Having Seen What I have, Can I just Walk Away?

It’s hard to drive through Port Au Prince and not be overwhelmed by the wrenching poverty. We take clean water for granted, but in Haiti, that is a luxury and the source of many of their problems. Garbage is piled up everywhere and there is a desperation you sense in the people of the street. People walk for miles balancing everything on their heads. There is trash everywhere in piles, filling the streams and streets. It’s hard to see God there but I know He is present, in deep disguise.

The people scrape by the best they can, but the conditions are distressing. Barb Hammond described it as a living anthill, with people climbing and living on top of each other. Chickens, goats, and cows walk the streets. We joked that it’s the same dog everywhere — wandering aimlessly, nosing through the garbage but free.

Yet within those depressing images, there is hope and joy and triumph. So many stories of people who come to the clinic, walking literally for days over the mountains or catching an occasional ride on the “tap-taps,” makeshift taxis colorfully decorated and so named because of the double knock indicating when you want to get off. (The pictures and images on the converted trucks are as creative, colorful, and imaginative as the natives–we even saw the Missouri Tigers emblem on one, possibly taken off a t-shirt left behind or donated.)

And how the people come. Many will stay overnight in the shelter–I’m not sure what they eat. Some have coveted cards, like the golden tickets from Willy Wonka guaranteeing a visit, but many will just come . . . bringing their children, or their brothers and sisters, or their nephews and cousins. They are friendly and hopeful. I don’t speak Creole and only manage broken French, but my “Bon Jour” is always, and I mean always, met with a smile and a friendly response.

I met a man who walks to clinic on his hands but is smiling and so positive–he is an inspiration to those of us who struggle with lighter loads. It’s unclear whether he had an injury or some type of infection (the histories are often limited) but for 18 years he has walked on his hands, dragging his legs behind. He said, through the interpreter mind you, that sometimes he thinks of his condition and becomes sad. But he won’t let it get him down and he drags himself forward. I feel guilty when I complain of my much lighter “burden.” He has been coming to the FOTCOH clinic for years, and he is so thankful for all the help we give.

Many of the children are covered in sores and scabies, but have such a joy and innocence. They are so enchanted by simple bubbles or a toy car, free from the electronic traps of cellphones and iPods.

Most mothers are unwed, carrying 3 and 4 children and doing the best they can, in their circumstances.

And therein lies one of the lessons I brought home:  you can not and will not solve all their problems, but you do the best you can with what you have and you keep going.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our team. Most of us had never met and only 3 of the 14 had ever been to Haiti before, but we bonded so well and we worked like a team that had been together for years. There was a humor and chemistry that brought us very close in those 2 weeks. It was truly an honor and privilege to be part of something so special. Every member of the team is so critical–James filled up my water bottle twice one day without asking and I didn’t even see him take it. It also meant so much when we’re trying to finish and we still have twenty or so people waiting on the benches, to have others step up, blow bubbles and entertain and distract the hot, tired kids and parents.

It was quite an experience. The Haitians are so poor materially. But there is a joy and friendliness that defies their circumstances and is so surprising given their situation. There are so many stories of triumph in such adversity and they are so thankful for simple gestures and kindness.

Someone asked me if I would go back. Having seen what I have, can I just walk away? Do I just say “I’ve done enough” . . . one and done?  No, I think I have to go back.  For me, it’s not so much if I’ll return, but when.

Michael Gootee