There is a lot of writing about Haiti. I want to write for a moment about Haitians.
The reason that I keep going to Haiti is not that I care so much for the nation. It’s that I’m deeply in love with its people.
Haitians have the most brilliant and unexpected smiles I’ve ever seen. For the most part, they go about their day with a rather closed expression on their faces. This can lead you to think, from candid pictures, that they are a dour or unhappy people. If you wave or smile at a person on the road in Haiti, 9 times out of ten you will be rewarded with a smile like a sudden sunrise. The eyes light, the face brightens, and they return your wave. Similarly, they are guarded and careful at first. Anyone who lives with such hardship would be. However, when you talk openly with them, they are a joyful people. Poor, downtrodden, cautious, misused by the world – but at core joyful like no others I’ve met.
It is no exaggeration to say that the average Haitian I’ve met is happier, in a very real sense, than the average American that I know. That should tell you something about both sides of the equation.
Haitian children sit quietly like no others that I’ve seen. I’ve watched a bench filled with twenty 5 year olds sit quietly, waiting to be seen by the doctor, for hours at a time. Again, when I took a hand or looked into the eyes, that smile would light up the room.
Alan, the architect traveling with us, shared a story: While evaluating buildings, he was standing on one wall, looking at an adjacent wall that was in the process of falling over. Under that wall was a pile of trash. While he watched, a little girl, perhaps 8 years old, wormed her way out from the hole she had dug herself for shelter – in the trash – under the wall that would inevitably fall and would certainly kill her when it did. She flashed him that open, honest Haitian smile. As he put it “my shit was lost.”
redmed‘s translator, living in the street himself, discretely gave what little money he had in his pockets to the poorest patients who passed through her room. “Hide this,” he would say. “Don’t let anyone take it from you.”
Haitians are a clean people. They dressed in their best to see the doctors (to see our motley crew), and to come to church. To see people living in the streets, bathing in shared water in the open – you might think that cleanliness would go. Somehow, from that dusty, dirty, smashed city – impeccably pressed shirts emerge. Blinding whites and colors, shined shoes. Ribbons in children’s hair. I remarked on this in 2006 and it’s still true in 2010.
Haitians are a people of deep, deep faith and strength.
Haitians are a crafty, resourceful people who can make almost anything work.
Haitians have long, long memories. Children in the orphanage in Fondwa remember my name and ask after team members who came in years past.
Of course, no nation is homogeneous. As someone who tries hard to avoid being a stereotypical American traveler (overweight, badly dressed, loud, rude, clueless, culturally insensitive) – I hesitate to make generalizations about any group of people. Obviously, Haiti has suffered from brutal dictators and vicious local gangsters. However – these are my observations of the people I’ve met – and I would share them with you.
Thanks for listening.