It’s not too often a person gets a second chance at something. Last January, I made my second trip to Deschapelles, Haiti, where I volunteered at Hospital Albert Schweitzer. After learning from the mistakes I made during my first trip in 1998, I came armed with a better understanding of the culture, the language and the people.
I left my cosmetics at home and packed only dresses and sandals, the acceptable attire for women in Haiti. I brought paper, markers and crayons for the children, tennis balls for the village boys and a notebook to record any new French Creole words I might learn. I thought I knew what to expect this second time around.
Even though the memories from 1998 were fresh, nothing prepared me for the culture shock of Port Au Prince, the capital. Imagine a dirty, overpopulated city crowded with buses, rubble, merchants and overwhelming poverty. For once, you are fully aware of the color of your skin as Haitians, people of African descent, stare at you and yell words such as “Blanc” and “Chinua” to your face. Imagine riding in the back seat of a Land Rover and having your driver, who speaks little English, tell you to lock your doors for your own safety. During this time you’re thinking, “Why did I choose to come here in the first place?”
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti’s problems began in the 1940s with the reign of terror under the dictatorship of Francois Duvalier (also known as Papa Doc) up until the bloody coup in 1991 of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Haiti has been plagued with bad press from reports of violence in the streets to the inaccurate AIDS scare which halted tourism in the country altogether during the 1980s. Haiti’s economy has never fully recovered from the AIDS scandal, and, even today, many Haitians flee to the United States with hope of a better life.
This devastation has hit the rural areas the hardest. While foreigners are advised not to spend time in Port Au Prince, the city’s standards of living exceed those of the peasants in the countryside, which is where Hospital Albert Schweitzer is located.
My main jobs were to do errands for the medical director, help out in the nurses’ office and spend time in the kwashiorkor ward, where the starving children recovered.
The time I spent in the ward was the most humbling experience of my trip. Here I was, sitting on the bare floor among children so sick that even the smallest amount of food made them vomit. These kids had all the characteristics of wet starvation: the red tinge to their black hair, bloated bellies, stick-thin arms and swollen legs. After a few uncomfortable days in the ward, I finally got used to coming home with vomit and urine on my dresses.
For the most part, the hospital was safe. There were armed guards with guns and machetes at every entrance and even a comical sign picturing a gun with a red line through it, warning visitors to leave their weapons at the door. However, danger was always around the corner.
The first violence I heard of happened my second night in Haiti. January is the month of pre-Mardi Gras celebration, and the Haitians have huge weekend street parties called Ra-Ra, which are rich with voodoo culture. During these parties, people dance shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes drunk, sometimes high, but always swaying to the addicting beat of voodoo drums. The crowds are so massive it’s impossible for a vehicle to move through the streets.
The violent incident took place in Verrettes, a town two hours (by foot) from Deschapelles. A taxi driver was on his way home when he tried to drive through a Ra-Ra celebration. He inched his way through the crowd and accidentally hit (but didn’t injure) two people. Apparently the crowd went crazy and took the man out of his car, stoned him to death and hacked him with machetes before throwing his body back into his car and torching it.
For me, this was the harshest reality check. It was an incident that made the cold showers, the cockroaches in the kitchen, the lizards in my bed and the tarantulas on the porch worth the safety of my home away from home.
Still, I wouldn’t have traded my experience for all the valuable Haitian rum in the country. Many Haitians accepted me into their lives and were eager to teach and learn new things. Spending time among them and helping out wherever I could gave me a feeling of satisfaction and made me appreciate the kind of life I have.
Someone once asked me why I decided to return to Haiti. I think the little things keep bringing me back. Like the way the children played with my hair, fascinated at how soft it is, or how the village boys waited for me to finish my day at the hospital so we could play ball in the afternoon.
I have learned something I have yet to learn in the classroom – the fact that everyone is connected to one another no matter what part of the world we live in. We are more alike than we think.
Jodi Kiely ’00 went to Haiti with her grandfather, a retired physician. Kiely joined the Peace Corps after graduating in May and teaches English in the Krygyz Republic (formerly known as Krygyzstan, part of the Soviet Union). This article appeared in the Feb. 25, 2000, Aquin, the student newspaper.