Palm trees, sandy beaches, an azure blue sky and matching sea, warm breezes, gently rolling mountains and sunshine: Haiti should be a tropical paradise. I knew, however, before I agreed to be part of a mission trip to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, that this island first “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was not paradise.
A team of 16 Lutherans from Langdon’s United Lutheran and St. Andrew’s Lutheran in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, arrived in Port au Prince, Haiti, on February 9. We nervously went through immigration and customs without a problem. We hauled our bags out the door only to be mobbed by Haitian men in red shirts asking to carry our luggage. They were insistent, but we had been instructed to refuse politely in Creole, “Non, mesi.” We loaded our baggage and ourselves in a pickup truck and a twelve passenger van to make our trip to the headquarters of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti, where we would spend the night. (Remember, I said there were 16 of us, plus our drivers and two interpreters? Some of our team rode on top of the luggage in the back of the pickup.)
As we drove west from the airport along the main road which runs along the capital city’s port, the smells of burning charcoal, garbage, sewage, dead fish, exhaust fumes hit us. There were people everywhere. People were standing and walking on the shoulder of the highway. Many were selling water, juice, bread, and everything else imaginable in the middle of the road. We drove past acres of tents and sheet metal, wood and tarp-covered huts with just enough space between them for a single person to walk. Earthquake damaged crumbling concrete block and cement buildings remain half-standing next to new cement and concrete buildings, many partially completed as the owners save up enough money to complete the next stage of construction.
The country of Haiti has a total population of 10 million people. It is estimated that at least two million live in the metro area of Port au Prince which covers about 15 square miles. Counting the people is difficult when so many of them live in “temporary” housing. Most of the people of Haiti live in the low lands near the coast and along the river deltas. The population is less dense in the extreme rural and mountainous areas. Just as has happened in rural communities around the world, many people have left their homes in the rural areas and moved to the cities in search of a better job only to find no place to live and no work. Unemployment is a staggering 80%. Adult literacy is around 55%. Nearly half the population is under the age of 15 and only about half of all children attend school. The nation’s annual per capita income is $650.
It was not easy to see beyond the dust and the rubble on our first day. Even though the garbage, the crowds and the tents and huts were overwhelming as we drove through the city, not everything was gray and depressing. The streets are full of brightly painted, red and orange “Tap Taps.” These small pickups with a topper and benches in the back are used for taxis. Usually crammed full of passengers with packages, bags and even stems of bananas tied to the top, they zip through the traffic with honking horns. It is rare to see a motor vehicle of any kind carrying a single passenger. More likely, there will be people squeezed in every available space with more hanging on the back bumper.
The Haitian people stand straight and strong and in spite of their economic poverty are usually well-dressed and clean. The women’s and girls’ hair is carefully braided in intricate corn rows or dread locks. Many of the men and boys shave their heads and beards. In spite of the lack of clean water, and the high cost of soap, their white shirts are immaculately white, bleached by bright sun. Small market stands where people sell all kinds of goods are everywhere. While most of the people are unemployed, many of them are self-employed, buying fruit, bread, Coke, trinkets, clothing and household goods and reselling them along the road or in the market.
When we arrived at the headquarters of the Lutheran Church of Haiti, we were shown extreme hospitality. In spite of the need around us, we were fed big plates of beans and rice, barbecued beef, goat stew, plantains, mangos, watermelon, fish, spicy hot coleslaw, fresh mango and orange juice and clean bottled water. We washed our dusty bodies in scarce clean water. We were given comfortable beds in their nearly finished guest houses and guarded through the night by their night watchmen.
We were humbled by the gracious welcome and the irrational generosity of our hosts.