Whiplash. That is how another group member from the BuildaBridge Arts Relief trip described the transition from Carla’s house, where we had our orientation, to the orphanage. I can’t find a better word to describe the feeling of going from the paradise of the mountain compound where Carla lived with her husband to the cinder block enclosed orphanage. Land is at a premium in Haiti, especially now that the Earthquake has condemned much of the living space near Port Au Prince. Madam Luc and her husband are naturally protective of their property. The seven-foot tall grey walls and heavy metal gate isolate the orphanage from the busy town of Leurbours, and keep the fifty children safe.
The earthquake had destroyed the church and killed a four year-old child in the collapse. A white tent stood in its place, decorated with colorful plastic plants, and filled with wooden folding chairs and old-fashioned school benches. Around the complex were a dozen other tents donated by US AID and other humanitarian organizations. There were also several “tap tap” taxi pick-up trucks littered around the yard that the kids would help to clean and repair for extra money. There were lots of animals at the orphanage: two turkeys and their young, several roosters and chickens, two painted faced quails, goats, and two dogs. They would wonder around and on the forth day we were there, the goats ate all of our plantains when we weren’t looking.
Practical Compassion, BuildaBridge’s partner in Haiti, had helped Madam Luc to purchase the land and to construct many of the buildings, the well, and the latrines. The latrines still weren’t finished when we got there. They were western toilets without seats that wouldn’t flush surrounded by more cinder block walls without doors or windows. The well was the main meeting place for the orphanage. It was where everyone bathed, washed their clothes, got water for drinking and cooking, and hung out to do their hair and play games. You develop a greater appreciation for water when you have to filter all of that you use to drink or bathe.
In Haiti, a half-island nation surrounded by the Caribbean, water is everywhere and at the same time unobtainable. Many Haitians don’t know how to swim because beach access is limited and the prime attraction of resorts is their exclusivity. At the few affordable beach locations there is often floating garbage and sewage in the water. An Earthquake may happen only once a century in Haiti, but water is an everyday dilemma. In the rainy season it rains torrentially every afternoon or evening, but clean water is still scarce. Not to say that no Haitians are experienced in the water. When we passed through Saint Marc, a city near the school in Pont Sonde, we caught glimpses of fishermen in old skiffs and their enormous catch.
More jarring in that initial visit than the physical appearance of the orphanage were the children, and in my ill-prepared state of mind, they appeared to me as merely another aspect of the devastating scenery. There were no adults in that first meeting. Madam Luc and her husband had left somewhere, and the children seemed so alone. I remember a little girl coming up and systematically kissing each of us, and a boy saying bon jou. I remember surveying the orphanage in my overwhelmed daze, stumbling over rocks and through puddles to look at the latrines and the church. I remember how the children looked at me, warily, how I looked at them and felt like a judgmental interloper, how helpless I was. Some of them had scabs from ringworm and runny noses and distended bellies that I had never confronted, and it was shocking. After only five minutes we were back in the broken bus we had rented and were driving to the school. It started to downpour, and our driver was speeding and swerving and hydroplaning. We passed by huge stretches of the sea with views of Haitian mountains and palm trees and wonderfully green vegetation, and it was gorgeous.
My time at the school passed in a blur of wonderful food and humidity and sweat. When Rob, Amy, and I returned to the orphanage on Sunday I was sick and besieged by culture shock.
This time we were there to stay, and we were greeted by our hosts. They were incredibly hospitable and friendly the entire time we were there, and I have nothing negative to say about them. They provided us with tents and cots, pillows and sheets. Pastor Luc even brought us a cooler with new sodas, juices, and water every day. He took us on excursions through Port Au Prince and to the sea. Our translator, Kerby, and Madam Luc’s son Guerrie were our constant companions and friends. But that first day, I was still stuck in my own confused little world. Amy and Rob were adjusting better than I was, and particularly Amy was eager to spend time with the children.
When we went to see them, they were all gathered outside underneath a mango tree where there were several old school benches. The little children were eager to meet us and to shake our hands and even hug us. Perhaps they were touch deprived, perhaps they were just curious about out pasty skin. The older children, particularly the girls, were more wary and stayed to the sides. After a little while, Rob and Amy went back to the tent and I stayed. The children would explore my hands and the hand sanitizer hanging from my belt loop with an addicting, to me, curiosity. I could hardly believe it. I was only with the children for a moment when I was struck with how helpless I was, and how uncertain my role was in their community. The adults had left us for a moment, and the children were starting to play without as much concern for propriety…or safety. Somehow, one of the smallest ones banged his head, and started to bleed profusely. I rushed over to the main house to Madam Luc and mimed the situation as best I could. She hurried out with a first aid kit and handed me a red liquid filled dropper to help her tend to the little boy. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it, and I looked frantically to one of the older girls who immediately took over with her own practiced knowledge and experience. I stood there, useless. Here I was, having traveled two thousand miles to help, and I could do nothing. I went to bed that night feeling discouraged and boiling hot in the humidity.
I do not remember whether it rained that night to clear the air, or whether I just slept well and deeply, but when I woke at five am with the roosters and dogs, I felt invigorated and eager to begin our classes. Our main task at the orphanage was to clear a space in the corner by the latrines to be a play area for the children, a sacred space for them to imagine into whatever they wished. Rob and Amy’s classes gradually built up to that goal. They are both visual artists. Rob’s classes focused on drawing flowers and on the metaphor that we are all one in a garden of life and that we have roots and stems and blossoms just like flowers do. Amy’s classes explored mosaics as a montage of life’s influences and experiences. In the final product, the children painted a beautiful garden of flowers onto the cinder-block walls and created a flower mosaic from objects they found around the compound. There were tent poles and bottle caps and rocks. I helped them to form a blue-painted rock barrier all around their space that would act as a threshold from the outside world.
My role in the group was to assist Rob and Amy in their classes and to video tape the key parts. I spent a lot of time filtering water from the well and washing dirty dishes. It is hard to pinpoint specific transformations that I witnessed. Haitian society in general is very community oriented and collectivist, and the orphanage was particularly so. Some of the local men, who may have been former orphans themselves, would come in the afternoon to play soccer or to teach the older children. Whenever we needed help, there was instantly someone present to help us, whether we were sick or needed to carry a heavy bucket of water from the well to our tent. Because they didn’t have very many adults, the older children, especially the girls, would help to take care of the younger children. Perhaps they were acting out of maternal instincts and perhaps they were responding to a matriarchal cultural tendency. What I began to suspect about Haitian society was that the men hold nominal power, but the women own the land and govern the community.
There are certain moments that I remember, such as when a child was looking sad or lonely and I would say bon jou to him, and he would smile brightly, or when one of the older girls would unexpectedly volunteer to share in class. More remarkable was their collective transformation, and the way they responded to their finished product. It was beautiful, and colorful, and all their own, and I hope it stays that way. The first afternoon after we painted, they all gathered in the space spontaneously and played games for hours, singing and laughing and dancing.
What I began to realize over the five days that I lived at the orphanage was that in a community where everyone cares for each other, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have a laptop or a shower or that you sleep in a tent. Some part of me began to connect with that way of life. When you don’t have toys or modern luxuries, your imagination becomes more flexible, and your innate capacity to think and feel are fully realized. A tent can become a space ship and a stick a ninja sword. We provided a space for the children to be comfortable to play and to spark their imaginations, and their resilience and natural ability to adapt astounded us. They did not need us as much as we needed them, or at least I did, to remind me of the basics of humanity. Too often we live in worlds of illusion, and our minds rot with excess. Haiti is a nation of contradictions and extremes. There is extreme wealth and beauty and extreme poverty and ugliness. But who are we to judge which is which and where it lies? Everything is relative, and sometimes in places of great poverty, you can find the greatest wealth of imagination, compassion, and creativity. I know I did.