Five years ago, an earthquake devastated Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people died, though exact numbers are elusive in that imprecise country. International aid poured in. Some helped, much didn’t, despite First World hubris that we would ‘build back better’.
I leant my hand designing and building a school and orphanage in Grand Goave, ten miles west of the earthquake’s epicenter. I’ve been to Haiti twenty times. The buildings are finished and serving their community. Yet, on this anniversary of the tragic event, I am celebrating the resilience of the Haitian people and the incredible gifts they’ve given me. Treasures equally valuable what I offered them.
- The more you give, the more you get.
The most valuable human experiences emerge come from exchanging wildly different things. Swapping apples for oranges is worthwhile, but exchanging apples for an exotic fruit is more satisfying. I was a middle-aged guy hankering for adventure and purpose; Haiti needed concrete and steel. What began from afar led to occasional visits, and eventually leaving my job to supervise construction. The more invested in Haiti, the greater satisfaction I received.
- Witness rather than judge.
Crowds assembled to watch local laborers and blan (Creole for foreigners) build portable shelters from 2×4’s and tarps post-earthquake. When the blan flew home, construction ceased. I couldn’t understand why, since the structures were easy to erect, better than tents, and manpower was plentiful. Until I realized that my idea of ‘better’ didn’t align with theirs. Life in Haiti was difficult before the earthquake and difficult after, albeit in different ways. I brought energy to build, they countered with a more valuable survival skill: resilience.
- ‘Be’ before you ‘Do.”
Upon introduction, Americans often ask, “What do you do?” It’s an irrelevant question in a country where organized jobs are scarce and the concept of unemployment doesn’t exist. Haitians are bound by relationship rather than title. They aren’t defined by what they do, but who they are.
- Work for purpose above money.
Haitians despise “the man”, whether French plantation owner, corrupt government, U.S. Marine or patriarchal aid organization. People seek money for basics and indulgences, as we do the world over, but pride as the world’s first black Republic trumps the money motivator. When I aligned our objectives, crews worked harder than any I’ve seen. When I got bossy, they turned lazy. Mere wages couldn’t make them toil.
- Cherish what’s useful in the moment.
I brought a carton of children’s books and placed it under a tree at the construction site. When a child read a book, he battled any who challenged his right of ownership. But once finished, he left it behind. I thought children with so little would crave something to own, but they saw no point in claiming possession of something no longer in use.
- Find depravation’s upside.
No lunch? Dinner will taste all the better. No lights? The stars are magnificent. No cement? We have an afternoon to swim. No gasoline? Walking home along the river is peaceful. I never met people who had so little, or laughed so much.
- Where death is commonplace, life is precious.
During 2012 I spent two weeks every month in Haiti. On every visit, someone died. The most tragic deaths were a mother and four children, smothered when their tent collapsed in a mudslide triggered by Hurricane Sandy. Most deaths were preventable through public health measures like clean water, sanitation, lifeguards or pre-natal care. Haitians mourned hard and loud, then stirred their spirits to resume lives never taken for granted.
- Magic thrives in a world governed by physics.
Haiti’s richness lies in its conflicting truths; eighty-five percent of Haitians are Catholic; ninety percent believe in Voodoo. We built heavy concrete structures with steel reinforcing to buck the tidal earth. Explaining the value of massive construction was difficult, almost heretical, to men seeped in the belief that earthquakes are messages from angry gods. Who are we to fortify ourselves against their wrath?
- Small boys tell big stories.
I met Dieunison on my second trip, when he adopted me and became my construction helper. Over the next four years his mother died, he lived with relatives, then strangers, got shuttled to Port-au-Prince, and escaped back to Grand Goave. When I decided to adopt Dieunison in return, my desire that he conform prompted the boy to run away. Only when I ceded the freedoms he demanded did Dieunison accept a sturdy roof, regular meals, and solid education. Dieunison wants the advantages the world can offer, but only on his terms.
- 10. Share a ball with the widest circle.
One afternoon, swimming in the Bay of Gonave with another volunteer, a group of Haitian’s flagged us to join them. We jumped high and dove long, splashing and tossing their ball with the exuberance of American eight-year-olds. Yet we were ages 20 to 56, strangers all, except for our common love of a ball and the waves.