Just Listen (Haiti, Part 3)

Willio shares his heart with us over lunch at the Plezirs Gourmand
Willio shares his heart with us over lunch at the Plezirs Gourmand

“What we need is unity. Unity between nations. Unity between people. We need to be unified,” Willio was sharing his vision with us as I attempted to gnaw the meat off a goat joint at the Plezirs Gourmand in Oanaminthe. (I looked very undignified and Jared made sure to capture that on film). Gene, Jared, Elissa and I were taking a break from the activity at the Sur le Rocher orphanage to have lunch with Willio and listen to what he envisioned.

Gene knew that it was important for us to see Haiti not through our own lenses, but through the eyes of Willio. Earlier I had told Gene that what made Haiti feel different to me than other places I had been was all the trash. In Haiti, they do not throw trash away; they drop it where it is. But Gene gently corrected me that that is my problem, not Haiti’s problem. In other words, I was the one who was troubled by it, but that did not make it a problem to solve if they were not troubled by it. It was not right to try to impose our normal on another person. To do so was to step out of learning and befriending, and step into fixing and changing. The only things that needed to change about Haiti were what the Haitians wanted to change.

Lots of people have come to Haiti and tried to impose their own perspectives, values and answers. From the unfriendly looks that we received walking through the marketplace, I got the sense that the appearance of Americans in Oanaminthe did not summon positive associations for most. Both NGO’s and churches, it seemed, had given solutions that people in Haiti tried to wear like an ill fitting shirt, until it got in the way of their work and the only way forward was to take it off. In Willio’s case, one group of church folks tried to send him packaged meals for his children – ziplock bags of rice and protein flakes in portion size for the children. When the children refused to eat the protein flakes and complained they made them sick, the women in the kitchen began to painstakingly go through the bags separating the protein flakes from the rice and cooking the rice all together in one large pot.

Another church group delivered guinea pigs to Sur Le Rocher, telling Willio that they should raise them and then feed them to the children. Culturally this was almost equivalent to dropping off a box of puppies to a hungry family in New York City and telling them to eat them. Willio did not know how to get rid of them and was not willing to feed the guinea pigs the children’s food, nor the guinea pigs to the children as food. It created quite a quandary for him.

For all these reasons and more, Gene had taken us to the Plezirs Gourmand, to sit down with Willio, apart from all the noise and activity of the orphanage, and hear his vision.

And boy did he ever have one. Willio’s hunger to make a different world to live in, for the 40 children he cared for, was insatiable. I realized that I had been feeling overwhelmed by how little I could do, but I had been asking the wrong question. The question was not what could I do – the question was what could Willio do. And I was starting to believe Willio could do pretty much anything he set his mind to; it seemed that time was his only obstacle.

Willio’s dream was not only to make conditions better in Oanaminthe or in Haiti, his dream was to make a better world. His dream was for Haiti to be a part of helping that happen. His dream was for other people to come to Haiti from around the world, not because they were there to “help” Haiti, but because Haiti would some day have such good surgeons that people would come to receive help from them. He saw a day when people would travel to Haiti not to give economic training and oversight, but to seek advice from the economists that Haiti had raised up themselves. Willio envisioned a world that needed Haiti, not one that saw Haiti as needy.

Willio knew that the path to this future would be forged by the children of Haiti, and among them the 40 children he was investing his life to form. His children had painful pasts, but they could have bright futures. It would be immensely difficult, but it was possible.

Softening his tone, Willio said, “When the children tell me their stories, I am quiet and I listen. They catch our children in the Dominican Republic, working in the street. They arrest them and treat them like criminals. Then they bring them back here.” Expressing the emotion that drove him, and subtly revealing the experiences that he himself had suffered, he said, “I do not want them to treat our children like trash. I want them to grow up to be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and for people to come from all around the world to receive their services. I do not want them to treat our children like trash.”

All his big plans, all his creative solutions, all of the ideas in his head – it really all boiled down to that. “I want my children to grow up to be treated like real humans, not trash. To be treated with dignity and with respect.”

Then, struggling to find the English words for the concept he could have communicated so easily in Creole, he said, “I do not want my people not to know themselves. I do not want them to go on not knowing who they are in God. They are not trash.”

Right there was where I teared up, as Willio’s persistent attempts to remain cheerful finally revealed the strong emotions and painful struggles that drove him. I couldn’t listen then, and I can’t write it now, without getting overwhelmed with emotion.

This is the reason why Willio’s home is not in the business of facilitating adoptions. He does not want his children to receive the message that the way to a better life is to leave Haiti. He believes that they can together create a better life right here in Haiti. These children are the most valuable resources that the nation has, why would he want to give them away?

“The more people, the more hope,” is the simple way Willio summarizes his philosophy. What he means is that the more people he can help to get educated, to have better lives, to join a movement of helping their community — the more others would be inspired and the better chance they would have. Hope, he knew, would be the most essential ingredient. It was more important than money or resources, all of those other things were just a means to an end, and that end was hope.

His vision reminded me of John Perkins of Mississippi and the Christian Community Development movement. Like many leaders before him – like Perkins, like Mandela, like King – Willio knew that the solution was not to find a way to help his children leave. The solution was to get them to stay and to fight. To fight not through violence but through education, and responsibility, and compassion. To create the kind of world that they wanted to live in right there at home, rather than seeking wistfully after another one.

Willio wants a lot of things. He wants the political parties in his country to stop fighting, and for the president to be able to reform the education system. He wants a city where Christ’s love is shown, where voodoo human sacrifices are not practiced as a way of “dealing with” society’s most vulnerable. He wants a home someday for his wife and daughters to live in, so that they do not have to live in the orphanage. He wants those who reach 18 years of age to continue on in school, rather than being sent to the streets. He wants to see a day when there is not even a single child who is alone in the world, a day when every child has someone. He wants a world where no child thinks that they are trash, where no children are treated like trash. But first, he wants people to trust him, to believe in him and his passion and ability to find answers.

There are lots of people who want to come in and change Haiti, but they won’t change Haiti. Haiti will be what Haiti feels called to be, not what anyone wants to make it. It will live into its future through the vision and work of people like Willio and the gifts and callings of his dozens of children. Haiti will decide what Haiti will become. Willio just wants his children to have a chance to be part of that conversation.

Willio gets a laugh out of his 40-some children at dinner
Willio gets a laugh out of his 40-some children at dinner
Willio introduces us to the grandmother who raised him.  She does not know how old she is, but somewhere in her mid-80's, which is very rare in Haiti.
Willio introduces us to the grandmother who raised him. She does not know how old she is, but somewhere in her mid-80’s, which is very rare in Haiti.
The room Willio lived in until he got married.
The room Willio lived in until he got married.
Following Willio through the marketplace.
Following Willio through the marketplace.
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