News from Haiti - Fr. David Rickey

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Saturday, was the first day I really got out into Haitian day-to-day life. New Years Eve was partying and the 2 days following were much the same. Many stores were closed, and when my friends and I went out to eat, there was loud rhythmic music everywhere. It was as if people wanted to stretch the celebration out as long they could. Actually, my experience of Haitians, especially the young, which seems to be most of them, is that any excuse for a party is the antidote to the reality of poverty and joblessness.

So, we went out to a barbershop to explore one idea for a business. For me it was a fascinating experience of inner-city life here. We drove to a large empty space, a parking lot, I suppose, but it appeared more like a dry river bank that was flat enough to drive your car on. We walked along the riverbed itself – there was a small stream – which was littered, literally, with refuse of every sort. Lots of plastic bags, empty or full, everywhere.

Let me digress about an observation about this. Although most all the rubble has been removed, I am impressed by how dirty the streets are. I do see people sweeping in front of their shops, but most people don’t have shops. The Marchans (Merchants) who sell on the street just leave there trash where they created it. Sometimes this gets moved a bit into a large pile, and sometimes it is set on fire. I also see garbage trucks, occasionally at night, trying to pick up some of the refuse. But there doesn’t seem to be any major effort like “Recology – Sunset Savenger. More on that another time.

So we wove our way through narrow passage ways that reminded me of medieval places I have seen in Barcelona and Cologne. Here in Haiti, houses are built wherever they can be built, so sometimes there is a very narrow passage to get through. Once I had to turn sideways to fit between two buildings. Along the wider spaces were Marchans selling vegetables (I bought some heads of garlic) and OTC medicines and candy and bread. This is the source of livelihood for so many people. (I am not sure how much of a livelihood it really is.)

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We found the barbershop my friends were headed for. It was a small cinderblock room about 6 X 8 feet. The cinderblocks had been painted “Graffiti Style” in bright colors and free-hand spray-paint letters. We set up a table in the alley and got some plastic lawn chairs. At our back were some crumbled walls of a building spilling out onto the passage way. And, again, the area was strewn with plastic bags, empty soda and beer bottles. But the sky was blue and there was make-shift awning flapping in the breeze, so it was all good. Music blared from the entrance to the shop, some Creole Compas and some Lady Gaga or Miley Cyrus – pretty much foreign to my classical background but infectiously uplifting.

Other people began to gather. And our party began. Someone came by with a bottle of Creole Cream which is rhum-based with coconut milk and sweetened condensed milk and almond and other flavors. It was quite good. But as I drank it, I also was breathing, so there was a really earthy blend of this delicious drink and the smells of the trash and urine and fried meat and plantain. It was not unpleasant, altogether. And it seemed very real. Nothing artificial here!

People were going by – this was a main passage, it seemed. A group of very well dressed men carrying drums and other instruments, on their way to a Pentecostal meeting, women and men carrying, on their heads, merchandise to sell or things they need to get from A to B, like one man had a television balanced on his head, children going home from school or children just going somewhere, maybe with buckets or gallon bottles of water. I smiled at some of the children, which I like to do, but then I noticed one particular boy who stood a ways off, after our smiles connected, and I could tell he was hoping for more.

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Young children especially ask for money. I have heard of places where children are sent out to solicit money for their “owners”. I don’t know whether that was going on here. But I have learned not to respond, because once you start other children see it and come expecting their share. But most times I just get a pleasant, perhaps, from the girls, shy smile, mixed with curiosity. “What is this old white man doing here?”

I looked around at the small gathering that had formed, mostly young men and some young women who seemed to be flirting with one guy after another, and I started thinking that most of these people have no jobs or something very minimal, and yet there was great joy and laughter. How was I going to connect with them to make some kind of difference.
I will focus on the young because they hold the hope for Haiti. They have the energy, and I hope they have will to pursue a different strategy then living day to day.

There doesn’t seem to be a sense of thinking of consequences. The trash issue is one symptom. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of future. They take garbage from their homes and just throw it from a bridge into a riverbank (I was in the car when we stopped on a bridge and when I asked why, I saw one of the guys take bags out of the trunk and toss them). It is like there is no thought for what the result is. Taking it deeper, perhaps the thinking is, “Why bother. This is what it is like. Nothing will change.

One sign of hope. As I was sitting there with this gathering party, I looked in one direction and saw the narrow alley of rough cinderblock walls, several Marchans stalls, a dirty stream where people kept dumping their pails of dirty water, and people going here and there. Then, turning in the opposite direction, I saw a very new house, with nicely painted walls stuck right in the middle of all this that I have described. The adventure has only just begun.