In the Country

10/30/92          9:10 p.m.   Verrettes   Last night we changed residence. We moved from the rectory to the convent across the way. Before we left for the evening, Fr. Gilles Dan-Roc and Frantz told us about a young man/boy of twenty who had been out here on the square playing dominoes in front of the convent on October 11th at 9 p.m. The military came by and insisted that the boy was breaking the arbitrary and unofficial curfew (time and enforcement up to whomever wants to use it for perverse intentions). They broke the young man's arm as punishment. This morning, lying here in bed at the convent talking to Gail, I looked up (I had moved from the head to the foot of my bed last night because of air circulation). Up on the wall, over my bed, hung a crucifix. The arm of the Christ was broken.

In the morning, we had attended a Mass said by Pere Salvetti where he anointed us with oil. Gail and I mused it was as if we had been re-baptized and re-confirmed on this trip to Verrettes. Afterwards we went up into the mountains. On our way, we had forded the Artibonite River—not easy with the swift water and the bed full of boulders. As we made it to the other side, I saw a little girl—maybe five or six years old—brushing her teeth with river water. It was an act of futility—the water was as thick and sable brown as chocolate mousse. The water’s color came from the all the top soil that is eroded into the feeding streams. Haiti’s mountains have been denuded—trees cut down and harvested to produce charcoal. As a consequence, the terrain is gouged out in long, devastating gorges and the remaining land is nutrient poor.

As we were making our way up the mountain (the road was hardly a road, more of a rough, rock-strewn path), Pere Salvetti pointed to a spot where a vehicle recently had gone over the side. All passengers had been killed. The drop off all along the road was sheer and there was no foliage to break the descent. Once a vehicle went over, it didn’t stop until it reached the bottom. Imagine our shattering surprise when, once we returned to Port-au-Prince, we were informed that the lug-nuts on our vehicle had been loosened and only through a fluke or probably the grace of God the wheels had not come off in the mountains and all of us killed in a similar accident. It was speculated that the Macoutes member who lived behind the rectory in Verrettes may have been responsible for the sabotage.

That day we also visited the Hôpital Albert Schweitzer located at Descapelles—near Verrettes. The hospital is located in buildings and grounds once owned by the United Fruit Company. It is an extraordinary institution established by Dr. Larimer and Gwen Mellon. They had read about the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer in Africa and established a correspondence with him. Inspired by his work, Larimer Mellon attended medical school and Gwen Mellon became a medical technician. They endowed and opened the hospital in the area of Haiti most cut off from medical services. We toured the facilities and were amazed at what was being provided for the poorest of the poor. But, it is charity of the right type. Individuals are charged for the services—the equivalent of one day’s wages. In that way, those who are treated do not feel demeaned. As we approached the buildings, we saw a line of people waiting to be seen. They were protected from the sun by majestic hardwoods—hardwoods that spread large umbrella branches as shade and whose leaves moved, generous fans, in the mountain breeze. This was the only place that we ever saw the magnificent hardwoods that had originally covered Haiti.

The sun was setting as we made our way back to Verrettes. Outside the little houses and along the road, little coal oil lanterns, each about the size of a regular vegetable can and containing a wick, were being lit. Men, with roosters under their arms, were heading down the road. Cock fights would provide the evening’s entertainment. I understood but I was also repelled. During the daytime the usual pastime is dominoes. Score in this game is kept by attaching pincher-type clothes pins to the jaw and chin areas. It makes for some really strange looking individuals.

pere salvettiPD_0034women of verrettes

 

The Women

10/28/92           6:30 a.m.   Verrettes. Now, after breakfast—I am not feeling so great. I am tired and have a bit of stomach dis-ease and dizziness. I've dug out the "Gummi Dolphins" I bought in the Miami airport. Perhaps I need a sugar-fix. In any event, Frantz Grandoit, the priest who drove us here to Verrettes, yesterday, and whose rectory we are staying at and whose room I was given, came in and chased down the little bird and released it through the window. Then, we affixed the shutters—no more birds that night.

Earlier in the evening, when I first entered Frantz’s room, I got this tremendous feeling of the presence of Teilhard de Chardin. Really strange. Trying to rationalize—maybe because three of the priests here are Frenchmen and Frantz teaches philosophy at the university and the room is lined with books and the room is rather Spartan. (Donkey braying now in the background).

Anyway, back to the Mass at the Hospice, yesterday, the first hymn was one based on Isaiah 61—one of my all-time favorites. The day was the Feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. Fr. Ron indicated Gail and I were being sent forth and he prayed for our safety. We made it here over unbelievable roads and through army check-points, so it must have worked.

After Mass, we went to Sans Fils Hospital located in Port-au-Prince. When we entered one of the large wards, the women sang songs of welcome for us—what a contrast, those sweet songs given to us from those dear ailing women. Then, Gail and I gave body rubs to the women in this jammed full ward of sick and dying. One appeared to be dead already—eyes rolled-up, no sign of breathing.

I got to use all sixteen words of my French—“C’est bon?” “Bon.” “Oui.” And, in a patchwork of sign-language and fractured French, I explained that I used to play games with the toes of my “petit bebe” when I bathed her. Then, I proceeded to play “This Little Piggy Went to Market” complete with “WEE WEE WEE all the way home” with their toes as I massaged their feet. Many smiled or chuckled. Some of the women we rubbed were horribly wasted (in every sense of the word). Hip bones protruding, breasts withered, skin broken out, subcutaneous lumps—all manner of illness—all bunched together. A strange consequence of those massages—the rubber gloves we wore and the lotion we used and the bodies we massaged combined to burn our fingers and temporarily erase our fingerprints. Symbolic meanings traced their ways through my thoughts.

All of this confused memory fragments striving to make whole cloth.

Suffer the Little Children

That first afternoon, we exited the vehicles and entered the muddy pathways and narrow thoroughfares of this sad city. We were immediately surrounded by children—smiling children—who reached out and gently grasped our hands and our arms and accompanied us down the horrific alleyways of sewage and mud and garbage and little tin shacks constructed of cast-off materials.

And, yet there was a determined pride. The population might be relegated to the burning dumps and sewage sloughs of the city, but there was an effort to bring beauty and dignity to the place. Many of the tiny shacks were painted in a multitude of bright colors—probably leftover paint from a project somewhere else in the city. Some of the homes sported little gardens marked off with rocks or tin cans and boasting a few zinnias.

In front of one house, poised on a grid of sewage, there was a small enamel table, about 3 x 1 ½ feet. On it was a tin basin. In the basin sat a small child who was being assiduously washed by his mother. I was moved by this attempt to remain human in a place that did not encourage it. The whole was an overwhelming experience. I had never dreamed or envisioned such poverty and misery or such humanity amidst it. Early the next morning, I revisited itin my journal.

10/27/92          7:00 a.m.   No traffic noise—people noise—wildlife. Went to sleep to masses of barking dogs—awakened at 4:15 a.m. by a rooster crowing what sounded like “Pennsylvania”—followed by half echoes and murmuring reverberations of cocks all over the city. The heat and humidity are beyond belief. Everyone seems drenched—including me—from the crack of dawn on. I’ve never enjoyed a cold shower as much as the one last night. The room, last night, was haunted by the palmetto bug from hell. But, who cared especially after what we saw yesterday.

Down a filthy gangway—the ground a marshy gray muck, full of human refuse, the street ran with it—in about a 2 ft. wide clearance sat four small children—two of whom were about 18 months old, one, maybe 2 ½ years, and one more about 3 ½ or 4. The oldest one was feeding the youngest two an oatmeal type gruel. They were naked (a lot of that, here)—only the oldest had on a little dress. They sat in the filth. The youngest two couldn’t walk.   Dr. Richard Ludwig, a dentist who volunteers six months of his year to come from United States Midwest and work in Haiti and who was one of our guides in the area, thought maybe the little ones had polio. But, he expressed some hope because he had been able to get them an appointment at a clinic for November 6th. Another example of what Sister Ann explained to us earlier in the day about most hospitals here being rudimentary. If a patient checks in, he is expected to bring his own drugs and treatment kit with him. That can present a real problem especially for the poor. A fact we had witnessed when Sister gave the mother of the little girl the materials to clean out the necrotic tissue so that she could take the child to the hospital for treatment.