I recently took my first trip to Haiti to visit an orphanage and learn from them. It was an amazing experience, and I would recommend to anyone that gets the opportunity. I wanted to blog about this experience and my thoughts, and there are some photos at the bottom. Please let me know your thoughts and ideas. Also, I will be happy to answer any question.
As the jet was descending over Port-au-Prince the first thing I noticed was hundreds, perhaps thousands of single-room houses built out of grey concrete and cinder blocks. So, before I landed I was beginning to get a sense of the difference in standard of living between Haiti and America. What was more interesting was that many of these houses lacked a roof which may have to do with them being abandoned after the earthquake and their valuable metal roofs put to new use. Once we landed and collected our luggage, we went outside and there were a million people waiting to take our luggage and use their taxi service.
The next thing that struck me was the vehicle exhaust pollution. I will never complain about having to get my car inspected for emissions again. In the same vein was also the litter. It is basically the norm to throw your plastic containers and other garbage on the side of the road. In America, especially Texas where I’m from, we do have some litter, but it’s illegal to litter in Texas and there are crews out cleaning up the litter that gets tossed illegally. Aside from the law, Americans generally consider “green” living to be ethical. But, in Haiti littering is just the accepted norm. I heard a story about an American and a Haitian walking and talking on a village road. The American had an epiphany and began saying, “One thing we could do is start cleaning up the streets. . .” and before his thought was finished the Haitian tossed an empty Coke bottle on the side of the street! So that little idea was shot down rather comically.
We drove from Port-au-Prince north into the mountains. Once we got to a higher elevation the landscape stood out as supremely beautiful with mountains and tropical vegetation. Haiti has very beautiful natural landscape. It’s a shame that they have experienced deforestation in certain regions due to human activity, but I hear there are efforts to replant trees.
From here I want to skip ahead to a story. The American group I was with had dinner in a room, and when we came out of the room, there was some girls sitting outside who lived in a house next to the orphanage. The oldest girl (who was 8 years old) asked for food and pointed to her stomach. We brought them a plate of food which was rice with bean sauce and a chicken leg, and these girls absolutely devoured the food. At that point I had known these girls to some degree for a few days. I had played outside with them and seen their living conditions. When she asked us for food, I saw something in her. It was different than how you see kids in America who are hungry. This is the look of a real struggle with hunger to survive and to live. At that moment my heart broke. She lives in a small house with maybe two pairs of clothes both of which are too small for her already slender body. I was randomly born in American middle class which is extraordinarily wealthy compared to humans throughout most of history, and I have never worried about food or education or medicine. All I worry about is having some kind of meaningful life, for what reason? Who knows. But, she has no time to waste on the first world problem of an existential crisis. She is struggling against hunger and poverty and probably has no awareness of the excesses of the American life.
She is not an orphan. The orphans there are well fed because they have enough American sponsorship, but there are hungry and malnourished kids in Haiti. Let me be clear about this. There is a spectrum of wellbeing in Haiti, so even though the standard of living is far lower than America, many of them do not struggle to this degree. What concerns me is the lower end of the spectrum, especially the innocent children who have nothing and struggle with hunger and malnourishment.
Now, I could bore you to death by addressing why Haiti is the poorest Western nation. Yes, it has to do with a history of abuse from other nations like France and the US, it has to do with the majority of the population speaking Creole but the elite speaking French, it has to do with the problem of “brain drain” (educated people leaving), it has to do with political problems, and it has to do with the deadly earthquake of 2010. But, instead of focusing on these things, I want to briefly mention my thoughts on a way forward. In my opinion, one of the keys to fixing the third world problems is education on all levels. If they are educated, they can solve their problems with the resources at their hands. You might be able to argue against certain kinds of charitable aid, but when it comes to children’s food and education, I can see no plausible argument against it.
Here are some other experiences in a list:
- Cell phones are common in Haiti. I think cell phone towers are cheaper than landline infrastructure.
- Dogs are not pets, they are scavengers and basically won’t respond to humans as they do in America. And, these dogs are not treated well. They are kicked and get rocks thrown at them.
- The farmers in the village I visited use hoes to work the ground. They don’t use ox and plow for some reason and I wonder if it’s simply an educational problem.
- Do you think sleeping in an 85 degrees F (29.4 degrees C) room is easy?
- Farm animals such as cows and goats are tied up randomly everywhere. Along the side of roads, in fields, etc. I wonder, why do they not have ranches?
- As a white person in this village you are very uncommon. People point at you and say, “Blan” which means white and they take pictures of you with their cell phone cameras. If you go to a market, you are basically assumed to be rich (which you probably are compared to them). Kids will immediately come up and beg in certain areas.
The last thing I wanted to mention is that I’m proud of the NGO I support. It is driven by Christian humanism and was started by a Haitian pastor. His love for orphans and fighting to help families and educate children is what started this whole thing. Haitian Christians may struggle with poverty but they are spiritually rich. I am happy that we are part of the same family and look forward to continue working with them towards a better future.
This is a typical house in Haiti. The walls are covered with a tarp built with wood and dirt and has a metal roof. This house does not have electricity, but many houses do have electricity even though amenities like A/C and television are unusual. Other ways of constructing houses use concrete and cinder blocks. In the background the dirt field is hand-tilled with a hoe. The crop behind the dirt field is corn.
This is the foundation for the new orphanage housing since they have outgrown what they have. The foundation walls are made with large limestones and concrete. Inside the foundation walls are filled with dirt and small stones which can be seen. Then rebar is laid down and fastened together with wire for earthquake reinforcement, and the concrete is poured on top. The actual walls will likely be cinder blocks. PVC is also frequently used. PVC pipe can be put over vertical rebar and concrete shoveled inside to make a support column for a patio overhang. The new orphanage is funded by Americans and costs around US $200,000 which 80-90% of this going towards raw materials.
Here is the kitchen for the orphanage. The grills are made with rebar welded together. The food was great and consisted mainly of rice and beans with some meats like goat and chicken. You can see clothes hang-drying in the background. Laundry is all done by hand. They have a water well which I believe was drilled by Americans. The soul who leads all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry is the pastor’s wife and she is absolutely amazing at taking care of the family.
This is my wife taking care of a burn on a little girl. We also treated a motorcycle burn on the inside of a guy’s leg. It was at least second degree and had been festering for a whopping 15 days without medical treatment. Medical resources are generally poor in Haiti, but one recent improvement has been building the University Hospital of Mirebalais by Partners in Health, an NGO based out of Boston. This is an amazing facility which is entirely solar powered!