Every day seemed like a week in Port-au-Prince. The heat was always harsh as the sun rose at 5:30 a.m., but the salience of every experience left a lasting impression.
I traveled to For His Glory Orphanage in the Delmas region of Port-au-Prince with the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based nonprofit The Oak Project. The goal—supporting and counseling the childcare staff—was part of a larger strategy to build relationship and effect change in Haiti’s upcoming generation by caring for the people taking care of them currently.
Upon arriving, we were swarmed with kids who wanted nothing more than to be hugged. Our leader, Kelly, carried two, if not three, children while greeting and hugging the friends she had made during her two prior visits.
As soon as we unloaded our gear, including extra duffle bags full of baby clothes, diapers and wipes, we returned to the city. It looked like a war zone. Yet over the course of a three-hour drive through Port-au-Prince, I only saw five tractors. People were clearing rubble with sledgehammers, shovels and their bare hands.
This is life for the nannies, staff and all Haitian citizens. Of the 30 nannies employed by For His Glory, not to mention the numerous cooks, dishwashers and clothes washers, most everyone had lost loved ones or their home, or both. Yet, the next day, they came to work because the kids needed to be fed, bathed and comforted.
The Haitians’ independent culture exacted a mental toll after the earthquake. Haitians generally do not talk about their feelings. Thus, it was Kelly’s vision to get the nannies talking: to her, to each other, to God, and maybe then begin to heal. Most of nannies had still not dealt with their new reality. It was as if they were indefinitely stuck in the first phase of the grieving process with no foreseeable progress on the horizon.
One teammate, Greg, a counselor by profession, ran counseling sessions with Kelly and the nannies with the assistance of a translator named Filder, who had lost his entire family in the earthquake. During the sessions, Greg and Kelly made sure to cover basic things.
For instance, none of the nannies knew what causes an earthquake, nor did they know they occurred worldwide. Haiti is a deeply religious culture inexorably linked to voodoo, so even cursory knowledge of the Old Testament could naturally incline someone to consider divine judgment a very real cause. The nannies were visibly relieved to learn about plate tectonics and fault lines. Plate tectonics and fault lines changed these people’s entire understanding of the world and God.
Thankfully, the nannies were vocal and discussed their hopes, fears and dissatisfactions. In the face of such oppressive adversity, dissatisfactions like drinking warm water and having headaches. Fears like more earthquakes, their families dying or not having any money for food. And hopes like sending their children to school and finding work for their husbands.
The nannies also mentioned that if they had extra money, they would treat themselves. When Kelly asked what treating themselves would look like, they said buying a soda. A soda. I treat myself to $100+ jeans or a nice dinner with my wife. Yet, if these women could treat themselves, they would buy a Sprite.
During these sessions the rest of the team and I covered the duties of the nannies. Ladonna and Bobbi would cover toddlers, Alexis and I would watch babies and Jen would play with the elder kids as Tracey washed and braided hair. Next session, we would all switch.
One morning I helped Frantz teach first grade. Nine children were laughing and singing while doing addition, subtraction and learning new words that corresponded to letters of the alphabet by talking through simple pictures. They instantly recognized the images of “rain” and “dog” but struggled with images like “cake” and “roof.” I realized these kids had probably never had cake or seen a shingled roof. They also spoke incredible English. As they gathered downstairs to play, Frantz and I spoke about his dreams for the future of his country.
Since Haiti does not have any formal education system, Frantz wants to get his degree in Christian Education and open a school in Port-au-Prince. He says the only difference between his students and the kids who live on the streets is education. The differences were cast in stark relief while outside the obliterated presidential palace. We were practically accosted by children asking for money or our cameras the minute we arrived. Yet, as Frantz proudly pointed out, his kids at the orphanage who often came from worse situations, played well with each other and possessed a joyful spirit. Frantz has an organization ready to stake his entire education in the States, all he has to do is pass the TOEFL ( Test of English as a Foreign Language), but he cannot find appropriate study material.
Another translator, Junior, petitioned for more teachers on future trips. He said Haiti has the Gospel, but they need to learn. While Junior was somewhat joking, the evidence of how education drastically alters the trajectory of a person’s life is apparent. Saoul, one of the nanny’s sons who is nearly finished with his schooling, chatted with me one evening on the porch after all our official duties. He too aspires to teach his country’s youth because he also sees the value in an education and how it can literally change a person’s life by showing them a larger world: a world beyond the expansive tent cities and deeply ingrained poverty.
Hoping for Haiti is a burden. Knowing the people’s desire to learn and work, yet frustrated by the lack of schools, jobs and basic resources. Realizing that regardless of how many millions of dollars pour into Haiti, the change will have to come from the inside out.
This burden can cause feelings of indignation and impotence. When you see people forgoing food for their families to pay off debt and trust that the God will provide, it forces you to call into question how much you actually rely on the Lord yourself.
When I came back to the States after what felt like a month, I didn’t find myself despising American culture, as I thought I would. The first thing I did was wash my hands and rejoice that I didn’t have to then re-sanitize them with Purell, which was the general system I had instituted.
Although Port-au-Prince bears old scars and fresh wounds, I could not help but admire the Haitian spirit. In one of the world’s harshest environments after devastation that only compounded Haiti’s already numerous problems, the nannies still took time to worship and pray to God every sunrise and sunset. Their praises and supplications were assuredly like a sweet fragrance to both God and our team.
Daily, the kids would sing a song in Creole that translated roughly said, “When I look back at where I’ve been, I thank God for where I am now and giving me life.”
“Quite appropriate,” Filer said, “all things considered.”
Education is a key to long-term recovery for Haiti. To learn how you can help RELEVANT and Convoy of Hope rebuild three schools in Haiti, visit the Haiti School Project site.