West Tennessee Haiti Partnership


Keys are an interesting phenomenon in Haiti. The medical clinic we work in has 4 rooms along one side of the building, and a long classroom along the other side with a pharmacy room at one end. A central hallway divides the two halves of the building, which is entered through one main door. All these rooms have their own key. Then there is the library, which we use as a nursing station and/or teaching room. And finally Pere Sadoni’s office, which sometimes contains the scale for weighing (?) and often we store our supplies in there overnight.

Upon arriving at St Vincent’s a curious game begins, usually headed by John who has played Find The Key many times. It goes something like this.
John asks Jean Robert, our Haitian guide and interpreter, if Madame Noel has arrived at the school yet. She is the pharmacy tech and has a key to the pharmacy, as well as one or maybe two of the small clinic rooms. Until she arrives, we can’t unload our suitcases full of medications and supplies, like gloves, alcohol wipes, medical record cards. Then there is a separate key to the first clinic room, which John has to get from the school administrator Mr Johannes. If we have a nursing team or have more than one doctor with us, we need all these rooms to move patients through. Mr Johannes is a busy man, often on the phone or trying to do the hundred things it takes to get the school day started. Tracking him down can take 20 minutes or more, especially on days when John’s inquiries are answered with, “Oh, he just left.”. “When will he be back?”. “We don’t know!”. Sigh.

John also has to set up the scale and the HemoCue machine, for checking hemoglobin/iron levels. The scale is locked up in various places on different days, and he has to run an extension cord into the library to connect to the power source. That is, if they have bought gas for the generator that day. Finally Pere Sadoni’s office has to be opened by his secretary, unless Marie Carmelle happens to have THAT key. Marie Carmelle is a cook at St Vincent’s and is always around. Oh, and did I mention that between one trip and the next, the owner of these keys often changes, and the staff doesnt know WHO has the particular key we need. One might think that a master set of keys would be available, or that one person would be the keeper of all these keys. Or that at least the keys would be kept on the premises. Rather, one must wait for each of these individuals to arrive at the school. The fact that Madame Noel is arriving late today, or no one has seen Mr Johannes yet nor knows when he is expected to arrive, does not appear out of the ordinary to the school staff. Many a morning we have stood in the school courtyard, unable to start clinic, because one or more of these keys is unavailable. I have learned to use this time to visit with the children, or sit with Marie Carmelle and practice my Kreyol. “We’re on Haitian time” is a familiar expression among the Americans.

I have decided that being in charge of a key confers special power on a person, and in Haiti perhaps that power is one of the things they can control. I have also learned that saying “We start clinic at 9” is a relative rather than absolute statement. Depending on who has the key…

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