In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Hope for Baie D'Orange

High in the mountains above Jacmel, in the South East of Haiti, lies the remote community of Baie D'Orange. Following media reports that 26 severely malnourished children died there in November, the Association of Haitian Orphanages planned a mission to deliver aid to the area. On Thursday night, 5 trucks were loaded with emergency food packets, medical supplies, seeds, tools and banana plants. At 5 am on Friday morning, GLA staff piled into two of the trucks and headed for Port-Au-Prince to join a convoy of 3 other vehicles which would make the 6 hour journey to Baie D'Orange.
We skirted alongside bustling city slums, where, at 6am, men and women were all ready bartering for goods that were assembled on rickety stalls, set up a few feet from gutters where raw sewage flowed and drifts of rubbish collected. Here and there tires had been been set alight at the side of road. Merchants and customers nimbly side-stepped and weaved in between the honking vehicles until gradually, the urban scene faded into sugar cane plantations, and then onto a winding but smooth road through the mountains.

Several roadside markets slowed our route to Jacmel. When we finally arrived at the sparkling coastline it was 9am. Jacmel is a colonial port town where the streets are lined with buildings that display an understated French elegance and distinctly Caribbean colours. We were a world away from the gang violence of the capital as we passed through Jacmel and I think we all inhaled some of its tranquil ambiance.

Beyond Jacmel, the paved road petered into a dirt track. Clouds of dust hung in the air and as the convoy trundled on we were able to take in the sights of rural Haiti; Children sweeping the yards in front of faded and peeling candy-coloured homes that were fenced by woven screens and bushes. Bare-breasted woman washing clothes in a river. Weary donkey's, weighed down by the weight of the people and the supplies they carried. And every time I saw one of those donkeys, making their way over the harsh terrain, I was reminded of the Christmas story, and our mission became all the more poignant.

We crossed a rocky river bed and came upon a rural village at the foot of a mountain range. In August and September, four hurricanes pounded this area in quick succession and the scars from the assault were clearly visible. Piles of rocks that were several feet high lined the route towards the mountain road. They were right up against the homes and and the store fronts. Off to the left, the tree trunks were partially buried in the rubble. A concrete grave had been opened up, and ahead, a cascade of powdered limestone spilled over a rocky verge. There was silence in our vehicle as the realization of the storms brute force sunk in.

The final ascent to Baie D' Orange was torturous. The road climbed steeply, clinging to the mountain-side as we negotiated hair-pin bends, mindful of the sheer unguarded drops down into the valley below, and mindful that a few weeks ago, a truck had overturned on this road, killing an aid worker. We rounded a bend and either slopes of bare pasture land opened all round the vehicle. The land was shrouded in mist, and scattered with volcanic rock. There were no crops and very few trees. We passed mud and stick houses and naked children. There were no signs of infrastructure here. A few miles on, a small sign pointed to the Cassak's office. This was Baie D' Orange.

We parked the vehicles and got out. We were lead through a crowd of several hundred people and were directed to sit on chairs which had been placed under a tarpaulin. There were speeches by Gladys Thomas, who lead the convoy, and by Dixie. The ladies explained to the people that we had heard about their plight and that we had come with food aid and medicines because we didn't want any more of these children to die. The crowd cheered when they heard this and were glad to hear that the convoy had also brought seeds, tools and plants, so that beyond the immediate crisis, they could provide for themselves. The Cassak (the local official) then expressed thanks, and we began unloading the trucks.

Before long fights were breaking out. There was not enough food for all 500 people and those who hadn't received anything were becoming desperate. To the right of our vehicle, a tiny infant with elfin features was sucking at her mother's sagging breast. A thin little boy with a receding hairline came towards us with his mother. The red mountain earth was was caked around his mouth. It hurt to know that his hunger pains were so bad that he was eating dirt. It hurt to think about how many times he had gone to bed hungry. And how many days he had been without food.

There were pleas for help from all directions. It was discouraging to have to explain over and over that we had nothing more to give the people. A little boy, who might have been around 10 or 11 years old told us that he hadn't received a food parcel. We told him that he needed to find a grown-up to collect one for him. The Cassak was not distributing aid to children because it was inevitable that a hungry adult would pounce on them. The skin was drawn tightly over the boy's cheeks. He pleaded that his father had gone to Jacmel and that his Mother was sick with a fever. The boy was directed to one of GLA's Haitian workers. A few minutes later a call went out that all the children were to proceed to the Cassak's office and that the adults were not to follow. I have to believe that the official found a way to get food to these hungry children.

As I looked around, I knew I was seeing a community of people that were carrying themselves with as much dignity as their situation afforded. The women and girls all wore scarves over their heads and if the people's clothes were worn, they were also clean. However, as we watched people snatch packets of rice from old women, it was also clear that it was every man and woman for themselves, and that the experience of famine was cruel and inhuman, and that it had made these people lose a vital part of their own humanity. And yet, as we played with the children, and as I heard a very tiny girl exclaim that she had been blessed today, and as I looked into her shining eyes where a few minutes before, a listless despair had sat, I knew that hope was not dead in this place.

As we left Baie D' Orange, I thanked God for the opportunity to go there. The day before Dixie had announced that we were going on a mission trip into that area, I had confided to my room-mate that I was struggling with the knowledge that some of the sickest children in Haiti were dying before they reached GLA's gates. The journey South was an answer to prayer. I am praying that God will open the door for me to make further trips, to bring medical help to the most vulnerable children living in Haiti's remote and unreached communities.


Lisa said...

Susan, I felt as though I were there with you and my heart is aching now for the 10 yr. old boy and for those who had to rob from old women. I thank you for your words. They are so powerful that I believe they will bring change. The people of Baie D'Orange are in our prayers. God bless.

Big Al, the gal said...

Susan, Thank you for sharing your stories. It must get hard at times and I picture you typing with tears in your eyes and that puts tears in mine. I'm so grateful that you share with those of us in first world countries who can't comprehend the desperation. However, through your blog and your strength, the picture becomes a little clearer. God bless you.

Anonymous said...

A long as you are there hope is not dead.

Rebekah Hubley said...

Your post paints the most beautiful picture of hope in a desperate country! You really need to write a book when you get back. You truly have been gifted in writing!!!!! I deeply enjoy every post you write...