As we stood in line for customs in the Port-au-Prince airport it was fairly obvious we weren’t the only Americans who’d come to Haiti with some sort of volunteer group. In a country that is 95% African American, I was peering into a sea of white faces waiting to have passports stamped. Most groups were clad in matching t-shirts emblazoned with things like “Hope for Haiti” or “Make disciples of all nations” or “I Heart Haiti.” Clearly we missed the memo; our precious group wore matching elephant pants.
There are so many organizations doing great work in Haiti but after just two days in country I began to ask myself, “why?” As I looked around I saw a nation of people who are among the most resilient, resourceful, joy-filled I have seen. It’s true their poverty level boggles the mind, but to say they are in despair is a gross overstatement and not at all the impression I took away. Haitians are hard-working, hustlers, creative, persistent, enterprising, and I gotta be completely honest here, very easy on the eyes (I mean, I may have been the “chaperone” but I’m not blind, people!).
The Aspen for Haiti club, which started at Aspen High School four years ago and is sponsored by Snowmass Chapel, exists to learn more about the Haitian culture and its history and people. To the extent we can help by bringing down school supplies, books in French or Creole, and fund projects like solar powered lights, we do. But our lead host, longtime valley resident Tim Myers, is adamant that the Haiti I observed – the resilient, clever, hard-working Haiti — is real, and its people are entirely capable of handling the work that needs to be done. Our job, he told us, is to gain a new perspective and just maybe a deeper appreciation of the world’s diversity. Done.
Hailing from a country such as ours, where we often hustle past people head down, talking on the phone, bumping shoulders with strangers without so much as a nod, I am struck by the sense of community among the Haitians. There is a genuine joy when they greet one another, and an immediate, no-questions-asked attitude of helpfulness toward all. Haiti defies our western every-man-for-himself mentality. How many times did we see a truck stalled on a Haitian roadway, or a moto-bike in need of repair, in which no fewer than four people stopped everything to help. At every restaurant or shop we visited employees worked in groups, never alone. In the small remote villages school children grabbed our hands and danced with us and sat on our laps – not because they were desperate for our help as my ego previously assumed, but simply because grabbing a hand, sharing a dance and sitting on laps is who they are and how they live. And what a joyful way of living it is!
Haitians are deserving of our friendship, our tourism, our understanding and compassion, and yes, at times, our help. There are, indeed, opportunities for the US and others to serve, especially since Haiti lacks basic infrastructure, a military, and a government that gives a damn. I can tell you that after spending time with the Haitian people, I would be there in a heartbeat if they needed me. Why? Because I know beyond a shadow of a doubt they would drop everything and do the same for me. Loving your neighbor isn’t something they bother to print on a t-shirt. It’s a way of life.
Now. Who wants to dance?
It’s hard to sum up in so few words the impact of this trip. I expect you’ll read more from me…. I have Haiti on my mind. <3