This was my fifth trip to Haiti. Every trip to Haiti is different and special and touches your soul. Upon arriving I was again struck by the poverty and the desperation of most people’s lives. The many men standing outside the airport pedestrian exit vying to earn a dollar by carrying your bag drives home their situation.
The three hour Sunday morning worship in a crowded and very poor “God’s Faith Church” was one of many examples during the visit of the deep faith of most Haitian people. This church was particularly interesting because of its charismatic worship style. The pastor often preached with his eyes closed and members would shout out phrases such as “praise the Lord.” Many had their hands raised high with eyes closed as the Spirit seemed to seize them. The church has a tin roof and unfinished walls but most of the bench seats were full.
I enjoyed lunch at the iconic Hotel Oloffson (as seen in “The Comedians” with Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness).The rum punches were especially strong. Our conversation with Richard Morse, the proprietor, was enlightening if not fully truthful. Once we moved beyond Princeton reunions he told us how he supported the election of his cousin Martelly, “Sweet Mickey” the pop music star, for President and at first advised the newly elected chief executive but then broke with him over the high degree of corruption. Richard also talked about his well-known band, RAM (his initials), and their famous Thursday night stands at the hotel. He first began a band in NJ with three Princeton buddies after graduating.
Our visit to the national museum reinforced the pride Haitians feel about their independence, the only successful slave revolt in world history. But it also showed the tortuous and painful history since independence more than 200 years ago.
Monday was a delightful gift: beach visit due to widespread public transportation strike that closed the CONASPEH school. The turquoise ocean was perfect and the surroundings of the private beach resort luxurious by local standards. The denuded hills and barren landscape as well as rural poverty were very apparent on the two hour ride to and from the beach.
So, on Tuesday we finally arrived at CONASPEH and began our “work.” The pastors slowly trickled into the small business development seminar. Within an hour we had fifteen participants eager to absorb the knowledge and wisdom Dianne Doherty was imparting. I enjoyed observing Dianne’s wonderful and effective teaching style and assisting in any way I could, such as offering her feedback and putting key information up on the board. This seminar continued for three mornings with the pastors showing up each day and maintaining their level of interest. Dianne began with more general propositions and gradually moved to more specifics. At end of the first day she gave out an outline for a business plan in English and Creole and challenged the pastors to fill out as many of the questions on the planning sheet as possible and bring the results to the seminar. In the seminar she covered such topics as profit and loss, pricing, networking, marketing, business cards, business plans, and mentoring. Pauline did a segment on mentoring the second day and I covered leadership. Pauline and I both had the groups form small groups for a related exercise. Dianne was careful to ask for questions at the end of each topic and conscientiously responded. Each of the pastors’ seminars began and ended with singing a familiar hymn and a prayer, in Creole.
Each afternoon was a group of students, actually high school graduates, some of whom were enrolled in post-secondary education and all basically unemployed, the condition of most Haitians. This group of twenty-two young adults, mostly male, was also eager to learn and a bit more aggressive in their questioning and a few eager to show off their ideas, relevant or not. They too showed up three afternoons in a row. This afternoon seminar covered the same ground. On the third day we asked the pastors to a lunch and asked them to stay for the students’ seminar, which they did. The last day featured discussion of three case studies, two brought in by two pastors and one by a student. Two pastors want to enlarge what are small home bakeries producing bread, cakes, and cookies, to serve a larger population in their neighborhoods. They had some useful ideas for marketing and expansion needs.
On Wednesday I spent about an hour and a half with the Terminale or 13th grade class, which they call philosophy, on the topic of leadership. The sixty-student class in a small space was almost unwieldy. After a general discussion, I did get eight groups to write what they saw as the three most important qualities of a good leader on the board. The groups displayed good insight in their responses. Last year President Martelly was named as a leader they know and admired; not this year. Miguelson told us his popularity had nosedived and citizens up north even threw rocks at his car on a recent visit there. I also had the class brainstorm on what they saw as the most important problems facing Haiti. For the first time using this exercise the first problem listed was security. I was also interested to see the ninth and final problem suggested was “over-population.”
We got to see Miguelson twice. He and his friend Antonio came by Sunday evening and shared information about their lives and Haiti with the group at our evening meeting. On Wednesday Miguelson took Pauline and me and Antonio out in his new SUV to Petionville. We went to the outside restaurant and bar of La Reserve, an upscale hotel, where we had rum punches and tried the Haitian dessert best described as sweet potatoe pie. We learned more about their university careers and Haitian politics. Miguelson is now half way through his law program. Previously Miguelson and his friends had met and talked with Baby Doc at the same restaurant, though the former dictator appeared quite sick and has since died.
Friday afternoon Pauline, Heidi, and I took 31 schools kits to a small school in Cite Soleil, the largest and worst slum in Port-au-Prince. The pastor of the Church of God of the New Jerusalem, Bishop Luc Fontus, greeted us and took us inside. 160 students from kindergarten through elementary grades are housed in small spaces covered with tin roofs and divided by rough blackboards, with many children squeezed onto the wooden benches. We visited several classes where the students sang a welcome song to us. Since we only had 31 kits, all donated by Patti Richmond’s school, the pastor, with our help, divided up the contents to make enough for every student to receive something, such as a few pencils and small hand pencil sharpener, or a package of eight crayons. I referred to this turning 31 kits into enough for 160 children as our “fishes and loaves” miracle. The students came into the pastor’s office by class and each student seemed delighted to receive a school gift. At the end of the line the pastor gathered us and his staff around a circle and sang a song and prayers as we held hands.
Each night we gathered on top of the third floor of one of the Wall’s Guest House buildings to review the day and plan the next day. Our planned last night there party turned out to be more cathartic than celebratory. We were all moved by our experience in Haiti, and especially the obvious and ever- present poverty. Some tears flowed as we recalled a few of the difficult scenes we had observed: 1) a man sucking fuel oil out of tank into his mouth and then into a container; 2) our interpreter telling about having five siblings that were able to get some degree of education and his mother being so proud, since she could neither read nor write; 3) the students at the poor school being so happy to receive a few pencils; 4) our young interpreter humiliated when his name was read out in class because he had not yet paid his tuition bill, as he had no money. So many people so desperate to survive and somehow get ahead in life and yet thanking God for what little they had. All is a testament to the spirit of the Haitian people which pulls on the hearts of all visitors to that poor island nation.