Haiti's Greatest Resource

One night in Haiti a few weeks ago, while I was accompanying a parish group looking to start a sister relationship, we had dinner with the president of Haiti's Notre Dame University. Msgr. Pierre-Andre Pierre spoke of the challenges that the country faces, and that his philosophy to address those is, "Get something started." I have been searching for words to write about Haiti since I got on the plane to fly out of Port-au-Prince. But, as I was reading this morning some of Paul Farmer's book, "Haiti After the Earthquake," a similar phrase stood out to me. Farmer mentioned that President Clinton, as UN Special Envoy to Haiti, would constantly remind them, "GSD" (Get stuff done!).

Farmer, as with many, many of the people that we met in Haiti would add the caveat that getting things done needs to be tempered with patience, foresight, and collaboration with the Haitian people. Pe Josué, a pastor in a mountain parish near Petit-Goave, said that NGOs (Non-governmental organizations) come into the country and "do what they want to do, not what Haiti needs." Indeed, even before the earthquake Haiti had seen a lot of interest and money from foreign aid groups to little practical effect. It is tempting to solely blame the Haitians for this, but as any Maryknoller will tell you, mission is first a matter of being with, not doing for.

And I learned quite powerfully that Haitians do not need people to do things for them. The road to St. Anne, that parish outside of Petit-Goave, is a steep, rough climb up seven miles of mountain. As we drove up in the morning, we saw a large truck full of building material marooned in a ditch. Men were struggling to dig and lift the massive machine out, and members of our group commented to themselves, “That’s not going anywhere.” We continued up the mountain and spent the day in the community of St. Anne, a community of farmers who live simply and, as we were told quite clearly, are struggling to survive. When we came back down the mountain a few hours later, the truck was gone. They had gotten it out of the ditch with no complex machinery, just simple tools, expertise, and will.

 (The road to St. Anne)

On that same mountain, the parish church itself had been destroyed in the earthquake. Now, the building that doubled as both a house of worship and a school was a simple wood structure with no walls. Nearby, a well-constructed Mennonite school stood. Pe Josué proudly walked us over to the school. We got a sense that he was not trying to point out the disparity between this and his own school, but rather the possibility: Look at what is possible seven miles up this mountain when we have the resources!

(St. Anne's church and school, built to replace the structure destroyed in the earthquake)

(Mennonite school near St. Anne)

Time and time again, we saw the ingenuity, strength, and determination of the Haitian people. Gloria, a seventeen-year-old, had been receiving what was likely her only hot meal of the day at a feeding program for local kids since she was little. Still, she spoke to me in very good English that she had primarily taught herself by watching American television. She had also received a scholarship to go to college. That same feeding program was started by a local woman, who took the initiative to approach an aid group and ask for the money to feed the children in her neighborhood. That was about twenty years ago, and Madame Samson, now in her eighties, is still running the operation.

(Children receive a hot meal at Madame Samson's neighborhood feeding program.)

(Gloria and I at Madame Samson's program)

We met Collins in the mountains of Petionville. Eighteen years old, he walks two hours each way down and up the mountain to go to school in Port-au-Prince. He, too, had taught himself English, mostly through listening to music. The lack of schooling in the areas around the city makes this a common occurrence in the country. Children walk down mountains and through dusty streets in their impeccable uniforms to receive an education.

(Collins and I at Notre Dame du Mont Carmel Parish in Petionville)

(School children at St. Anne)

This determination characterizes Haiti for me. The poverty, the crowded streets of Port-au-Prince, the toil of people carrying heavy loads up and down the mountains as they go to and from the markets, are all overwhelming. But the people that we met were proud, faith-filled, and diligent. Haiti has many needs, but the Haitian people are a great resource. When Msgr. Pierre said, “Get something started,” he emphasized that we need to get something started with the Haitian people, not for them. And, in the process, we will learn a lot about the strength of faith and the possibilities of human solidarity in the face of disparity and hardship.

(A sugarcane vendor on the streets of Port-au-Prince)