June 29, 2018

Haiti Journal: Part VI

March 17

This morning several of the young girls from the elementary school are outside their dorm sweeping the walkway, picking up trash, even raking the plots of dirt out front, giving the area the overall appearance of well manicured space. I sit down on a wall nearby and chat with them. Ricky and Shae’s daughter, Amelia, walks over and joins us. Amelia communicates easily with the girls her age. In her previous visits to Canaan, she has developed a friendship with many of the students and they all seem to enjoy one another’s company.

Two of the girls outside cleaning are Sophie and Nataniel. We all talk a little about our upcoming trip to the beach. “When are we leaving?” Sophie wants to know. I tell the girls I’m not sure, but that it shouldn’t be too long. When the girls are done with their chores they begin to play. Sophie spins the broom like a baton, around and around, faster and faster. She drops it a few times and giggles as she picks it up. She is another one with a smile so cute and genuine it brightens your day.

In these moments – the simple interactions with the kids, conversations with Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys, observing teachers working with students – it is clear I am getting far more out of Canaan than Canaan is getting out of me. How do I change that? It’s not that I want to take away less, but that I want to give more. Attached to any hypothetical answer is the reality of greater sacrifice. How willing am I to alter my own life to help others?

As I watch the girls play I wonder about their parents. Are they living? And if they are, where are they right now? What is their situation? How terribly sad it is that they cannot see their daughters in this moment. That they cannot be a part of their daughters’ lives. And for the girls themselves, how tragic that they are without their mothers and fathers. The thought brings tears to my eyes and forces me to look away while I gather myself.

Canaan Christian School HaitiAnother hour so is passed in the shade, strolling around the campus, watching a crew chop away at the rocky soil and clear out a hole to plant another tree. From what I have been told, the property on which Canaan sits was initially a barren hillside. Pastor Henri and Sister Gladys initiated the land’s restoration, planting over time what now amounts to hundreds of tall trees. How the trees grow in this white, chalky soil I don’t know, but they do and their importance cannot be understated. They shade the walking paths and a large swath of the campus, taking the heat factor from nearly unbearable to tolerable. One only needs to step from the scorching sunlight into the shade to appreciate the difference.

Beach Party Time

Not long before noon we load the first truck with the older kids and some of the Canaan staff. The truck is a large, open air flatbed with a roof. It can hold about 20 people. More than that number climb inside and the back gate is closed. To secure the gate, a rusty piece of wire hanger is placed through two metal rings and twisted around a couple times. Packed beyond capacity, the truck leaves for the beach. As it bumps down the rocky path the kids shout and laugh with delight.

The rest of us wait with the elementary school kids, passing time in idle conversation. Some of the boys play with a soccer ball. Others shoot hoops. While the campus is kept relatively clean and has metal bins placed throughout, some of the trash naturally finds its way onto the ground. Waiting for the truck to return I walk around the cafeteria, pick up random pieces of garbage, and toss them into the bins – plastic water and soda bottles, plastic bags, crushed cans, cardboard packaging, candy wrappers from the treats we brought for the kids, a few rusty old batteries.

Walking toward the bin with a handful of trash, I pass a woman pushing baby Jacob up the hill in a red stroller. He is wide-eyed and barefoot, dressed in camouflage shorts and a white t-shirt, and draws immediate attention from just about everyone. I squat down next to him and tickle his belly with my finger. He smiles and giggles. Others crowd around and take turns tickling him and talking to him in high-pitched baby voices. This show of love and attention, the ease with which Jacob smiles, coupled with his reversal of health since having been brought here with severe malnutrition, is yet another example of the life changing power of Canaan.

To the Beach in the back of a Flatbed Truck

A little over an hour passes before the flatbed truck returns. It is quickly loaded to capacity and beyond with more kids and staff, boxes of food, crates of soft drinks and games. I am the last to climb into the back of the truck and have to press against others to move my body inside just far enough to close the back gate. Again, I estimate there are 20+ people piled into the truck. The majority of us are standing, as there are only a few places to sit. One of the male staff members closes the gate behind me and twists the rusty wire hanger through the metal rings to secure it. He then warns those standing near the gate not to lean against it because, you never know, the rusty wire could give way and send us tumbling down the highway.

As the truck rattles and thumps back down the driveway, people sway front and back and side to side. Unless you are tall enough to press your hands against the metal ceiling for balance, there is nothing to hold on to. At the bottom of the hill the driver stops short and half the people topple over each other like bowling pins. This gets everyone laughing, and fortunately, no one is hurt.

Outside the gate the usual gathering of a dozen or so people fill cracked and broken plastic containers and buckets with water from the small pipe the juts inexplicably from a cinderblock wall. A naked toddler stomps around in the mud. An older woman scrubs wet clothing with soap. A man splashes water on his face. All turn to watch us go by, the good fortune of Canaan students glaringly apparent.

Just down the street we stop for gas. Everyone stays in the back of the truck while the driver gets out and fills the tank. The air is still, the smell of petrol strong, the heat intense. My face glistens with sweat. I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand and take a few photos of our cramped quarters.

Bus Trip HaitiAfter a few minutes we are moving again and the air begins to circulate through the truck, clearing out the smell of petrol. The driver shifts gears, the truck speeds up, and the children begin to sing. Their voices rise up and over the roar of the engine. It’s enchanting, all these little voices singing at once. There is a peacefulness to it, a healing power. The hope of the world can be felt in the voices of children.

I find myself invigorated. My spirits lift. A French song ends and another begins, this one in English. Looking through the gates at the passing landscape, I feel as though I have eased somewhat to the geography of Haiti. It is more familiar to me now and with that familiarity comes a comfort. What began as foreign, downtrodden and potentially hostile, a place that was ravaged and crumbling, has become more beautiful. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves,” said the Scottish philosopher David Hume. “It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”In my mind a transformation seems to have occurred. I notice far more trees along the coast than I had previously taken account of. It’s overwhelmingly green and lush. Looking to the mountains, blazing under a white sun, my first thought isn’t of the oppressive heat and prolonged drought, but the sheer magnificence of the terrain. The potholed road we turn onto that tosses a bunch of unbuckled kids around the back of the truck isn’t something to be terrified by, but part of our great adventure together. We are on our way to the beach for a cookout. I see smiles and hear laughter. The kids are singing. People are happy. Outside the landscape is illuminated. All of a sudden this seems to me as splendid a moment as I have ever experienced.

Despite having been here less than a week, I am beginning to feel a connection to this place. I am more relaxed than I have since we arrived. The unease I felt early on has dissipated. Not completely, I have to admit, but enough to allow me to embrace each moment more fully. For the first time the idea of returning in the future is something I find myself considering.


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