“You don’t know Haiti until you’ve seen it, smelled it, and touched it.”
These were the words spoken to our mission team the night before embarking on a girls’ trip to “the unknown” with Food for the Poor in November 2016.
With these daunting words looming over our heads, it was difficult to fathom exactly what we would encounter in Haiti over the next few days.
Soon enough we would find out.
Sensory overload began on our descent upon the beautiful country of Haiti – full of majestic, yet barren mountains (a deforestation that was the result of the Haitian need for building materials and cooking fuel). The crystal blue color of the surrounding waters was mesmerizing. Our first impression of Haiti from the sky was one of beauty. How bad could it be by land?
As we dodged men who were eager to help us with our bags upon landing, we boarded our bus that would become our sole mode of transportation for the next three days.
And there we were – 7 women, 2 food for the poor leaders, 3 security guards, and one bus driver. Our mission was about to begin.
As we left the gates of the airport, where we had just been serenaded by a jovial Haitian man playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet – a fitting send off for our eager all American mission team – our anxious chatter subsided when we began to breathe in and witness the truth that lay before us.
We saw Haiti.
Garbage enveloped every square inch of earth. An innumerable amount of people walked about, crossing streets as if they were in a hurry to be punctual for a very important meeting they would never attend – all the while accomplishing the amazing feat of balancing baskets full of fruit, water, medicine, and other goods on their heads at the same time.
Our first stop – Marie Clarac – a school that had been rebuilt by Food for the Poor after the 2010 earthquake – opened our eyes to the importance of education in Haiti.
While classrooms were packed with up to 54 students in the heat, children did not care. Education was priceless to them, and school was a place to learn and to feel empowered by knowledge. School was a safe-haven during the day, where at the end of the day, they would return to the extreme poverty that awaited them at home. Walking miles to school each day was nothing. Some would even begin their trek the night before to ensure that they arrived on time the next day.
As we entered the kitchen at the Food for the Poor headquarters on our next stop, we saw mass amounts of rice being cooked and served as women, men, and children lined up for miles to get their small buckets filled with white rice and a drink of fresh water from the outdoor faucets. This food was the only meal that a family would eat daily after walking for miles to receive it.
At headquarters, one person would receive the rice and then have to hide it in a bag in fear of having it taken from them on their way home. They would finally make it home, eat, go to sleep. And then, that child’s or wife’s or husband’s job to get the food for the family would start all over again in the same way each day.
A single grain of rice was precious to these people. And as I served each person their allotted portion for the day, I felt guilt when a stray grain of rice would not make its way into the miniature bucket that would have fed so many hungry bellies waiting for it at home.
The sights continued.
In one woman’s home, where she took care of children who were not being taken care of and who could not take care of themselves, we stared into the eyes of physically and mentally challenged children – eyes that told us they could hear us and knew we were there, but they couldn’t speak or respond in any way.
We saw the villages, like Ca Ira – where families of six lived cramped like sardines in lean-tos. And we heard stories about how when the rain fell and the seas rose that they would have to stand all night and hold their babies above water so that they didn’t drown.
And just by coincidence we saw Haiti at night – a time of day that made the country look even more like a war-torn city – without electricity and fire pits ablaze – with a strange traffic jam of vehicles on their way to who knows where.
Yes, we saw Haiti. And we also smelled it.
We smelled Haiti.
One morning, when we got a flat tire in Port-au-Prince – the capital of Haiti – we hopped into a “tap tap” – an ornately decorated pick-up truck which serves as a shared taxi system – in order to get to our destination at Food for the Poor’s headquarters. Our “tap tap” ride was an adventure in itself – leaving a lasting hilarious memory in our minds that we will laugh about for years to come.
But it wasn’t until we stepped into the “tap tap,” with the open air blowing by us, that we smelled Haiti for the first time.
The pollution due to the constant burning of charcoal – or small pieces of wood – filled my nostrils, causing me to stifle a cough. And the smell of cooked meat – goat, maybe – wafted by as we swerved in and out of traffic. Yes, this was our first encounter with the smells of Haiti.
It wasn’t until our visit to Alpha Village in Gressier, Ouest, Haiti, that we experienced sensory overload.
As we stepped off the bus, excited to meet the people of this village, a strong smell of sewage and garbage enveloped our lungs, triggering a gag reflex for some of the women on our team.
Haitian families initially set up homes in this area – which exists next to a garbage dump – so that they could sift through the garbage in hopes of finding items that could be used or sold as a source of income.
Yes, we smelled Haiti. But, we also touched it.
We touched Haiti.
We quickly forgot about the smell in Alpha, when children whom we had never met, ran to us with smiles on their faces and took us by the hand – excited to lead us through their village.
While women strategically placed rocks on the ground so that we did not have to step in the sludge, we were taken to a few “homes” to see where they lived.
And at that moment, while our hands were held by children, our hearts were touched as mothers explained that their family of six lived under ripped tents, where heat and flies swarmed the interior. In this home, sitting by the sea, mothers explained how the seas would rise during a storm and the tent barely protected them from the pelting rain.
My heart continued to be touched as we spoke to the men and women of Haiti who said that they knew God cared for them and that he would provide them with a better life soon. My heart was touched because I had never witnessed a faith like this before – a faith that could move mountains, in the midst of having nothing.
The children had faith too – not just in this village, but all over Haiti. And they wore smiles on their faces. They were happy and grateful for what they had – very little.
On my second trip to Haiti with my husband in August 2016, I had an opportunity to speak to the people of Alpha Village. I looked into the eyes of the men and women and told them that they could no longer live this way – in these horrific conditions. And I told them that I would not rest until every single family was living in a solid home with four walls.
And you know what? I could promise this because I have seen with my own eyes what Food for the Poor has done to transform the lives of the poor in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.
Food for the Poor has transformed villages of tents into villages of solid homes. I have seen them create fishing villages so that families have fish to eat and sell as a source of income. I have seen them teach villages the importance of leadership and how to successfully run a peaceful village.
I have seen Haiti. I have smelled Haiti. And I have touched Haiti. But most importantly, Haiti has touched me. I have looked into the eyes of the poor. I have held their hands. And I have cried with them.
I have been called to help. And there’s no turning back.