Haiti: People and Places

Last fall, I visited Haiti for one week–long enough to learn that this island nation, only 700 miles from the tip of Florida, is much more than its poverty.

by Ruth Anne Olson BS ‘61

I suspect we’ve all been told that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. More than 20 percent of all Haitian children die before age five; the country’s illiteracy rate approaches 80 percent; and Haiti has one doctor per 10,000 people.

Last fall, I visited Haiti for one week–long enough to learn that this island nation, only 700 miles from the tip of Florida, is much more than its poverty.

Haiti is the young woman who struck up a conversation with me in Miami before we boarded our jumbo jet to Port au Prince. Studying in the States, she and her new husband were on their way home for the first time in seven years. Laughter and tears lay close to the surface as she sought to contain her excitement and anxiety. Yet after we landed, she insisted on waiting until all my bags were off the luggage carousel in case an unforeseen problem could be eased by an interpreter.

Haiti is the man walking down the road hoping to sell the telephone he holds out in his hand; the woman hawking bundles of fabric that she carries on her head; the dozens of people offering shoes, soda pop, bed frames, sugar cane, used tires, bottles of gasoline, mangoes and fried bananas, pine bookcases, make-up, CDs, and much more–all hoping for someone willing and able to buy their wares. Where do these goods come from? How long might vendors walk before their resolve is rewarded?

Haiti is the many people who welcomed us, translated for us, provided us with food and water, gave us beds to sleep in, and carefully orchestrated where we should be–all out of trust that both we and they had something to gain from friendship.

Haiti is Monsie–deaf, blind, and more than 100 years old–and her elderly housemates, with whom I shared the deepest and heartiest laughter of the whole trip. Intrigued by my photos of Minnesota, they tried mightily to comprehend the concept of snow before suddenly connecting my pictures of deer in the north woods with the story of Santa Claus.

Haiti is artists. Neighborhood instrumentalists and faith-filled vocalists whose songs move across the city on Sunday evenings. Painters, sculptors, and metalworkers who use palm fronds, iron from old car bodies and used oil barrels, small scraps of lumber, and fabric pieces to create beauty and express pride in their history and traditions.

Haiti is the teachers and children who tolerate American outsiders–knowing their chance for education depends on the questions we ask and the cameras we carry. Haiti is a nurse who accepts with dignity our donations of children’s vitamins to deliver to the mobile health clinics that, for 28 years, she’s taken to communities otherwise devoid of medical services.

Haiti is its cities and towns. Imagine eliminating all the interstate highways in a city of 2 million people. Increase the number of buses by a factor of 10, painting each with bright colors and cautionary sayings. Add countless trucks and a smattering of cars and vans. Discard 90 percent of all buildings–allowing people, goods, and services to tumble outdoors. Add tropical heat, humidity, and hours of heavy rain. Cancel 95 percent of the trash pick-up services and eliminate every recycling and waste treatment plant. Learn to carry things large and small on your head.

And then notice the constant throng of people. While you feel hot, sweaty, and irreparably rumpled, you’ll realize that others are well groomed and immaculately clean; they move with a sense of calm, reserved purpose. The vast majority of women and girls wear skirts, and if you’re as old as I am, you’ll delight in rediscovering how much cooler you feel in a dress than in pants.

Haiti is also mountains–“mountains beyond mountains,” as they say. Beyond the city, houses step ever higher as the road twists and turns back upon itself, reaching for an unseen top. Drivers weave among people, animals, bikes, and carts, leaning on their horns at each blind turn in the hope that oncoming vehicles will swerve into their own lane. The highway is smooth and expertly engineered, but narrows without warning when constricted by mud slides and large boulders that have tumbled from above during last week’s hurricane.

Small market centers dot the route where food and other goods are brought via donkey or bus or on foot to sell to anyone within walking distance (measured by hours, not blocks). At some point, the pavement ends, leaving a road that appears totally impassable–a judgment proved wrong by the skilled determination of the driver.

Eventually the road narrows to a network of trails leading to tiny homes sparsely scattered across the vast landscape of mountains and hollows–each sheltering a family dependent on hard work and the whims of weather and earth. As far as the eye can see, clusters of trees and small garden plots spread across the otherwise denuded landscape. It is, in fact, beautiful.

All this is the Haiti I experienced in one short week. I missed much and may well have misunderstood even more. Mainly, though, I learned to look beyond Haiti’s poverty to see the grace of its people.

Ruth Anne Olson traveled to Haiti in fall 2007 as part of a program through her church, St. James Episcopal, in Minneapolis.