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.