A country and a culture are more than the terms we use to describe them. One could talk about poverty indexes, deforestation, lack of government structures, health and sanitation. Yet, that does little to inform us about the feeling you get when you step into Haiti.
I arrived in Haiti in March of 2010 with a lot of ideas in my mind, and a little fear in the back of it. It had been roughly two months after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had hit the island, leaving a hundred thousand civilians dead, and causing terrible devastation in the area around Port-au-Prince. At the Haiti Project, we considered not taking our annual trip. The group of volunteers was comprised mainly of college students, and the leadership of the project wanted to keep everyone safe. In the end, we decided that it would be best to go. Not only was the risk lower in the north of Haiti (where our school is located), but we also knew that people would need help now more than ever.
We were right. By the time we got to our school, we realized that the number of children in attendance had risen by a hundred: several families had escaped the capital after the earthquake, and many had ended up in Chermaître. We also had plans on visiting a small town, Fiervil, to bring medical supplies. In the storage room next to the local church, we set up a make-shift clinic, staffed by volunteers and run by the nurse we had brought with us: Pam, a long-time member of VHP. We had more patients than we imagined. For some of the people who had escaped Port-au-Prince, this was the first time they received medical attention since the earthquake. We did what we could, but left with the resolve of keeping that clinic open in the near future.
These experiences illustrate some of the problems that Haiti suffers, but they are not my first thought when I think back on that trip. Despite everything I saw, in my mind Haiti is associated with something else. When I first stepped into Haitian land, it wasn’t so much of a shock, but a realization: the realization that, as much poverty and difficulty as Haitians were in, the vibrancy of their spirit could not be lost. The towns in Haiti were bustling, their people lively. Everywhere people were walking around, women carrying baskets on their heads, children playing together; people were living their lives, relentlessly. A part of me wondered (and this continued throughout the trip), what could we, as foreigners, give to these people who seemed determined to carry on with their lives?
In Chermaitre, I played with school children. They spoke little English and I spoke even less Creyol, but we played games and danced and laughed openly. That is what I remember the most: the dancing to the rhythm of palms, children singing in the schoolyard, bringing us in to play games with them. And suddenly, all the paintings made sense: the bustling market scenes crowded with people, the scenes of people dancing in the streets, the beautiful colors. It didn’t matter if the paintings seemed to describe an idyllic, creative setting well beyond the images of poverty I saw. The paintings didn’t describe settings: they described the Haitian spirit. The colors, the laughter and the strength, all of them seemed to say: we are here, we are resilient, we will continue laughing, and we will continue on.
I felt silly: what am I trying to do for these people, who are strong, independent and happy? What kind of help do I mean to provide when they themselves are constantly working, improving, celebrating? Of course, I knew our work was important, but I took those doubts very seriously, and have kept them with me ever since. When one travels somewhere different to do any kind of social work, it is exceedingly important to consider: what can I truly give to these people? Do they need anything from me? What, instead, can I learn from them?
As much as I believe in the social work of the Haiti Project, I think its true triumph has been in bringing the spirit of Haiti, through its art, to others, and myself.