Living conditions: harsh realities and rays of sunshine from Ouanaminthe
There’s no denying that Haiti, like many of its immediate neighbors, is a country possessed of astounding natural beauty. As we drove by bus across the Dominican border towards Ouanaminthe beneath the welcome heat of a tropical sun, the lush scenery passing our windows had us grinning from ear to ear.
However, we quickly learned that travelling in Haiti makes an appreciation of the landscape nearly impossible. The rosy impression fades quickly, overshadowed by the abject poverty visible at every turn. At every station and rest-stop, young men and boys are grouped en masse, evidently in the hope of earning a bit of cash by rendering some small service to travelers. Women can be seen walking the roadside - often miles outside the nearest inhabited area - hands at their sides, balancing absurdly large (and presumably heavy) tubs of wet laundry, bananas, etc. with incredible grace and apparent ease. Even the youngest children exhibit a heartbreaking degree of self-sufficiency, and it is not uncommon to see a child of five or six caring for several younger siblings while parents are away from home.
In spite of the difficulties that plague the country today, Haiti has a proud, though turbulent history. A former French colony, Haitians ended both slavery and French rule in the largest and most successful slave rebellion in the history of the Western Hemisphere, establishing the sovereign nation of Haiti as the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean in 1804. In spite of their circumstances, the pride that Haitians take in this history and in their culture is palpable, and seems to inform the hope that so many of our new friends have for the future, and especially for Haitian youth.
Our first trips up to the site, riding in the back of a pick-up truck, were a study in such contrasts. Most of the families living along the roadside between Ouanaminthe and the school – many of whose children are students there – live in haphazard cubes consisting of five tin sheets with a cloth or towel draped to form a door, which needless to say provide scant shelter from the elements. Often one such dwelling is inhabited by as many as 8 people. As we drove, we stopped frequently to pick up children walking to school. Their school uniforms exhibited a level of meticulous cleanliness we found hard to match in our own dress – a rather startling fact, given that we had access to a washing machine, while there was hard evidence that all of these families did their washing in a nearby river. The girls’ elaborately arranged hair, the carefully darned socks – in short, every aspect of the students’ appearance spoke volumes of the importance their parents associate with their education and the pride they take in their association with the school and with Foi et Joie.
Their reality is a harsh one, especially when viewed through the lens of the standards of developed countries. We were given to understand, moreover, that the living conditions of Haitians resident further south, on the road to and in Port au Prince, are substantially worse, as Ouanaminthe benefits from its proximity to the Dominican Republic.
Despite these sobering realizations, one all-important fact remains: the children are incredible. I personally lost count of the number of times, while working on the court, that kids who reached just past my waist attempted to take the tools from me, wanting to have a hand in the construction. They’re happy. They play, laugh and grow, and we are grateful to have had the priceless honor and privilege to provide them with a space to do so. They have plenty of hope for the future and, having met them, so do I.
“Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince