Okay. It’s been a hot minute since I last posted. I’m aware. The thing about Haiti is that, while the days seem to have twice as many hours in them, and you’ll look back at 3pm and wonder how on earth it’s only been three hours since you ate lunch, you still manage to lose track of time. I think it’s the exhaustion. Your body is trying to push through each excruciatingly long day whilst dealing with a hotter sun, little water, and a diet consisting mostly of carbs. So when 8pm rolls around and it feels like you’ve lived through an entire week in the last twelve hours, you welcome sleep. And then you welcome sleep again the next day. And the next day. And the next day. And before you know it, you’ve gone over a week without writing a blog post, and you’ve entirely forgotten everything that has happened in the last year—I mean, eight days—since you last wrote.
I guess it’s apparent that Haiti is not a walk in the park—something that most people could probably guess, but have no real quantification of until they’ve been here. Honestly, the seven other study abroad girls and myself are getting pampered in comparison to what real life in Haiti looks like, and being in the field has taught me that. Here at Christianville, I can drink water straight from the tap just like in America. I’m fed meals (maybe not the best meals) three times a day. I have toilets that flush, which is a big deal. And I don’t have to bathe out of a bucket, which means you will never hear me complaining about the lack of hot water. Meanwhile, some of the Haitians we’re surveying have to bathe in their yards; use latrines in their yards; travel to get (untreated) water from the community well; and have to cook meals for their large family every day with what water they bring back from said wells. Did I mention these are the same people who grin and say a friendly, “Bonswa,” every time my privileged butt walks by? These are the same people who happily grab chairs for myself and my Haitian partner to sit in while they stand as we interview them for an hour. Or they wash their clothes, or cook their meals, or sell water outside their house—all the while sharing information about their lives with us. Anything that might lead to a better water situation for their community.
I really want to write about everything I’ve seen and learned. I want to tell you all about going to a Haitian church, and how hearing a room full of voices rising up to praise the Lord in Kreyòl was profound. I want to tell you about going to the roof of the Fish House at Christianville and singing songs with the other study abroad girls while the sun went down behind the mountains. I want to tell you about our parties at Claude’s house, where we continuously blew out the car battery that was fueling our late-night Backstreet Boys karaoke and Whitney Houston dance marathons. I want to tell you about Jacmel and the two-hour drive up the mountains, how the Haitian proverb deye mon, gen mon—behind mountains, there are mountains—came to life before our eyes. I want to tell you how beautiful Haiti is, how incredibly kind the people are, how they make me laugh and smile in the most genuine of ways.
Honestly, I am just exhausted by how much I’m learning. Every day it’s new information, new things I’ve never seen before, and it’s not just about digesting it. It’s about figuring out what to do with it. What to think. How to feel. Meanwhile trying to remember my own name, my life back in America, which is increasingly hidden behind the wild brush of Haiti. I want to understand everything, I want to explain everything, I want to fix everything, but all I have right now is this: piti piti zwazo fè niche li.
If you’re ever in Haiti (yes, I’m saying you should go to Haiti) make sure you take the time to go to their national history museum, Musée du Panthéon National Haïtien (also called MUPANAH for sure) in Port-au-Prince. You won’t be able to take pictures, and it’ll break your heart to not record your incredibly knowledgeable guide, but you might as well not come to Haiti at all unless you’re willing to learn the history taught at this museum.
Before the Europeans entered the scene, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were one island inhabited by three different people groups. The Taíno were the main group, and it is their word for the western half of the island, Hay-iti, that the freed slaves of 1804 chose to use for the name of their country. When the Europeans came, the French on the west and the Spanish to the east, the Taíno and every other native group were wiped out almost in their entirety. Our guide showed us a painting of the Spanish landing on Haitian shore with crosses, swords and dogs—the crosses they seemed to have forgotten the meaning of, as they used their swords to cut off the noses of the natives and their dogs to attack and maul them. To this day, Haitians have a general dislike for dogs and their word for the animals, chen, is used as a slur.
Slaves were carted 800 at a time from Africa to the island, 70% of them dying on the journey over. Girls who were princesses in their home country were starved and beaten, forced to work on sugarcane plantations and raped by their owners. At one point, while there were roughly 40,000 Europeans on the island, there were 400,000 slaves. We were shown the chains used to punish any slaves who tried to run. Their hands were hung up with shackles on either side, with their feet shackled to a 50-pound weight, crucifying them. The 50-pound weights had a dual purpose, though, as the owners would also put them on the heads of any slave woman who had an abortion. While about four white people lived in their large plantation home, they kept 15 slaves per hut. Given these conditions, it isn’t surprising that the tour guide postured that Hispañola had the worst treatment of slaves of any colony.
It also explains why the slaves were willing to fight the French not once but twice for their freedom. After beating back their French colonists, a few years later they went to battle against Napoleon and his 40,000 troops, proclaiming, “Libérté ou la mort!” They were the first country of black slaves to win their independence on January 1st, 1804. In case you were wondering, the newly founded country of America, who had just fought for their own freedom, refused to acknowledge Haiti as a country…because they couldn’t have a country of black slaves succeeding while they kept their own working the plantations, right?
I could really go on for a while about the little bit of Haitian history I have learned. What is important to understand is that the Haitian people are survivors. They have fought tirelessly for their freedom, faced natural disaster after natural disaster, are constantly being controlled and influenced by outside countries, and in the face of poverty choose to work and sell and barter every day to provide for their families, with no complaints. When France demanded 150 million gold francs from Haiti as “independence debt” to make up for the money France “lost,” when it lost control of its colony, Haiti came up with the money. When corrupt presidents took over the country, or the U.S. stepped in an appointed their own, Haitians fought back endlessly against the crooked politics.
And when the earthquake destroyed millions of homes in 2010, burying an innumerable amount of people beneath rubble, it was the Haitians who rescued the majority of their people—not the relief groups from outside countries. The poverty that has developed in this country has occurred over hundreds of years through stigma, military intervention, and economic gutting by outside countries who flood Haiti with their own food and resources, robbing the Haitians of the opportunity to sell their own goods. And yet, they persevere. And yet, they live. And yet, they laugh. They are kind. They grin when any foreigner attempts to ask how they’re doing in their native tongue. They teach ignorant, 20-something blan girls Kreyòl with patience. And I remain astounded.
Our first day of class began today. As this isn’t your typical study abroad trip, we had to learn all about the research project that we’ll be conducting while in the country. Briefly, we’re asking Haitian women about their water use. Where does their water come from, and how often do they have access? How do they use it? What do their hygiene practices look like? Is the water treated? And then, we’re asking them about their beliefs surrounding water.
What kind of illnesses do they believe the water transmits? What water practices cause different illnesses? How do they treat these illnesses? We’re mainly looking to understand beliefs surrounding water’s relationship to women’s health, so a lot of the questions are fairly sensitive. The plan is to conduct surveys, about an hour long each, for a week or so. After that, we’ll be returning to the most “knowledgeable” participants, the ones who kind of hold the keys to the community’s beliefs, and doing ethnographies with them. An ethnography is an anthropological method where you just essentially embed yourself into the community and become a trustworthy enough individual that they will share their knowledge and practices with you. It’s participant observation: watching as you participate in the community. For our purposes we’ll be doing a much shorter version of this, instead just doing extensive interviews with these individuals where we hope they will trust us and share more details than in the original survey. It’s a conversation, more than anything, where we try to learn as much as they have to share.
So, to prep us for this huge task, Dr. Wood and Kelly Chapman (the PhD student who conducted the first half of the research project from February-April) began teaching us the basics of research methods. It took most of the day, between our plethora of questions and learning all the details of the project. Personally, I am invigorated by the research process. I want to know why we phrased each question the way we did, how we know it’s asking what we want it to, how the data can deliver us one cohesive answer in the end. Everything. But at the same time, it’s clear that the research is dependent entirely on the community in which your conducting it. I have to understand the life of my participants; I have to be willing to learn from them. I have to learn their customs, what is appropriate and inappropriate. Maybe most of all, I have to step outside of my nervous self-consciousness and be willing to look like a fool, look like an outsider. I have to be okay with the fact that I am the one who needs help here, who needs someone to teach me. It is all about humility.
With this on our minds, we took two hours after class to hike up a mountain (some might call it a hill, but I’m a Floridian) to visit a local Haitian church known as Odin’s church. Dr. Wood took us up a steep, narrow path where we passed goats, cows, and children who screamed enthusiastically, “How are you?!” eager to practice their English. In Haiti, it is polite to greet anyone you pass. So our walk was littered with, “Bonswa,” and, “Salud,” with most Haitians flashing us large grins as they replied. Their smiles are so wide they take you aback a bit, especially when you’ve grown accustomed to the American grimace we pass off as a smile. The views were breathtaking. To the north, past the glowing blue sea, you can see the clouded silhouette of the northern part of the island wrapping around the water. To the south, the lower part of Haiti whips around the same way. When we got to the top of the mountain, we could see everything. Christianville off in the distance, small part of Port-au-Prince, everything. The wind was so powerful that a bird trying to fly forward was being pushed backward, and my hat kept flying off my head and rolling away. It may have been my favorite place we’d been so far. I probably could have stayed up there for hours.
Instead of having pizza for dinner, we opted to go to a local restaurant called Ben Haiti. It took a total of three hours to walk there, wait for our food, eat, and walk back. But the food was entirely worth it. I had Haitian flavored beef with pico de gallo on top, fried plantains, and a side dish called piklis. It looks like coleslaw, but is actually shredded vegetables with spices and vinegar. Very flavorful, very spicy. Very good. After waiting two hours for the food, the table was virtually silent as we all scarfed it down. It was our first authentic Haitian meal, and we all left sleepy and satisfied.
I’ll be honest, the walk back was a little tumultuous. At least for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the tarantulas. In Haiti there are no street lamps to light the way, so when night falls your flashlight is your only guiding light. Between the anxiety of whether the next step would introduce a huge spider onto my path and the constant need to get out of the way of trucks passing, it got a little overwhelming. Luckily, the girls that I am here with are kind and understanding, and while one walked in front of me to brave any possible spiders, another linked arms with me and distracted my thoughts. We got home in piece—no tarantula sightings—and I went right to bed.
Days Five through Seven.
Over the last few days we’ve had a lot of trouble with the Wi-Fi and power around Christianville, so the chances to post any blog writings have been sparse. We also spent Thursday and Friday in class most of the day, and by the end of the night I was too mentally exhausted to write. Most of the group hit a rough patch the last two days of the week. Stomach issues, family turmoil, homesickness and exhaustion caught up with us and group morale fell a lot. Though we’re all excited to start collecting the surveys and actually get our hands onto the data, the preparations for it got a little overwhelming. Most of us will be on our own with one enumerator (a fancy word for the person conducting the survey), and while they ask the participant the questions in Kreyòl, we’ll be following along on a tablet. When the participant tells a story about their experience with water, the enumerator will translate it for us and it’ll be our responsibility to transcribe it in English and ask any follow-up questions. It doesn’t seem like much, but we all feel the weight of responsibility going into the field. The work we’re doing is so important, and none of us want to mess it up by not asking the right questions, or not making the participant feel comfortable, or anything else we might not do right.
So after all of our training, we were ready to cut loose a bit. While reminiscing over how great it would be to jump into a pool (and even seriously considering putting on our bathing suits just to sit around in the cold showers), we suddenly found ourselves asking Dr. Wood if we could go to a nearby beach. Our friend Claude, one of the enumerators, helped us out with, “Can we, Mom? Can we, can we, can we?” And since he had a truck that could fit us all, Liz gave the green light. In less than 15 minutes we were all outside in our bathing suits, ready for some much-needed relaxation. We opted for a private beach, where we all paid 200 gourdes (roughly three bucks) and found ourselves on a small strip of sand with maybe a handful of other people there with us. The water was warm in some parts, cold in others, but we didn’t really care either way. The whole group of us were neck deep in water within two minutes. We only got to spend about two hours there before it was time to go back for dinner, but being off campus and out in nature was definitely what we all needed. We came back tired, but way less wound up.
The ironic thing about our random beach trip is that we had one a full day beach trip planned for the next day, too. I certainly wasn’t complaining about the chance to go twice, though. And this time, we drove about an hour out to Léogâne to a beach called Grand-Goâve. Guys…this beach is one of the many reasons I’m going to keep telling you: go to Haiti. Pictures will not do it justice, even though I’m gonna post some. It was breathtaking. We walked down a path with high grass on either side that led out onto the sand, and were greeted by the glimmering, clear ocean before us. Behind us towered a mountain—if you’ve ever seen Moana, it felt a little like living on her island. The water had multiple shades of striking blue, with the closest water a crystalline color and the deep waters a radiant sapphire. As you swam around the cool, salty water you’d randomly run into a small coral reef (I cut my foot on one—no regrets).
There were rocks galore, and you could see literally everything under the water. At one point I found a rock with a hole in it where a little fish lived. He’d swim into the rock and back out in repetitive circles, and I named him Piklis after my favorite Haitian food. He was very consistent; he was still in the same place when I went to say goodbye at the end of the day. Our large group spent most of their time in the water, splashing and competing (Caitlyn is better at chicken than Liz, and Kelly is better at floating than Maha, if you’re wondering), learning Kreyòl and how to skip rocks. We had fresh fish, caught straight from the ocean, for lunch—it was delicious, and even had some piklis on the side for good measure. I could’ve stayed on that beach forever, I’ll be honest with you.
The one difficult thing about the beach is the vendors. Haitian artisans lay out large tarps and present all of their work on them: there was beautiful painted wood work, unique jewelry, paintings on wood and canvas, carved bowls and cups. Beyond the overwhelming amount of options, you have each vendor coming up to try and get you to look at their work. They’re not oppressive or pushy in any way, but it’s the guilt that makes it hard. I’m so aware of the fact that in America, I’ll throw away $8 on a chick-fil-a meal that I don’t even finish. And here is someone whose livelihood depends on this business—I want to give them all the money in my wallet, but I know I can’t. We’re told to haggle, and that we can get the same items in other places. But the desire to buy it all is still there. The hard part about Haiti isn’t what people tell you it’ll be—it doesn’t feel unsafe, people aren’t rude, it isn’t smelly or something like that. It’s the fact that you want to fix all of its problems, and you can’t. Frankly, it isn’t your job. It’s hard to have compassion while also being practical about the issues, and it’s hard to not feel ashamed and guilty for being American. But why should I feel guilty for being an American? Because that feeling is really stemming from this idea that I should feel bad for being “better,” or having more than Haitians. But I’m not better than any Haitian. I’m not above anyone in this country. And even if I have more in my wallet, I can tell you that the people here have more faith and tenacity and joy than I’ve ever seen. So you have to stop at the end of the day and check your pride at the door.
It started on the plane. The seat next to me was empty, but across the aisle sat a man who kindly smiled at me every time we made eye contact. We talked briefly while waiting for the restroom, and while waiting to depart the plane he asked me if I was visiting or returning home. I informed him I was visiting, and he told me he was going home. Only later did he tell me that he had been in Orlando for 17 years—by returning home he meant visiting his home country. He told me he was sure I would have a wonderful time in Haiti. I silently hoped that all Haitians would be this friendly.
The airport was an adventure. The customs agents barely looked at my passport and trying to get a Haitian sim card was a bit of a failure. Upon walking out into the hot Haitian air my first thought was that there were so many people. The rails were lined with Haitians holding signs, waiting to pick someone up. We piled into one of our cars (air conditioned, to my relief) and waited for further instructions.
Though many might have been alarmed by the driving in Port-au-Prince, all I could do was laugh. It felt like being in the middle of one of those Youtube videos where the cars just drive into the intersection and plow through a bunch of other vehicles. Except luckily, our driver knew when to stop, when to dodge, and when to gun it. We drove for about an hour, passing by endless street vendors, piles of plastic garbage, and a surprising number of goats. At one point when we were slowed at an intersection, two young boys came to my window and started calling to me, yelling hi and blowing kisses. I waved as they hugged the window while our driver slowly moved along. Haitians looked out from their homes at us as we rode by; others combed their hair while sitting on their balcony. A child played peek-a-boo with their sibling. Besides the striking beauty of the people, the sparkling blue of the ocean peeking out between trees caught my attention most. It stretched out, a glistening, clean vision in stark contrast to the city streets.
In Christianville, I found our home to be much more spacious than I’d anticipated. The eight of us are split into two rooms, with two bunk beds in each and our own individual bathrooms. The compound is gorgeous, with well-built houses and tropical forest covering on each side. Of course, it wasn’t after we got settled that we were informed about the tarantulas that can come out at night.
No matter how beautiful Haiti may be, this did make me want to hop back on the plane a bit. (So far none have been spotted. Let’s hope it stays that way.) It was fairly rainy our whole first day. Apparently it is rainy season, but I’m not complaining. The muddy ground is worth the cool air that the rain provides. We ate dinner—rice, mashed potatoes, chicken gravy, papaya and some vegetable vinegar mix that looked oddly like coleslaw—and immediately afterward I fell into a zombie-like trance. Between the early morning, plane ride, heat, and drive to Christianville, exhaustion had set in. Despite the fact that I think we all were feeling this way, we returned to our house to unpack and get settled.
My first impressions of Haiti were not what I expected them to be. I’m astounded by the survivability of the people, after seeing those in Port-au-Prince living side by side on its streets. It’s also not nearly as hot as I’d imagined. The goats and pigs are an exciting change from Florida’s cows. And honestly, it’s much easier to see the beauty in this place than people made it seem. I can’t wait to see how much more there is to discover.
Today was a rest and recuperate day. I was woken up by my roommates at 7:30, letting me know breakfast was ready for us. Our first breakfast here was oatmeal (I mixed mine with bananas), boiled eggs and toast. Nothing to complain about, that is for certain. After breakfast, Dr. Liz Wood, the Public Health professor leading our study, took our group on a walk around the neighborhoods surrounding Christianville. We saw the sprawling hills in the distance, speckled with houses that defy physics in their ability to stay upright. As we walked, a local dog ran out in front of us and began herding us.
He followed us our entire walk, keeping us safe from guard dogs and ensuring that we made it back home without getting lost. Houses were hidden in brush, separated by small fields or miniature forests of plantain trees. We passed by small children who stared with wide, nervous eyes, muttering an unsure, “Bonjou,” in response to ours. It proved difficult not to get run over or sunken in mud, as the roads were wet from the weekend rains and motorbikes continued to peep at us as they zigzagged over the wet ground. In Haiti, honking is more a sign of respect and used for communication, unlike its angry connotation in the U.S. Haitians honk to let their neighbor know they are trying to merge, or that they are coming up and passing by them. We learned that a light honk after you’ve passed some pedestrians is actually a quick “thanks!” for having gotten out of the way. Though our walk was short, it was nice to be outside of Christianville and among the Haitians of Gressier, experiencing what life is really like for them. Christianville can feel a little bit like another world, separate from the actual country of Haiti, and leaving its gates gives the sense of stripping off a bit of privilege that I did nothing to earn.
A tour of Christianville reveals its many layers. Originally, the land was given to a wealthy white woman by the dictator known as Papa Doc, in the 70s. She opened an orphanage on the land, which still exists today. Since then, they have built many houses for missionaries who will come for a week or two at a time to do work in the community, or volunteer with the orphanage. At some point universities, such as UF, came and built houses and labs on the land as well. My study abroad group is staying in the UF house that was built by the College of Public Health, and is now used by UF students and missionaries. Next door is the UF labs, which are used to study cholera and tuberculosis in Haiti. There was at one time an entire nursing school; its opening gate was the only part left standing after the 2010 earthquake. In the back area of the property there are two farms, one for goats and one for tilapia. Both are used to provide protein for the children of the orphanage. Haitians are employed throughout all of Christianville, and will kindly smile and ask, “Komo ye?” when you say bonjou.
We learned all of this our first two days, as we explored the compound and rested from our travels. I napped for two and a half hours after a difficult night of sleep. In the evening, myself and three other girls from our group joined the Christianville staff and two missionary groups on campus for a devotional, where we heard the testimony of Pastor Raymond, the director of Christianville, and sang songs to the Lord. It made me eager to visit the Haitian church up the hill known as Odin’s church, to learn songs in Kreyòl.
Jesus, you are the feeling of lying on a boat under the sun on Memorial Day, a fresh Capri-Sun in your hand and the taste of oranges on your lips.
You are climbing into bed after the most exhausting of days, the way the blanket welcomes you in like a mother with a gentle hug, how sleep cradles you into rest, how dreams tickle you hello.
Jesus, you’re the freedom of dancing in circles, knowing when you fall the grass will catch you and the clouds will spin along with you.
You’re sitting across the table from someone you love so much your stomach hurts, and that feeling in your chest as you watch them eat and wonder how slurping spaghetti could look so perfect.
You’re my mom’s arm stretching out in front of me every time we slam on the brakes, that strength that keeps me safe in the face of possible calamity.
Jesus, you’re the warmth of my cat curling up beside me like I’m the only person in the world she wants to sit with.
You’re a fresh cup of coffee that wakes my brain up and dries the foggy corners of my mind, how morning can feel like a fresh start, the way a coffee shop can feel like a separate universe where you’re allowed to slow down and breathe for a moment.
Jesus, you’re everything good that ever was or ever will be. You’re creation itself, you’re the sun in all its splendor and the moon in all its beauty and the wind in all its might.
You are everything good that ever was or ever will be. Help me remember that creation is in you, goodness is in you. It is all you.
I picture Jesus cupping my face so often. My cheeks rest in his hands and he makes me face him, our eyes aligned. He speaks truth to me there, says things with emphasis to try and make me believe them. It feels a bit like how a Grandma looks at you, like you’re precious and she needs you to understand it, like she’d give you anything you asked for because this face in her hands, this face, lights up her entire day. I think that maybe Jesus feels that way about me. I think maybe he looks at me and mourns a bit because I look in the mirror and wonder why I didn’t try harder today, I look in the mirror and think that I failed again. So he tries again, he pulls my face away from that mirror and makes me stare at him, tells me again how much I matter. He tells me that he made me to matter, he made me with purpose, and nothing I do or don’t do can change that. I usually believe him for a moment, get teary-eyed and nod and we hold each other, but the next time I’m in front of that mirror I forget. I can’t possibly matter, I didn’t do any cleaning today, I didn’t read enough for school, I didn’t show enough love, I got angry at my customers, I watched too much TV, I didn’t pray enough. How can someone with so many flaws matter? How can someone that needs medication to think straight matter, really? I only matter when I’m properly medicated and I’ve had enough sleep and my mind is thinking straight, because that’s when I can actually contribute to the world.
And he comes and cups my face again. He stares into my eyes, an intensity in his own. He says, “I died for you. I died for you when you watched too much Netflix. I died for you when you yelled at your sister. I died for you when you cursed at a passing driver. I died for you when you slept all day. I died for you when you contemplated suicide. I died for you when you lusted. I died for you when you hated others. I died for you with your bitterness, your brokenness, your pride, your shame, your flaws and imperfections. I didn’t die for a perfect person—there would have been no point. I died for you because you need me. Look at me.”
Help me look a little longer, Jesus. Keep holding my face so I can’t turn away. Can we smash the mirror? Let’s smash the mirror. I just want to look at you.