|Posted by Linda Stapleton de Martinez on August 2, 2010 at 9:20 PM|
Last week I had the privilege of joining the pastor and other members of the Evangelical Ministry "Saca la Red y Echala de Nuevo" (based in Sabaneta and Cabarete on the North Coast of the Dominican Republic) on one of their occasional trips to assist the MESSEF orphanage in Ouanaminthe in Haïti.
Ouanaminthe is a town that has grown up around the cross-border trade with Dajabon in the Dominican Republic and is the main frontier crossing in the north, on the route between the two countries' second cities of Santiago and Cap Haitien. It is reputed to be the ugliest city in Haïti and to be infested with criminal gangs which thrive on human trafficking, hijacking aid consignments, and cross-border smuggling. There is little to be seen there of traditional rural Haitian culture (still African in so many respects) or of those remaining vestiges of elegant French colonial culture which dot the rest of the country.
The objective on this particular expedition was to take food and also to instal a motor so that water from the well could be pumped to a rooftop storage tank and gravity-fed thereafter to wherever needed rather than resort to arduous hand-pumping and transfer by buckets.
I was the last to board the minivan at six o'clock in themorning near my home in Puerto Plata but my companions had started out an hour earlier in Cabarete, picking up other participants and supplies on the way. Our route took us through Navarrete, then through Monte Cristi in the extreme north-west of the Dominican Republic from where we turned south (along the old military road which parallels the frontier) to Dajabon. As far as Monte Cristi the road surfaces were fairly good but thereafter we averaged about fifteen miles per hour along the so-called "International Highway" which was little more than a dirt-track littered with pot-holes and boulders. The surrounding landscape was depressing in the extreme, bleak marshland scarred with rusting metal fences and lumps of concrete, perhaps once of military use.
Because our pastor and his opposite number were well-known and respected at the frontier we passed through with the minimum of delay. The officials didn't even ask to see my passport, which somewhat surprised me given the long history of suspicion (and sometimes hostility) between the two nations. One tattered piece of paper, covered in stamps, signatures, and more than a few coffee-stains, sufficed for all of us.
The border crossing at Ouanaminthe must be one of the least welcoming anywhere in the world. We crossed the Massacre River whose name isoften wrongly attributed to a horrific massacre of Haitians (and of many Dominicans with dark skins, too) in the 1930's by the Dominican dictator Trujillo. In fact, a much earlier massacre in colonial times was the origin of the river's name, which gives an indication of the sad history of the area. From the rusting bridge one looks along the broad river banks in both directions to see a sea of mud and rubbish, and hundreds of motionless people squatting in ones, twos, and small family groups in the mud and tufts of coarse grass. "What are they waiting for?" asked one of my travel companions, a Canadian lady who had come for a conventional holiday in a seaside resort but had somehow met up with the pastor and was generously giving of her time and money to help this good cause. "Why don't they move about or talk to each other?"
I didn't have an answer, except to surmise that they had failed to slip across the border the previous night and now had nothing else to do but to wait, in most cases without food, to try again the coming night. TheDominican Republic is considered a veritable Eldorado to those who live in Haïti where average income is about one-fifth of the (already low) figure for the Dominican Republic.
Things didn't improve much as we drove the mile or so from the frontier to the orphanage through the outskirts of the city. Although the rainy season had not yet set in, the track was almost impassable for our heavily laden vehicle because of mud holes, but what shocked me on this, my first, visit to Haïti was the amount of rubbish choking the streets and piled high between the pathetic little houses, some built from clinker blocks, some from little more than plastic sheets and tubing. In hot weather the stench must be unbearable, not to mention infestation from vermin. The streets teemed with people and groups of children would run alongside our minibus shouting "I'm hungry" or "Give me a dollar" in Kreyol, French, English or Spanish.
Then, abruptly, I thought I had nodded off (excusable after my early start and five-hour trip in the cramped bus) and that I was dreaming of being back in England in a gentleman's estate. On one side of our minivan the squalid shacks crowded with people continued to line the road, but on the other were lush green fields dotted with mature trees and sleek contented cattle. No fences, no signs, no guards or buildings, and not a soul to be seen between our road and the distant Massacre River. And this in a country where the inhabitants fight over scraps of food or firewood. A little reminder that there is still wealth in Haïti (once the world's richest colony) but it is confined to a tiny elite.
We arrived at the orphanage. The supplies were unloaded and we were ushered inside. I was apprehensive. I have seen many a disturbing newscast from Third World countries, and even from European countries which ought to do a lot better, of conditions inside orphanages. I half-expected to see under-nourished children in dirty tattered clothes, perhaps some too disturbed by their past horrific experiences to socialise and skulking on the fringes, or even hostile to us visiting aliens from another planet.
Well, I am delighted to report, nothing like that here.Certainly the children were initially shy, and no doubt they had been given a stiff admonishment to "be on their best behaviour" for the "blan"(gringo) visitors which had inhibited them further. Our pastor prompted them to begin a song of welcome. This was repeated about eight times too often for my personal taste but it broke the ice and there was no faulting their enthusiasm or indeed the quality of their singing. The Haitian people are great singers. In a culture where the written or printed word has played little part, most of their acquired wisdom has been passed down verbally and singing helps to preserve the memories. And they have always led manual work-intensive lives, including centuries of slavery, where singing has helped to make the labour a little easier. I hope the orphanage can, when times allow, organise a children's choir as an inexpensive way of helping the children to develop.
After a few minutes the children clustered round us, tugging at our clothes and, in the case of one fair-haired lady, at her hair. What impressed me during the few hours we were there was how the older children cared for the younger ones. Most of the children were aged from about four to sixteen. There was just one baby less than a year old and he was passed around like a parcel from one child to another all afternoon so he remained content and never cried. Extended families are the norm on both sides of the border and children are typically cared for as part of a family or even a group of neighbours rather than just by their own natural parents, so the environment our orphans lived in was less strange to them than would have been the case in a British or American orphanage, for example. The staff and children at MESSEFconstituted one giant family, and a happy one too, at least for the time we were there.
At the age of seventy I have barely mastered lacing my own shoes. I am the least technically competent person on earth so I left my male colleagues to get on with the task of setting up the motorised pump while I enjoyed practising my meagre store of Haitian Kreyol words and phrases on the children.They never tired of demanding that I photograph them "and now with my sister", "and now with my best friend", etc, etc.
We made a short trip into town to buy more plumbing supplies. At midday the centre of town seemed lively, despite the clouds of dust and motor exhaust, but the surrounding areas were full of people just sitting or standing amid the rubbish and staring vacantly as with no hope or interest in anything. Children improvised playthings out of scraps of cloth or metal and I saw a group of boys fighting for possession of an empty gallon plastic water container, a prize item. I reflected that the children in the orphanage, however tragic it was to be without their parents, were in many ways the lucky ones. They were fed and clothed and in a safe environment.
Speaking of which, on arrival I was initially disappointed by the interior of the orphanage. It seemed gloomy and cluttered. But as the hours passed I realised that its green shade and intimacy was right for the children, their scale and furnishing of the various rooms. To say things are "basic" is an understatement, but compared with most of the dwellings in the surrounding area the orphanage is a veritable mansion.
Because of problems in acquiring the right components (a motor-cyclist even had to be sent across into the Dominican Republic to buy some trivial items which would be available in any "First World" village store as virtually nothing is available in Haïti) the pump did not get finished that trip, but my colleagues assured me that they would complete it on a subsequent trip.
The cook prepared an appetising meal of chicken, rice and beans for children, staff and visitors. I would guess this was a "special occasion" and the children would not normally enjoy such generous helpings even though they only eat one meal a day. A few of them even struggled to clear their plates and that must be a rarity in that country. It would be good to think they ate an egg for breakfast, drank milk and consumed some green vegetables and fruit each day, but those items are difficult to store and transport in a hot humid climate and are probably almost unobtainable in Haïti anyway.
One or two of the children struck me as particularly bright in the way they picked up English words and phrases, or understood what I was struggling to say with my pathetic French or Kreyol. In the coming decades Haïti faces an enormous task of rebuilding the nation from top to bottom. Eventually the Haitians will have to continue and complete the job themselves and they will need bright and motivated young Haitian professionals to do it. It would be wonderful to think that some of these might come from the orphanage at MESSEF because of the generosity and interest of persons overseas who they had never met. I know the right seeds are present at MESSEF. Let's hope they continue to be nurtured.
Perhaps for the benefit of their gringo guests, our Dominican hosts took a different route back through the hilly area between Santiago Rodríguez and Mao. This was an area I did not know, and it struck me as a lot neater and tidier than those parts of the Dominican Republic I had seen hitherto. At times I was reminded of England by the small, hedged fields and winding roads. Certainly a contrast to the flat, dry semi-desert area around Monte Cristi and the border zone.
The last half hour of the five-hour drive was at night in a tropical storm. A large tree had fallen blocking our side of the highway but our driver just saw it in time. I slept well that night and had a lot on which to reflect the following day.
20th March, 2010
Categories: Visits to Messef