Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Haiti is the best country"

Last night I was shooting the breeze with my adult neighbors, Bradley and Ketsia. It was a beautiful windy evening and most of the houses on our street didn't have electricity, so everyone was outside. Children were running around, teens were gossiping, and adults were drinking a beer or buying food from the restaurant next door.
Out of the blue, Ketsia asked me, "Do you think Haiti is a good country?" I gave my standard response about every nation having its positives and negatives, and then she interrupted me. "I think Haiti is the best country! The best country!" she declared emphatically. Beside her Bradley nodded furiously. "That's right," he chimed in. "Everyone in the US thinks that Haitians are constantly miserable because we are poor, but it's not true. Our life is good and we are happy."
I've thought about what Bradley and Ketsia said. Life in Haiti is good and people are happy, but what makes the goodness and the happiness so remarkable is the fact that they exist in the face of such poverty and oppression. It's easy for me to be happy with a full stomach, a comfy bed and the security of a job, but what if I were hungry, unemployed and sleeping on a piece of cardboard in a mud and stick hut?

Of course, not all Haitians are in that level of poverty, but they all face financial and health needs that I could never imagine as an American. And yet overall, I see many more smiles every day than frowns, hear much more laughter than weeping, see more rejoicing than complaining. Maybe Ketsia's right; maybe Haiti really is the best country.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I am not a missionary

Meet Rony.
Rony is one of the men I am training to replace me. Of the many reasons why I chose him, his strong faith in God and commitment to his family were high on the list.
Two weeks ago, Rony's 11 year old daughter was hospitalized with vomiting and diarrhea, a common ailment in Haiti. Rony came to work looking flustered and distracted so I sent him back to his family. His daughter died the next day.
I was shocked and sad and angry. We live in the 21st century; no child should die of vomiting and diarrhea! I let God hear my anger at the injustice of such an event, especially to a man as godly and gentle as Rony.
My other TA's went with me to visit Rony. We sat in plastic lawn chairs in his one room house; Rony sat on the only bed. He recounted to us in detail everything that happened leading up to his daughter's passing. He told us with pride how his daughter loved to cook for him at night, and how the other children used to tease her about being dad's favorite. 
Her little twin sister sat on her dad's lap. "I'm cold, Daddy," she whispered. He gave her one of his button-down shirts and she draped herself in it. His 12 year old son slipped in and sat on the bed by his father, silently weeping. 
Then Rony smiled at us. "Remember what Job said? 'The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.' My girl is dead, but I trust God. He knows what He's doing; He knows why He let us have 11 years with her. Yes, if I can praise Him when things are good, I have to also be able to praise Him when things are bad too." He nodded and said with conviction, "Because of all this, I am going to love God more than I ever have."
I am not a missionary. My Haitian co-workers and friends are the missionaries.  From them, I learn that trusting in God is not circumstantial. From them, I learn how to pray in every situation. From them, I learn what faith really is. I do not teach them; they teach me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

It really has been hot

I know it was hot this summer, and I've suspected that our autumn temperatures have been hotter than usual too. I found confirmation of my hunch in an unusual place: the egg basket.
The last 3 times that my roommate and I have bought a flat of eggs, we have discovered anywhere from 2 to 8 eggs in each batch that have been essentially hard-boiled by the sun. I'm not joking or exaggerating. When you crack open the egg, it looks like it's been in boiling water for a few minutes.
I won't show you photos or try to describe the eggs we've also purchased recently that are rotten. I'll leave that up to your imagination.
I've been told that there is some sort of natural protective coating that American eggs lose in the cleaning process which makes them require refrigeration, while here in Haiti, our eggs are un-cleaned and therefore able to be stored anywhere. I buy my eggs on the street, from a lady who has a dozen flats of eggs, just sitting in the sun. I've bought my eggs that way for years, but I have never encountered sun-boiled eggs before.
I think this means I'm right. It really has been hot.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In my free time...

 ... I prepare lesson plans, gather materials for class activities, write exams, grade exams, and do all the chores that keep a Haitian household running, things like shopping at the outdoor market, pumping water by hand, washing clothes by hand, killing cockroaches and so on. I also have great fun in my free time.

Mexican dinner on the roof. Stunning performances of Cinderella. Solitary expeditions along the river. Evening hikes up the mountain to watch the sunset.




Sunday, October 19, 2014


When I got home yesterday, the first thing my neighbor said was, "Someone at church died."

The"someone" was Nordy, a young man with fantastic dreadlocks who runs the sound system for our church. Nordy was shy but we all loved when he would ask for a microphone and break out into his own spontaneous worship songs. Now he's dead, from a car accident, they say.

I came upstairs and opened a document titled "Death" that I'd written in June and decided not to post. It reads as follows:

When I lived in the US, hearing about someone dying was a rare occurrence. My grandmother passed away when I was 8. After that, it was 5 years until death touched me again when the supervisor at my volunteer position died without telling anyone he was sick.  
Perhaps it’s because my years in the US were as a child, a teen and a college student. Perhaps I was too wrapped up in my own world to hear when a neighbor or a classmate lost someone. Perhaps I didn’t notice because we don’t grieve openly or wear mourning clothes in the US like many other countries do.
Whatever the reason, I have been stunned again and again at how common death is in Haiti. In the past 2 weeks, a lot of people have died. Our nurse Wisline’s nephew died. Our nursing assistant, Samuela, lost her 37 year-old sister. Aussidieu, a neighbor in Jubilee, lost his 3 year-old nephew. An elderly patient in our blood pressure program passed away. My next-door neighbor lost her 27 year-old nephew after spending 2 months at the hospital with him. And JB, our other nursing assistant, found 3 unknown babies dead, half burned in the trash.  
All that in 2 weeks.
As I sit on my porch, writing this blog post, I can hear, very clearly, a woman mourning on my block. I don’t know who she is or who died, but I know Haitian custom enough to know that what I’m hearing right now is the first grief, the initial response to the news that a loved one has passed. Add this death to the count.
So much death makes me melancholy. But it also makes me value life more than I ever have. In this place where death is so real and so close, I find myself frequently whispering a prayer, "Thank You, Father, that I am alive."
I want it to change, of course. I fairly rage inside at the news of someone dying from an easily preventable disease. But I keep remembering the lesson I learned after the earthquake, that death is not the worst thing that can happen and that it does not in any way mean that God wasn't with us, and I wonder if perhaps the Haiti way isn't the more natural way to live. Maybe we should all live with death only a breath away. Maybe we should all live with our eyes a little wider open, seeing the preciousness of each day. Maybe death is actually a gift buried deep in grief.
Only He knows. So I sit on the porch, listen to my neighbor wail, and trust that He knows.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Darline and Angela

I first met Darline about 18 months ago when her grandmother brought her to our malnutrition program at Klinik Jubilee. She was skinny and weak but what struck me most was her disposition. Most malnourished kids have this empty, almost expressionless look, but Darline looked utterly forlorn.
Months of MedikaMamba helped her nutritional status, and then we enrolled her in Jubilee School. She has gotten healthier and stronger, but her chronic sadness hasn't gone away. Whenever I see her, she is wearing a face of rejection and loneliness that is just heart-breaking. I have seen our preschool teachers succeed in making her smile, but until recently I had never seen her act carefree and truly childlike.

A few days ago, Darline showed up at the door of my classroom. She was silently sad, as usual, nodding or shaking her head in response to my first questions, but then just standing, downcast, staring at the white tile floor. I tickled her, I kissed her, I told her about Katie's pet rabbit.
And then a little voice piped up from the path in front of clinic. "Darline, come on!"
It was Angela, the 5 year old daughter of our school cleaning lady. Darline lifted her head, a huge smile lit up her face, and she fairly danced across the rocks and dirt to meet her friend. They threw their arms about each other and traipsed off together.
I may have started crying.

Monday, October 13, 2014

My graduates

There's something really special about walking into clinic and realizing that all the staff working in the front room are graduates of my program. Of course, I loved and was proud of our first NAs who had learned from Martha, the nurse who founded the classes that I teach, but there's something different about looking at 2 people who came into my class knowing nothing and to see them now giving advice about hypertension prevention, doing dressing changes, testing urine, weighing babies, and filling out admission forms. It's my "Proud Mama" moment of the day, every day.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Teaching, bouncing, teaching

I started my new set of classes last week. I've got the classic adult community health agent course, the high school community health agent course that I added 9 months ago, and this semester, I've thrown in an advanced community health course for my top graduates and some students who are in lab tech school or who are already nursing assistants. All in all, I have 60 students and classes 5 days a week.
On my second day of teaching this fall, I was told that the school cafeteria, which is also where I teach, was going to be under construction the next day.
Suddenly I was scrambling to try to find a space large enough to fit my classes, particularly the high school class, which, including TAs, boasts over 30 people. Construction started, and I moved benches into the back room of clinic.
Class is a little more intimate, significantly hotter and stuffier, but at least we all fit...if we squeeze!

Fortunately the construction has been going very quickly and it looks like I might be able to return to my usual spot in a week or two.

My TAs were completely unfazed by the bounce to a new classroom. They continue to teach and assist me with great gusto. Gerard in particular (below in black) likes to throw a few words in when I'm teaching, to re-explain what I am already explaining. He also has a tendency to forget that he is not a student anymore and when I ask questions in class, I want the students to answer, not him! But as we work the little quirks out, it gets better and better and I'm so glad to have them there. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got by without TAs before.

So here we are, teaching in the clinic. Sometime soon, we will get bounced back over to the cafeteria...until the school decides to start having dance lessons or karate in that space. Flexible, flexible, flexible. That's the name of the game here in Haiti.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Good-bye Grace

Our clinic director and my dear friend Grace is leaving us to take a position as a project manager in Cap Haitian, on the north side of the island. We are excited for her opportunities there but very sad to see her go. Cody Smith, an American nurse who lives in Jubilee with her husband and 2 teenage daughters, has taken over as clinic director, and she organized a good-bye party for Grace at Klinik Jubilee. 
I brought the music and the funny hats.
Most of the staff gave speeches, expressing their appreciation for Grace. Two staff members, nurse's aide JB and nurse Wisline, refused to speak because they were so upset. The worst or best part, depending on how you look at it, was when Katie arrived with 7 kids representing the elementary students at Jubilee School. They had made "thank you" cards for Grace and ceremonially presented them to her one by one. One of them, Ifocoeur, was very sick on Grace's first ever visit to Haiti, and since then, he has held a special place in her heart. When it came his turn to hand over a packet of cards and hug Grace, I don't believe there was a dry eye in the room.

Of our original staff from our opening in 2012, none are working full-time for us anymore. We sent Vesline, our nurse, to midwifery school, and she now works for another NGO and does teaching part-time at Klinik Jubilee. Oscar is our new clinic assistant director, but we are sponsoring him to nursing school, so he is only around during school vacations or after hours. Samuela left for personal reasons, and Valmy has simply gotten too busy with the English Institute that he co-founded. However, as Grace always says "Staff, current or former, are always welcome," so we often have former staff popping in and out, bringing a little extra enthusiasm and excitement to an average day.
It's funny - when you start out to build a health care center, like Grace did, sometimes you get more than you aimed for. She got a health center, but she also got a large Klinik Jubilee family.

Nice work, Grace. We will miss you! 


Monday, September 29, 2014

Just a few days ago ...

... I returned to Haiti from 3 weeks in New England. Time with my family, time with Chop Point kids and adults, time to pick berries, time to attend 2 weddings, and time to walk barefoot in that miraculous stuff called "grass".

When I got to Haiti, I stayed in Port-au-Prince for a few days to reconnect with a family that had adopted three children from HFC and NLL, where I lived and volunteered during my earliest months in Haiti, back in 2007. The family was visiting Haiti with all but one of their children and it was great to see how grown up the Haitians kids are - Bernadin, below eating a mango, is 22 now, and Lucy, in the purple chair, is 8 - and to meet their American siblings for the first time.

I also popped by Dorothy's and played with Lovena. She is in school and she is talking, jabbering in Creole, answering questions and parroting things that I say. She even knows how to say "Cheese" in English when asked to pose for a photo.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


All my graduations follow a similar pattern. The students sing, the "godfather" and "godmother" of the class (sort a combination of sponsors and commencement speakers) give speeches, and then I give out diplomas and honorary first scrubs.

Then all the graduates and I pose for an eternity while the spectators takes photos.

Then the frenzy begins. Everyone wants to take individual photos with their spouses, children, their own graduation "godparents", and of course with me, their beloved professor.

Smiling for that many photos can get quite exhausting!
The best moment during the photo-athon is this: someone I have never met before grabs me, and says, "May I have a photo with you?!" And next thing I know, I'm posing with a complete stranger. I promise you, no exaggeration, this has happened at all of my six graduations.  
My students always give me a "thank you" gift. It's generally an ugly picture frame or an ugly flower print. However, my students who graduated in May came up with something a little more creative.
I was relieved to discover that the giant present was not an enormous hideous picture frame, but a custom-made plaque which reads: "Class of 2014 - Miss Keziah, We will never forget you."
I think it's quite nice. But all of my Haitian friends reminded me that the students' choice of words is precisely what people put on the banners that get hung in a church or neighborhood whenever a well-known personage has died. "We will never forget you." We now refer to it as my death plaque.
The most memorable moment in any graduation thus far happened yesterday. At the end of the ceremony my students made me stand in the front of the room and they all lined up before me. One by one, they walked up to me, kissed me the ceremonial kiss on each cheek, and thanked me in their own words. It was a very sweet touch.

It generally takes me 2 months to realize that my students are no longer new, and that I actually like them a lot. By the time I have this revelation, class is almost over and graduation is bittersweet. Most of these students I will not see again, and if I do, it won't be the same because we won't be in the camaraderie of the classroom. Now I have to break in a new group of students who I most certainly do not like yet. Oh, well. Give me another 2 months and the whole cycle will repeat.

Congratulations to all my students -- to all my graduates!