When we set out to do our ten trips for our ten year anniversary we knew we wanted to do something to give back. The chance to go to Haiti arose again for us and we were able to arrange everything to go, with support from all of you.
Since we got back I have thought about how I can write about our experience in Haiti and share it with you. How do you describe something that gets under your skin, stays there and becomes a new part of who you are? It's not easy to put into words but I'll try my best. I'm going to have to do it in three blog posts though. First, I'll talk about Pat and I's experience and what we learned from Haiti. I'll then talk about what the people of Haiti taught us and end with how witnessing the high school students in Haiti motivated and changed us.
Haiti is the first developing country we've been to and I have a feeling it won't be the last. As we drove to the Nehemiah Vision Ministries (NVM) campus from the airport it hit both of us immediately how different of a place we were than our usual "explore a city type of trips." Most of the earthquake rubble is picked up or reconstructed but you can see some different tent villages as you drive through Port-au-Prince. The place is packed and traffic is crazy. Picture yourself being able to stick your hand barely out of a window of a car and touching a big Mac truck, all while zooming past. I could never drive there but the NVM drivers know what they're doing.
As we got out of the city one of the first things I noticed was the lack of trees. I had read about the deforestation in Haiti but seeing it was a different thing. The Dominican Republic is the lush part of the island and Haiti is bare. Take a look at a satellite view of the island to get a feel for it.
Haiti is beautiful, even with the lack of trees. One of the first nights we were there we all went up to the roof to watch the sunset. Our team was pretty quiet as we all took in the sunset and thought about what was to come during the week. By that time we had worked on getting ready for an ESL camp and sanded some walls at the hospital that is being built on campus. Sanding was hard work but we all tried to have a positive mindset and silently prayed over the scrapping sounds for those that will be healed in the hospital. It's pretty amazing to see how far NVM has come since placing itself outside of a village of 4,000 people.
I have to admit that I felt a little weird about us doing an English speaking camp with the children in the area, ages 8-15. I had that feeling of why should we "force" our language on them but after talking to some of the staff and interns about it more, my attitude totally changed. Giving these kids the nuts and bolts of the English language helps them have a chance of taking it further and getting one step above the poverty line. They can do a lot by having even basic English knowledge and it's a hand-up to them. NVM believes in hand-ups, things that will help the people improve themselves with help from others, instead of hand-outs, which is just giving the people things with them turning to relying on those give-outs. It's a hard struggle as you are down there for a week and you see the people in so much need and want to just hand them your shoes, but understanding NVM's vision and reasoning puts it in perspective.
In the middle of the week, Pat and I decided to get up early for the sunrise. Two of the high school boys were already up and doing a Bible study on the roof when we sat down behind them to see the sun come up over the mountains. I sat close to Pat, trying to not talk too loud and be respectful of the boys. As we watched the hazy sunrise, side by side, I wanted to capture that moment and it be one of the never-forget-this-part-of-our-marriage milestone. At the beginning of our marriage I could have never guessed we'd be sitting on the roof of a clinic in Haiti. We just weren't at that stage in our lives and it took a couple of years for us to have the a-ha moment that we starting making changes to live with God at the center of our marriage. He was always there but we left him off to the side most of the time. And since making efforts to keep Him at the center, our lives have done a 360. We're still the same people in many ways but in other ways, drastically different.
So here we are sitting on the roof watching the sun rise over the treeless mountains and silent. We can't come up with the words to say to one another what we are feeling in that moment. Haiti has taken our breath away and we're trying to figure how to get it back without taking away what we have learned. And it was only the middle of the week! As we sat on the roof, below us were about 20 people who had already been sitting there when we climbed to the roof, waiting for the clinic to open. They walked or took tap-taps to get there early and be the first in line to see the doctor and nurses that morning. And we Americans complain about waiting 15 minutes longer than our appointment time! They were there three hours before the clinic opened.
Many of you have asked what it was like sleeping and eating in Haiti. I have to say that we were very well fed, all of us loved the rice and beans, and we slept in separate girls/guys dorms with a tent covering and bunkbeds. I honestly felt like the arrangements were better than some of the retreats we go on with the high school students!
I would always feel instantly guilty for those accommodations when we would walk into the village of Chambrun, just down the street from campus. Our first time walking into the village felt like walking right into the pages of National Geographic. You know these places exist but few people reach out to be part of them and engage with the people there. I instantly saw how well-loved the NVM staff is by the people as women came up and kissed the cheeks of the nurses, kids jumped into the interns arms yelling their name and the people were excited to meet the staff's "blonde" friends. I didn't bring my camera the first time but brought it each time we went after that. It's not very tasteful to just be taking random photos of the people and their homes. I like how one of the nurses described it as how would we feel if complete strangers walked up to our home and started taking photos of us and our homes. So I always was discrete and didn't take many photos of the homes or adults to show them the most respect that I could.
In this village most of the homes are made of sticks and mud with tin roofs or doors. If it rains hard, they have to fix their homes. Most of the homes were the size of our kitchen or smaller and the majority of them have more than three or four children plus the adult women, and sometimes the men. (More on the people in a later blog post). Regardless of their living quarters they are so joyful. They find the simplest pleasures from normal things, make games out of rocks or dirt and smile right back at you when you smile at them.
NVM has a children's home in the village where about nine children live, are fed and sent to school from the support of NVM. They are currently building two children's homes on campus to accommodate way more children. I had a little bit more free range here to take photos as I followed the kids around and they showed me their home, complete with a litter of tiny, very skinny kittens. On the way to the children's home you pass a voodoo "temple." The first time we passed it I got the total creeps. I normally don't get that feeling but had it almost every time we passed it. Voodoo is very prevalent in Haiti and knowing some of the practices and beliefs behind it just creep me out. It's cool to hear stories from the staff of the way the people are trying to break through the voodoo and bring God into their lives.
The area around the house was full of our high school students and the village kids playing soccer games, the little girls in the arms of our high school girls and giggles coming from every corner. We wanted to know each child's story, how they are doing and what they dreamed of being. But with the language barrier those aren't simple questions you get to ask. Instead it's "what is your name?," "how old are you?," and then jumping into playing. Pat and I had a harder time of the kids warming up to us because we were adults and especially Pat because they are not used to seeing men around. They aren't sure what to think of an older guy, not that Pat is that old, but their older men are typically not around at all. They rarely have a father figure. Pat got frustrated with this a bit but had some eye-opening experiences on what God was teaching him in this. It was sad to see the children not know how to react to an adult male but so fun to see when he was able to break through the barriers with them.
One day we drove out to Onaville, a tent village turned more permanent village that is nearby NVM. The people in Onaville were displaced by the earthquake and around 500,000 moved out to this village to start over. NVM started in an area with 4,000 and now has an additional 500,000 right in their area. Crazy! This photo doesn't do Onaville justice to how vast it is. I'll share another photo in a later post that shows it a bit more. It's powerful to stand on the side of a mountain and see how many people had to move their lives after the earthquake.
That same day we all sat in the back of pick-up trucks and barreled up the mountain side to stop to see this view. You can see the Dominican Republic and ocean on one side and Port-au-Prince and the ocean on the other side, along with a giant lake, all from this spot. It's beautiful. One of the interns, Jonathan, stood up and talked about Haiti's history to us and how it has become in the state it currently is. It's amazing to hear the history and how the people are trying to bring life back into Haiti.
So how to I explain what Pat and I are feeling after being in Haiti? A bit lost to be honest as we are thrown back into Hamilton County but hopeful. We're still processing a lot, sharing stories with Zane and debriefing our trip with friends. It's hard to pick out favorite moments of the trip because there were so many and so many that broke our hearts and rejuvenated them at the same time. You can't visit Haiti without picking up on the hope and love that is there and the beauty that a land that has been ripped of so much still holds.