Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sorry, Holland

I lived in Holland for a year when I was 12. My family loved Holland and one of our favorite things about it was the scrumptious peanut butter. In fact, 7 years later when we lived in Belgium for a year, we would drive regularly across the border to buy cases of Dutch peanut butter.

Haitian-made mamba is fantastic, but I've always rated it second to Dutch peanut butter. Until Wednesday.

My patients and the parents of children I sponsor in school frequently bring me food as "Thank You" gifts for my help. Generally it's avocados or mangoes or rice and beans but Kimberly's mama brought me her own hand-milled mamba on Wednesday. I stuck a fingertip in and licked a sample...heavenly choruses resound, trumpets blast, confetti falls all around!

Sorry, Holland. This mamba beats your very best!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dora's village

My friend Dora works at Village Espoir, an orphanage and school for about 60 healthy children and 20 handicapped children. This week I visited her and the handicapped kids. I have to be honest - I have never really enjoyed handicapped children, probably because the majority of my interactions with them have been rather purposeless. While working for AMH, I would periodically take medical teams to Wings of Hope, St. Joseph's sister home for handicapped children. The doctors would examine some of the kids, but I, for some reason, never felt the urge or authority to jump in and get useful.

At the Village though, I'd only been inside 5 minutes before Dora was asking me for advice: "Kez, this little Jacob is always breathing badly. He needs to cough but he can't himself. What can we do to help him?" I started doing chest PT on him and then showed the nannies how to do it. Why stop with just chest PT, I thought, so I moved to his joints and started doing range of motion on his knees, elbows, ankles. I don't know much about physical therapy, but I know enough basics to help prevent contractures. I spent the morning going from one adorable child to another, doing range of motion. Jacob, Kiki, Moise, Christian...

A stiff joint does not enjoy being put through range of motion, and the children would cringe and occasionally whimper as we worked. But every time we made eye contact, their faces would break into beautiful smiles. I think I've fallen in love...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Adobe houses - Gonaives

What is an adobe house and why build one?

I don't really know the exact definition of an adobe house, but the plan for the house in Gonaives is to use rice bags filled with dirt to makes the circular walls of a home. As the levels of bags get higher, the circles gradually get smaller until the bags meet at the top forming a dome. Inside and outside are skimmed with a thin coat of concrete to protect the bags. A gutter will collect rain water off the house, small windows act as vents and light sources, and a drainage ditch surrounding the house keeps it from eroding. The benefits are simple:

1. An adobe house is flood-proof and earthquake-proof.
2. The thick dirt bag walls keep the house cool.
3. All the supplies can be found or purchased locally - for example, we've bought our bags at the outdoor market, our dirt sifters were handmade from hardware supplies bought in Gonaives and our dirt is genuine dirt from the Jubilee dump.
4. If we do this right (fingers crossed), the adobe house will turn out to be a cheaper alternative to the concrete houses that are so common here, and far more durable than the tin houses or mud huts that fill Jubilee.
5. Building your own house is plain old fun!

I was in Gonaives 2 weeks ago for the ground-breaking.

And for the trench digging that will form the foundation of the house.

With used rice bags from the local market, we started laying our first sacks. My friends are paying 2 teenage boys to work with them, a system to help the boys go the afternoon school without simply giving them a handout. But beyond Jeff and Robenson, there is always a crowd around the work site. Children of all ages, their mothers, young men from the ghetto...and most people end up helping in some way or another, though it is interesting to note that the women and children are much more likely to pitch in than the adult men. Just an observation.

My biggest role that first week was rock gathering. In our original plan, we intended to use bags and rocks and cement as a sort of foundation, so I spent hours crouching in the dump collecting stones. The little kids seemed to think this great fun! At any given time, I had 5-10 kids holding out skirts, hats, cardboard boxes, stryrofoam plates, or little hands for me to fill them with rocks to dump in the trench. It was a repeat of the old classic Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence and getting his friends to help.

Unfortunately, upon my return to Gonaives a few days later, I was told that the original plan had been thrown out and the new plan was the start laying sand bags in the normal fashion from the trench upwards. So all our rocks and all our first bags had to be removed. We bought unused bags for the sake of uniformity and laid a new first level, only to decide that our dirt quality was not good enough and our current trench was too large. So those bags got emptied too, we redug the trench a few feet smaller and we started sifting the dirt. My job, ironically, was to sit on dirt piles, pulling out by hand the very same rocks that we had collected a week earlier! The boys shoveled my hand-filtered dirt into a sifter and filled sacks with this superior dirt. And finally, the bags were laid just the way we wanted.

As of today, I am back in Port-au-Prince, living my normal life. Work will continue on the adobe house and I'm very excited to see how it goes!

Adobe houses - Leogane

My help was enlisted 3 weeks ago to drive to Leogane in search of the only adobe houses in Haiti. My Much Ministries friends want to build one (and hopefully many more after that) in Gonaives and we wanted to see what has already been successful. It was an adventure! We eventually found ourselves driving several miles along a river and in a river on the outskirts of Leogone until we arrived at the village of Bigone. The scenery around us was so beautiful - we stared openmouthed and wondered why anyone would leave this sort of paradise.

We found the first house close to the river, a pumpkin-like dome, built for a couple and their children. It was a small, one room structure with a little loft whose staircase took up most of the inside space. The owner showed us a little shed area off the back that serves as the bedroom because the windows have been incorrectly installed so that water runs straight into the house whenever it rains.

The second house was truly magical. It reminded me of a hobbit house from Lord of the Rings! Three adjacent domes formed the structure and it had lovely wooden carved doors and windows as well as intricate metal working for vents and lighting. Inside was cool and spacious and bright - just what you want for a house in Haiti.

We were awed.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Not quite Sandlot

I taught the neighborhood kids how to play baseball last week. They're pretty horrible at it, but I take great pleasure watching them rejoice in their little improvements.

Friday, October 7, 2011


Are you ready to grossed out? Get ready.

Have you ever eaten a snotball?

OK, they're not really snotballs; they're called kenep and they are a little fruit that grows in tall trees in Haiti, ripening in the late summer and early fall. They taste quite good, but upon first inspection, I can understand why my friend Sam called them snotballs. They really do look slimy and nasty.

The kids love them, especially because they don't have to buy them like most fruit which grows in the countryside. We can pick them right here in Port-au-Prince. So a few weeks ago, my neighborhood kids enlisted my help to go gather kenep. We went to the school across the street and asked the guard at the gate for permission to climb the tree and pick fruit. He looked at me and started laughing, "You won't be able to!" He didn't say "white girl" but I know that's what he was thinking. White people, especially white women, do not climb trees.

That decided it. I was climbing that tree, as high as I could climb, and I was getting as many kenep as I could reach. I'll show you, guard, that white girls can indeed climb trees!

A boy named Jonny went up with me and we stripped that tree of kenep, dropping them down to the eager girls waiting below. When we finally climbed down, you can bet that I gave that guard a very sweet smile on my way out.

(I have to confess, I really am not the greatest tree climber, but this particular tree is right beside the house, so all you have to do is walk up the stairs to the roof and then up into the tree. Quite painless.)

We ate kenep on my porch and on my roof and threw kenep across the street to some little boys playing soccer. The kids showed me how to make pwanch, a drink of kenep, moonshine, sugar and cinnamon. Unfortunately, I don't moonshine at the Teacup, so we had it with the sugar and cinnamon only.

And the guard? He looks at me with a slightly crooked smile every time he sees me. I think he's still laughing at me.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mountains and sunsets

Last week took me to Gonaives for a 4 day visit. I did the usual translating, playing with half-naked children, and medical work, but I had time for some unusual, unusually fun outings.

Every time I have gone to Gonaives, I have looked at the mountain that towers over the city and wished that I could climb it. Time and temperature have always been against me but this time, my friend Ben and I decided to make it happen regardless. We scrambled and sweated our way up the mountain, through the low prickle bushes and the little rock terrace walls that are supposed to prevent mudslides. At the top, we circumnavigated the peak, going out on little crests and adjacent hills looking for the best views. We were not disappointed!

I got to be there for an artisan festival where the women of Jubilee, the dump ghetto where my friends work, sold their wares to American visitors. It was the first time that the women did their own sales, which required them to speak some basic English. They were very nervous, but when it was all over, many of them told me that they were proud of themselves and they had felt alez (confident) with the foreigners.

On each visit, I get to know a few more of the Jubilee kids and adults. It can be embarassing because I forget names swiftly while they tend to remember me very easily - how many white women come through Jubilee speaking perfect Creole? But I still try to focus on a few each time in hopes that eventually, I will really know them. This trip gave me Claudine, a little firecracker who I often want to hug and spank in the same breath.

In the evenings, my friends and I would walk across the dump and sand flats, through the salt harvesting pools out to the ocean with a group of kids. They would swim while we watched the sunset. All around us is poverty and trash and dusty barrenness. And yet below us are cheerful children and above us are the most magnificent skies I've ever seen. I sometimes wonder if God purposely puts the greatest beauty in the places of greatest ugliness.


When I lived in the Shoebox, my next door neighbors always had a restavek, or child slave, living with them. Perhaps you remember the story of Dieula, the girl they kicked out onto the street in September 2010 who I was able to place in a rescue home. Shortly after Dieula, I met their new slave, a girl named Pierreline. I didn’t see her as often as Dieula but I slowly got to know her. Once or twice she came for food, saying that they had left her home alone all day with nothing to eat. And in February, she approached me for bus money so that she could go home to the countryside to visit her ailing mother. I gave it to her, as well as meds for her mom, and that was it. She never came back. I’d unintentionally freed her as well.

My neighbors got a new girl a month later. One afternoon when all the kids and I were goofing around on the front porch, the girl came over to ask me a question. My neighbor’s wife heard her and immediately came out screaming, “Don’t you go near that white woman!!” Apparently, she was afraid to lose yet another slave.

Two weeks ago, a girl walked past me on the street with a basket of bread on her head. Our eyes met and she stopped short. It was Pierreline, back in Port-au-Prince, living with her aunt and selling bread to survive.

I invited her to come see me a few days later with her 8 year old brother, Emmanuel. They told me that in the storm earlier that week, their little house had flooded. The rain had washed away all their clothes, food, and few belongings, and had threatened to take them too. An older cousin was able to rescue them using a plank of wood as a ladder, and now they were living in an unfinished room in Delmas 64.

I went to my youth group girls and asked them if they had any clothes they could spare for Pierreline. My mother brought some clothes for Emmanuel and they gratefully accepted them, along with a tent to help their current living situation. When Pierreline visited me again to say thank you, I asked her some more questions about her time as a restavek with my neighbor. “You started working for them in the fall of 2010, right?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” Pierreline replied. “I was there for 2 years before you gave me that bus money. They never let me leave the house. I just stayed in that downstairs room, doing laundry and cleaning. I used to hear you and see the children run past on their way to playing at your house, but I could never go out.”

I lived beside her for nearly 1 ½ years without realizing she was there!! I am still completely stunned. And Pierreline is merely one of thousands of girls and boys who live in such situations in Haiti. When will we get justice for them?