The driver, sent by the school, came to pick me up at the airport. He drove a van so I had a good view of all there was to see.
No one in their right mind would ever want to come to Haiti, I thought. That’s for sure. Life must be as bad here as it is in any country surrounding Chad in Africa. People are sad, hungry and desperate, peering out of their makeshift homes, children in rags or naked; poverty reigns supreme at every turn; mounds of stinking garbage, piles of broken materials, rusted mattress frames, dilapidated refrigerators, pools of murky liquids probably harbouring millions of deadly bacteria; suffocating motor fumes, noise from endless honking and the occasional sorry cow sauntering along the highway. What a place.
The further away we got from Port-au-Prince’s infamous slum of Cité Soleil, the scenery improved but not by much, until we reached the school campus. How they managed to construct such a beautiful compound under such conditions is beyond me but it’s here and I’m living in it. There are armed guards, twenty-four hour surveillance with barbed wire all around. They protect all the luxury and comfort we have; everything from air conditioning to washing machines, spacious and tastefully decorated living accommodation; the school supplies all one could think of, all accessible to us –but for the Internet, which comes and goes. Once inside the campus it’s easy to forget that we are in Haiti except of course, when we see our students. Some of them are so malnourished and sickly it is heart breaking; distended bellies protruding from clothes three sizes too small. I’m told that within a few weeks they will get better and stronger as they start getting daily nourishment and medical attention.
This private school was built to help the neediest children in a place called Pont Leocan. The school provides breakfast and lunch every school day to about three hundred students, as well as a uniform, school supplies and tuition. The illiteracy rate in Haiti is the highest in the western hemisphere but the figures differ according to sources. Sometimes they say it’s seventy per cent of the population, other times it’s as high as eighty. In any case most people cannot read or write. It means their chances of succeeding in the world are limited. A lot of the guards at the school were literally taken from the streets, given rifles and iPhones, I’m told. They love, love, love their iPhones, and who wouldn’t when the world opens up to them at the slightest touch. Often they would stop me on my way to class wanting to show me something or other they have found on the Internet – a dance troupe, a live art show, a performance, photographs of the galaxies. It was a kind gesture to want to share with me a discovery they’d made and I would happily oblige.
With each day that passed, I would see more of Saint-Marc and Pont-Leocan, meet more people both local and foreign, some working with the United Nations. One of them was an engineer from Zurich. He installed solar energy for about a hundred families in Cité Soleil. They will be able to cook without needing wood and everyone knows there is no wood in Haiti for anything. This engineer, and many other foreigners like me, came to help in the ways we could. My fears about being in Haiti subsided and my appreciation started growing. The Haitian people I met were polite – and that’s something usually learned in the home at a young age. Everyone says hello, please and thank you. That kind of common courtesy is sorely lacking in most parts of the industrial world. They make do with so little and it made me realise how imaginative and resourceful they are. The Haitians are truly a resilient people faced with living under harsh conditions but that does not stop them from smiling and singing.
Most early mornings, way out across the field, I could hear the congregation bellowing out hymns straight from the heart and their singing would envelope me in a kind of warmth that’s hard to describe. In those moments I felt love for them all; the students, the guards, the kitchen staff, the gardeners, the papaya trees, the Haitian soil and the glorious sun that gives us all life. When you get to know the people and they open up your heart, Haiti becomes a magical place and I am glad I came.
When you are at the bottom, there is nowhere to go but up. I left Haiti, reluctantly – because of family obligations – but my thoughts are still with those beautiful and hopeful people. I still see the piles of garbage in my mind’s eye and the murky pools of liquid but now I know that the rainy season will at least dilute them, if not altogether wash them away. They will learn, on their own, how to improve the living conditions of their people as they did so long ago when they rebelled from slavery and were the only people anywhere to do it successfully. That’s no small feat. They will do it again. They just need a little more time. Long live Haiti!
Visnja Murgic was born in Zagreb, Croatia. As a young child, she moved with her family first to the dusty steel city of Hamilton, Ontario and ten years later to rainy Vancouver, British Columbia. Since then, she has travelled widely, from the north-western Canadian coast to Mexico, the United States, Bermuda and Europe, not to mention Haiti. Visnja now lives in Montreal, Quebec. Notwithstanding all her past travels, she harbours a long-standing ambition to retrace the steps of her maternal grandfather’s journey to America via Ellis Island and the Hotel des Immigrantes in Buenos Aires and possibly uncover the reason for his mysterious disappearance there. Visnja speaks, reads and writes French, Croatian and English.