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Sunday, July 15, 2012

Haiti- The Pearl Of The Antilles (Part 1)

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.

Our arrival to Port-Au-Prince was thankfully uneventful. Transportation had been arranged, which was a tremendous help.  A couple of vehicles waited for us.  Our eyes were glued to the car windows, watching in awe during our five-hour ride from Port-Au-Prince to Les Cayes. 

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. 

A lack of water supply and sanitation services were evident.  Most of the population don’t have tap water. Women and children carry buckets full of water daily.

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. 



Mariette VandenMunckhof-Vedder said...

Dearest Doris,

You did put it right in the beginning, one of the main problems: a history of predatory dictatorships. A second health hazard is the absence of a sewer system. Unbelievable and why could those dictators not establish that? Did they not care?
Maybe the National Palace having crumbled away after the heavy earthquake is a symbolic sign. Let's hope that the corruption indeed will vanish and make room for real guidance and help in establishing a healthy country.
Words indeed cannot describe sights like that...
Have a great new week and sending you love and sunshine,

Rita said...

I'll be waiting for the impressions and pictures for the second part of your journey. This had to touch your heart deeply. :)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Doris .. what a wonderful post - setting the scene for us ... as it is now - while we still remember the devastation at the time of the earthquake.

Humanity is amazing in its minimal needs .. while we with more live somewhat different lives ..

Your future posts will be fascinating and thought provoking to read ... Hilary

Cynthia said...

I listen to the news about Haiti and other 3rd world countries...and, though my heart and pocketbook may reach out, it's not the same as watching "you" in action. May you be blessed and continue to share those blessings with others. I'll await your next entry. ~Cynthia

Bica said...

What a beautiful, and beautifully written post, Doris. This really provides some good perspective, to those of us who like to whine and feel sorry for ourselves a little, every now and then.

It's too easy to get caught up in our everyday lives, and take for granted all that we have.

I am so thankful for people like you, who actually make a difference. God Bless you.

Mary Aalgaard said...

"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."
Love this quote from you, Doris. It says so much. The rural landscape is beautiful. I can't imagine how hard life is there.

Anonymous said...

They are such beautiful people, living in a squalor that's almost unbelievable, created mostly by human beings who cared very little about them and their country. Pictures always speak more eloquently than words, and you have captured here the natural beauty that should still be everywhere in Haiti, and the beauty in the young people that always was and always will be. I'm looking forward to reading Part II of your trip!

Amrita said...

I can understand how your heart broke when you saw the need of hasiti. i see it everyday in my own country.
The traffic conditions, bumpy road, insanitary conditions and poverty are so much like here. The beauty of the island is breath taking. I am gla d you found beauty in the midst of the devastation

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

I can't wait to learn more about the trip and working with the orphans. This is fascinating. I had no idea about the garbage and the lack of a sewer system in the city. That is so hard to imagine.

Thank you so much for sharing your trip with us.

Kathy M.

David Prosser said...

Your Post is clear and full of natural warmth. I look forward to reading the next piece and hope to find you have met a people full of hope despite what's happened. Hopefully they will think about putting in an infrastructure in the near future to help combat the cholera.

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Cloudia said...


This is first class reporting
and extraordinary humanity!

Thanks for enlightening us

Haiti and you, will be in our prayers
Warm Aloha to you from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral

> < } } ( ° >

Anonymous said...

Oh my goodness, what a great post!!!

steveroni said...

I jumped down to read part I and now jump 'up' (Ugh!...ouch!!) to read Part II. I believed that nobody could get to 'know' a country and its people through the words and photos of another.

You have destroyed that belief, reduced it to a myth. Because through YOUR eyes, I can experience all but the tastes and smells of Haiti. Even I can hear the horns, shouting, and buzzing flies.

On to next chapter. You are sO good, I almost fear to read more, because it will make me uncomfortable to realize the truth, the poverty, sicknesses, hunger, pain and suffering which you word so well.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

My daughters church she attends the youth group and the Music directors of the church go to the place you go Haiti. It is so heartbreaking when they come back and show the video and the testimonies of sharing. The head of the Music Department with his wife. Have five children of their own and he can hardly talk without crying. He said he has held wee children that knowing soon they will die. Having about 8 grandchildren of his own. It tears him apart. Yet in his heart. He new his wife had to be there. They the children call him poppa . I say it really takes people like them and the youth that feel lead to go and you to be with the children. I think that is wonderful you can place yourself there in that poor country.

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