Sunday, August 1, 2010
My Haiti Diary
Photos and entry by Maureen Mahoney-Barraclough
I have been home from Haiti for over a week now. Every day I discover that I am not really all together home yet. Just like my UFGH teammates, many everyday occurrences trigger vivid memories of my time in Haiti. Paved roads, driving my own car, variety and abundance of food, clean water from the tap all remind me of how comfortable (and grateful) I am. But my memories also inspire me since the Haitian people have none of these amenities and yet they were joyful, generous, loving, and appreciative in all my interactions with them.
Also, the several times I was able to walk from our hotel to the hospital, I waved to a family that lived in a tent near our hotel. In a modest tent labeled USAID, I noticed a father and mother, two teenage girls, two young girls, and a very young boy living in a tent that might be 10 foot square, at most. Their tent looked sturdy enough, but it was located next to a garbage heap. In the morning, the father was cooking over an outdoor charcoal fire. The girls were dressed neatly in green and white uniforms walking to school. When I passed by another time, the father was sitting on the stone bench outside the tent reading to the very young boy. The mother was preparing some kind of green vegetable in a towel in her lap. I wondered in amazement where they get clean water, where they bathe, how the girl's uniforms look so clean and pressed.
As I reflect on this, my son and husband are tent camping in Yellowstone. Their tent is in a beautiful pristine environment. They have lots of food available to them, camp showers and toilets, and most importantly, if it gets too rough, they can just drive home to all our routine comforts. I don't wish lack of comfort for anyone; I just wish that everyone everywhere could enjoy the stability and comfort that we do. Through their example, I am reminded every day to be joyful.
As I drive into the paved parking lot for Urgent Care in my hometown to get treatment for my pesky cough, images of the Salle d'Urgence at the Hopital Adventiste in Carrefour, Haiti materialize once again and disorient me. The Salle d'Urgence is a large light brown canvas tent erected over a cement pad, maybe 20x30 feet. There is an open door at either end that provides some circulation in the 100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Gray woolen blankets are spread loosely on the cement floor, art supplies are stacked on the wooden benches lining the walls of the tent, our Haitian translator is writing new Creole words for us, and best of all, about 20 children are eagerly awaiting commencement of today's art projects and circle games.
Our translator, Roosevelt, (very proud of his name honoring our 32nd US president) teaches us Creole words like pliye (fold), papye (paper), penti (paint), koule (color), seezors (no explanation necessary). Creole is a lyrical language, the very cadence and inflections of which make me smile.
All this comes to mind, just by seeing the Urgent Care sign here at home. How I wish I could be in Haiti now. I missed my last day of the Arts and Community program with the children because I developed a nasty cough. I was overcome with disappointment as one of the doctors recommended that I stay at the hotel that day because my cough was probably contagious. She was right; I could not bear to spread my virus to the children. However, I was overwhelmed with happy tears that evening when my teammates, Susan, Chia-ti, and Kiyana brought me a special gift from all the children. They presented me with a packet wrapped in a piece of a silver Mylar blanket tied with pipe cleaners fashioned in a heart shape. Inside the wrapping, was a collection of cards handmade by all of the children. Each card was filled with love and compassion and colorfully decorated with flowers, trees, boats, houses, abstract designs, and even a few drawings of the American flag. Their gift to me gave even deeper meaning to the universal observation that we always receive more than we give on humanitarian missions.
You know, I may never return all together from Haiti. But that's okay. I am grateful to be one of the fortunate ones to be on the receiving end of all the love the Haitian people have to give.
Following are several of my stories about the Arts and Community projects we carried out as part of the UFGH team at the Hopital Adventiste.
Yesterday, we discovered the unoccupied tent, Salle d'Urgence. It seemed the perfect site for our UFGH Arts and Community program. It is situated between the hospital building and the small tent city on the hospital grounds; ideal for the hospital patients and those living with their families in the tents. By now, we were already getting to know some of the children. James Ley, maybe 2 or 3 years old with one leg in a plaster cast and his equally young buddy, Stephan Joseph are always together. There's Kerlanda, moving skillfully with her walker and one leg in a brace, 7 year old Loudmia and Mirlanda, long-term patients at the hospital and wheelchair bound, Berlynksi, always smiling and waiting to greet us and Jean Junior, whose father was a hospital patient suffering with typhoid fever. In fact, Jean Junior lived in his father's hospital room with him since his mother had died previously. Then, there's Pierre and Andre, probably at least 18 to 20 years old and wheel chair bound. From toddlers to twenty year olds, the children fill the bare tent with delight.
There are no tables or regular chairs in Salle d'Urgence, but the hospital staff provided us with thick gray woolen blankets donated by a well-intentioned, but seemingly misguided charity. You never know, though; they were valuable to our program! We covered half of the cement floor with the blankets and left the remaining half available for the children to create a floor mural, or "flooral" with colored chalk. In order to open a dialogue with the children, we suggested they begin with drawing pictures of their family and what is important to them. The children embraced the project eagerly. Those who could knelt on the cement floor and drew detailed pictures of themselves and family members, homes, banana and mango trees, and lots of boats on the ocean.
We provided wooden boards and paper to those children in wheelchairs so they could participate, too. Then, as a happy murmur rippled through the group they all suddenly started drawing perfect images of Haiti's national flag. Laughter and chatter filled the room as the children covered the floor and themselves with brightly colored chalk. When they finished, we asked each of them to tell us about their drawing. Francesca, one of the young girls, perhaps 7 years old, described her meticulous drawing of a girl flanked on either side by a lovely flower standing in a flowerpot—as tall as the central girl. She said through our translator, this is me in the middle and this is my brother on this side and my other brother on the other side. I felt a wave of grief wash over me as she went on to explain that her two brothers died in the earthquake. The moment became more beautiful when several other children took an interest in her drawing and gave her an opportunity to talk about her loss. I know now that whenever I see a big flowerpot with a tall flower, I will think of Francesca and her brothers.
Well, 'story boxes' is a name we made up to describe a project that was inspired by an article about Haitian altar pieces that the UFGH Board members shared shortly after the earthquake. We discussed how altar pieces are rooted in Haitian vodou culture and represent that which is very meaningful to the creators. We observed that sequins and found objects from nature were common materials in altar pieces. Also, altar pieces are never quite finished; they can be augmented with new mementos indefinitely. It seemed relevant to their culture to create something similar like a small decorated box in which the children could keep meaningful items and bits from nature. The story box would be an intimately personal project that is never quite finished just as the healing process is ongoing.
I remember that day as Loudmia and Mirlanda arrived in their wheel chairs to Salle d'Urgence anxious to get involved in today's activity. Loudmia was dressed in a pretty pink and green sundress and her hair normally full of colorful barrettes was wrapped in a scarf. Loudmia is in a wheelchair because her left leg needed to be amputated after the earthquake. Apparently, this day she decided she wanted to work on the gray blankets with the rest of the children. To my amazement, she lifted herself with her delicate but strong arms and launched herself to freedom with the other children and right into my heart. With her gleeful determination, my heart belonged to Loudmia and all these children.
As we all gathered together, the children looked inquisitively at the stacks of plain white cardboard boxes each with a cellophane window in the lid. We explained that this box is for them to decorate as they wish and to keep forever—filling it with found treasures and keepsakes. Each child was given a box and access to sequins, sparkling flowers, decals, inkpads, and 'crazy glue' (Creole for any kinds of glue!) The children were engaged for hours meticulously gluing sequins and sparkling flowers and rubbing decals over the entire surface. As I watched them excitedly exploring the magic of decals and the beauty of sequins, I was reminded of the sparkling water of the ocean visible from our hotel. I reflected on the stark contrast between the smooth crystalline water of the bay and the heaps of broken concrete homes still piled precariously in the city. I wondered if this might be a clue as to why most of the children drew pictures of boats on a calm surface of water.
I watched the children transform the plain white boxes into glittering treasures that seemed a metaphor for their bright and sparkling perspective on life. The little treasures they would eventually store in the box would be in a safe place but open to their friends through the little window. In fact, they later went on a nature walk with the team to collect special things from nature to keep in their boxes.
Hospital staff shared with us the next day that our beloved Jean Junior whose father was sick with typhoid tucked his box under his pillow at night.
Mosaic Mural of Haiti
On this morning, Roosevelt, our translator listened intently to our description of a mosaic mural. It is composed of a grid of index cards, each card having a piece of the overall outline of the mural's image. He smiled knowingly and said, oh a 'mystery puzzle'! I hadn't thought of that phrase before, but he was exactly right! Without knowing what that final image is, the children color and decorate their individual card. Here in the US, a mosaic mural is typically created with an important word like HOPE or a symbol important to the students. It is always something meaningful to the group.
Normally, our team would ask the children for their ideas and what they want to include in a project. However, part of the fun and magic of a mosaic mural is coloring the individual index cards without knowledge of the final image. A mystery puzzle! So, our team pondered amongst ourselves appropriate ideas for the image. First, we spent several days getting to know the Haitian children with other art projects in the Salle d'Urgence. We had all witnessed their enthusiasm and love for their country. So, we formulated the idea to make a mural of their country. Preparation involves making a mural-sized outline with a thick black marker of the image that will become the final design. Next, one covers the image with index cards lined up neatly. Each card's grid location is penciled on the back of the card. Then, one tapes all the layers to a window and carefully traces the outline on the cards with a black marker. At that point, one can remove the cards, hide the full design and shuffle and stack the cards for the children to color. I blithely volunteered to enlarge the map of Haiti from a 2-inch outline in the cultural materials provided by our UFGH Director, Zola. I quickly realized what a challenge it would be to enlarge the map in a form recognizable to the children with our limited resources. I felt a little uncertain, so we added the word HAITI boldly outlined in the ocean area of the map, just to be sure.
I remember clearly the children's faces, curious and a little confused, as Roosevelt explained the project to them. They accepted the challenge cheerfully and set to work. In spite of their anticipation to see the final product, they took their time in coloring the cards; some were abstract splashes of color, others were detailed drawings of families, houses, and native trees. And of course, there was a card with a boat on the calm water. Finally, as the children attached the individual index cards to the large blank piece of paper according to the grid location marked on the back of the card, they were excited to discover the outline of their country. The word HAITI helped! Once we enjoyed a few minutes marveling at their creation, Susan, my teammate, and our translator, Roosevelt, asked each of the children what they loved about their country and what they wished for their country. Their responses were poignant and also practical. They loved the native fruits and their families; they wished for school to start again, a good government for Haiti, better water and food, and for Haiti to be strong. Roosevelt and Susan recorded the responses and the team made a border of the children's wishes surrounding the map. Then, the children precociously turned the discussion around and asked all of us what we loved about Haiti and what we wished for their country—a touching example of the dynamic dialogues we experienced every day with the remarkable children of Haiti.