In May I had the privilege of visiting communities in Haiti where I saw firsthand the work being done there to construct wells some of which are being funded by the Passports With Purpose travel blogging fundraiser. And by the way, I’m thrilled to announce, that PWP just won a Travel + Leisure Social Media in Travel and Tourism (SMITTY) Award for the blog making best use of social media!
This is the third of my posts about my Haiti trip; read about the first community meeting I attended in Belanjé and how I then saw people getting their water from a creek in Neva. Many thanks are due to Expedia for covering most of the costs of this trip and to Water.org and Haiti Outreach for organizing and hosting it.
“How is it possible,” I thought, “That these people have no easy access to clean water?” I was watching an elegant Haitian woman wearing a perfectly fitted white sundress move through the hot afternoon as if she were strolling down a runway in a fashion show. A child was seated on her hip his hands and feet surely covered with pale dust yet somehow leaving no mark on her clothing. The dress wasn’t just just white: It was gleaming, pristine, snow-driven, neon against her dark skin.
Haitians wear a lot of cast off American clothing, the stuff that we bring in garbage bags to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. But they take those clothes and tailor and wash and style them so carefully that they have the appearance of bespoke couture, especially when the Haitians are dressed for a special occasion. And this was a special occasion, a party, the celebration of a new well bringing clean water to the community of Jenbal.
They know how to throw a party in Haiti
I was seated, along with my colleagues from Water.org and Passports With Purupose, under a makeshift tarp in front of a makeshift stage about half a mile up a steep and rutted dirt road that looked like it probably turned into a creek on rainy days. We had arrived late to the party, but there seemed no hurry to get things started and so we sat expectantly while the community teemed around us. Children poked their heads through holes in the red curtain that hung at the back of the stage. A group of musicians with dented trombones and trumpets was seated in a row in front of me. I recognized faces from the meeting the previous day in Neva and realized that everyone was celebrating, even those for whom a well was still a hope and not a reality.
Please click on photos for full-size versions
After much patient waiting, the show began. Committee members, all of the dressed to the nines, introduced themselves and sang a welcome song. And then the band in front of us stood up and blasted out a brassy rendition of the national anthem.
Six girls in white tank tops took the stage and began a dance that primarily involved the gyration of their hips and that came to a sudden stop when the Caribbean music coming from the speakers scratched to a halt in the middle of the song. Repeated attempts to restart the music proved fruitless, and finally the program moved on with the arrival of a man wearing enormous shoes.
He clenched a pipe between his teeth and one ragged pant hung leg longer than the other. When he spoke it was in an exaggeratedly high-pitched twang that sent the audience (including my translator Ben) into paroxysms of laughter. It seemed that Old Man and his foolish son (who also had uneven pant legs) refused to pay to subscribe to the well, choosing instead to haul water from the river and drink it. That is, until the son dropped dead from cholera and had to be tucked into a sleeping bag and then rolled away on a desk chair by two men wearing surgical masks. All of this was transacted with great enthusiasm from the audience, who laughed as though they’d never seen anything quite so funny.
I did understand that laughing at the devil is one way to bring people closer together, to make them feel strong and brave. But I’ll admit I was a bit mystified when the son showed up at the end of the skit to screams of delight and laughter. Apparently he wasn’t so dead after all.
The celebration stretched on, the generator used to power the microphone humming loudly in the heat behind my back. Another dancing troupe performed, this one including a very young and tiny girl who was clearly a community pet as the audience roared their approval at everything she did.
Then it was the politicians’ turn and from mayor to minister, they took full advantage of their captive audience to give speech after speech. Ben, who was as diligent and literal as they come at first attempted to share each word, but finally I told him that I understood the basic blah, blah, blah nature of what was going on he laughed and gave up. Some of the air had definitely gone out of the celebration. Then Rogé Michel to take the stage.
The value of community
For the past two days I had watched Rogé cajole, inspire, evangelize the people of Mirabelais in an attempt to make them understand how imperative it was that they take responsibility for their own health and well-being. Yet we had heard so many speeches that even I waited for him to merely add to the platitudes.
But instead he urged everyone to stand up (sheer genius for we had been sitting for a long time). He then led us in a comic call-and-response song and dance that ended up with him shaking his rear end at all of us, much to the general delight.
And then he called out three names, and two of the people who were in the audience ascended the stage. “These families, you should honor, you should recognize,” he said to the audience. “For there were five households in your community without latrines when we started to build the well. And now there are only two! Two! Two!” His voice rose with repetition. Digging latrines is just one critical piece of making sure that the well water stays healthy and clean, and so this was no small feat. These families who had dug latrines on their home would be rewarded by Haiti Outreach who would pay their well fees for the first three months. He beamed at the women standing awkwardly there and asked them to speak, which one of them did, shyly, gratefully acknowledging how happy she and her family where that water had come to Jenbal.
“And now,” Rogé turned sternly back to the crowd, “You must get those two families with no latrines in their homes to dig them.”
But before that would happen there would be celebrating. There would be water for all. For the first couple of days, the well would be open and free to everyone in the community, in hopes that the households who had not yet subscribed would do so when they realized the great benefits of clean, accessible water.
By now it was early evening. How long had we sat – two hours? Three? With no phone I had no way to tell what time it is and so slowed to a Haitian pace: I showed up, waited for things to happen, experienced them as they did without taking photos or sharing, waited for the end of day to lay my head down and rest.
We made our way down rutted road, music still playing behind us (the first group of dancing girls had been invited to come back to the stage and try again to complete their performance with a different song) and there it was: A simple blue and white pump house. Women and girls were already lined up with large buckets, and water was already running in clear streams as they worked the pumps. So simple, and yet, as I had learned over the past two days, so challenging to achieve that it seemed almost like a miracle.
Bearing witness in Haiti
While I watched I thought back to that morning before the celebration started, which I had spent ensconced in tin-roofed church with garlands of plastic flowers hung from the ceiling and the words Jesus revient bientot (Jesus will come soon), soldat, (soldier) and temoin (witness) painted on the wall above the altar. This was yet another meeting, this time between well committees for two different communities. These recent well recipients were coming together for the rigorous follow up demanded by Rogé and Haiti Outreach. Each committee was required to read a written report (with Rogé standing behind the secretary demanding repeatedly that the person read with no editorial comment), to share any problems they were having, and to show all receipts for the past month.
At one point the two committees exchanged their ledgers and as they bent painstakingly over their copybooks, cell phones in hand as calculators, I mused on the words on the wall of the church. As I toyed with the meaning of the word witness, Ben walked up and asked me innocently, “What does it mean, ‘to testify”?” I looked at his open, smiling face and said that to testify means to share what one has seen, like in a trial when one has been witness to a crime. It also has, I said, a religious meaning. “Oh,” he said, “Like when you talk about your faith?”
And I thought, yes, it is just that, when you talk about your faith and the things you believe most deeply.
So it is that I myself testify to the beauty of Haiti and its people, to their courage and dignity in the face of depravation, and to the joy and health that access to clean, healthy water brings to them. And I testify as well to the work being done by Rogé Michel and all the employees of Haiti Outreach who want not just to provide these communities with a one-time solution to a problem that would be the mere construction of a well but with an entire set of skills that they can use to lift themselves and their communities.
I testify to the sheer joy of the celebration, of coming together with your neighbors to celebrate a genuine accomplishment that shared effort brought.
If you are someone who donated to Passports With Purpose in 2012, I thank you on behalf of the people I met in Haiti, who expressed such blessing and gratitude. I hope that by sharing the story of what I saw there you can appreciate just what has been accomplished. I also hope that you can see what there is still to do.