: white rice with bean sauce, legumes (sort of like vegetable stew), and chicken legs. This isn't actually that different from what we eat at the base, however a dish prepared for eight people naturally tastes better than a dish prepared for 100. Jean ate with us as some of the locals hung around to watch us eat, initially giving off an air of unfairness until Jean assured us that they had already eaten and were just curious about the visitors.
After our meal Jean guided us on a walk up the hill to see the rest of his community. We were followed by a group of about 15 children. Two little girls insisted upon holding my hands the entire time even when the narrow path made it inconvenient. We encountered more makeshift shelters in this community than wrecked houses, which led me to believe that some of the people in the community lived in these shanty-type structures even before the earthquake; Jean confirmed this observation. To one elderly gentleman we encountered along the path we posed the question "If you could ask for one thing, what would it be?" to which he responded "privacy." His open air shelter barely keeps out the sounds of livestock and numerous people swimming and bathing in the nearby stream. As we left him and thanked him for his time, he insisted on shaking each of our hands, adding a "Mesi an pil" (thank you very much).
Walking a bit further we discovered the natural spring that feeds the stream, and with it concrete structures that were meant to be the primary water intakes for the regional water system built during the "Baby Doc" Duvalier era. The water here doesn't get much farther; the transfer pipe runs through a flood channel and the rush of water breaks it during flood season, one of many reasons why the system cannot remain functional. More local children were entertaining themselves on these structures, jumping off into the water below and having a great time doing it.

One rather large family was living in a series of shelters outside of their former home, now unsafe to enter because of the damage. The house was rather large by Haitian standards but still suffered the same shortcomings as most of the fallen structures: too much or improperly used concrete, and too little rebar to hold it all together. They were built to do a good job surviving the torrent of hurricanes that summer brings, but anticipating an earthquake was never in the design. Standing in stark contrast to the devastated Haitian house was a large French villa next door with no discernible damage whatsoever. The French villa was built up to structural standards that never existed in Haiti, which is why so many people died in this disaster.
The family living in this house still had to live their lives, and this is the human aspect you don't hear about from the usual media outlets. On top of the devastating human loss of 2 women here, at least 3 generations poured their meager livings into building and expanding this house, all of which was wiped in out 37 seconds on January 12. Despite these losses the family seemed resigned to an unfathomable level of happiness. A baby was being bounced on the lap of her older sister, children were kicking a soccer ball around, and two of the older teenagers could not have been more enthusiastic about showing me the bench press they had built out of scrap metal recovered from fallen structures.

Having the oppurtunity to witness how these people go on living made me think about how I would go on if everything I knew was suddenly taken away from me. It says a tremendous deal about the Haitian people that in the face of the worst they are still able to put forth their best. The media spins stories of looting, kidnapping, and corruption, and of course these things can be found here, however from what I have seen the majority of Haitians just want to get on with their lives towards a better future.

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