I’m reading about Haiti’s history, and I shake my head, trying to understand the problems the Haitians have faced for centuries. As a child, I remember hearing people referring to Haiti as “The Pearl of the Antilles.” A history where beauty and struggle collide. A country earlier renowned for the splendor of its landscape, Haiti has faced fierce exploitation of natural resources by successive foreign occupations and predatory dictatorships. Ongoing political instability has contributed to a sharp decline of agricultural productivity and widespread poverty. Then, the destruction caused by the 2010 earthquake in which 316,000 people are estimated to have died.
Upon my arrival to Haiti, while observing the reality the Haitians face daily, I realized how little I knew about this country and its real challenges. Embarked on a mission trip, along with nine other people, I felt embraced by the excitement of providing clothing and other supplies to children at Espwa, one of the largest orphanages in the world, located in the town of Les Cayes.
I wanted to take part of that effort, even if my help seemed just like a grain of sand in an ocean of needs. But a serendipitous discovery happened to me. The Haitian people we spent time with, the children we played with, the women and men we visited with, they all enlightened my heart with humbleness and compassion, they helped me to reflect on the eventual weakness of materialism and vanity. When there’s no material objects, or luxury as a facade to others, that’s when the spirit of humanity shines, just like the summer sun.
It was a heartfelt tour through devastation and struggle, for miles and miles. I’d be short on words if I tried to describe the scenes, and emotions. Perhaps some pictures can illustrate better what we witnessed.
Port-au-Prince has a population of about 1.2 million inhabitants and more than 2.5 to 3 million live in its metropolitan area, including the rapid growing slums on the hillsides above the city.
The National Palace collapsed during the earthquake. A once beautiful and glamourous building is now merely ruins. Fractured and frail--just like the country itself. Here is a couple of pictures of the building, before and after the earthquake.
The streets were crowded with people walking up and down narrow streets.
Port-au-Prince is about the size of Chicago. But it doesn't have a sewer system. It's one of the largest cities in the world without one. That's a huge problem, but never more so than during a time of cholera. Since cholera was introduced into Haiti in the last two years, more than a half-million people have gotten sick and at least 7,050 have died. Public health authorities say cholera will stay in the environment for a long time, because Haiti has the worst sanitation in this hemisphere.
Trash piles up in Haiti’s ravines, canals and streets until hurricanes and heavy rains come, sweeping huge amounts of trash and thousands of plastic bottles out to sea.
One intervention to combat this problem is through recycling centers and cash payouts for recyclables brought in by local Haitians. The centers’ founders hope that financial incentives will encourage people to reduce the amount of garbage tossed aside as well as providing jobs and income for struggling families.
Commerce in Haiti generally spills onto sidewalks, into streets and down avenues. Merchants establish wooden fruit and vegetable stands or take to selling wares from the ground or on foot.
The roads are bumpy and inconsistent, and the traffic is usually a chaotic flow of cars, trucks and motorcycles. The most vibrant vehicles in Haiti are by far the the tap taps–privately owned buses festooned with flags and coated from bumper to bumper with vivid designs, murals and bold slogans.
As the country and the world look to rebuild Haiti, it’s important to understand the demographic dynamics facing the country, Haiti’s very young age structure. The median age of the population is 20 years, and almost 70 percent of Haiti’s people are under age 30.
As we left Port-Au-Prince, going now into rural areas, the landscape changed to a more refreshing sightseeing. From dreadful scenes we went to some awesome, breathtaking views.
Most of us remained quiet at this time. Not sure if it was our tiredness and fatigue catching up with us, or if we were deeply immersed in our thoughts, trying to comprehend what was in front of us. In my case, I engaged in a profound reflection, as a social worker, as a human being, as a christian, and as a visitor. My anxiousness grew stronger as we were approaching our destination: Les Cayes, where a world of further learning, emotions and loving would await for us. We were about to spend one week in a Haitian community, meeting with hundreds of people--some of the most beautiful souls I've ever met. I will tell you why Haiti stole my heart.