“Out the window to your left is Inagua,” Gene’s voice came in over my headset. Our pilot and guide for the journey was sharing bits of history and geography with us as we dropped in elevation on our slow descent through the clouds towards Haiti. “Inagua’s only got one settlement, and only about 150 people live there. Most of them work for the salt companies. Collecting salt. Mostly for road salt. You know, for the roads up north in the US.”
I couldn’t help but smile at that. I hoped that the good Inagua salt was keeping my friends and family back home safe this week as snow pounded the northeast.
I sat in the six seater Beechcraft plane behind our pilots, Gene and Jared. Across from me sat Elissa. The seats’ arrangement reminded me of the rows that face one another on the New Jersey transit – with almost enough room to be comfortable if there is someone across from you, but not quite. Luckily for Elissa and I, there are only 4 people on the plane, so we don’t have to spend the flight trying politely not to bump knees. Instead we’ll spend the flight craning our necks to the other person’s side of the plane as Gene points out landmarks and tells us trivia and history. A large ship goes by underneath us; waves break on a reef in the middle of nowhere. Then we pass over Tortuga Island, as Gene narrates my favorite bit of trivia, telling us that this is where the Caribbean pirates based their operations, including the real Captain Morgan.
Studying Creole across from me, Elissa hoped that the fact that she had been born in Haiti would help the language to sound familiar when we arrived. My only hopes of finding familiarity were in the tiny mothering phrases that my mother had used with me when I was small. A brilliant art historian, who had studied in Italy, Germany and France, and all of the sudden the mother of five, she continued to speak the language of academia long after leaving it. “Porta la boca,” she would say to me gently, as I opened my mouth for her to brush my teeth.
I was taking a break from studying the Creole flashcards that our co-pilot, Jared, had tossed back to me. As I read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a recommendation from Brenda, Kidder’s words began to make me aware of the intensity that the next few days would hold. Sadly, while Brenda had gotten me a seat on Gene’s plane, Brenda’s own seat was empty as she worked back on Eleuthera. It was the first adventure I had gone on in about a month without the bold Baptist minister who had such a powerful ministry among the children in James Cistern, and I knew her friends in Haiti would be sad not to see her.
As the plane got lower and lower, closer and closer to the shores of Haiti, I realized how completely unprepared I was for what lay ahead. I had brought with me a tiny bag, that had made Gene laugh at me and say that I was welcome any time, if that was how I packed. Hey, I had a change of clothes, a toothbrush and my iPad. What else does a girl need?
My inexperience with this kind of travel made me grateful to be with someone who was prepared and knowledgeable. Neither Elissa nor I had much advance notice that we would be headed to Haiti to assist in delivering supplies and offering support and accountability. Yet, I could tell within five minutes of being with Gene that the journey would be one that was not only safe, but also honoring of the people of Haiti. He had a preference for the Haitians that reminded me of seminary conversations about God’s preference for the poor.
More important than Gene’s leadership, however, was the peaceful confidence that God had a plan and purpose for steering my journey this way even if I did not know what it was yet.
The mountains rose up as we soared down over the Haitian island of Tortuga towards the main island of Hispaniola. As we flew low in Gene’s little plane, we could view in amazing detail the life going on below us in the communities along the northern coast of Hispaniola. Churches, fishing boats, soccer fields and banana trees. After a month on the relatively flat island of Eleuthera, the mountains were quite a change. It brought to my mind the beautiful, verdant mountains of South Africa that I had flown over before coasting down into the Eastern cape in 2011 to spend a month in Durban with my friend Anna and her husband Simon.
Truth be told, it would be hard not to think about South Africa today. One of the last bits of news I had gotten on Eleuthera before leaving for Haiti was that Mandela went to his eternal rest the day before, after a life spent struggling for justice and inspiring hope. I thought of the time I spent in the townships of Umlazi and Sowetto. I thought about my friends in Durban, not only those who were of the Xhosa family like Mandela, but also those who were from Zulu, Afrikaner and British backgrounds; Mandela had knit them all into his family through his courageous ability to forgive. I prayed that his legacy of reconciliation from all those past pains would live on in a country that still faces many challenges; where the continuing struggle of the townships bears witness to how far they have to go. Sitting in my little seat on my little plane, I wore a little South African flag on my shirt as we flew over an island that had also fought for and won its freedom two centuries ago.
I knew this 200 foot arial tour of Haiti was an experience few have, and with few commercial flights coming into Cap Haitien, Haiti’s second largest city after Port-au-Prince, I was traveling to a part of Haiti that fewer Americans enter. There would not be tourist trinkets in the market, hot water in the showers, or consistent internet.
Our wheels hit the ground in Cap Haitien and the sensory overload of Haiti began. Customs officers taking our money; baggage inspectors going through our belongings; and a crowd of aggressive luggage porters clamoring to be the ones to carry our bags to Willio’s car. I took Brenda’s advice – stay quiet, remember you are a woman, and follow Gene’s lead. Before I knew it, Willio had ushered Elissa and I into the back seat of his car and we sat in dark cool silence as the men finished the negotiations outside. There are moments in life when I feel not the slightest urge to be a feminist; this was one of them. I’ll stay in the car, mesi.
From the airport Willio took us to check in on the apartment where four of the orphanage graduates were staying. In Haiti, the government does not allow you to stay in the orphanage past the age of eighteen. So, much like the foster system in the United States, after you hit that age you are out on your own. Just as further education can be an alternative for those emerging the foster system, Willio was trying to create opportunities for these exceptional young people. Having come to the orphanage late in childhood, they could not complete high school before they aged out. So, Willio had found sponsors who would support them having an apartment in Cap Haitien while they finished their classical studies and went to trade school at the same time. Willio does not give up easy and he was not giving up on them. It was not hard to see why. Talented, gregarious and kind, it would have been hard to see them back on the street after all he had invested in them. With a bit more education, maybe they would have a chance.
Without room in the car, these high school young adults would have to catch a tap tap to follow us to Oanaminthe. So we said “Babay, N’we” and headed out across the northern coast of Haiti to Oanaminthe, a city that sits directly on the border with the Dominican Republic. Being a Friday, it was a busy day to drive in that direction. Friday is the one day that the border to the Dominican Republic is open and trucks, buses, motorcycles, and donkeys piled high with food barreled past us. The amount of supplies that they had managed to affix to the vehicles with rope was mind-boggling. Slowing traffic further was the fact that the police had periodic traffic stops set up to offer the vehicles an opportunity to show them financial gratitude. We had already learned at the airport that the way to tell the difference between a bribe and a tax was whether you got a receipt. The police were clearly extracting bribes simply for the pleasure of allowing the drivers to admire their guns and uniforms. We stopped a few times and Willio made friendly conversation with the men with large guns slung over their shoulders before we continued on our way.
Driving through the beauty of Haiti, with the grandeur of the mountains rising all around us, it was hard to imagine how, with land so fertile, so many could be malnourished and struggling. That is not my question to answer, however; and it seems the more people try to answer it, the more money is pumped in, the more discouraging it becomes for leaders like Willio. The people of Haiti don’t need people to give them the answers, they need people who are willing to give them their hand in partnership and trust them that they can find the answers that will work for them.
“20 cars and not one plaintain,” Willio remarks as we drive past the headquarters of a German NGO that boldly proclaims its goal to end world hunger. Willio continued, “Why do they need so many new cars? And why do they spend the money on cars for themselves instead of food for the people?”
Willio had a tireless mind, always pondering the complicated problems he saw around him and dreaming of solutions.
“Jesus wore a dress,” he said, “why can’t women today wear pants? The girls in my orphanage wear pants, no problem.” Willio was telling us about the impediment that uniforms were to children attending school. Uniforms were mandatory to school attendance, even at schools like Willio’s that did not charge tuition. Public schools, on the other hand, were even harder to attend because the principals ran them like a business, charging whatever tuition the market could handle in that area. Willio bemoaned the process of uniforming a student, taking them to the city to get measured and to get a uniform made; add in black school shoes and it came to around $165… and that is in American currency. He would love for his students to have more cost effective uniforms, maybe polo shirts and jeans; which would not be a problem for the man who had decided that girls could wear pants if Jesus wore a dress.
As we parked beside the small compound in Oanaminthe and prepared to meet the forty orphans who lived with Willio and his family, we could already hear the excited chatter from the children inside.
“Brace yourself,” said Jared.