HAITI, Take 2: Gonaives

December 17, 2010  •  Leave a Comment

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Leaving the Port au Prince airport, March 2010-2 months after the earthquake.
It looks like we're heading back to Haiti this coming March. I'm tremendously excited. This time we'll head up to Gonaives, north west of Port au Prince. Gonaives has been the site of a lot of flooding in the past (a huge understatement...). Back in 2008 it was bad - as in ‘biblical proportions’ bad. I found this link on the NASA site. It shows massive flooding east of Gonaives, with a new lake formed in Savane Jung, a low-lying area east of the city, and obliterating the main road into the region. In September 2004 more than 2,500 people died in Tropical Storm Jeanne, then again in 2008 they were hammered by Hurricane's Gustav, Hanna and Ike. In 1 season. Again, many more died there and in neighboring villages. A quick google search produced a number of compelling image sources. Patrick Farrell, a PJ in Miami, did some outstanding work around Gonaives, earning him a Pulitzer. WARNING ADVISED: The images are unbelievable - be prepared.


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A few of the kids pose for a portrait in the beautiful, late afternoon Haitian light.
In preparation for this trip I've been working through a book, "HAITI-The Tumultuous History-from Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation," by Philippe Girard. The provincial illustration on the cover nearly scared me away but I sat down in a comfy chair at B&N and read through the first few pages. It's written in a simple, clear style - which is really good because it has a ton of historical meat. Anyone interested in learning the back story of Haiti, this is a great place to start. You can almost begin to understand this kind of reception from the occasional weary Haitian:

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Men wait outside the airport at Port au Prince for anything resembling work.

He was the rare exception-and after reading only the first few pages of the book I think I finally am beginning to get it... everyone else was friendly beyond belief. But the big question is, Why? After what they've been through as a people? And not I'm not just talking about the earthquake this year - I'm talking about for the past few hundred years. The hardships the Haitian people have endured are staggering. And yet they smile. They're warm, loving, friendly people and happy to see the outpouring of help.
 
I was writing my friend Chris the other day and saying aloud for the first time how, before 2010, to me Haiti meant boat people off the coast of Florida and excessive heat. I really had no idea how poor Haiti was, and had no real concept of what that meant. Like so many "fortunate Americans" I grew up in what could be considered a middle class world in a middle class town. I had no idea what lay 600 miles off the coast of Florida until I went to see it for myself March of this year.

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Laundry day on one of the streets of Port au Prince.
To say it rocked my world would be to substantially understate it. It shattered me. When I returned to my comfortable home in Fort Collins with running water, heat and a dry bed it took me a while to get my bearings and try to figure out why on earth God let me see that. I was talking to my traveling companion Ben about it and we both agreed, we didn't just want to be the Americans who went to Haiti once. Talking to another life-long friend and pastor in Denver over lunch one day before leaving he set it up pretty well: "You're not going to change Haiti, John," he said, looking me square in the eye. "It's the Haitians who will change you." Don knew this because he'd just returned from 13+ years in Nairobi, Kenya and he was right.

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Watching "Ice Age" in the courtyard of Croix des Bouquet's Orphan Transition Village. Running an extension cord from somewhere we used a projector to shine the movie on one of the bunk house walls.

But what on earth can we do? The answer: absolutely nothing in our own power. Not that I needed affirmation, but this book really gets into the nitty gritty of the history of Haiti. Racism and political upheaval have been a part of Haiti since before the 1800's and as witnessed by the recent sham of an election this November (2010), it's clear the problems Haiti faces aren't going to be fixed by a few well-meaning American's on spring break. But here's the thing: for whatever reason, God has introduced me to the Haitian people and theres' gotta be a reason for it. They're now a part of me. I think constantly about the kids we lived with last March. I can smell them, feel their weight on my lap as we watched Ice Age in French in the courtyard at the OTV, my legs falling asleep because I didn't want to disturb the sleeping child on my lap by getting up. I can feel them grabbing the sunglasses off my baseball hat and trying them on - then carefully returning them to their original position on my head when they were done playing; hanging on my arms, so starved for love and tenderness; folding their arms across their little chests and demanding "photo! photo!" I'd get my F6 with the LCD on the back and make their photo. Click. They'd run over to the camera for a peek - thinking it was digital. I held up the blank, gray liquid crystal display "No photo," I'd say. They looked at me curiously, not understanding. I pulled a roll of film from my pocket and held it up: "no photo - film," I said, smiling.
 
No blog, story, video, or photograph can adequately communicate what the human touch can. You just have to see it - experience it for yourself.


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A child prays in his Port au Prince church, destroyed in the earthquake January 12, 2010

So, I guess I'm not sure what I hope to accomplish by blogging about it all. Maybe it's just a way of letting out some of the emotion; working through it. In March when we said goodbye to the children at the OTV, we got on a plane and headed home to the greatest country in the world. And they didn't. I've always hated goodbyes... No long, drawn out weepy stuff. I'm a rip the bandaid off fast kinda guy and don't look back. When I returned home my wife had some medical issues that required me as the leader of our family to emerge from the tangle of stuff I was shown in Haiti, buck up and take care of business. This gave me a specific task to focus on. It wasn't too long before I was sitting in the car pool line at school and listening to the cholera epidemic on the NPR. "The kids..." I thought and drifted off... then emotionally crashed again. So there's still a lot of stuff to work through. I'm hoping this trip will not resolve this "stuff," but add to it.
 

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