Sunday, April 4, 2010
Don't forget Haiti
“a stone in the water does not know the suffering of a stone in the sun” – a Haitian proverb that Bev tells me standing outside the supermarket
We saw a woman selling dirt today. Dirt to eat. Walking downtown by the palace. Champs de Mars, which used to be a big open space but now is crammed tight with tents and tarps and cardboard and sheet-made homes pushed in to every scrap of bare ground. She was selling candy and crackers and dirt baked with salt and butter into small discs for eating. I remember seeing it on the news, a year or so ago, a headline during the “food crisis”. Each time I have tried to eat something today I envision those pale disks and feel sick to my stomach.
It is international women’s day today. We went to a gathering to honor 3 fallen women, 3 leaders in the struggle for women’s rights here in Haiti who died on Jan 12th. It was held on a shady street, under blue tarps strung from the trees. Under blue tarps, like everything else.
And then we walked downtown and met a teenage boy who said “fuck you CIA” when he saw I had a camera out to take a picture of the “Marron Inconnu” a beautiful bronze statue of a free slave the chain around his ankle broken, blowing the conch shell, symbol of independence. (Marron Inconnu - The unknown slave it is translated, though I am told that a marron is a person who escaped from the plantation and formed communities from where they launched rebellions). It would be funny, being called CIA, except that I know he walked away thinking we were indeed CIA-minded elitist Americans coming to sightsee and snap pictures amidst the heartbreak. It would be funny, except he walks away feeling all the angry weight of history and just another slap in the face. The Marron Inconnu, this beautiful sculpture, sits in what was once open space, by Champs de Mars, near the palace. Now it is completely surrounded by tents.
We are trying to take some pictures for the blogs but each time I pull it out I feel shameful. Bev tells me when she was in Cite Soleil years ago she remembers graffiti that said “tourist, do not take a picture of my suffering.”
Sorry friends, I don’t mean to relay only sadness. There is so much beauty too. Like Yolette’s smile and Helia’s children and little kids with kites and genius toys they have made out of scraps of nothing, and sunshine to dry clothes in, and the hummingbird I saw feeding from bright red ginger flowers, and spicy peanut butter and crackers made in port-au-prince, and this little candle burning next to me on the table.
Like the gathering we went to at Aprosifa, a project coordinated by the vibrant Rosie that includes a women’s clinic, a childcare center/orphanage, an arts and crafts school for youth with workshops on painting, metal sculpture and zero-waste crafts (where kids make very cool purses and placemats out of old candy and spaghetti wrappers.) The buildings are even more full of kids now, giving them something interesting and creative to do, as all of the schools are still closed, until who knows when. Many, many of the schools collapsed.
Out in the courtyard of Aprosifa they just built a metal roof so they could have classes and clinic there, since many moms don’t want to go inside anymore. Under this roof there was a gathering in the triple honor of a staff birthday, a volunteer who had been there for two weeks, and a group of Cuban doctors who were on their way to towns in the county for 4-6 months.
These doctors are part of the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade, made up of doctors and med students from Cuba and 25 different countries who have been trained at Cuba’s medical school. The doctors now here in Haiti volunteered for this brigade and their expenses and a small stipend are paid by the Cuban government. There are approximately 1600 of them, spread out through Port-au-Prince and small towns throughout the country and they will maintain a presence here for a year, individual doctors having the opportunity to stay the whole time or rotate in and out for 4 or 6 month stints.
The healthcare they provide is completely free (one of the challenges is explaining to patients, and those who should be patients, that it is indeed completely free). They have set up 4 small community clinics on the streets of Port-au-Prince, are working in 3 public hospitals throughout the capitol and have created 2 nearby field hospitals (complete with surgery tents and also community teams that go out to camps and neighborhoods to provide mobile care). They are also scattered throughout hospitals around the country. This is the brigade that Cuba offered to send to the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina but the U.S. government turned away. Here in Port-au-Prince the doctors are also living in tents, in their own organized camp they have created in the center of downtown.
So, here at Aprosifa, in honor of the spirit of true generosity and solidarity, there was a small celebration with croissants from the bakery, rum cake, a round of happy birthday in English, Spanish and Creole, a Haitian band complete with the most home made drum kit you ever saw, and dancing. And laughing. There is beauty wherever there are people. Wherever there is anything growing out of the earth.
Before the party, while we were walking around seeing the different parts of Aposifa, we sat down to wait for a few minutes for Rosie who was, everywhere she went, taking time to stop and check in, to smile and say “how are you” and joke and laugh, and say to a kid “that is a super incredible painting, tell me what that one is about…”
So we sat and waited for a minute on a bench at a table with 5 little kids who were all sitting waiting for something else. We asked them what they were up to and one little girl, 6 years old, with a super soft voice, subtle gestures and staring eyes, said “I came here to do my work” She pointed to the very cool bag I had just proudly purchased made from spaghetti wrappers. We exclaimed at how beautiful her work was! And asked a few more questions about where she was sleeping and with whom. She is sleeping in the street, she said, with her aunt. She looked straight at us and in the quietest voice said “mama morir.” “Mama morir cherie?” “oui, mama morir.” She said it so quietly and with wide open eyes. Like maybe if she searched our faces when she said it she could understand better what it meant.
I’ve been thinking about her nonstop.
There is one other person I will tell you about who I have been thinking about nonstop.
Yesterday we took a taxi to go visit Helia. Helia with the high-pitched voice who calls Bev every day. Helia, who when I first got here said to Bev “please put her on the phone” even though she knew I didn’t speak a word of Creole. She rattled away greetings in Creole and I rattled them back in English and we talked like this for a few minutes on the phone, back and forth, our introductions and warm greetings and laughing, even though we had no idea what the other was saying.
We got in the taxi on the way to visit her and a few minutes into the drive we were laughing with the driver about some little thing. With his warm face. And then bev asked him, as she does of most everyone she talks to, if he lost anyone in the earthquake.
He pulled out a tiny picture, the size you get for school pictures of his beautiful little 8 year old girl.
She was out playing in the yard near a wall when the earthquake happened and the wall fell on her. He dug her out himself and she had already passed. He wanted to take her to the countryside to bury her and was trying to gather the money to arrange getting there. He waited 3 days, but after 3 days he could not wait any longer. So he had to wrap her carefully in a sheet and carry her into the street. Front end loaders were coming through the streets to scoop up the bodies left on the curbs. He could not stand to leave her in the street to be scooped up by a machine. The only thing he could do was wrap her in a sheet and place her gently in the bucket of the front end loader himself… to be driven away and buried in a mass grave. He says he thinks of her every minute. He says he sees her when he is eating. “I am resigned” he says.
I almost can’t stand to tell you that story. I wonder, in doubting moments, what greater purpose it serves, if it makes any difference, or if it numbs people to suffering to hear people’s hard stories. I went back and forth about whether to include it in this letter. Because more than anything, I want to honor this little girl’s spirit. To honor the love of her father. I can’t stand the thought of anyone hearing about her and not taking a moment to honor her (so that is what I ask of you.) And my hope is that maybe, in some complex configuration that connects strangers across the world... Some steady simple equation of ripple effects… that a heart hurting for this little girl will connect to some resolve to love larger. The strength to protect some other little girl.
And maybe this little life could not have been spared by the slipping of the earth. Or maybe in fact, it could have been. If the wall had been built stronger, or if her dad had had the money for a better house, in a better place, or maybe if they hadn’t been living in the city trying to make a living off of driving a cab, but instead had been somewhere else, anywhere else…
Helia gets in the cab with us with kisses for everyone including the driver. I imagine there is an undercurrent of understanding that they don’t even yet know about – but maybe they can assume– of suffering to suffering. A kiss for the cab driver she hasn’t yet met and whose story she hasn’t heard.
We drive only a couple of minutes, pull over to get out, he turns off the car and we all just sit for a few minutes. They are talking about the kids they have lost. His 9 year old girl and her 20 year old son. She says “everyone tells me he is fine, that I’ll find him, but I know I won’t” and he says “don’t believe them, it’s false hope.” He says “ I see her all the time, especially when I am eating,” and she says “I cannot eat.”
We walk down the road to the house Helia has created out of sticks and a tarp for herself and 3 children.. She is lovely and dignified. I wont tell you her story right now. There is only so much heartbreak to fit in one letter.
Photo by Laura Wagner, from Other Worlds Are Possible.