Monday, February 10, 2014

On suffering, courage and the Women of Haiti

In a recent article in the magazine Shambala Sun, (Jan. 2014) author Andrea Miller spent time with teacher and author Thich Nhat Hanh. She writes:

      "There is suffering. That is the first noble truth. There is personal suffering; there is societal suffering; and there is the tragic place where personal and societal suffering meet. But in community all of our suffering -  in being heard and held - can soften, just a little."

You don't have to come to Haiti to experience suffering or to experience the healing that can be found in community. Perhaps both resonate more profoundly with me here because it is in my face 7 days a week and 24 hours a day. Community is a powerful healing mechanism.
Sen Rafayel - The Breakfast Club.  Those without uniforms are in schools on strike.

Cap-Haitien - 4th year nursing student Brunie picks up funds for her psychiatric placement
at the state hospital in Port-au-Prince.
Traffic is again flowing up Granjil Mountain. Not without hitches, but fewer protests and more police presence mean that we are able to get to and from Sen Rafayel weekly. Delays are shorter. The bad news is that state national schools have been on strike since January. They opened for a week after the Christmas break then country wide went out. No one can work without a paycheck, and not paying the teachers at state schools has been a way of life here for several years. Our students in private schools continue to attend classes but the extended holiday for a quarter of our students puts a strain on our drop in centers. 

Electricity has been MIA since December and continues to be elusive. When it does put in an appearance, for a few hours in the middle of the night, I cannot summon the energy to get up and sit at the computer. There are just too many mosquitoes to battle outside of the relative safety of my mosquito net. Sen Rafayel has always managed without but here in Cap we prepare all food and supplies for both centers so it is a challenging time. This blog has been in the works for a few weeks and will eventually be published. The luxury of writing in one sitting is a memory.

Lack of rain continues to be a problem. Despite the challenges, we are fully functional and making our way through home visits. Last week we managed to visit 9 of our new admissions. As always, I came away so humbled in the face of the courage I saw in the suffering of many.

Program director Auguste looks at the corrugated metal (tol) that serves as a wall and
doorway for the half room Cassimilia shares with her widowed mother and siblings.

Half the room was sheared off by bulldozer to pave the road.
Getting in was like climbing a steep mountain. The owner is putting them out and they have no place to go.

Mme. shows me the disfiguring scars from previous surgery and the new lumps .
A hospital visit at least a year ago recommended mastectomy.

Cassamilia is 14, siblings are 13 and 10.  Her mother is 42. While we do not have the funds to provide medical support for extended family, there are always exceptions. As I wrote to a friend this week we will do whatever we can for this family. Haiti has too many orphans. Next visit to 20year old Wilbrode one of the students caught in the current teacher strike. He had been sitting out due to lack of funds, and now finds himself sitting out again. He is in Philo (also called Secondaire IV) the final year of high school.The difference this time is Lakay Jasmine. He has resources and a place to go.

Wilbrode stand in the doorway of the one room house he shares
with his mom and 5 sisters. Older brother Gerald was one of our
graduates last year.

Wilbrode's manman works in the one room that
is kitchen/bedroom/living room.
Mme is a widow, keeping her 6 children  together in this ti kay.What you see in the picture is everything the family owns. On to Myka's house. Like Wilbrode, Myka has been sitting out of school because of lack of funds. Her mom and dad are both dead.

Auguste follows Myka to the one room house
she shares with younger sister and Granmother.

On the wall between Auguste and Myka is a cheap
black wig. It belongs to her Gran.

This is their kitchen corner and cooking implements.
They also sleep /study/live here.

We didn't get to meet Myka's Grandmother. She was at the market. When I asked about her parents, she said that both of them had died of illness. The black wig hanging on the wall belongs to  her Gran. Her  hair has fallen out so she either ties a scarf around her head or covers it with the hairpiece. False hairpieces are everywhere and can be purchased for a few pennies.

On to Jasmine's ti kay. Papa is dead, manman has 8 children. Mme had a job keeping house for a wealthy family but was let go. She is desperate to find a 'position' in order to help her children. Many of our families are in the same situation - living apart and unable to connect.

Jasmine stands in the doorway of the 'under construction'
room she shares with her widowed mom and 1 sister.

Mme describes what happens when it rains as the room has no roof,
only  threadbare piece of material.
Mme is 45 years old. Jasmine is 15 and had been sitting out of school for 2 years due to lack of funds. Manman did all the talking, asking for nothing, just thanking us for sending her daughter to school. She doesn't know how long they can stay in the 'house'. Although there are concrete blocks piled up, the owner seems to have halted construction. Putting on a roof would be very expensive. She said when the rain comes they stand up, huddled  in the corner all night.

Following Melane to her home. The denuded mountains are an ever present, never changing backdrop.

Melane is an anomaly in Haiti - she has both parents alive.
Her dad owns this house and has a garden, but no rain since September
means harder times. 

Manman is going blind and feels as though her body is on fire all the time.
No medicare, no OHIP, no support.

Auguste sits in front of the family's possessions.
Odette's extended family greet me. 

Odette stands on her 'bed' the floor . Family clothes are piled on the table ready to go to the river for washing.

The family possessions.

Lack of  water continues to be a problem of monumental proportions for everyone in Sen Rafayel.
We have a  good vehicle and the luxury of being able to travel great distances until we find water.

Without exception, the students we visited shared this list:

  • no available water - it is necessary for everyone to travel great distances on foot to find untreated water. The village supply remains turned off due to lack of rain.
  • no toilet - no one had even a communal latrine
  • no electricity
  • no bed-no comfortable place to sleep. No pillows, no covers.
  • do not eat everyday 
  • house leaks when it rains
  • house has problems  with mosquitoes,cockroaches,mice,rats

Last week Auguste returned to Sen Rafayel with Gaby, one of our 3 university graduates with a nursing degree. Unfortunately for the entire graduating class, administration did not process application for state national licensing exams for nurses on time so everyone has to wait until this fall to write. Good for us as Gaby was available so we have hired him to private duty manman Cassimilia.

During a home visit, Nurse Gaby checks Mme's vitals, takes a
family history  and talks about previous and potential surgery.

Auguste, Mme and Gaby drove down the mountain at 4 am next morning arriving at the hospital in Milot at 5:45 am. They were #62 for a consultation. When their turn finally came, they were told there was no surgeon available to see Mme so they will return again tomorrow morning. In the interim, Auguste is in Port-au-Prince for service on our vehicle.

We have a guest room at Lakay Jasmine which has 2 beds and a half bath. It will one day be a clinic.  It is new and very clean and we will use it as a recovery room for Mme once we arrange her surgery. Driving up and down a mountain which may or may not be closed due to protests is time consuming and tiring. Fortunately we have a youthful staff.

The challenges here loom large at times, seemingly endless misery and grief are all around. At the same time there is intelligence, courage, awareness and joy.

Thich Hnat Hanh says that the key to happiness is "stopping and learning to be happy in the present moment. "  

Such a simple yet difficult way to live. Those present moments can slip by unnoticed and unappreciated. The women of Haiti live in the present moment. They remind me constantly of how I want to live my life and that it takes work. It has nothing to do with possessions or affluence. 

The community of Starthrower is here and growing, firmly rooted in the soil of Haiti thanks to every one of you who believes that we can alleviate suffering and it happens when we take responsibility. The community being created is the bonus - unplanned and priceless.


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