“In my end is my beginning” Part 2

11/2/92           10:50 a.m.   We're home, but I'm still attempting to down-load material. I wish there had been time to write more when it was happening—but there simply wasn't. As it was, at night, we only got a couple of hours sleep—too much adrenalin pumping to rest.

In the doctor’s office, now—sitting in a paper smock. These are disposable, right? What a joke. Paper isn’t a minimal cost. How to describe the devastated landscape. Mountains stripped of hardwood trees—whole sides of mountains slid into huge rubble heaps, the insides exposed—a stark gray-white as though a giant knife had sliced open a loaf of stale and rotting bread. And the strange absence of birds—I saw four birds the whole time I was in Haiti (and five pigeons—at that point I was even happy to see pigeons)—and one of those birds ended up in my bedroom, flying in, bewildered in the lamp light. Sr. Ann told me that at one time Haiti was a harbor for wonderful birds—many never proceeded on the flyway to South America because they were so pleased with what they found in Haiti. But now there are no nesting places, no resting places—and the birds no longer come. And I remember the mornings full of the sounds of roosters and dogs, but eerily lacking the early joy of birds.

11/3/92          6:50 a.m.   I am in line waiting for the polls to open at 7 a.m. I will vote. I am thinking how much this would mean in Haiti. During the first election there, the army simply went in and sprayed the polls with bullets. The second election, a large number of U. N. observers came and the election proceeded without blood-letting—Aristide was elected. Seven months later a coup d’état forced their democratically elected president to flee. Gail and I met a peasant who had helped organize the voting out in the mountains. We talked to him in the small house where the balloting took place. Off to the side, sat the ballot box—lock broken, now. He still spoke of that time with a proud joy. Without exception, everyone we spoke with waited for the return of the elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Whether or not the real Aristide is the man these people believe he is irrelevant. If he is not, he will simply have to become that man—because he has become an icon. He is the personification of their hope.

The startling thing about quiet revolution is the diversity of men and women that it breeds—We met all manner during our week in Haiti: activists full of political strategy and overviews; poets who suffered openly when they spoke; young men fresh from organizing workers in the field; people living committed lives as members of Catholic base communities; a nun who spoke out courageously before of group of religious with mixed loyalties; labor union visionaries; professors who meet with human rights task forces at night; a starving, pregnant woman standing on a rural bridge with two papayas to sell; women whose husbands had been “disappeared”; men from the deposed government who now lead secret lives. Is it possible to love a hundred different men and women at once—I think so. With so much courage and heart, it is impossible to turn away from any of them. One old French priest picked wildflowers for me as we slipped in out of secret meetings in almost inaccessible mountains where the roads were mostly imagination. To be so full of the hope for the future and yet so full of the present fragile joy seems to me to be the hallmark of these individuals. We can’t walk away from this situation, these lovely, suffering, yet hope-filled people. The intelligence, the sweetness, the commitment nail us—and condemn us if we refuse to respond. We all felt it—and we all made the same response—each of us carrying our own patron saint with us—Beth remembers an orphaned boy who asked her to be his family, Gail carries the face of a blue-eyed Haitian priest, and I—I recall the woman in hiding and the old French priest. I will continue to hold them within in the days ahead.

There is something about Haiti. I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery and words don’t pry mystery loose. But, from the first moment I was there, I felt bound to it in some essential way. Later on in my trips, Fr. Freud Jean remarked to a gathering of delegates that I was Haitian inside. And, Fr. Antoine Adrian told a luncheon group at a Pax Christi USA National Assembly: “With Nancy, Haiti is a passion.” I’m not certain that I am all that different from others who went to Haiti. Haiti does something to a person—it’s like uncovering something lost in one’s self—something known but unknown. It’s a funny thing but I was changed—myself but more than self. One evening, I asked my friend, Father O., if he thought it was possible to fall in love with a hundred people and 7 million more by association. He just laughed and said, “Of course—you’ve been preparing for it your whole life.”   Now, I had to live it and live it with complete abandon. But, that sounds as if I had a choice. In truth, I did not because I had fallen in love, and this was only the beginning.

child

 

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.

Port-au-Prince to Verrettes: Place and day blur

That evening, after dinner, Gail and I packed to leave for Verrettes the next day. Then, we moved out onto the balcony to socialize with the other people in residence. The individuals who ran Hospice St. Joseph, Sister Ann Weller, CSJ, and Fr. Ron Voss, are both from Indiana. There was a whole contingency of people from Indiana visiting here, too. They were with the Parish-Twinning Program. Also, there was retired priest, Fr. Joe Beckman, from Cincinnati here (he lives at the seminary in Cincy). Amazing to come all this way and meet up with home—or, at least, the area where I grew up and whose values I still share.

But, tomorrow, we would go to Verrettes (located in the Artibonite Valley) with a priest named Frantz Grandoit, O.P. We were told we would be put on a bus Thursday to wend our way back to Port-au-Prince on our own. My thought at that time, recorded in my journal: Tomorrow, we go to Verrettes—someone else’s home, someone else’s security—located in the most fertile valley in Haiti, the Artibonite, sequestered on the east and west by mountains, only approachable from the north or south ends of the island. So tomorrow we head north, then west, then south into the heart of the country. This is some adventure.

The next few days became a collage—even recalling them in my journal they came back to me as associated memories rather than chronically arranged happenings.

10/28/92          5:30 a.m.   Yesterday began and ended in a dream. Gail and I got up about five—after waking, as usual, with the chickens and dogs at four-fifteen. There was a heavy mist lying over Port-au-Prince, between the mountains, left over from the terrific rain the night before.

After breakfast with the staff and the gang from Indiana, Ron (Father Ron Voss, the priest from Muncie, Indiana, who runs the Hospice) had Mass—Creole and English. Gail read the First Reading and I did the Responsorial and the Gospel—first time I’ve ever read the Gospel at Mass. George came in during Mass. Afterwards, we had a short conference—found out we would be in Verrettes until Friday instead of Thursday. After George left, we went to Sans Fils with Sister Agatha.

Sans Fils is Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s home for the destitute and dying. As we drove through the entrance, we encountered a dead body lying at the gate. The man had been dropped there by the police. According to Sr. Agatha, this is not an uncommon occurrence. The police know the nuns will take care of burying the body and, consequently, dump bodies here. Now the body was lying there on the concrete and being bothered by flies while a couple of feet away the market was being set up.

Everywhere and always there is the smell of burning—charcoal, the garbage heaps—city and countryside alike, always the burning—and dogs that all look descended from the same dog. But very few birds—because the forests are gone. Last night in Verrettes, as I was getting ready to go to bed, something flew into the room. At first I thought it was a bat; but, when it fluttered to a resting spot, I saw it was a small bird. As I said, all of it connected—not by the clock but by an ancient instinct that understands the significance of patterns.

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.

The Thousand Word Problem: The responsible use of a camera

As late afternoon approached and our saturation point was reached, we were taken out into the streets, to the people who live in Port-au-Prince, and, in particular, to one huge slum that occupies a major portion of the downtown area. It is called Cite Soleil.
Cite Soleil. City of the Sun. City within a city. Home to half a million poor within the capital of Port-au-Prince. It sits on the tidal mudflats of the polluted bay. The houses are four by six feet and made of scrap metal, plywood, and anything usable. The streets run with raw sewage and pigs forage among the heaps of garbage. I remember seeing a child, maybe three years old, squatting and defecating on one such wet and rotting pile as a huge black pig nosed its way through the debris at her feet.

My memories twist together. Was that the first trip or the third? No, the third, and the slum was called La Banan and located in Cap Haitien (obviously there is no shortage of poor or ghastly places to encamp them)—the same day we saw the horribly sick woman lying within the doorway on the mud-slimed, dirt floor of one of these houses. It was partially flooded from the heavy rains the day before; she gazed up at us, unmoving, as we stopped the vehicle and looked in. Take a picture of this—show the world what is happening here, what people are being reduced to. Don’t take a picture of this—there are multitudes of such pictures circulating and what difference will one more make—and it will steal the last thing she has, her privacy. I do not take the picture.

In fact I now find I can no longer take pictures of anyone or anything unless I am asked to take one to document a human rights abuse case. At one point, I brought back a picture of a man in a coffin, a man with half his head missing. That particular picture has been circulated everywhere and, consequently, shows up regularly on network television, in newspapers. I want to vomit every time I see it.

I have broken three cameras on these trips and messed up the loading mechanism on a fourth. I have consistently fouled up lighting and exposures—one time producing negatives so dense that processing the pictures bordered on the impossible. I no longer think it is bad luck or lack of intelligence. I recognize self-subversion when I see it. I can no longer bear the burden of the camera.

lady in mudpigs