Monday, November 23, 2009

Haiti Journey (Inch by Inch to Hinche)

This was a trip made with a group from Seton Hall University June 2nd - 9th, 2009. I travelled with the group as chaplain. Here are some reflections on our very moving experience:

GROUP: Alyssa, Annie, Craig, Jamie, Katie, Lizzy, Mark, Nick, Tyler (Seton Hall students), Michael/ “Miguel” (S.H.U. alumnus, Weill-Cornell Medical student), Michelle (group director), Dave and Tom (campus ministry), Father Jim (chaplain).

2 – 9 June 2009 / Seton Hall University
Division of Volunteer Efforts - D.O.V.E. trip to Haiti (Hinche, Central Haiti)

1. Military 0dark30

(Seton Hall Univ., South Orange, NJ) Tue. 2 June 2009 Meeting at 3:30 a.m. we got parking spaces rarely available during the regular semester or any sensible hour.

Emerging from the shadows was Father John Dennehy, university chaplain, who came to encourage us, pray with us before our departure and caffeinate us. We had the first pot of priests’ coffee of the day. Thank you, Father John.

We made our way to the airport with our stuff. This included each student’s personal bag plus one assigned bag of donated medicine, clothes, shoes, etc. and a surprising quantity of smoothies and juice in one carry-on (Love, Nick’s Mom XX OO). We chugged them at 4:00 a.m. to get through security: our first team activity. We were off to Port-au-Prince via Newark and Miami.

2. This is a spinal tap-tap dance

(Toussaint Louverture Intl Airport, Port-au-Prince) Tue. 2 June Our flight from Miami landed around 12:00 Noon. We exited the airport (PAP) and were met by the tap-tap drivers sent by Lefort Jean Louis (known to us as Jean-Louis) from Maison Fortuné in Hinche.

Tap-tap is any form of public taxi; in our case, these were two Toyota trucks with benches in the pickup bed. Each tap-tap had about 15 suitcases, six people inside (a 4-door cab), 2 people on top of the cab and five of us in back . Preferring the open-air and view after two American Airlines flights, I put on sunscreen and climbed on back.

Later in the week, we were told how spoiled we were with all our “legroom” and “seats”. Any self-respecting Haitian group of 14 plus baggage would have done the whole trip in one tap-tap. After all, it was merely a four-hour-journey. Fortunately, we had no misgivings about having only 2 people seated on top of the cab.

The trip to Hinche in the central plateau took about 4 hours on Route National 3 (or, Highway 3) to go 128 km (80 miles). The first 15 miles or so was paved and smooth all the way to Mirabelais which saved us lots of time. In our pre-trip meetings, we were told the travel time was uncertain and heard – at various times – 4 hours, 5 hours, 6 hours …then 6 hours with a one-hour thunderstorm, just for kicks. Fortunately, the first estimate was right and the sky was clear the entire way. 4 hours even included flat-tire repairs on both trucks, one when we were halfway, one when we were nearly there.

The ride took us past many uniformed schoolchildren walking home on the side of steep mountain roads (1,000-feet-plus vertical). These would not the be last time we heard shouts of “blan-blan !!” And, blan, we are, white.

The bar on the side of the pick up truck really digs into your back after a few hours …

3. International Peacekeeper Jean Louis

(Maison Fortuné Orphanage, Hinche) Tue. 2 June, 4:00 p.m. Dave (Seton Hall campus ministry) had spent 2002-2003 living near and working at this orphanage and other sites.

The steel gate of Maison Fortuné opened for us and we entered a compound surrounded by (10-foot) cinderblock walls. This is a residence for about 140 boys and girls aged preschool to twentysomething. Maison Fortuné is a relatively new – and expanding -- venture, funded by the Catholic diocese of Richmond (Virginia), and parishes in Richmond and elsewhere.

Actual birth records (even names, at times) are nonexistent with the orphanage having to supply one or both. It was not clear to me exactly what the process (or deadline) is for releasing a young man or young woman from the orphanage.

A child’s arrival at the orphanage is, often (if not nearly always) voluntary. That is, families or parents bring the children there because they cannot take care of them. In at least one case, a child has been brought (rescued) by the United Nations to Jean Louis.

Jean Louis, who runs Maison Fortuné, also has a business relationship with the U.N. The U.N. rent for space on Jean Louis’ property – rent which subsidizes Maison Fortuné – and houses U.N. staff. The U.N. Haiti mission is known as the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) started in 2004.

Jean Louis himself was also rescued from poverty as a child. He walked two hours each day to school from an impoverished home and could not overcome the poverty on his own. And, one day Jean Louis’ father said he could no longer afford the tuition or uniforms. His education appeared to be over. However, a couple of Catholic religious brothers (Xaverian) gave him some money. Eventually – somehow – Jean Louis went to Virginia Tech to study agriculture in the hope of cultivating and improving the land of his home. Needless to say, a can of Deep Woods Off and a shovel would have been more useful than the pesticide management and tractors taught in the States. Jean Louis, however, learned English and made contacts that still serve him and his work today.

Several of the buildings are brand new. The building may have had low water-pressure, but it was a modern, clean, comfortable home for us. Also, a consistent feature of all new concrete construction (at the orphanage, at private homes) was exposed re-bar, steel rods pointing out of the flat roof in the hope that one day another floor can be put on the building.

One day while we were there, medic-Miguel was busy assisting with the gathering of medical records after vaccinations for the children.

What accompanied the vaccinations were both manual record-keeping and semi-automatic weapons. The complete medical-security equation was M.D. + U.N.; i.e., four Nepali peacekeepers -- booted and camouflaged and armed with machine guns -- came with the doctor. Wait your turn.

4. The Orphanage

(Maison Fortuné Orphanage, Hinche) Tue. 2 June, 7:00 p.m. Our first night, we met two Catholic-religious Xaverian brothers, Brother Michael and Brother Harry who serve at Maison Fortuné. On the veranda, seated on the floor, Brother Michael shared what he has come to learn and how we might approach our days in Haiti, letting the country change us rather than the other way around

Brother Michael asked us to remember the boys and girls here are the lucky ones. They go to school, have clean clothes, regular meals. They can run and play. It is safe. And, when they are sent home to the mountains or villages, they realize how good they have it. Here, they do work hard and study. Tomorrow morning - outside our window – by 4:30 a.m. – we would hear them, because they have exams coming up. They are not just talking. They are reading – reciting from their notebooks – what they have learned by rote. The sound we would hear were the voices of memorization.

Brother Michael encouraged us just to be present to the boys and girls:

“You might be a little nervous about communicating; that’s OK. Just sit on the porch; they will come to you and seek you out. Pick up a basketball, kick the soccer ball, play checkers, talk to them. Let them teach you some Creole. And, remember you may come back many times … don’t worry about what you will change, because Haiti will not change [at least not quickly or overnight] but rather Haiti will change you.”

Our group leader, Michelle, added later that, while Haiti may not change imminently, this should not lead to a complacent been-there-done-that tourist attitude. Rather, consider the changes wrought upon Haiti – over many years – by malice aforethought and malignance accidental. Our role is not just to learn the history or gaze at the noble simplicity of the peasant. Rather, we are to consider what we can do to serve the poor. And, all of us are called to lives of service in whatever field we may work.

Michelle observed that Jean Louis gives considerable order to these young lives. Yet, they remain, at risk, in many ways. These boys and girls have no parents to pick them up – either in body or spirit. And, when the storms come, even the high concrete walls cannot hold back the water.

The September 2008 tropical storms (Fay, Gustav, Hannah) were particularly bad. The river behind Maison Fortuné rose 30-plus foot to flood the orphanage. Michelle and Dave were in Hinche at the time, themselves evacuated, and observed Mack trucks improvised into hearses for hundreds of corpses identified or not. The boys and girls of the orphanage lived at a local high school until things dried out sufficiently.

5. World Cup Qualifiers

(Hinche) Tue. 2 - Sat. 6 June Almost every day in Hinche, we spent the morning at the Azeal (below) and the afternoon at Maison Fortuné. In the evenings, we gathered to have Mass, eat, pray, and have a discussion (“reflection”) led by one of the groups.

Outdoor Soccer Outdoors The boys at the orphanage are great athletes, always moving at soccer and basketball. In one rainy Haiti-USA match we lost 5-2 though we had the advantage in size, experience and even an NCAA Division-One player and captain (Katie). We observed the boys, while lacking aggressive defense, had an excellent attack. They would complete 10 to 20 yard passes in the air, trapping and kicking flawlessly in bare feet on a grassless dirt (or mud) field.

Indoor Soccer Outdoors Later in the week, we played 4-on-4 indoor style soccer on the basketball court (Katie, Dave, Craig, Fr. Jim) during which we also were consistently smoked. But, we kept it a little closer on a smaller pitch. After this game, I also understood their approach to basketball which is modeled on indoor soccer – i.e., lots of passing and waiting for the right shot. We visiting Americans competed better in basketball than soccer because our knowledge of the game. Certainly it was not our athletic skill which was far surpassed by the boys. Perhaps, on a future visit, we should run a combination Fast Break/English-As-A-2nd-Language Clinic.

In our visit, not only did we see their prowess with feet on the ground but also off the ground, airborne and inverted. In the middle of a soccer game, boys would do backflips during a break in the action. They leaned a lot recently – and quickly – when a group from Penn State visited, one of whom is an NCAA gymnast.

6. The Azeal

(The Azeal, Missionaries of Charity, Hinche) Wed, Fri, Sat. Azeal, means refuge (similar to Spanish asilo or English asylum). Behind ten-foot concrete wall and steel gate, four sisters plus their workers feed, clothe, and comfort these children. In the nursery, there are 4 rooms, each with 12-18 children ranging in age from a few months to 6 years old.

The Missionaries of Charity (M.C., Mother Teresa’s group) operate a clinic for sick children and about forty terminally-ill adults nearer to the marketplace center of town. We walked through the market each day that we went there, sticking out as the blan we are.

On our visits, we spent 2-3 hours with children who virtually jumped into our arms. One could not tell by sight what might ail them. An exception was one who was being treated intravenously and who could not even by held. Tyler stroked her back for hours.

Another 12-year old girl (AIDS) was in great pain due to her damaged – and deteriorating - skin. The case was so advanced and severe she had appeared – to us – to be a burn victim.

The sisters were kind and strong. Sensing what we were feeling, Sister Theola said, don’t be sad, God looks out for them, and pray for them. “It’s not their fault, the whole country is like this.” While this might signal despair, Sister T. said this with the same poise as she had when pointing out the enraged man threatening vandalism because he had not obtained his food ration from the Azeal.

The sisters certainly pray. However, for many hours a day, they ensure that their faith also is in action. We were impressed by their compassion and honored to be with them.

7. Dance Party USA

(Hinche) Sat. 6 June, 7:00 p.m. Jean Louis told us earlier in the week that there would be a dance party on our final night. This was held near one of the classrooms. In few other ways were these very young men more touching than seeing them being asked to dance by our group. Some danced quite readily, some held back, some were singing.

The girls at the orphanage (a smaller and newer group than the boys and few older than 12) were not at Dance Party USA.

8. Mango

(Hinche) Sun. 7 June, 10:00 a.m. We attended a local regular Sunday Mass at the orphanage with a visiting Catholic priest from the seminary in Pandiassou.

We tried to keep with the songs and prayers in Creole but also enjoyed observing The only instrument was one drum played by hand which kept perfect time.

Mass was outside under the mango tree. At one point, a mango fell and almost clocked one young boy in a Panama Jack t-shirt. Young Panama Jack was a bit embarrassed at this act of God, quickly turning to the ground to see what had fallen. The mangoes were delicious; the good-byes were tearful.

9. Zanmi Lasante

(Hinche to Port-au-Prince) Sun. 7 June On our way back to Port-au-Prince, we passed through Cange seeing the Zanmi Lasante (Partners in Health, P-I-H) Sociomedical Complex. In 2004, Tracy Kidder won the Pulitzer for writing about this project (and others) in Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer….

Kidder interviews and follows Dr. Farmer around seeing what he does for TB, HIV/AIDS, other infectious disease, basic health, and advocacy for the people. Our original hospital tour guide was a doctor who had been called to another hospital. Fortunately, both a Haitian doctor and a Harvard/Brigham & Women’s resident (Neil) took us around and told us about Zanmi Lasante.

This hospital – and six other P-I-H – facilities in Haiti do what other hospitals either cannot or will not do. In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder describes how Farmer gets around the Haitian custom of charging the patient for every pill, latex gloves, etc.

At Zanmi Lasante, patients were supposed to pay user fees, the equivalent of eighty American cents for a visit. Haitian colleagues of Farmer had insisted on this. Farmer was the medical director but he hadn’t argued. Instead – this was often his way, I would learn – he had simply subverted the policy. Every patient had to pay the eighty cents except for women and children, the destitute, and anyone who was seriously ill. Everyone had to pay, that is, except for almost everyone. And no one – Farmer’s rule – could be turned away. (Mountains Beyond Mountains, p. 21)

At Zanmi Lasante, in fact, the P-I-H foundation in the U.S. provides not only provides money for medicine but also for compliance. Every every infectious disease and HIV patient has someone in the community who follows up (accompanies) him or her throughout the course of treatment. This person – who might be a family member of the patient -- is paid a stipend. These payments, as Dr. Neil told us, ensures compliance to TB-medication in Cange which exceeds that in Boston.

On the other hand, Dr. Neil said the government – as you might guess – is just not that cooperative with the basic infrastructure needs that would help Zanmi Lasante to do even more. In contrast, the P-I-H sites in Rwanda enjoy much better governmental cooperation than those of Haiti.

Nonetheless, after a week in the central plateau, we were encouraged to see the modern facility here which has air conditioning, neonatal I.C.U. and an urgent-care/E.R. Other little amenities: hand sanitizer dispensers on the wall, shiny chrome, white sheets, bulletin boards, pens, medical records.

Kidder describes well this place so necessary – and yet alien – for the setting:

“I may as well say that from the moment I saw Zanmi Lasante, out there in the little village in Cange, in what seemed to me like the end of the earth, in what was in fact one of the poorest parts of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, I felt I’d encountered a miracle. In Haiti, I knew, per capita incomes came to a little more than one American dollar a day, less than in the central plateau. The country had lost most of its forests and a great deal of its soil. It had the worst health statistics in the Western world. And here, in one of the most impoverished, diseased, eroded, and famished regions of Haiti, there was this lovely walled citadel, Zanmi Lasante. I wouldn’t have thought it much less improbable if I’d been told it had been brought there by spaceship.” (Mountains Beyond Mountains, p. 20-21)

In this “walled citadel” are hundreds of trees for shade and benches for sitting; it is a thick slice of the First World behind these walls. In Mountains Beyond Mountains (2004), Kidder says the hospital has 104 beds. I don’t know if this is still the number. In an case, much of the Zanmi Lasante mission calls for outpatient treatment and actual house calls.

10. Cape - Hatien

(Port-au-Prince, Matthew 25 Guest House) Sun. 7 June, 4:00 p.m. A couple from Massachusetts, one of whom was back home in Massachusetts at the time, run the place. Vivian – who was there – was extremely helpful and hospitable, having been the owner-operator of a Cape Cod Inn.

The name of the guest house is for the book of Matthew, chapter 25, including this verse:
“whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.” It is a very nice and safe place to stay.

It is New England charm in an impoverished city: a sanctuary with wood-stained kitchen cabinets and the locked-down feel of the Kennedy family compound. Two armed guards are on patrol outside all night.

11. Theme of Titanic Attack

(Port-au-Prince) Mon. 8 June For our one day in the capital, we had reserved a tap-tap for the day to take us around. I only hoped we would actually get two tap-taps, i.e., two Toyota pick-ups. Earlier in the week, we were told we were the spoiled blan, having two tap-taps for only 14 people + baggage.

We were, then, surprised pleasantly at the sight of a new, Toyota, white, air-conditioned 15- passenger van as an upgrade from the pick-ups and the first air-conditioning of the week. This also meant a break from the Celine Dion soundtrack (“My heart will go on”) playing on countless delivery trucks.

Our first air-conditioned journey was to visit the Apostolic Nuncio (Vatican spokesperson) at his residence. Monsignor Robert Sheeran, president of Seton Hall, had arranged this for us. We expected that the Nuncio (Archbishop Auza) might see us for a half-hour at the most. However, he gave us a 45 minute overview of his experience as nuncio, his impression of the country, and his lunch the previous day with the president.

All of our questions were answered in meticulous detail and were offered refreshments of beer, wine, and soft drinks outside. We spent two hours at his residence.

We are grateful to all who supported us, who helped with their thoughts and prayers, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (we had plenty) that we took for the travels. Merci.

14 June 2009

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