Last month I took my sixth trip to Haïti with an incredible group called Third World Awareness. It was a short trip – only one week – and yet it was filled with some of my favourite memories from these six visits, along with some positive changes. (Quick note: my first time visiting was in 2011, more than a year after the huge devastating earthquake, so I don’t have any firsthand info on how things now compare to pre-quake conditions. Before this year’s trip, I hadn’t been back since 2016.)
Almost immediately – like, leaving the airport – I noticed that the roads were in much better repair than I remembered. Traffic, I would realize within a couple of days (I landed on a Saturday), was arguably worse, but the surfaces of most roads I travelled on were smoother and had fewer potholes, apparently due to the government having spent a good chunk of change on infrastructure repairs. There is better access to electricity now, neighbourhoods with power lines which didn’t have them during my other trips there, more streetlights and traffic lights. There are also – bizarrely – numerous electricity towers which have been built in such a way that they partially obstruct traffic, forcing the roadways to become more narrow (possibly because to put them further back from the road would mean that houses had to be demolished?), and this increased traffic noticeably, as did the number of intersections which were being controlled by police officers instead of by the aforementioned traffic lights.
There did seem to be an increased police presence; twice during my stay I was in (or on) a vehicle that got pulled over for seemingly random police checks. The first was at a roadblock but there wasn’t much to be nervous about as I was in a van mostly full of Canadians; the second time, when I was en route to the airport and riding a motorcycle with the driver I’d just met and a friend of mine, was jusssst a bit more unnerving.
In addition to better roads and more cops, I noticed that the air quality was vastly improved. It took me awhile to pick up on this … after all, how often do we really think about the air we breathe except when there’s something wrong with it? It must have been five days in that a truck or van went by belching black smoke which hung around in the air for a bit, and I had a sudden flashback of wearing a bandanna around the lower half of my face because that thick lingering haze used to be how the air seemed to feel all the time. Not out in the country, of course, but in the city and its suburbs, where we spend most of our time, it was a problem. I’d constantly feel grit in my eyes, making contact lenses even more irritating; I’d blow my nose and what came out would be grey. So this was another welcome improvement, although it may be due to the weather: on most of my trips, the air has been hot and heavy, and this time there was always a breeze blowing. So. Very. Grateful.
So what were some of my specific memories? I’ve got a few pictures to help me out. (One thing I should probably point out, though, is that my photos decrease in number every time I go. Photography/videography isn’t allowed in most of the areas where we do our volunteer hours, isn’t polite or appropriate in many of the other places we go to, and the novelty started to wear off after my third visit.)
This. On my first full day there, we visited a resort with this beautiful – rocky, but beautiful – beach. Little boats like this one took turns anchoring nearby, playing music, hoping to entice guests to go for a ride up and down the coast.
So we did.
On the same day, we visited the Ogier-Fombrun Museum in Arcahaie, birthplace of the Haïtian flag. This museum is wonderful – it’s a restored sugar plantation with many original artifacts and even though I’d been there before, this was the first time I was able to take in most of its displays.
For whatever reason, although I knew a good deal of Haïti’s history even before my first visit, I was really struck this year by how ludicrous it is that the first country to throw off chattel slavery is still imprisoned in so many ways. I zeroed in on the hatchet (centre, in the above photo), which was used to amputate slaves (I forget now whether the example given was as punishment for slaves who weren’t working fast enough, or as a potentially life-saving measure for slaves whose hands got caught in the machinery; both occurred in different places throughout history). There was – and is – this deep, brooding reminder about how unjust it all was – and is – and a sort of helpless feeling that I’ll never be able to make any difference at all. It’s such a monstrous wrong, I don’t know how it could ever be made right.
I guess it’s as part of an effort to right this wrong that I and many others do humanitarian work. I’m keenly aware that had my grandparents not emigrated to Canada, I could be on the receiving end of this work. (That’s not an exaggeration. Frankly, most of us living in “the first world” are just one disaster or personal crisis away from being on the receiving end of similar work, but that’s a topic for another day.) So pictured just above is the first school that Third World Awareness built in Haïti, in a part of a “slum” called Cité Soleil, on the edge of the water. Upon visiting the school this time around I noticed that even in CS, the roads looked better than I remembered; they were certainly cleaner than what I was used to seeing here. (Don’t get too excited, though; near the end of this blog you’ll see the sitee of some cleanup work we hope to do next.)
Most of the places where we do work forbid photography, but photos are always welcome at this school. The smiles of these children never fails to warm me up, no matter what’s going on.
Two moments really stood out for me on this day. One was an event that half the school, it seemed, celebrated together: during games of soccer with the students in their schoolyard, there was intense jockeying for a position near whichever adult was handing out pinneys ahead of each round. In a sea of waving hands, pressing bodies and yells, a teacher looked down and picked out a small boy to get the last blue pinney. He scored the last goal of the game – the smallest kid on the field – and the whole place went crazy. They mobbed him, cheered, applauded, lifted him up in the air; it felt like something out of a movie! I was too caught up to get a photo before everything died down, but I did capture this shot of him still beaming, and I had a moment of intense gratitude for every teacher or leader everywhere who has ever given the underdog a chance. It was so wonderful.
On a more personal note, I came to the school bringing a particular set of gifts – prints of photos that I had taken in the same place in 2016 and 2015.
That’s one of my fave pictures that I’ve ever been in, period; and since there are 16 students in it with me, I brought 16 prints back with me and gave them all out. (Not all of them are still students here since that photo was taken three years ago, but it made sense to prepare for the best-case scenario.)
There’s more of a story behind this one.
In 2016, I was able to teach dance classes to the students at this school and it was a high point in my adult life. I was keenly aware, however, that I wasn’t able to share the joy of that dance class with every child nearby. These two boys from the area, who weren’t in school (I presume because their families weren’t able to afford it, or perhaps the school was just too full), climbed up to the second floor to see what was going on, and even though I knew it was dangerous for them to be there, I snapped this photo of them before they were chased away. (Terrible role model over here.)
I printed two nice black-and-white copies of this photo too, hoping against hope that I could find these kids in 2018 … or at least someone who knew them and could pass on the prints. And as I sat at the back of the school watching one of the aforementioned soccer games, I realized that one of the students looked very familiar. Turns out the boy in the red shirt – Nelson – is now a student at our school, and I was thrilled to have his teacher call him away from the game so he could get the photos. Although I didn’t see the other boy on either of the days I visited, Nelson says he knows where to find him. I’m not quite clear on whether he still lives in Cité Soleil; a lot can change in a couple of years, and his family may have settled somewhere else. Wherever he is, I hope he’s safe and healthy and cared for. I want that for all of these kids, and it’s heartbreaking to know that many of them … maybe most of them … are not, despite the best efforts of the school and of many other people who care about them.
Maybe next time I go, they’ll both be in uniform.