Death comes to Haiti so arbitrary it shatters any illusion that we control our destiny. Hurricane Sandy is on her third day of delivering heavy rain to Grand Goave. Unlike Isaac, who quickly shuffled through his fierce gales and heavy rains, Sandy lacks bluster yet drenches us with swirling clouds that refuse to spin away. Perhaps she lingers to visit her little black namesake at the bottom of our hill. Perhaps she wants us to reconsider the wisdom of constructing a building so heavy it cannot move when an arc might serve us better. Perhaps she wants to demonstrate the destructive power of the slow moving tortoise over the quick fleeting hare. Sandy has already rendered more damage than Isaac, though her skies show no sign of clearing.
This morning five people in Grand Goave died from Hurricane Sandy; a landslide down the mountain next to Be Like Brit smothered a tent where a mother and her four children slept in one bed. They were buried alive. When Francky and Gilbert ran to the scene I considered joining, but thought better of it. Though I add value in areas of design, direction and analysis, I am useless at tasks requiring brute strength, like digging through muddy remains. The few corpses I have seen in my sheltered life have all been neatly composed in coffins. Corpses here are much more common, yet rarely so well preserved.
According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy for a baby born in Haiti in 2012 is 60.6 years, but that statistic does not jive with anyone’s experience living here. Making it past sixty in Haiti is not the norm, it is a rare achievement. People who are thriving and vigorous one day are gone the next. Tragedy is the norm. People mourn untimely deaths with loud flamboyance, then quickly return to their daily rhythms. If people lingered in grief, their grief would be perpetual.
In a typical year in the United States I might hear of a few people who have died; most all of them after a full life. In my regular visits to Haiti I learn about someone who dies every month. Here is a representative list from 2012; I imagine anyone else in this fragile country could give a similar accounting.
Dieunison’s mother died at the beginning of the year. She was reportedly a voodoo priestess, like her mother before her. I have never heard anyone mention her cause of death, though she could not have been very old.
In February an elderly woman was hit by a motorcycle near MoHI’s gate. Gama, who is a paramedic, rushed to the scene and collected her to the hospital, but the woman did not survive.
In March Gama’s cousin died, a thirty-three year old woman with a husband and three children. She had a short, fatal illness though I never heard a diagnosis.
Marieve’s cousin died in child birth in April. She is survived by a husband, young son and twin daughters, one of whom was born blind.
In May Pepe’s father-in-law died. He at least had a long life.
Three local youths died in a horrendous wreck when their small car was run into a ditch by an out of control truck in June. The truck’s chassis ploughed right over the car, crushing and killing them on the spot.
In July Lex’s sister-in-law died; age 42.
August was a month when horror visited children. A six year old Hands and Feet orphan drowned in the Caribbean Sea. After searching for hours, the matrons gave up when night fell. The girl’s body was discovered the next day, her extremities gone. The same month Kylene, a MoHI Sunday singer, lost her third baby in four pregnancies. The baby was full term, yet born dead.
I hoped that September would break the pattern; but all kinds of odd disease flourished. Toto had a wound on his arm that blistered and sent him to the hospital; he missed three weeks of work. Ble, the painter, got a cut on his leg that festered into an ugly infection. He limped around the site for days with his pants leg rolled up so fresh air could scab over the oozing pus, but with so much plaster dust in the air his leg healed slowly. Fanes came down with a stomach bug, the front end version of what plagued me, but in a more severe form. He could not keep any food down, lost sixty pounds and moved to Les Cayes where his family could care for him. Two days after I returned to the States Fanes died. Dysentery? Worms? Whatever took this healthy man in his middle forties was likely something that could have been diagnosed and treated in any industrial nation.
When I return this month a banner in the crew’s lunch tent honors Boss Fanes, but in truth, I have not heard his name mentioned even once. Two weeks after passing, life without Fanes is the new normal; everyone has moved on.
There is no time to grieve for Fanes, or the drowned girl, or Pepe’s father-in-law, or Dieunison’s mother because today we have a new tragedy, five bodies lying together wrapped in a USAID tarp. Lex prays over them while a crowd of Haitians in ponchos and ripped garbage bags witness their passing before Hurricane Sandy even departs our shores.
At least half these people who died this year could have been saved by elementary public health measures – clean water, safe houses, vehicle inspections, maternity care, life guards. We take these for granted in the United States and other developed countries. But for nine million Haitians, and a billion others around the planet, these simple safeguards do not exist. So people continue to die from landslides and labor; dysentery and drowning; and as long as we allow these conditions to prevail for our fellow humans, our society is much less ‘developed’ than we pretend.