Fifteen minutes after landing in Haiti, I was having serious doubts as to whether or not this trip was a good idea. I had come to Haiti accompanying another Catholic college group at the request of my own school, to see about the possibility of setting up a joint yearly immersion trip. Our guide, a fellow campus minister who had made a dozen trips of various lengths to this impoverished island, had left me alone while he and his students went off to retrieve our luggage from the wheezing conveyer belt. Meanwhile, I spread myself as thinly as I could manage in various directions over the expanding collection of luggage, fending off the swarm of screaming, would-be chauffeurs and taxi guides so eager for our business that they were trying to snatch the luggage out from under me to carry to their vehicles. By the time we headed outside, where a hired driver awaited us, zigzagging around lethargic, skeletal cows grazing in what appeared to be the airport parking lot, I was more ready to go home than I cared to admit.
The ordeal was far from over. After loading ourselves and our luggage into a pickup truck, we wound our way up one hill after another on dirt roads that resembled dry riverbeds, lined with heaps of trash three and four feet high, dodging dogs, chickens and pigs rooting through the garbage. There were people everywhere, carrying tin cans of water on their heads, hawking vegetables or smoked meats from uncertain-looking barbecues. We drove for five hours on gutted roads with only occasional patches of blacktop until we came to a hamlet on the border of the Dominican Republic. There we unloaded a good deal of our luggage as well as a sizable amount of cash that would help the people construct a small concrete structure to serve as a store six days a week and a church on the seventh.
We stayed with the village elder, Monsieur Don Don, who kindly gave us the use of his two-room home while he and his family of six lined up on the porch to sleep for the next two days. The three other women on the trip and I got to share the master bed, which was swarming with insects. Once the lights were out, something was running back and forth across the rafters over our heads. Clutching my flashlight to my chest, just in case I needed to make a nocturnal trip to the neighboring fields to relieve myself, I imagined rats the size of microwave ovens scampering above us. Suddenly the patter of little feet halted, and something jumped on my stomach. I shrieked so loud I woke up half the village, only to turn my trembling flashlight on to a terrified kitten, every hair of whose body was standing on end before it dashed off with a scream of its own. The next morning the whole household teased me about the kitten, assuring me amid wide grins not to worry, that the little thing would bother me no more.
When we returned to Port-au-Prince to rest a day or two before heading once more into the Haitian interior with another load of cash and supplies, I made the decision that I would go no farther. I had an eye infection, a mild fever and a bad case of flea bites. I took refuge in a hostel of sorts run by sisters from a congregation in Ohio. After my first shower in four days, some eye drops and a bit of flea powder, I felt like a new woman, and Haiti was not looking so bad either. In fact, I was becoming increasingly impressed with both the horror and the beauty of this island, as well as with the unflagging optimism and friendliness of the vast majority of its people, despite their daily battle with too little to eat and few opportunities to earn a livelihood. I could not just sit around the hostel for the next three days waiting for my companions to come back. I took a tap-tapa brightly painted pickup truck that had been converted into a Haitian taxi busto a local hospice for the dying run by Mother Teresa’s sisters. I was determined to keep my anxieties under control and try to make myself useful.
The sisters sent me to buy bread for their dying charges with a portion of a cash donation they had just received. I walked to a store that was really the front room of a shack, sparsely stocked with an incongruous assortment of stale food items and dry goods. I purchased eight baguettes, the store’s entire stock, and barely managed to balance them all in my arms while a small cluster of schoolboys tugged at my clothing begging for money. In the commotion I dropped one of the loaves and expected them to pick it up and run off with it. I was stunned when one of the boys handed the loaf back to me with an endearing smile. I returned the loaf to him in thanksgiving, and he clutched his new treasure to his chest as his companions pressed around him with hungry, pleading eyes.
Next the sisters assigned me to the women’s hospice ward, where two dozen women in various stages of dying languished on steel cots barely six inches off the floor. The sister in charge put me to work feeding these women, some of whom could only manage to gum a little bit of the bread moistened in milk. Afterward the sister assigned me to a young woman who was lying in the fetal position, her limbs dotted with hard, cancerous tumors like knobs on tree branches. The sister handed me a tin of anesthetic cream and directed me to massage her with it in what seemed to me to be a futile attempt to bring relief to her pained limbs.
I was so overwhelmed with the inadequacies of the means at my disposal for this task that at first I could not move. An American doctor with a thick moustache, after covering up a patient who had apparently just died, came over to see how I was doing. He allowed me to vent my feelings of fear and impotence with a calm that at first had me wondering if he were truly sane. Then, admitting that we certainly did not have adequate medical means with which to address this situation, he invited me to put my heart and soul into using the few methods that we did in fact have at hand, and to do so with loving intention.
I accepted what he told me to do because, frankly, the only other medicine we seemed to have to relieve the pain of AIDS, tuberculosis and cancer was aspirin. Eventually I got to work, massaging cream into every inch of this woman’s extremities for the next 45 minutes. I tried to pray that she be released from her pain, following the doctor’s advice. I felt that my kindness, my lovingness, were probably not adequate for the task at hand. I tried to envision healing for her, to pray for her release from pain in the way the doctor taught me, still aware that my kindness, my lovingness, were not nearly adequate. So I offered her up to a power greater than my own and soon became lost in my massaging.
As I worked, a young American volunteer sang hymns of an evangelical sort that I usually do not find myself too keen on, but her soft voice was soothing in the low buzz of this sweltering room packed with coughing, moaning women. She sang Amazing Grace, and something remarkable happened. The Haitian women, all of them dying, began singing with her, but in Creole. It was obviously a song they knew and loved. Listening to their soft, straining voices fill the room, my skin crawled with goose flesh. The American volunteer kept singing without missing a beat, even as tears streamed down her cheeks.
As the sun began to set, I headed out for the hostel, searching the streets for a tap-tap to take me there. A little old woman came up to me begging, and I gave her everything I had on me except for my tap-tap fare, a gift that amounted to about $2.50. Clutching the money, she lifted her radiant face and started a loud litany of praise, which she was still reciting as a tap-tap pulled up and I climbed in, contemplating a fate that could have seen me as an old woman begging on the streets of a developing country. One of my fellow passengers, a young woman, placed her baby on my lap playfully, smiling with pride as I cooed over. About half way up the hillside to the hostel, I smelled something burning, and thick smoke started curling into our hooded compartment. We banged on the walls of the tap-tap until it rolled to a stop and we climbed out as flames shot from underneath the front hood. Everyone walked away nonchalantly except the driver, who lingered by the side of the road, dismally watching his livelihood go up in smoke.
Back at the hostel that night I sat on the porch with a watery Haitian beer vainly trying to read by candlelight a dog-eared copy of Dr. Paul Farmer’s The Uses of Haiti, which documents how rich countries have exploited Haiti for its natural and human resources. Soon I abandoned the book as I was joined by another American woman of roughly my own age, an African-American lawyer from Detroit who, on her own spiritual pilgrimage, had made her way to Haiti hoping both to help and to learn from a people more oppressed than her neighbors at home. She had been in Port-au-Prince for two years working as an emigration lawyer, and while she was frank about the daily corruption and frustration she faced, there was something about her that was at peace with the world. Once filled with bitterness about the racism she encountered in America, her recent life experiences seemed to have brought her to a new place within her soul. That night we talked for hours, not as one black woman and one white, but as two women whose differences were temporarily obscured in the warm Haitian night. Below us Port-au-Prince flickered in the darkness, the sounds of gas-powered generators echoing off the hillsides, and a strange peace washed itself over me like the warm waves of the distant Caribbean.
The next day I returned to the hospice and was greeted by a radiant young woman sitting on one of the windowsills, wrapped in a sheet and smiling at me with an ear-to-ear grin. She acted as though she knew me, gesturing for me to come and sit with her. Suddenly I realized that she was the same woman whose body I had been massaging yesterday. I was at first stunned and frightened, then awestruck. How could this woman, who the day before was racked with pain so deep that she could barely speak, could barely uncurl her limbs for me to massage them, now be sitting up waving at me? I walked over and sat with my Haitian friend, who held my hand for a long, long time, smiling and lingering on the windowsill, while my own heart and soul uncurled and opened in the sunlight.