Reflections on my trip to St. Vincent’s, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, April 5-12, 2014
This April I have joined the medical mission of the West Tennessee Haiti Partnership (WTHP). Even though I have no medical training, they convince me that all my talents and then some will be utilized while we are at St. Vincent’s. WTHP comes to St. Vincent’s every 6 months to check on the growth and well being of the children, the health of the staff, and to followup on children and adults of special concern.
Port-au-Prince is as I remember it. Sun, heat, sweat. People everywhere, walking, sitting, selling wares, riding motorcycles, bicycles, riding in dented and dusty TapTaps, cars, trucks, SUV’s.
There are no traffic lights, few marked lanes (people make their own regardless), a few signs cheerfully ignored, blind corners (warning honks, thank goodness, but no slowing down). Huge bundles on their heads, people gracefully walk. Lovely people seemingly oblivious to the heat and humidity in their suits, dresses, carefully ironed shirts and blouses, long pants, tight jeans, polyester (you don’t have to iron polyester but hot and sticky doesn’t begin to express it, and yet Haitians appear cool and unaffected.) Proud, fit, well groomed people in a poor hardscrabble place. The colors: bright and vibrant reds, blues, yellows,greens, purples of the stores and houses and people’s shirts. Art/graffiti everywhere: on buildings, on TapTaps, on the ubiquitous gates and galvanized tall fences topped by razor wire and broken bottles. Vendors everywhere selling everything from beautifully carved bed frames to fruits and vegetables to car parts to prom dresses to recycled oil drum art. The visual stimulation is over the top. Brightly painted new buildings side by side with buildings ready to collapse in the next high wind. Garbage and rubble abound, but it looks like someone is systematically collecting the garbage. Significant heaps still remain nestled behind or next to the vendors. In the distance are the mountains, deforested but somehow still protective and full of promise.
On Sunday we attend church at Holy Trinity Cathedral, visit the gift shop and then the nursing home. Inside the nursing home it is dark – no windows, only doors to darkened rooms, but outside there are glorious flowers and bright sun. The residents are all women and are in their “Sunday Best.” They appear delighted by the visit and patiently help us learn their names.
Monday at St. Vincent’s: it is in downtown PortauPrince across the street from the prison and sandwiched between small shops and vendors. The gatekeeper has a fake gun and greets us with a huge smile. He remembers the medical team warmly and includes me in his hugs. We all belong here. I hug old friends met last summer with the Friends of St. Vincent’s group. Children I haven’t met burst into the court yard, swarms of all ages on a break between classes. They are laughing, hugging waiting for attention and peeweelees or piwili’s, what they call the lollipops the medical team gives after examinations. They are all in uniforms, and the youngest, the preschoolers have their names embroidered on their cloth belts. Father Sadoni’s son is there, smiling and friendly. It makes us all feel good to see him. We know his father grew up at this school and what the school meant, what it still means to him as the director, and how proud he must be of the school to send his son here. And the grandmother is here, the head cook of the school.
Now I am surrounded by deaf children. Fortunately, Sherye Fairbanks, the interpreter, has taught us some rudimentary sign language, and she is not far away to help sort out meaning among the rush of signs and smiles. The main meaning is clear without signs: the children are happy to see us and to play with us. They offer so much love that it is impossible not to love them back. Everyone is smiling and glad to be here. I spend the rest of the day helping measure heights and weights of the children and helping them get to the next stages in their examination process.
Tuesday: our group is taken on a tour while we are waiting for keys to rooms for the medical examinations. The school itself is very unprepossessing. The buildings are concrete overlaid with stucco. There are no windows in the downstairs classrooms, where the older children are taught, and which are very small, old, and simple: a blackboard in the front of the room and rows of desks facing the blackboard. The library is an exception. There are windows and the books (though many are well worn) are displayed in an attractive manner. The upstairs classrooms for the younger children are brighter. They have windows and are full of color and posters. There is dust everywhere even though people are doing their best sweeping and cleaning. We walk down the wheelchair ramp overlooking rubble and cast off items. There is washing hanging on walls and railings (no clotheslines – no washing machine or dryer either), the smell of garbage, and the smell of the next meal’s preparation in the air. I help again with heights and weights and then spend time playing with the severely disabled children who are wheelchair bound and one who is bed bound. They communicate with smiles and touch and fill my heart with their trust and love.
Wednesday: We travel to Mirebelais (about an hour from PortauPrince) to visit the new 360 bed university hospital built by Partners in Health. It is an impressive place with hundreds of people waiting. It is designed so that people can wait comfortably out of the sun. We were told that between 600 and 800 people are seen on an outpatient basis daily and they pay very little (about $1.25) for lifetime care We are also told that the Haitian Ministry of Health has committed 8 million dollars per year for the operation of the hospital. Good news about how the government is using aid money.
I am very glad I went with WTHP and met so many of the children at St. Vincent’s. They have so little in material wealth but are rich in love and wisdom and give it all.