Three years ago today, I flew home from a service trip to Haiti. We built a huge chicken coop for a nearby orphanage in the hopes of providing much-needed protein and revenue opportunity for the children and their “family administrators”. As the plane left Port Au Prince, and before I turned my awareness to the shock of re-entry, I wrote these words. As hindsight so often provides, three years ago Haiti launched in me a massive, three-year inner transformation.
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There’s not a comfortable chair in all of Port-Au-Prince it seems. I smile as I write this because — bien sur! — of course — it makes sense. Haiti is a country that does not sit still. She flows!
Traffic pulses and one feels carried here and there, in and out of incoming traffic like a twig in a river; chickens climb atop piles of garbage endlessly scratching for food; stray dogs roam, ribs visible and mouths open, panting in the dust and heat; slender, high-cheeked women sway as they move through the masses, huge woven baskets of fruit, laundry, or bread balanced on their heads; men scramble between water tankers and SUVs hawking Cokes or attempting to wash your windows before you can stop them — your obligation suddenly all too clear. Children in pristine and colorful school uniforms move in bunches, carefree and smiling or stone-eyed and robotic, nonetheless oblivious to what feels like sensory overload.
The smells — of burning garbage, open sewers, and (rarely) cooking food; the grit — from unfiltered exhausts and factory smokestacks sticks to my lips and coats my skin as I stand, legs wide apart for stability, hands gripping the welded crossbar behind the cab of an open-bed truck; the noises — of horns honking, music blaring out of open-air bars, of clutches grinding, and the rattle of Nissan or Toyota trucks lumbering over the roughest city roads one can imagine.
No, there is not much stillness in Haiti.
In twilight women bathe their protesting children in metal tubs outside or collect their clothes from drying lines while men tinker or stroll the streets or restlessly lean on first one crumbling block wall, then another. The night air is filled with calls of “bon soir!”, hums of generators, strains of dogs barking and roosters crowing, as well as chants from voodoo temples and Hallelujahs from Christian revivals.
In my experience of Haiti, I did not find rest in comfortable Lazy-Boys or hammocks. Comfort is incongruent with existence there, as is abundance and plenty. Instead there exists an extravagance of shadows: Hunger, pollution, joblessness, and disease darken the doorways of tents and huts, orphanages and schools and cast their pall on Haiti’s spirit.
But friends, know this: Haiti is alive! Like a wildflower persisting in the most desolate landscape, hers is an exquisite madness, born of staggering poverty and earth’s fury, nurtured by a corrupt government and non-existent infrastructure, and abandoned by many who say, “We mustn’t give, for their government will take it all.”
And beyond these shadows — beyond these shadows — Haiti squares her shoulders, rises up, and dances the dance of resilience with grit and grace.
(c) Jennifer Comeau, 2013