Love and Haiti

Lopie Laroe Issue: Section:

“I had a strong, sturdy shelter that would withstand high
winds and keep them dry that could be built in a day”

I woke up that morning, at 5:30 am, just like most mornings, sleeping in my tent in Port au Prince. I didn't need an alarm clock. Not with that rooster around. Cock a doodle doo he would scream on the outside of the tent, inches from my ear. I always wondered how the rooster knew where my head was. The fabric of the tent was not transparent, yet he never cock-a-doodled my feet or my ass, but always my head. I started to imagine the cock had a built-in head magnet. I started to test it by switching my position randomly within the tent. He never failed to find my head.
I got up, unzipped the tent, padded over to the cistern in my bare feet and threw the bucket down into the cool darkness. Pulled up a bucket of water for my morning bath. After I dumped it over my head in the cement stall everyone called a shower, I was ready for breakfast: spaghetti and hotdogs.
That particular day we had planned on building at an orphanage called the Upper Room, run by a man named Jean Claude. I had lost his address and his phone number, however, when the little blue notebook I had carefully written all my contact numbers in had gotten lost during one particularly hairy motorbike ride. I had watched with horror as it fell out of my bag into a giant mud puddle and was promptly run over by a UN truck full of menacing looking MUNISTA dudes wearing full uniforms and blue helmets with guns pointed at everyone and anyone. I was not able to retrieve the book. Julian, my translator, remembered where the orphanage was, though. Problem was, Julian was a three hour drive over the mountain in Jacmel. But he had reassured me that he could explain to the driver, over the phone, how to get there. I'm not sure why I believed this to be a good solution.
So we loaded up the truck, my crew of five Haitian teenagers and I, with all the tools and parts needed to build one geodesic dome that day and we drove out of the gates onto the street. I am using the word "street" loosely. It was more like a mud alley decorated with garbage, rubble, goats, skinny dogs and immense pot holes filled with suspicious liquids.

We stopped on the way to buy a phone card off a dude wearing a digicel apron on the street "De san sekant goude" I say to him and he hands me a 250 gourde card. We buy some fruit off a street vender who is squatting disturbingly close to a massive steaming pile of garbage.
I called Julian up on the phone and hand it to the driver who starts yakking away to him in Kreyol. I understand only a portion of what is being said, but I understand enough to know it wasn't the typical directions you might hear in the states. "Turn left at the second light, go two blocks, go left on Broadway, it's the yellow building with a bodega on the first floor" No. It was more like "how's your mother, did you hear the story about the time I fell in the well?" What kind of solid landmarks are there in a country whose entire infrastructure has been reduced to rubble? Turn left at the trashed hearse with an American flag in the garbage piled next to it? (this is one of the actual landmark's I used to find my way around)
The driver silently hands the phone back to me and we drive and drive. Then we drive some more. The roads are like an obstacle course. At one point everyone has to jump out of the truck to push it up a hill. The truck just couldn't make it up without a boost. I felt like the Flintstones. We were all laughing as we jumped back on the moving truck. The sun was mercilessly hot and this particular tap tap had no shell on the back. The kids are sweating their asses off in the back. Our five gallon jug of drinking water was hot enough to brew tea within a half hour. Not exactly a thirst quencher. Then we got a flat tire. Luck is with us, though, because there is a tire fixit dude 100 feet up the road. He has a rubber melting fire and tools. He sizes us up and says his most bloated price. No one is giving me any breaks on anything even though I a non-paid worker in their country to help rebuild. The price differential is built in, like the roosters head magnet. I haggle enough to amuse everyone and then pay them what they want.
The dude fixes the tire, we all get back into the truck, but we don't really know where we are going. The driver is pretending. It's like a silent movie with him. He is not invested, he is going to get paid no matter where we drive to. I am not fooled by his act, I know we are very lost. We start stopping and asking random people if they know of an orphanage in the area and we are directed this way and that. Everyone seems to know of an orphanage, but none of them are the Upper Room Orphanage. I think about Jean Claude. He is an aspiring standup comedian. I wonder what venues he has to practice in. I imagine him gathering up all the kids in his orphanage and telling them jokes like he was in a club in Manhattan. What kind of jokes do you tell a bunch of traumatized kids?
I call Julian again and hand the phone to the driver again. Another epic conversation, this time more of an argument of who is to blame for our current loss of direction. I am paying the crew by the day, the driver by the hour and the phone by the minute. We are all drenched in sweat. Then the phone runs out of minutes. Everyone gets out of the truck and huddles under a small patch of shade trying to cool down. There is a lady selling drinks out of a oversized cooler covered with a burlap sack just yards from us, so we all get a cold drink. Cold is a relative term.
There comes a moment when the balance shifts and determination wanes. This was that tipping moment. But Haitians don't give up and I'm stubborn. We discuss our options. Driving back to the base and unloading all the gear is too much like admitting defeat. We get back in the truck and start to drive randomly around a destroyed neighborhood. I feel ridiculous, driving around with a 17 foot semi permanent shelter in the back of a pick-up truck, looking for a place to build it. I know we are not going to find the Upper Room. Not that day. It's absurd to be driving around looking for a place to build a shelter. We could have put it anywhere and it would have been occupied within a half hour by people who needed it. I am on a mission to house orphans, though. The rest can fend for themselves, sort of.
It was then that the sign appeared in spray paint on the crumbling remains of a wall on the road side. "Orphelinet" ------> with an arrow. It was more like divine intervention than instructional graffiti. It was as if a ray of light suddenly pierced the heavens and a chorus of angels was singing. "pra'alle la!" We follow the arrow and pretty soon see another. We are doing Burma shave Haiti style. We follow the signs until we hit one that says: Orphelinet HELP US and has an arrow pointing down. Here.
We pull the truck up and get out. What we find is the most destitute orphanage I had seen yet in my two months in Haiti. I had visited about 20 orphanages but none of them were as bad off as this one. There are about 40 kids, all barefoot, a few of the youngest ones are completely naked and their bellies are sticking out like dusty brown balloons. They are surprised to see us.

The property has no wall save the crumbled remains where they had spray painted the words "help us" in large black letters. There is a tarp covered area with wooden planks on cinder blocks for the kids to sit on. There is a shitty green army tent with no sides. Underneath it is a whole bunch of bunk beds and a couple dilapidated camping tents that looked totally trashed. Signs of recent rains underneath show that it regularly floods. I imagine the kids, sleeping on the metal bunk beds, with no mattresses; water lapping around inches below their sleeping bodies. Behind this area is the remains of their former building. The tile floor looks out of place exposed to the sky. Rubble is piled up randomly around. It's much higher than the “shelter”, so it's no wonder that it floods every time it rains under the army tent.
Henri is the man in charge; a short stocky man wearing gym shorts and a team jersey. He shows us around back. Henri tells me, through Nellie, my 15 year old translator, that he has no tools to clear the rubble. My mind is racing. We have shovels, sledgehammers, metal rakes, pick axes and a wheelbarrow. I promise to lend him the tools he needs to remedy the situation. I explain how if he digs a deep trench around the tent, the water will be directed away from it. I advise him to move everything out from under the tent and take the rubble from behind to build up the floor. I have no way of knowing if I am being condescending or instructional at this moment. He is smiling at me and nodding when Nellie tells him what I said.

This was my first humanitarian project and I was admittedly a little over my head. I didn't mind. It was the best kind of education. I had decided to attempt something beyond sending money to dubious organizations. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I wanted to personally deliver shelters to the people in Haiti that I thought needed it the most. The orphans. The large NGO's would never have found this orphanage. Many of the orphanages I served (ten altogether) had not seen any help since the earthquake and I was there from June until September of 2010. I like to use the metaphor of driving in Haitian traffic. The large NGO's are like a big truck trying to get through gridlock. Difficult to maneuver, takes forever just to get a mile down the road. Being a one person NGO is like driving a motobike through traffic, you can easily weave in and out and get to your destination relatively quickly. I could make quick decisions without being bogged down by getting permission from the proper authorities. This would enable me to help people quicker, was my reasoning.

I was touched in a way by the photos of the destruction in Haiti that wouldn't let me go. The point was for me to do it myself. I wanted to see how one person in a totally different country could help people they had never met if they set their mind to it. I am not rich. I am persuasive, though. Out of the total project budget of approximately $50K, a little over half of it came from in kind donations of goods and services from businesses in the greater NYC metropolitan area. Mostly Brooklyn. I'm proud of my community and how they supported this grass roots effort. It doesn't always take money to get things done. People want to help, they just don't always know how. When you give them something that they can easily do, like donate tools or drive a truck, they are excited to pitch in. If you look around your community, you will see that the people you know are a wealth of resources.

I am an artist. I'm practiced in the art of observation. What I was seeing, that day, was a man, trying to care for 40 or more kids, with nothing much to speak of. I asked Henri how he fed his kids, where he got the food from, was an NGO giving him support? No. He would go, every day, to the street vendors and ask them for donated food. This is how he was feeding 40 kids, relying on the poorest of the poor for handouts. He was also using community support to help the most vulnerable victims of the earthquake. We shared a kinship beyond borders. What he was seeing was a white woman, an American, with a truck full of tools, who probably represented to him a world of possibilities beyond what my actual resources are. I ran into this again and again and it was to the point where I almost didn't like going to the orphanages because I felt it gave the people false hope that I would be able to provide for them what they desperately needed. Food, medicine, shelter, clean water to drink, education, the list goes on and on. It hurt to know that I had only very little to offer compared to what they needed. I had a strong, sturdy shelter that would withstand high winds and keep them dry that could be built in a day. I had about a gallon of organic peanut butter and one of Dr. Bronner's soap per orphanage. I had a soccer ball. Not much when you consider all they needed. Not much, but it had taken me nearly 6 months to pull it all together without official funding.
I've often noticed that the poor are generally more generous than the rich. It seems that the less one has the more willing one is to part with what they have.

I asked Nellie to ask Henri if he had papers to prove he was an official orphanage and a deed to the property. He produced them in a heartbeat. I decided then and there to build the dome for them. I asked him if he would like a new shelter for his kids to sleep in. I needed no translator to understand his answer.
I told my crew to unload the truck, we'd be building the dome here, today, at Henri's orphanage.

Pastor Wilson is this kid's name. I get the feeling from the way the
other kids interact with him that he is their spiritual leader.

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