When it comes time to stroll down memory lane, the scrolling thumb replaces the turning of the page.
Photo albums are those creaky old volumes our elders keep on a living room shelf below the knick-knacks and other dust-collectors. Today, our lives are on our phones–occasions that are very in-the-moment as well as those from the past.
Thanks, Google Photos, for jogging my memory at precisely the right moment the other day. As I let my thumb glide down years of memories on my Samsung, I stumbled upon my cache of pictures from my trip to Haiti which happened, coincidentally enough, five years ago this month. I spent my 57th birthday in Port au Prince, the Haitian capital, wrapping up a one-week stay, most at my church's sister parish in tiny community of Latiboliere. St. Mary/Hales Corners has a long and intense relationship with the town which sits high in the hills in the very western part of Haiti, reachable only by driving for 20 or so minutes up a 45 degree slope over rocks and boulders that pass for a road.
Some call Haiti's brand of poverty “third world.” I'd put it at fourth or fifth. Yet the spirit of the people is inspiring, to say the least. They're grateful for the interest in their nation, thankful for any help, eager to share what little they have. And trust me, there isn't much. Water comes from a community well. Don't ask about sanitation. We had the luxury of living at the local church rectory where we were served three squares a day, some of the food grown/raised/slaughtered on-premises (they made us what passed for pizza one night, as you can see in the photo above). We had a toilet we could operate occasionally (“If it's yellow, let it mellow–if it's brown, flush it down”) and a cold shower that jolted the senses awake quicker than any of the local coffee could. A little girl from the town (seen above playing with my nose) spent hours at the church, asking us for gum and following us on our travels. Each day began with the crowing of roosters (no alarm clock needed) and the clanging of the six a.m. church bell, calling the locals to mass. Our group spent its days meeting with community leaders, asking what they needed, checking the progress of projects still being worked on. We visited families, hosted a lunch for the locals and toured clinics/schools. At day's end, we'd try checking in at home (one of our guides offered up his Wi-Fi hot spot so we could fire off a few emails) and then head up to the roof for a couple of Prestige beers under the Haitian sky. In the distance you could see and smell the fires burning in the forest as villagers turned trees into charcoal that could later be sold–it's all they have to peddle. Rest assured, there's no re-forestation program.
Life returned to normal upon our stateside return–some members of our group are far more involved that this one-off visitor. A few returned multiple times since, or are boots-on-the-ground in the church basement loading up suitcases full of medicine and basics for those making the next Haitian foray to take along. I think of the visit a lot, especially in the morning when warm water comes out of the bathroom spigot, or anytime I face what we who are blessed call “a first world problem”: a balky cellphone, a laptop that needs rebooting, or a leaking water heater.
Another Google tool–Search–got me caught on on the sad reality the island faces today. Long simmering problems including government corruption and a faltering economy are coming to a head in the streets of Port au Prince where rioting broke out this month. It's happened before–blue UN trucks and helmeted soldiers were on street corners during our stay–but this is one of the rougher stretches in recent memory. The US State Department is out with a travel warning, advising Americans not to travel there and telling all non-essentials to leave. We book-ended our visit with stays at a religious hostel in the capital city which was alive 24/7 with the bustle of people who had very little but always seemed to have somewhere to go. Port au Prince–and the rest of the country–were still dealing with the after-effects of the 2010 earthquake that killed 300,000. In a nation that had so little in the first place, it seems extra-cruel of nature to routinely deal the island a steady stream of catastrophe. Basics are in short supply on a good day. They're invisible in bad times, which abound.
Amid the rioting, a local hospital is bereft of basic medicine and vital machinery. That, a doctor points out, is an everyday situation. What's different now is a lack of patients–people who figure it's now too dangerous to venture out for what little treatment the facility can offer. They'd rather suffer–or die–at home. That quake was supposed to bring in all manner of relief–Venezuela alone loaned Haiti almost two billion dollars at one per cent over 25 years–but residents aren't seeing any of the promised social programs, health/child care, new schools/housing it was supposed to create. And, the debt remains unpaid. Other nations kicked in, and again, the results are lacking or non-existent. That's why they want President Jovenel Moise out. There was a break in the rioting this week, but officials don't know if that means it's over or if folks are loading up for round two. “Violent protests in Haiti may mean a humanitarian crisis,” says the headline over a PBS story on the current climate. A Miami Herald reporter quoted within tells of the anger of the nation's young people “who today see no hope, they see no way out. They are increasingly not believing in the ballot box. And so there's a huge apathy when it comes time to elections. And so you've seen this that even the women on the street, they are selling charcoal.” Remember, this is a nation where kids on occasion are forced to eat “dirt cookies,” the ingredients for which are right there in the name.
Never regretted the visit, but also felt bad about how it left me feeling–that no matter what our church and others around the US did, no matter how much money the world threw at the issues, that little if anything would change in Haiti. The reporter in the PBS story ends the piece with those same doubts–what happens if the President doesn't leave and, if he does, who's next and will they be any better? Will it ever be different, even if we define that word in the mildest terms of hope?
That doesn't mean the world shouldn't stop trying, that those dedicated individuals and mission organizers should throw hands into the air and move onto another cause. There are ties that bind some to Haiti, and its being left to those caring folks to bring what passes for comfort to so many who live in such a forlorn, desperate place, one that seems to be growing more unsettled by the day.
I'm glad I got to visit Haiti five years ago. Sounds like our mission of 2014 wouldn't be happening today, our little trickle of help one dried up in a parched land. May the current woes pass so energy can be spent on what really ails Haiti, problems that are decades old and ones that won't fix themselves.