Friday, August 1, 2014

Lunch time!

One of my American co-workers has been in the US for 8 months due to a family illness, so I have taken over the school lunch program in his absence.
Two Haitian women cook 2 giant vats of rice and beans every day during the school year to feed approximately 100 students and 20 staff. The children are ushered in by class, eat and then go to recess.

Because many of our school kids do not get reliable meals, or any meal for that matter, when they are at home, we continue the lunch program over the summer. One of our young teachers, Louis-Pierre, born and bred in Jubilee, manages the children when they come, making sure that the littlest ones eat first, that the handicapped children do not get pushed around, and that food doesn't get dropped on the clean floor to feed family dogs.
A few weeks ago, Brian and his construction crew built a new kitchen for the lunch program. It's airy, bright, and safer from potential theft. It also looks exactly like the service window at a hot dog stand or an ice cream truck in the US. Every time I walk in there, I'm tempted to ask for "one large root beer float, please!"
The other fantastic addition to the cafeteria is a child-accessible hand-washing sink! Now the children can come straight in from the schoolyard and wash their hands before they get in line for a plate of food. I call the sink "Cholera-Be-Gone!"

School lunch consists of fortified rice, shipped in from supporters in the US, and Haitian brown beans. I've tried to assure that the kids also get fruit with their meal at least twice a week. During mango season, it was mangos on Friday and bananas on Monday. And since July is the beginning of avocado season, now the kids get slices of avocado with their rice, an excellent nutritional boost: protein, potassium, iron, folic acid, and good fats.
You should see those kids shovel piles of rice into their mouths. I like sitting there and just watching them eat with gusto. Happy lunch, kiddos!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Summer in Haiti

Summer in Haiti is a lot like the rest of the year. I teach community health to adults and high school students.
I go everywhere on my bike. I pump water. I meet with former students for advanced training. I do my laundry by hand on the porch. Normal life, just like the other 9 months of the year.

There are, however, a few differences. It's always hot in Gonaives, but summer in Gonaives is stifling. From the moment I wake up at 7am until the moment I fall asleep at 11pm, I am sweaty. Actually, I'm often sweaty all night too. Being sweaty all the time makes me dehydrated; despite all my best efforts, I cannot drink enough water to keep myself from being light-headed and fatigued most days.
The heat is paralyzing. I'm an active person. I love biking and exploring, taking long walks around town, even just cleaning house. But in this kind of heat, I am exhausted by noon most days and I barely have energy to prepare a cold lunch for myself before I collapse.
When we have electricity, I can run a fan. When we don't have electricity - most afternoons and some evenings - my favorite place to be is the narrow hall leading to my bedroom. It becomes a miniature wind tunnel (except on days when there's no wind!). I have spent many hours in that corridor, reading or watching movies or sleeping on the cool tile floor.
Fortunately, there have been things to distract me from the incessant heat. First, I fell into a decrepit tomb when I was walking Tug in the cemetery. I was lucky: I only bruised my ribs, and there was no corpse in that particular grave. But I was stiff and pained for a while...actually, I'm still in some pain. I also got the chicken fever a week after my near-death experience (near-death, cuz I fell in a tomb, get it?), but I seem to have recovered nicely. 
The World Cup was another excellent form of distraction. For a month, there were games nearly every day, and I would watch them on the porch of my neighbor's house with a dozen kids and adults. I was the only white person. Making friends with neighbors isn't something that just happens naturally. In Port, it was an earthquake that bonded me with the neighborhood; here in G-town, it was the World Cup. Now that it's over, I still go sit on my neighbor's stoop and just chat with people. We go to concerts all together, and sit in the plaza in the evenings and people-watch.
Probably 20% of Haitians root for Argentina; everyone else wildly supports Brazil. The last game was 2 weeks ago, but you can still see Brazil flags on many of the motorcycles, cars and buildings around town. People celebrated each goal and each Brazil victory like it was Boston winning the World Series for the first time in 86 years - parades, drumming, music, dancing, and lots of screaming. I'm not a Brazil fan, but I got into the party atmosphere too: Brazil-themed cupcakes for my little neighbor's second birthday!
The other uniquely summer activity is "Club", a sort of day camp program that I am running with a few of the Jubilee School teachers. Most of our elementary students spend the summer bored in Jubilee. Bored children usually become mischievous children and mischievous children can often become trouble children. So we combat boredom and trouble by having activities for them several times a week. Last week, we read the story of God calling the boy Samuel. We learned a song about the story, and we played a "Marco Polo" style game. We've done other stories from history or the Bible and linked them to games such as bowling, limbo, and musical chairs. My favorite was when we learned about the Holocaust and played a hide-and-seek game called Sardines.  

I've really enjoyed getting to know the kids better, and bringing a taste of camp to Jubilee. It's been a while since I worked with elementary aged children, and it's been a nice challenge. I've also really appreciated the time I've spent with the Jubilee School teachers. Each conversation, however simple, opens my eyes more to Haitian culture and to the things that make them tick. It seems like the longer I'm here, the more I realize how much I don't understand.

So what can I say? Summer in Haiti. I'm still praying for the thermostat to get turned down, but other than that, I'm glad I'm here.


Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chicken fever

OK, the real name is chikungunya but chicken fever sounds funnier.

Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne virus, similar to malaria, that has recently been introduced to Haiti. The mosquito that carries chikungunya, however, is a daytime mosquito, so unless you are willing to wear long sleeves all day  or slather yourself in bug spray, you're going to get it.

One report I read says that an estimated 50% of Haiti's population will be chicken-struck in the next few months. I think they're right! For the past 3 weeks, I have been missing at least 1/4 of my students every day as they all cycle through the illness. Our clinic is packed every day. My neighbors are dropping like flies; 5 of the 13 people who share my courtyard have already had it. It's all anyone can talk about. "Have you had 'the Fever' yet?"

The last epidemic that I experienced in Haiti was cholera and it killed people. Fortunately, this new disease is only life-threatening to those with poor immune systems such as newborns and AIDS patients. For most people, having the illness means a few days of high fevers accompanied by severe pain in joints, prompting to people to ignore its true name and simply call it "The Bone-breaking Sickness".

Tylenol and ibuprofen control the symptoms quite well until the disease runs its course. Unfortunately, due to the sudden spike in demand for those drugs, Tylenol doubled in price for a few weeks and is now virtually impossible to find. We are using ibuprofen whenever it's safe and relying on deliveries of Tylenol from the US for those patients that require it.

Epidemics are a funny thing. During cholera, every time my stomach gave a little twinge, I thought, "This is it! I've got cholera!" With chikungunya, it's the same thing, but so far, it's always been a false alarm. I just keep waiting. I'm sure my time will come.

Thursday, June 12, 2014


Samantha was in a house fire when she was about two years old. If Oscar, one of our clinic nursing assistants, hadn't run into the blaze and saved her, she would have died that day! She came to our clinic for dressing changes a few times, but eventually, her parents stopped bringing her because it was too painful. Six months after the incident, her leg looked like this:
If you look closely, you can see that the scar tissue has pulled the 3 smallest toes much higher on the foot than they should be. When the time comes for Samantha to go to school, she won't be able to wear the required closed-toe shoes without painful rubbing and probably ulceration of those toes.
Fast-forward 2 years and I arranged to have Samantha's foot operated by a visiting plastic surgeon. She was the belle of the ball - every one of the American medical staff adored her, with her crooked toothy smile and her raspy smoke-damaged voice. One nurse even asked if she could adopt Samantha, mistakenly believing that the little girl is a resident at an orphanage.
The doctors cut away some of the scar tissue and took a skin graft from Samantha's groin to place over the surgical site. It's healing well, and although it wasn't a miracle fix, I think that Samantha will be able to wear a shoe now, so long as she has sturdy socks.

Samantha comes to clinic every day, although now, 5 weeks after surgery, we only change the dressing every two days. She just loves being around clinic, so even on the days that we don't need to see her, you can find her out on the porch watching patients go in and out, or playing with Rudenchly, our other burn victim. I think someday, the two of them are going to co-write a book titled "Children of the Clinic".

They always leave me wondering: do we love them because they are around all the time, or are they around all the time because we love them?

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


"Hey, everybody, I'M GOING TO SCHOOL!"
Happy news - my little burn victim buddy Rudenchly has been accepted to our elementary school, Academie La Saline. He'll start preschool in September. Ever since I helped get Rudenchly the surgeries that helped him walk, his mom, Leila, a courageous single mom of 3 children with a 4th on the way, has relied on me to help keep her family fed. This year, we hired her as our clinic cleaning woman, but she and her kids still look hungry all the time. Having Ruden in our school is quite a break for her. It means that he will get 2 meals a day, 5 days a week, and a virtually free education. She is very happy, so am I, and so is he! 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Student teaching

One of my dreams has been for my students to hold community health teachings for patients while they wait outside the clinic. This year, I was able to see that dream realized.  
My most recent group of adult community health agents surprised me with their willing spirit, their eagerness to learn, and their passion for all things medical. So as a final assignment, I separated my 17 students into 3 groups and instructed them to prepare a simple lesson on high blood pressure, diabetes, and yeast infection.  

Each Monday morning, I met a group at the clinic and the students gave their little talks to the 50+ patients waiting for to be seen at clinic.

They shared their knowledge. They answered questions from the crowd. They encouraged good habits and offered suggestions to change bad habits.
The only glitch was when one of my slightly know-it-all students told the patients never to drink Coca Cola because it destroys red blood cells. I had to intervene at that point with a little correction.

When each group's Monday had passed, we met one final time. "Miss Keziah," they began, shyly. "Would it be OK with you if we did those teachings every week? If you give us more topics, we'd really like to keep teaching."
So if you want to visit Jubilee, make sure you come down early on Monday morning so you can see my students teaching people how to live healthy and avoid acid reflux, anemia, asthma, obesity, constipation and so much more. Thanks to them, I can cross another item off my bucket list.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Beloved bicycle

I bought a bicycle during my very first week in Gonaives. Since that day, my bike and I have been inseparable. I go everywhere on that bicycle: to work, to the market, to friends' houses, to the river, to church, to the mountains. Everywhere. This trusty blue bike is like my third foot.
Two weeks ago, I woke up and my bike wasn't there. It had disappeared from its perch at the top of the stairs in our apartment building. My heart sank, but I told myself that probably one of my roommates needed to borrow it and didn't think to leave a note. I walked to Jubilee, but upon questioning everyone, no one had seen my bike.
Now there was no denying the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Someone had stolen my bike.
I was anxious and angry and very unsettled. It's hard to explain how important that bike is to me, but perhaps I can borrow some words from the wise Captain Jack Sparrow in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. He describes his ship, the Black Pearl, as being more than a keel, a mast and a sail. "What the Black Pearl is," he explains, "What she really is, is freedom!" That's my bicycle. Freedom.
I told my students to go home. I was too upset to concentrate on teaching. Besides, I had a pretty good hunch about who might have stolen my bike and by gum, I was going to get it back!
There are 3 boys, ages 10-14, who have been around our building a lot lately. All three were students at our school and have been kicked out for behavior problems. Two of them run away from home regularly and several times they spent nights in our outside hallway without our knowledge. Thanks to their situation, it was virtually impossible to find them that morning. I walked through Jubilee, searched the plaza, and finally stationed myself on the porch to watch the street. It was exhausting and I kept thinking how much easier it would be to hunt for my bike if I had a bike to hunt with!
Finally, two of the boys showed up at school. My friends interrogated them and they said they'd seen Godson, the youngest, with a bike. I went to the house and sure enough, there was Godson and there was my bike! There was Godson's mother too, laughing, and chortling, "The white lady's gonna beat Godson. White lady's gonna beat Godson!" Believe me, I wanted to beat him, but instead I simply took the bike and told Godson that I expected him to come apologize and to do some chores for me as payment for the trouble I'd gone through looking for my bicycle. He wouldn't look me in the eye.
I went home, rejoicing for my prodigal bike, but sad for Godson. I've heard adults in his neighborhood complain that his mother sends him out to steal for her. I've also seen his mother beat him silly, and I once caught his father red-handed stealing a cell phone. Obviously, Godson is not living with great examples of honesty around him. I didn't expect him to ever come see me.

Exactly ten days after the event, I heard a soft but insistent knock at the door. It was Godson. He was nervous, looking at the ground, but he spoke, clearly enough for me to hear: "I came to ask you to forgive me." And then he helped me pump water at the well until my 80 gallon barrel was full.

Now Godson looks me in eye when we talk. I still wish he hadn't stolen my bike, but I'm glad things turned out as they did. Maybe someday he'll look back on the day when he chose integrity and remember it as a turning point in his journey. In the meantime, I've got my freedom back and I couldn't be happier!