I have been fortunate to travel a lot in my life throughout Western and Eastern Europe, and then more recently to Oceania and Southeast Asia – Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and surrounds. That travel has taken me to beautiful places, rich in culture and history, from prosperous to poverty-stricken but all burgeoning with life and bustling economies.
I have also been to places within Costa Rica and Mexico, parts of the Caribbean where there are no sleek coffee shops, fancy hair salons and fabulous places to dine but still rich in culture and brimming with natural beauty.
Recently a friend of mine seemed surprised when I said “I have never been to a place like Haiti” and she replied “oh, you have never been to the developing world!” like somehow I’ve kept myself so sheltered and cocooned, and I felt ashamed. Here I was feeling, up until this point, so smug in my life adventurers putting myself on planes, trains, in cars with strangers, sleeping in a tent in the middle of the Orkneys, and lying on the bottom bunk in multiple hostels around the world; I thought somehow these activities made me adventurous, wordily and a life-long learner; but maybe not.
By being adventurous and open, I have met people from different parts of the world, learned interesting history, shuffled through many chapels and duomos, shared a lot of great cups of coffee and yes, I have gotten my hair done over all the world. Yet I realize I have not once put myself in a situation where the standard of living is on the other end of the spectrum from what I am accustomed. And I began this adventure in the only coffee shop on the four-hour drive from Port-au-Prince to Fond des Blancs. I was not there, however. to enjoy the coffee. I was in the restroom loosing breakfast as a result of the horrendous traffic and pitted roads getting the better of me.
While attending Opportunity Collaboration Conference in October, Opus partner, Annie de Cossy and I had the pleasure of spending time with Karen and Jim Ansara, who have been instrumental in building medical infrastructure in Haiti through their tireless work and generous contributions. This connection led to working with the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation – an international nonprofit organization with a small administrative office based just outside of Boston and a 200 plus Haitian hospital staff based in Fond des Blancs, Haiti. St. Boniface operates a hospital, a remote village clinic, mobile clinics, a spinal cord injury treatment center and many community development and education programs. St. Boniface hired Opus to do a Development Assessment and work on building their case for support, and operational mechanisms.
Opus felt we would be much better informed and our work more comprehensive and compelling if we could see their work first-hand. Part of our core set of values and methodology as partners, friends and colleagues is that we want to dig deep in to our work, see the work first-hand so that we are offering more than a canned report and bullet points. Wherever possible, we go to where the work is done. When your clients’ work is in the basement of a church or out on the soccer field, digging deep is a little easier than traveling to Haiti.
Recently Annie and I boarded a plane from Boston, through Miami and landed in Port-au-Prince on a Sunday afternoon. The drive from the airport to the beautiful Karibe Hotel was surreal. The streets were littered with trash; I saw a group of young girls huddled around a puddle of water in the street collecting it with plastic milk jugs cut for this purpose.
I saw piles of rubble and wondered if they had always been there or were a result of the earthquake in 2010. I saw women carrying wide baskets on their heads filled with fruit, small plastic bags of water, and men carrying cans of soda to sell or t-shirts to hawk. I saw lots of college signs, water depots and many many Lotto places: colorful, brimming with activity, horns and expectation of parades and Carnival looming.
We pulled in to the shelter and quiet of the Karibe, enjoyed a pool-side drink and a nice chat about what was in-store for the days ahead. We had a flavorful dinner that evening with St Boniface’s photographer Terry Sebastian, our driver Jean Bertrand, Besty Sherwood, newly appointed Development Associate and Program Coordinator for the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment Center, Anita the residence coordinator at the hospital, and a group of women that work for Common Wealth Community Care. We had all traveled in from far and wide – Dominican Republic, Bolivia and New England. We were an eclectic group sharing great conversation over dinner in Pétionville. Apart from the interesting drive from the airport to the hotel, this trip was shaping up to be another adventurous jaunt through the Caribbean although through my research and readings on Haiti, newspaper articles, conversations and knowing the statistics associated with the healthcare sector in which St Boniface operates, I knew something was amiss.
We awoke early Monday morning for a four-hour land rover drive from Port-au-Prince through Carrefour to Fond des Blancs. Along the way we saw the National Palace near the Place L’Ouverture still in ruins, four years on! The temporary shelter tents had just recently been cleared near the airport, but the streets and roads everywhere were covered with trash. More saddening was the trash in waterways and burnt, smoldering piles of plastic and debris, burnt-out cars and school buses littering the roads – all with the backdrop of that quintessential Caribbean blue water. My companions enjoyed a good cup of coffee at the Christian shop; proceeds go to help the Restavek (children who have been trafficked or slaved) while I got to know the insides of the bathroom. It was not so much the hustle and bustle of everyone going to work, walking in the middle of the roads, trucks and tap-taps coming at us head-on, but it was more the conditions of the roads that made my motion sickness rear its ugly head.
Most of the trip to Fond des Blancs was more of the same, lush greenery in the background, but street-view I saw plastic bags and styrofoam lunch containers, women washing clothes in the waterways and lots of adorable school-aged children walking with colorful ribbons in their black hair. I loved it: the beauty of the people, the heat and sunshine all within the confines of the Land Rover, Jean’s expert driving skills, and Betsy’s creole translation.
We arrived at the St Boniface Hospital mid-morning and what a respite – I don’t mean that the car ride was over but the location and tranquility of the hospital was such a respite especially for this community. Fond des Blancs is very remote, the last thirteen miles of the ride taking about an hour. We did not get a chance to visit the Villa Clinic which the doctors, nurses, pharmacy and laboratory have been operated out of a series of tents at its original site since the earthquake, but maybe I’ll visit it next trip.
We had a full tour of the hospital, met with the Director General of the Hospital, Dr. Pierre, for almost two hours, met some of the patients waiting to have babies, children waiting to be seen in the Nutritional Clinic, saw warehouses filled with medical supplies and clothing, and spent several hours touring the Spinal Cord Injury Treatment center, meeting patients Maxsony and Mamai. An amazing day to witness first-hand the quality care St. Boniface is providing to patients who would absolutely not receive it if St Boniface did not exist. Many patients have to travel a whole day to get to the hospital, and for those more remote, the hospital sends out a mobile clinic once a week. I could go on but there is no doubt that the hospital, its community development and educational programs are having immense impact on the communities it serves – working alongside and for the people of Fond des Blancs.
We drove back the next day through Cité Soleil. Betsy categorized this area as one of the poorest and most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere and it is one of the biggest slums in the Northern Hemisphere. Five minutes later we found ourselves ordering a coffee at Rebo, sitting in sleek chocolate brown chairs at a lime green colored table. Haiti is certainly a country of dichotomy but more so than any other place I have traveled. We have a similar dichotomy of economic status here in the US – the divide between rich and poor and a slowly diminishing middle class, but most people here in the US privileged to have medical care around the corner, trash pick-up on a Wednesday evening and their mail delivered every day.
St Boniface is working with the communities around Fond des Blancs to educate and provide basic human services – something that before traveling to Haiti and witnessing the lack of basic infrastructure, I took for granted. The travel to Haiti ended up giving me much more than a better understanding of the work our client is doing in Haiti. It surely provided that, and I’m confident that understanding is evident in our work with them. The trip underscored my love of working with organizations doing work that inspires me.
But the trip also gave me perspective and appreciation for the country. I genuinely loved this trip, the people, and the natural beauty of this place – albeit littered with plastic and the air is filled with the burning of charcoal. I felt comfortable there and enjoyed the country. Whether it’s my adventurous spirit or need to learn more about this place, I am going back. And Haiti is not just some place in the developing world, it now has a name to me and certainly a lot to offer – Mwen renmen wAyiti. Mwen vle retournen Ayiti anko. (I like you Haiti. I will return to Haiti.)