Thursday, March 12, 2015

Unconditional love

Her name is Jesula, which in Creole means "Jesus is here." She may be 11 years old, or 7 years old, depending on who you believe. She's in preschool at Jubilee School. She loves to dance and eat hot sauce on her rice.
She has Down Syndrome.
His name is Joniel Fils-Aimé, which means "Beloved Son". He is an English teacher at local schools and a teaching assistant for me in the community health classes. He's a husband and a father. He recently had a bad case of typhoid.
He'd never heard of Down Syndrome.
Jesula wandered into my classroom one day, as she often does. On that day, I was doing a practical demonstration for my students; I was wearing sterile gloves and holding a catheter dipped in lubricant. I summoned my TA, "Joniel, can you get her please?"
He called her over to where he sat on a short chair. I wondered what would happen next. My TAs are Haitian; they have been taught their whole lives that handicapped people don't have value. But they have also spent months watching me welcome Jesula the same way I welcome any other kid. So I watched. Joniel and Jesula's faces were at the same height as he talked to her very quietly. I saw her nod, shake her head. And then it happened. He opened his arms and the little girl threw her stumpy arms around his neck and leaned onto his chest.

It's rare to see a Haitian man be physically affectionate with his own children, never mind a handicapped child that he's not related to. But that's what unconditional love does. Jesula doesn't care if you're white or black; she doesn't care if you're rich or poor, ugly or handsome, educated or illiterate. If we will just give her the chance, all she wants is to love and be loved back. Joniel welcomed her and in return, he received the greatest gift.

I would have cried if it hadn't been for the lubricant dripping down my arms.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Things we take for granted

Where does your trash end up?
When I lived in America, I never really thought about trash. In Boston, I tossed it into a garbage can; in Maine, I tossed it into a dumpster. In both cases, a truck came once a week and my trash disappeared to an unknown destination.
However in Haiti, it doesn't work like that. There is no official trash pick-up or removal system. Trash merely accumulates in piles here, there and everywhere.
The city dump is Jubilee. Does that name sound familiar? That's right: Jubilee is where our clinic, school, and community health classes are. In the dump. All day long, I can see trucks and wheelbarrows laden with garbage coming past the school to add to the mountains of waste.
I take the small bags of trash from my apartment out to Jubilee and burn them in a pit near the school. I hate doing it, but what choice do I have? There is a darling little old man who comes to our street every morning with a shovel and a wheelbarrow; for 25 cents, he'll take our trash away, but to where? For all I know, he simply dumps it around the corner in one of the larger heaps, eventually a city truck scoops it up and delivers it right out to Jubilee.

The only cheerful thing about the trash is pigs. Haitian pigs eat absolutely everything. Everything. One of our Jubilee families was able to scrape the money together to purchase some pigs, and since then, I have carried all my food-trash straight to them.
We are close with this particular family. Their oldest, Ifocoeur, has had tuberculosis twice - he just finished his 7th month of treatment - and the family lost a baby son to tuberculosis meningitis 2 years ago despite all our efforts to save him.
Ifocoeur and his sister Lorisna, attend our school in Jubilee. Ifocoeur in particular has taken to heart the message our teachers share about Jesus. He has remarkable insight, spiritual dreams, and lots of deep questions. What makes all this even more exciting is that fact that Ifocoeur's father, Lifete, is a well-known and feared voodoo priest.
Sometimes it feels like Christians try to encourage others to believe in Christ out of a desire to tame them, to get them to start behaving right, to get their lives in order. But with Ifocoeur's family, it's all about love. We really love them and we hate hearing Ifocoeur and Lorisna describe with fear the mystical activities that their parents participate in. Voodoo results in fear; the God that I believe in sets us free from fear through love. So we just try to love this family. We visit them and chat with them and play with the kids and "ooh" and "aah" over the new baby.

And I bring trash to their pigs. That's my personal way of loving them. Who knows? Maybe trash will lead to faith and faith to freedom.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Patricko is a young handicapped boy - some sort of brain damage due to a seizure disorder - and he was abandoned by his aunts, aunts who were receiving payments from the boy's father to care for Patricko while dad worked in the US. It was the second time they'd abandoned him at a local hospital. The first time they'd reclaimed Patricko in a panic when the dad announced that he was coming back to Haiti to visit, but now that dad was gone again, they left the child at the hospital at the mercy of strangers.
At Haitian hospitals, you only receive care if you have family with you. When the doctor prescribes meds, it's your family who has to go to a pharmacy and buy the meds so the nurse can give them to you. If you need a dressing changed, your family has to pay for the gloves, gauze and tape. If you are hungry, your family has to bring you food and feed it to you. Perhaps a kind person who is taking care of their own family member may help you out, but with a handicapped child, everyone stays away.
Handicapped kids are considered cursed in Haiti. People don't understand brain damage or developmental delay and they go out of their way to hide, abuse, and shame both the patient and the family. So when Patricko was abandoned, it meant that no one was feeding him, changing his clothes or diapers or sheets, bathing him or giving him any attention at all. Until Anne and Venelia took charge.
Anne and Venelia graduated from my community health agent class with excellent grades, but more importantly, with hearts of compassion. When I heard about Patricko, I asked them to take care of him until we could find a permanent home. They were on the ward with him every day; they cooked meals for him, washed his soiled linens by hand, played with him, sang to him, and reported to me glowingly that he was starting to make eye contact and trying to sit up. I intended to pay them, but then they told me that a rumor had started circulating around the hospital that a "white person" was paying them $200 every week for their work. They were outraged and explained how they'd announced to the hospital staff with great pride: "We are doing this because it's the right thing to do, not because anyone is paying us."
After 3 weeks, our friends at Coreluv, an orphanage nearby, agreed to take Patricko. He's on seizure medications and with good nutrition and one-on-one attention, he's progressed immensely. The once emaciated little boy with peeling skin and bald spots on his head from lying in a bed all day is now healthy and solid. He can sit up on his own and the nannies tell me that he keeps trying to stand. Anne and Venelia are convinced that someday he will walk.

Patricko's transformation is a beautiful story, but to me, the selflessness of Anne and Venelia is even more beautiful. In a country of poverty and desperation, they looked beyond their needs to the needs of one of the least of these and gave him the love he needed to survive. In a country where we frequently see people sitting back, waiting for foreigners to solve all their problems, these two women stepped up and did the right thing without any help from me. Now that is a beautiful story.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Back to paradise

During Christmas vacation, I brought my friends to Zanglais, the beach retreat center on the south side of the island where I used to take the youth group every year. I thought perhaps time and distance had exaggerated the beauty of the spot in my mind, but when we arrived, it was every bit as wonderful as I remembered.
A long sandy beach with marvelous waves. Lawns of real grass. A gazebo for playing cards and making music. Delicious meals cooked by local staff. A small mountain peninsula overlooking the bay. Gorgeous sunrises and sunsets.

There are no photos to capture the magic of the daily excursions I went on, clambering up the steep mountains behind the retreat center, through stream beds and past natural springs, over cow pastures and under mango trees, along little paths used only by goats. I saw flowers that I've never before seen in Haiti and got stuck in thick vines under a canopy of trees. Trees! The Gonaives side of the island has been thoroughly deforested, leaving us with desert, but at Zanglais, 3 hours south of Port-au-Prince, you can still find remnants of the natural jungle that this country used to be. My hikes were the most joyful and invigorating hours of each day.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Christmas traditions

My all-time favorite thing about Christmas is caroling. The only thing I don't like about caroling is how cold your toes get after an hour of standing in front of neighbors' houses and singing. The obvious solution is to do your caroling in a warmer location, a location such as, I don't know, maybe Haiti? 
We drove around town in the big blue truck and visited the homes of some of the Jubilee School teachers, as well as some of my neighbors. Christmas caroling is not a tradition in Haiti, so people were a little confused and embarrassed but overall, they seemed thrilled. I particularly loved being able to do something special for the teachers just to let them know that their hard work and dedication to the children of the slums is not overlooked.

We even got a huge grin out of "The Big Man", our grumpy neighbor. I call that a successful evening.

"We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!"

Sunday, January 4, 2015

"He looks just like you!"

The highlight of the month of December was when Judes, our 4th grade teacher, broke his jaw. OK, it wasn't really the jaw breaking that was the highlight; it was the fact that my younger brother decided to come to Haiti for 3 weeks to substitute teach!  
Barnabas taught English, math, and Bible to 14 rowdy 4th graders, ranging in age from 9-16. His Haitian co-teacher, Wilkens, taught French, Creole, and social studies.
In his free time, Barn went adventuring with me, sometimes accompanied by the teenage girls, Bess, Kara and Emma, who loved and hated having a teasing "big brother" presence.
He also tutored a few children who used to attend Jubilee School and have been transferred to Haitian schools. He helped out with gym classes and with the planning and practice for the school Christmas program. Barn is fluent in French and he had picked up a lot of Creole on his past visits to Haiti, so he was instantly popular. The kids were always playing with him and talking with him and climbing all over him.

Everywhere we went, people immediately asked me, "Miss Keziah, is that your brother?" When I answered in the affirmative, the response was always the same: "I knew it because he looks just like you." I thought it was pretty sweet until one day we were all out with our German friends and a lady asked if Aaron, a 22 year old German intern, was my brother. Before I could answer, the lady smiled knowingly and said, "He looks just like you."

Barn left at Christmas break and the kids have been asking me daily when he's coming back. They are very disappointed when I explain that he has a job in America and so he won't be able to come back. But if this job doesn't work out, we've always got a spot for you here, Barn!