VISIT TO PORT-AU-PRINCE,
August 13 - 16, 2002
I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with a group of parishioners from Church
or the Nativity in Burke, Virginia. One of those parishioners is a long-time
friend of mine. The trip was sponsored by Project Starfish of the church and
Food For the Poor, a non-profit organization instrumental in helping people in
several Caribbean and Latin American countries. Our purpose was to develop a
first hand awareness of the needs of the poor and to observe the results of various
projects funded through the sponsoring organizations.
Haiti is a third world country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere and amongst
the poorest in the world. An estimated 75% of the population live in abject poverty.
More than ½ of the people suffer from malnutrition, including two-thirds of the
children. Life expectancy for men is 47; for women, 51.
Our plane landed in the late morning and within an hour we were touring Port-au-Prince,
the capital and principle city. With over 1 million inhabitants, the city was
literally in shambles: Some streets are paved, but most are full of potholes
and asphalt worn down to rocks and dirt. Others are totally unpaved. 80% of the
building - business and dwellings - are either unfinished or in massive disrepair.
Because of the high crime rate, virtually all building have fences or high walls
(often topped with razor wire or broken pieces of glass bottles) and all but
the poorest have their windows and doors barred.
It was not unusual to see piles of trash and garbage along the city streets -
often with pigs and goats searching for morsels of food. Yes, right in the middle
of the city.
About 10% of the population is very rich and there is no middle class. Houses
of the wealthy are scattered about the city, but mostly on the high hills and
mountains overlooking the city. But even some of these have been abandoned or
never finished - partly due to government officials who have fallen out of grace
and left or drug lords who have been killed.
Every street, road, and alley was lined with thousands of people at little stands
selling anything they could get their hands on to seek out whatever meager living
they could. One could find anything they wanted - and much no one would want.
Used clothing, cooked and uncooked food, canned goods, candy and gum, cheap electronic
goods, used tires, automobile oil - you name it. This is the way commerce is
handled since there are very few stores, as we know them. No McDonald's here,
although we did see a Domino's - complete with bicycle delivery!
Most of the trees on the hills and mountains surrounding the city have been cut
down to provide firewood for cooking. Since there was never an effort to replant
for the future, massive erosion dumps earth into the ocean, killing fish - a
former supply of food. The people live for today - not for any tomorrow.
The inhabitants are a proud people. You can see it in their smiley faces, the
clean, crisp look of their clothes, and the way they carry themselves - more
so than what is observed in some of the poorest sections in this country.
Locals say that conditions have worsened here over the past 15 years.
The next morning we headed out - thinking we had seen the slums. Not so! We toured
Cite Soleil (ironically translated: City of Sun). This is a 27 square mile section
of Port-au-Prince that is "home" to over 300,000 people. Here, all the streets
are of dirt. Very little electricity (except where illegal, unsafe wires have
been strung from electrical lines running through the area), and no running water
(except for open culverts that are also choked with garbage).
Conditions are best described in an article in the weekly "Haiti Progres". "It
is like entering the gates of Hell. Rusted tin and cardboard hovels squat in
fetid fields of garbage mixed with human and animal excrement. Hunger-swollen
children scamper feverishly down charcoal-dusted alleyways while solemn adults
lean listlessly in doorways. Dust, stench and heat hammer the senses. Winding
through the shacks and garbage fields is a small canal 8 feet wide, 2 feet deep,
and pitch black."
Below, I will describe some of the organizations we visited. Most impressive
were the dedication of the people working in these facilities and the enthusiasm
of those being served. Everywhere - with no exception - we saw smiles, excitement,
and a strong sense of appreciation and warmth; much unlike the sense of entitlement
and skepticism exhibited by many in similar situations in the U.S. Children and
adults alike love to shake hands, be held, and given a pat on the back.
- We visited several orphanages, including Rainbow House
for kids between 4 and 18 who have AIDS. The facility was
clean and neat and the kids just wanted to play with us.
A woman from our group distributed articles of clothing
that had been hand made by members of the sponsoring Virginia
church. Another woman gave each kid a little bracelet of
beads. Tears came to the eyes of many of our group when
the kids asked if they could go outside the gate and give
the bracelets to kids in the neighborhood who were not
as well of as these children.
- The Baptist Haiti Mission. A complex that includes a
school, a hospital, a small restaurant, nutrition information,
and programs that teach proper agricultural techniques
in an effort to help the participants move toward greater
- Nativity Village - a site outside the city where Nativity
Church has already built 38 homes for poor people currently
living in thatched or tin roofed mud huts. 50 more of these
small, simple, pastel painted, cement structures are soon
to be added. The enthusiasm of those who have already moved
was incredible - as was the expression of hope of those "next
- Arcachon,a hospital run by Food For the Poor, equipped
mostly from American hospitals' hand-me-downs. The operating
room was of a 1940s vintage.
- A Food For the Poor complex of offices, a warehouse,
and large kitchen that prepares food for 2500 families
(not individuals) 5 days a week. We assisted in dishing
out the rice and stew to the appreciative recipients who
line up with what ever buckets or bowls they can find to
carry the food back "home."
- A leper hospital, which has lost much of its funding
because the United Nations has declared leprosy cured and
no longer provides money to fight the disease. The appreciative
patients and our group gathered around a make-shift alter
while the 2 priests and deacon with us presented mass.