Friday, March 9, 2018

Cange over Time

One of the doctors on our January trip, Mark Meyer, had been to Cange a few times before...but back in the late 1980s. After our trip, he found photos he took during those visits. They offer a stark look at how much has changed in 30 years.

Late 1980s Church in Cange

Cange church, 2018 (still at the top of the hill, still surrounded by stone walls and paths)
Church at Chapoteau, late 1980s

Church at Chapoteau, 2018
Town of Cange, late 1980s
Cange, viewed from the other side of the mountain, and below, from inside the compound, 2018

Saturday, February 17, 2018

So tell me one thing about Haiti...

Since I’ve returned from my trip, I’ve had a lot of brief conversations with folks asking, “How was it?” It’s hard to summarize a week-long journey into an entirely new and different country, where you did new and different things, and encountered struggles and joys along the way, in a just a few thoughts and brief sentences. My mother-in-law asked me more directly, “Tell me one thing about Haiti that really sticks with you.” I thought about that for a while, and was surprised to come up with this answer.

In Haiti, I was struck by what it looks like you have absolutely no infrastructure, no government you can depend on for anything. There’s trash everywhere. At one clinic, I walked around in circles for a while searching for a poubelle (the French word for trash can, which I somehow remembered). I couldn’t find one, and ended up making my own bag to carry back to the compound. I had thought that if there were just more poubelles, there would be less trash. But what’s the sense of putting trash in a trash can if there’s no one to come pick it up? We saw no garbage trucks, nor utility services of any kind. As far as I could tell, the only way these rural Haitians handled trash was to occasionally burn it – a smell we could detect on many hikes.

Walking through the Central Plateau, we saw a few electrical poles, but most had no wires connected to them. There are schools, but most are private. Thanks to efforts by the European Union in the past 10 years, there are more paved roads. But in a country plagued by earthquakes, hurricanes, and strong rains paired with rocky soil, roads are regularly broken and washed out, and there’s no one to repair them. The efforts of the S.C. Episcopalians, Clemson University engineers, Water for Life and World Vision (I saw these logos around) have installed cisterns and water fountains, but no pipes carry the water into buildings or homes. There are few toilet facilities; we used outhouses in most places, though it looked like the locals did not.

And I heard many stories about people being “selfish,” looking out only for themselves. They litter. They beg for money. Their governments have for decades embezzled funds, promoted nepotism, and stolen from the people. We learned of one student who had received money from one of our donations who had had to flee the country because his own family was so jealous of his windfall that they had threated to kill him. And while it can be easy to make some stereotypical remark of a greedy or corrupt group of people, it’s actually pretty simple to see why many of them act this way. If you’ve grown up in a place where you have to take care of yourself to get food, water and education, if you’ve never had anyone outside your own family take care of you, if there’s no concept that a larger organization like a government will help you with basic needs, then you have no innate sense of community, no sense of a larger entity, a greater good. You’d look out for just you, because you had to.

I was told that in Haiti, you only have to pay taxes on your home or business building once its construction is complete. To get around this payment, many buildings are left with rebar sticking out of their roofs, so that the homes or offices are forever “under construction.” We saw mansions on hilltops with rebar sticking out; even the wealthy were not willing to complete their homes and pay their taxes. They did not feel the need to contribute to or connect to their community.

Two weeks after returning from Haiti, I had to do my taxes. I have never before felt more gratitude to pay taxes. I know my money will support roads, utilities, schools, health care, research and more. I’m not a fan of much of our government these days, but I trust that it will meet many of my basic needs. I can’t imagine living in a place where I had no connection to a larger organization working to sustain my community, my lifestyle.

So that “one thing” I’ll take away from Haiti is an appreciation of government, of infrastructure, of basic society. I mean no insult to the people I met in Haiti. They are a product of their lives, and they are doing the best they can to survive. I hope and pray a government will one day exist that makes them feel cared for and proud.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

My First True Vacation

I've been hesitating to call my Haiti trip a vacation, because it was nothing like the images most people conjure up about relaxing and getting away. At the compound, we had intermittant water, no hot water, no air conditioning, little down time, shared rooms and spaces, had to wash clothes in the shower, and passed around a GI bug. During the day, we went on challenging, sweaty hikes, were without toilet facilities, had to eat only the water and snacks we could carry, spent hours in hot, humid and crowded rooms, talked to others constantly, and took few breaks. I also hesitate to call it a vacation as we were spending time caring for people who have very little, who live with incredible challenges every day, and their reality is my one-week of being uncomfortable.

Let's call this vacation "adventurous."
All that said...I will still call this a vacation because, for the first time since I had a child, my mind was clear. For seven days, the noise went away.

I've always thought the most challenging part of parenting is that you never get a day off. Even when I've gone on trips, I've still worried about my children, their schedules, and what I'd do if something went wrong. I never felt like I had a full brain break from being a mom.

The mental load of being a mother is constant and weighs heavy. My brain is always, unceasingly full of the noise of knowing where my kids are at all times, arranging schedules, planning meals, knowing when and what they last ate, keeping track of birthday parties and gifts and playdates and favorite foods and strong dislikes. At all hours of the day, I'm tracking grocery lists, laundry needs, piano practice, homework requirements, house issues, bill payments -- and that's not including my 3-5 hours/day spent working a job, from home, in hours wedged between answering emails, online shopping, planning trips, checking news (too often), checking social media (too much), and volunteering time for various groups. I'm exhausted at the end of most days. I can't shut it off even when I try.

But in Haiti, the noise turned off.

I knew my children were in good hands, cared for by their loving and capable father (with whom I'd left a detailed schedule). Even if something terrible had happened, there's little to nothing I could have done (I wouldn't have received a text/call until evening, and I likely couldn't have even gotten to Port Au Prince to fly back). I thought about my kids daily, but only to think how they might enjoy something I'd seen, or that I hoped they were having a good day.

Meals I was ravenous for were served here. I didn't shop, cook, nor clean. And no children complained about it.
I had no control over this trip; I had planned nothing, I knew no one in charge, and I had no responsibilities. I woke up every day to have breakfast served to me, get in a car and go on a hike arranged by others, again have dinner served to me, and stay in a room I hadn't booked. I was not responsible for any decisions.

Relieved of the mental load of parenting and planning, I focused on the present. I watched one foot go in front of the other on long and dusty hikes and engaged muscles to keep going, not fall, not tire. I looked up and fully took in the gorgeous countryside, the plants I'd never seen and the bird calls I'd never heard. I smiled and engaged with hundreds of people who came to us for a very basic need. I savored food and was incredibly grateful for it. I slept soundly, exhausted yet fulfilled, each day.

In nine years, my brain had never been so clear. It was an extraordinary feeling. Now that I'm home and all the noise has crashed back in, I am doing OK, because I finally got that break I'd been wanting for nine years. I feel restored. I can do this again. And when I can't, I'll try to remember what clarity felt like, and maybe I can grasp it back without having to trek to the middle of rural Haiti.

So for anyone else whose mind never shuts off, here's what I recommend: book a tour where others do all the planning, leave the country to a place where your phone rarely works, do something physically challenging every day, and play a role/do a task that you normally don't do. It's no tropical beach vacation or skiing with friends, but it will sure be the mental vacation you may truly need. Sign me up.

How to Help: Here and There

If you've been following along so far, thank you. Thank you for your interest and your caring. Some have asked how to help, others have asked how to get involved. So here's a round-up of ways to stay interested, stay caring, and share what you can:

Bois Jolie, Holy Trinity's adopted town

To support students at Ecole Bon Saveur, the Cange primary and secondary school:

To cover the tuition for Cange students to attend university:
(click Online Giving, look for the section titled Haiti, and select "Haiti University Student Support")

To support medical mission trips from Holy Trinity (and other S.C. churches) to Cange and surrounding areas (i.e., the trip we just went on, where your donations would pay for the medicines and other costs not related to the volunteers' room and board):
(click Online Giving, look for the section titled Haiti, and select "Haiti Medical Mission")

To send a student to CFFL to learn about improving agriculture and be able to farm for their families:

To support Summits Education, which provides resources, training and food for 40 primary schools in rural Haiti (and is the current project of the Lafontante family):

To support Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries:
NOTE: There will likely soon be a fund available to support their amazing new project to provide hydroelectric power to Cange. Here's the description from Director David Vaughn: The hydroelectric project is one of the most promising projects for Cange, as their monthly cost for electricity is over $11,000 and, from what we understand, they spend around $60,000 per year on the diesel generator. So in total, they spend ~$200,000 per year for their non-reliable electricity. Based upon our preliminary numbers, CEDC is estimating the project will cost around $400,000, which means they would have a return on investment (ROI) in less than two years. Not only will this save money, but it will also supply clean and consistent power to Cange that will improve life and especially health care in the hospital. If the money were donated, then the impact is immediate.
*I'll post this info again when I get more details from David.

Go on a Trip

Inside the school at Chapoteau, St. Francis' adopted town

If you're a medical professional and want to go on one of these medical trips, please email me, and I'll put you in touch with Harry More or Glen Quattlebaum, the lead physicians/organizers. Email me at claiborneh at gmail dot com.

If you're not medical but want to go to Cange to support arts, agriculture or give other talents, contact Suz Cate at Holy Trinity, as discussions are underway for future non-medical trips that could continue our mission in the Central Plateau. Reach Mother Suz at scate at holytrinityclemson dot org.

I saw that Summits Education organizes trips, and I suspect CFFL/Zanmi Agricole does as well, so research them online if you'd like to make that direct connection.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Why do we do this?

We had a long, long wait at the under-construction Port Au Prince airport, so many discussions arose about why we're doing this project, are these efforts worth it... why do we go to Haiti? I'm glad these talks came after the week, as I felt more knowledgable about what I'd seen and experienced. Here's my attempt at sorting through it all:

Why Haiti? And why Cange?

The simple answer to this question is that Bishop Beckham of the Upper SC Diocese made a commitment in 1979 that we would take care of the people of Cange. And we did. The diocese sent money, volunteers and resources to Cange for years. With these gifts, the town grew from a single, simple church and scattered, desperate people to having a clean, reliable water source, a fully functioning hospital equipped enough for surgery, a TB clinic, an eye clinic, a beautiful church, a successful primary and secondary school, gardens and residences. As such, the town itself grew, and now has homes and markets and even a paved road leading to it.

It takes regular, systemic, long-term investment to make this kind of change. You can't build a new town with one or two donations. You can't completely change the life expectancy of a people with one or two medical visits. It's easy to give money to the latest cause, the latest place you read about that has a great need. Yes, there are great needs all over the world and in our own backyards--but we made a committment to Cange, Haiti. By staying there, by continuing to invest there, we Episcoplians are not only fulfulling a long-ago made promise, but we are investing in a community where we feel we can do the most good and effect the most change.

Partners in Health/Zanmi Lasante has shifted their focus to Mirebalais. They received a lot of money after the earthquake and focused on a newer hospital, one that could grow (Cange is restricted), and chose Mireabalais, a larger city located at a highway crossroads. That hospital and its related TB lab are important and are meeting health needs in the Central Plateau -- but that doesn't mean Cange needs to be left behind. We have supported this community for 40 years; it wouldn't seem right to leave now (even with political issues in the church, which I won't go into here).

Why treat hypertension?

Due to the work on water systems and health care, led by Partners in Health/Zanmi Lastante and the Upper Diocese, infectious diseases have been nearly eradicated in the Central Plateau. Unlike 40 years ago, there are few cases of cholera, TB, malaria and HIV, as well as fewer cases of malnutrition. So once you have cured people of the threat of these deadly diseases, they are now living long enough to have chronic illness, and the most common illness here is hypertension (high blood pressure). The going theory is that the genetics of the people from the original African countries where they were brought from causes their kidneys to hold onto too much salt. So hyptension and the strokes it leads to when untreated are significant problems and cause of death here now.

We saw about 450 patients in our four clinics. I would guess that 60-70% had high blood pressure. Many had symptoms that were due to hypertension: headache, body aches, nausea, trouble sleeping, dizzyness, fatigue. After visiting our clinics, they received a 30-day supply of an effective, inexpensive (for us; they don't pay) medicine that will immediately make them feel better and extend their lives. Unfortunately, we also saw stroke victims who hadn't been treated in time, and heard many stories of family members having died of stroke.

Now the challenge is that hypertension has to be treated by taking a pill every day for the rest of your life. We are now relying on the patients to come to the community health meetings each month to pick up their free medications for the month. And we are relying on the community health workers, Maneus, Margaritte, Emmanuel, and others, to hold the meetings, reach out to those who don't attend, and oversee the ongoing health of their villagers. But this is how it has to work -- they can't rely on a once-a-year visiting medical team for all their needs. The people get a prescription from us, but they are part of a system involving community health workers and local hospitals (Cange and Mirebalais) that can treat them as needed. We are part of a larger health organization that is based in and operates fully in Haiti.

And what's the story with supporting students?

In addition to the medical ministry, Holy Trinity Clemson supports several university students as well as the Cange school, Bon Saveur. From my understanding, we help pay the teachers at the school, and we directly pay for 12 or so students to attend university. Earl Burch and two others personally help fund more primary, secondary and university students. Some others have bought textbooks for university students over the past years. Many of our current and former students were the translators and helpers on this trip.

Though there are free, public schools in Haiti (well, free as in no tuition, but families must still buy supplies, uniforms and food), most schools are parochial and private. Bon Saveur has a required tuition and is the only school in Cange. Holy Trinity has helped pay for students to attend, but then when the students are ready to go to college, they need money for that too. But there are complications in wiring individual people money, and there are challenges in arranging for middlemen (many known to skim a lot off the top) to administer the funds. The church and related donors are still sorting out the best way to do this, but it's clear that the need is strong (we have a temporary arrangement with Summits Education, hence our visit there). Students want to go to school and many want to study to be doctors and nurses (which are very, very needed in Haiti), so funding them is helping to improve and shape the future of Haiti.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Leisure/Connections Day

Today was the day for packing up, mentally decompressing, and making connections with important people.

We drove from Cange for about 45 minutes to Corporant, to the campus of CFFL (Centre de Formation Fritz Lafontante). Gillane Williams, a native Australian and current Greenville resident who spends much of the year in Haiti, gave us a tour.


CFFL was developed as a trade school to teach three disciplines: agriculture, woodworking, and construction. The focus now is mainly on agriculture, as the other two disciplines closed because the students couldn't find enough jobs after graduation, and also because teaching farming  techniques is the school's most important mission. The school opened in 2010 with major funding from the Upper SC Diocese, Zanmi Lasante/Zanmi Agricol, and Rotary Greenville.

The building is light, lets in a constant breeze, and is clean and nicely decorated. There's a fully updated computer lab and plenty of classrooms, and beyond the building are about 40 lush acres of fruit trees and crops. 

Gillane (she later told me) got involved in Haiti after she was asked to translate for Pere Lafontante when he visited Greenville (she is fluent in French). She first came to Cange in 1999 as an English teacher, but was struck by the malnutrition she saw. She asked people why they weren't growing certain foods, and they said they just couldn't. Experienced in agriculture herself, she asked for room in Cange for a garden, and was given an area below what became the external clinic. Gillane used it to teach people how to grow various plants. 

In 2004, a person showed her the land in Corporant and asked, "Do you want this?" She got the 40 acres and planted 14,000 bananas by hand the first year. Her team went on to grow food to give local people by inviting villagers to collect the harvest. In 2010, the earthquake struck, and they started growing and producing on all the land that had never been plowed. One key task CFFL does is grow and shell the peanuts for Nouramanba, a healthy, calorie-dense peanut butter for kids. CFFL students grow the peanuts, then it is sent elsewhere for added vitamins and minerals. The end product has a long shelf life for mothers to take home to their children. It's so effective, it is prescribed by doctors.


During our tour, we were met by Marie-Flore, Pere Lafontante's daughter who is carrying out his legacy of helping Central Haiti. She took us to her new compound in Ledier. She and her crew left Cange when the new priest replaced her father in 2015. Her work was previously part of Zanmi de Education but became Summits Education in 2015 upon leaving Cange (Summits is based in Boston). The group went to Corporant for two years but didn't like the small space. Last year, an employee suggested she look at an abandoned compound that an Italian group had built in Ledier to house workers who were building Highway 3. The Italians had left it for families to use, but it was destroyed. Marie-Flore moved in in December and started renovations. We were therefore visiting a very nice, clean, bright and lovely conference-center type place that has been operational for only a few weeks.

This place houses Summits Education, and Abel gave us the full tour. Summits (Sommits in Creole) oversees the operation of 40 primary schools (some are a 6-hour walk away, others are nearby), all K-6th grade. They work with about 300 teachers and 4,000 students. They hire the teachers, train teachers, arrange teacher transportation, and send student snacks, among other jobs. So their compound acts like a conference center, a superintendent's office, an administrative office, and a dorm. There are also a few houses here, where the Lafontantes and Gillane and her husband, Charles, stay.

Tourism and Leisure

We arrived at the Summits compound around 10:45 a.m. and settled into our rooms. Compared to Cange, it felt like a luxury hotel, as we all got our own rooms and bathrooms (though we're still sleeping under mosquito nets, taking cold showers and drinking only bottled water). Abel gave us a tour, and we met several members of the administration. We also saw workers tilling a field with hoes and picks, and workers installing an iron-bar fence where a wall had been in order to create a view of the river from the patio.

We enjoyed a very tasty lunch (veggies, creamy potato salad, and flavorful chicken thighs) and then headed out for the only real tourism part of this trip: a drive to Saut D'eau (Sodo in Creole) to see a sacred waterfall. We drove about 30 minutes though the busy, colorful and urban town of Mirebalais (and by the amazing hospital we'd seen on arrival day) and into Sodo. At the gate to the site, Haitians entered for free, but blancs had to pay $5. We learned the waterfall is considered a sacred place in Voodoo because the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel  (Voodoo version Erzulie) had been seen once on a palm tree there. Haitians now visit to wash in the falls for luck/healing, and they burn candles and make small shrines (mostly out of repurposed bottles) around it. On the Virgin Mary's day, July 16, we were told the falls are so packed you can't get near them, and the town is completely overrun by thousands of people making a pilgrimage.

The falls themselves were beautiful: very steep and powerful, surrounded by tropical plants. It was almost a scene you'd expect from deep in a rainforest. And yet...this is Haiti. There were steps to the falls inlaid with tile, but they were crumbling in places, and trash lined the sides (there is a LOT of litter in Haiti). Boys and some men aggressively descended on us and tried to make conversation and help us with the steps in an effort to get tips. Several women were bathing in the falls, so it felt uncomfortable to appear to have paid money to see naked women. The old burned bottle candles were tucked into every rock and tree around the falls. It was jarring to see a site that is sacred and important look trashed and chaotic. I suspect those $5 tolls go right into a pocket and do not pay for upkeep. 

We returned to Summits for a bit of rest and showers, then joined a lively cocktail hour Marie-Flore had arranged on the newly built patio with a view. We had beers and Haitian rum with Cokes, and everyone seemed to relax and smile in a way we hadn't all week. Soon, a live band started up, playing banjo, drums and guitars, often involving several of the male guests in singing/repeating lyrics. We talked more with Gillane, with Kathy (a retired English professor from Vermont who is helping to write a strategic plan for CFFL) and with Marie-Flore, who was clearly proud of her new home base. A wonderful meal of shrimp in a cream sauce and purple cabbage was served, and we got to try carrasol juice for dessert (a frothy fruit juice, maybe soursop in English?, that Fritzlene had raved about. It was tasty!). Soon the staff and all our crew were up and dancing, and the night was just perfect.

A few of us left to stargaze (stars without light pollution are always worth admiring), which made for a lovely and positive end to this big adventure we just had.