The following itinerary gives a brief overview of Luna Capalla & Sathiya Bly’s Haiti site visit and the congregations they visited:
2/18/12: Arrive in Port‐au‐Prince (PAP)
- PAP ‐ Little Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus (Located: Riviere Froide, L’Ouest Dept.) *Various projects; main base while in PAP
- Project #9419: Construction of Convent (Located: Hinche, Papaye, Nord‐Est Dept.)
2/20/12: PAP ‐ Congregation of Sisters of St. Anthony Fondwa (Located: Fondwa, Sud‐Est Dept.)
- Project #9575‐1: Café Lompre Nutrition Program; 2hrs south of PAP
2/21/12: PAP ‐ Congregation Companions of Jesus (Located: Port‐au‐Prince, L’Ouest Dept.)
- Project #11738‐1: Joint Project with CRS to demolish and rebuild Mother House
2/22/12: Depart PAP to Port‐de‐Paix (PDP)
- PDP ‐ Congregation of Daughters of Divine Love (Located: LaCroix, Nord‐Ouest Dept.)
- Project #11681‐1: St. Marie Gorriet Vocational School
2/24/12: PDP ‐ Missionary Sisters of the Child Jesus (Located: La Tortue, Nord‐Ouest Dept.)
- Project #11833‐1: Aide for Tortuga Island
2/27/12: Depart PDP to Cap Haitian (CH)
- CH ‐ Daughters of Wisdom (Located: Nord Dept.)
- Project #11558: Our Lady of Lourdes Health Center
Haiti became the first black-led republic and the first independent nation in the Caribbean and Latin America when it overthrew French rule in 1804. Once known as the “Pearl of the Caribbean,” Haiti has become the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere after decades of poverty, environmental devastation, natural disasters, ill-conceived foreign policy, violence, instability, corruption and dictatorships. In 2010 Haiti ranked 145 out of 182 countries with the lowest levels of life expectancy, education and income, according to the United Nations. Most Haitians live on less than $1 per day, with an average annual income under $1,000. As a result, the majority of people live in substandard housing with deficient sanitation systems, poor nutrition, inadequate health services and limited access to transportation and communication. The average life expectancy at birth is 54 years. This statistic is exacerbated by the fact that Haiti has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS outside of Africa and the highest rate of tuberculosis in Latin America. The largest and most dangerous slum in the Northern Hemisphere, Cite Soliel, is also found in Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince.
But Haiti’s most serious underlying social problem that remains unaddressed is the huge wealth gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking minority, 1% of whom own nearly half the country’s wealth. Literacy rates in Haiti hover around 50%, and the inability for most Haitians to secure a decent standard of living has prompted high levels of immigration to the US, other Caribbean nations and to neighboring Dominican Republic. For over 200 years, Haiti’s history has been marked by oppressive regimes and military coups. This lack of stability and security has created a thriving drug trafficking network today, which has led to corrupted judicial and law enforcement agencies. All of these factors left Haiti ill-equipped to handle the devastation following the 7.0 earthquake that struck Port au Prince in January 2010 and the widespread cholera outbreak that occurred soon afterwards. Throughout Haiti’s tumultuous past and present-day disasters, the one constant in Haitian culture is the omnipresent belief in vodou (voodoo) as a way for Haitians to be spiritually connected to one another and their ancestors.
Sathiya Bly and Luna Capalla travelled together throughout Haiti for 12 days in February 2012. Although aware of statistics and warnings before the trip, Sathiya said she was not prepared to experience poverty that was more extreme in some ways than what she observed in Africa and a mode of survival that appeared more desperate, yet hopeful, in a situation that seemed so hopeless.
What first struck Sathiya in Haiti were the numerous white Americans she saw. Haiti is home to over 10,000 NGOs—more than any other country in the world. There were people young and old traveling with missionary and volunteer groups and individuals with their own Haitian guides. Sathiya overheard people talking about their plans—painting a school in one area, building homes in another and playing with orphans somewhere else. The excitement surrounding all of these plans left me wondering how foreign manpower was going to be used to help Haiti change its course of direction. Everyone that came to Haiti seemed to have the best of intentions, but was it actually helping the country or the volunteers themselves?
This was Luna Capalla’s second time to Haiti. During her first trip in January 2009, she travelled with Sr. Joyce Meyer and Lynne Mangione to visit the Haitian Health Foundation (HHF) in Jérémie, located in the southwest of Haiti. Luna’s first visit was exactly a year before the big 7.0 earthquake of 2010.
For our site visit, the main goals laid out by Sr. Joyce and Sr. Marcia were to get a “feel” for the congregations’ situations and needs, identify their other sources of funding, and learn how we can better partner with them.
Port au Prince
We were met at Toussaint Louverture International Airport by our first American guide, Barbara Wander, a retired school teacher from California and by Sr. Delivrine Lops, a sister of the Petites Soeurs des Sainte Terese de l’Enfant Jesus (Little Sisters of St. Therese), who is second-incommand to the general superior.
Barbara has been travelling to Haiti for over 10 years and is an associate member of the Sisters of Loretto. She was first inspired to come by a former student who was a Haitian immigrant. Since then, Barbara has developed a strong connection with the Petites Soeurs, the first women indigenous religious congregation founded in Haiti in 1948. Barbara was staying with the sisters when the earthquake hit in January 2010 and was able to assist many survivors.
When Barbara is in the US, she travels across the country and shares stories about the Petites Soeurs and how audience members can support their projects. As a result, Barbara has become an advocate for the people of Haiti. Aside from her fundraising activities, Barbara has also made a commitment to provide scholarships for individual students who want to pursue a higher education. Barbara firmly believes that the key to Haiti’s future is through education so people will have the resources to find employment and support their families.
Sr. Delivrine, who is fluent in Creole, English, French and Spanish, has been able to travel to several countries outside of Haiti which has broadened her perspective on life. She is truly blessed to be one of the few well-educated and well-traveled Haitians. She also accompanied us to site visits during our stay in Port-au-Prince.
Sr. Delivrine spoke about the history of Haiti with its Spanish, French and African influences. Creole, which is a blend of all three languages, is spoken by over 90% of the people. Yet, because it is not considered an official language by the elite of the community most schools do not teach it, which contributes to the nation’s high Sr. Delivrine Lopes & Luna 3 illiteracy rate. Another reason for Haiti’s poverty is that when they gained their independence, they became enslaved by a different form of bondage: monetary debt. France demanded reparation in the form of 150 million gold francs after a twelve-year battle with the Haitians. Haiti is the only country in which ex-slaves had to pay a foreign government for their freedom. Embargos were also placed on Haiti by other European countries and the United States who wanted to deter any slave uprisings in their own lands. Sr. Delivrine also described how, in the 1980s, Haiti was plunged deeper into debt when they were forced to buy imported pigs from Iowa after the U.S. government killed all the Haitian pigs due to a threat of swine flu outbreak. There were many, including the well-known American economist/philosopher Noam Chomsky, who believed this was unnecessary because the swine flu had already been eradicated by the time this program was implemented. This was the greatest travesty to the Haitians. Sr. Delivrine explained that, while Haitians may not have money in the bank, they considered the “pigs as their bank.” If a Haitian had a pig, they could sell it and buy what they needed. However, the U.S. pigs required more food and maintenance than the Haitian pigs, which could survive on much less. Because the imported animals were more of a liability, they were difficult to sell in the markets, and the people were left struggling to find other ways to survive.
While there are many more reasons why Haiti is so poor, Sr. Delivrine gave us a lot to think about. Luna found her keen intelligence and strong faith very inspiring.
The first project we visited was Camelia Lohier Mission, a primary school built in the same compound as the novitiate’s convent in Cazeau, outside of Port au Prince. In 2008 and 2009, the Sisters Fund awarded grants to the Petites Soeurs to start construction and to finish the school by adding a second story. The school building had 10 small classrooms and was the only school in the area. After the earthquake, the school was leveled, and one sister died in the rubble. Since the quake, the sisters have been able to rebuild the first story with help from various organizations, such as Caritas Slovakia. A tent is used for the other half of the school. Some of the primary school classrooms are used for vocational training for women in the afternoon. The school currently has about 300 children enrolled. At the novitiate, they are still using a large tent as their dining room and have no access to potable water. But even under this predicament, we were served a delicious goat meat and pumpkin stew before starting our journey for the day. The Petites Soeurs would like to buy a piece of land across from the mission and build a new convent to replace the one that was destroyed.
Hinche, Petites Soeurs
From Port au Prince, Sr. Delivrine and Barbara accompanied us to Hinche in central Haiti to visit the Petites Soeurs’ demonstration farm. During the long drive through the barren hills and countryside, we saw large settlements dotted with cement-block homes that were unoccupied. This new housing development was part of the government’s reconstruction effort to move families from the tent cities that sprung up around Port au Prince after the quake. Unfortunately, the settlements are only buildings—there is no other infrastructure that would sustain people living in the area. The homes are without electricity, water and sanitation. There are also no roads in the communities, nor are there schools, clinics or sources of employment nearby. The new settlements are an example of what is wrong with redevelopment after the quake: absence of a functioning government, lack of coordination between local Haitians and NGOs and misspent funds.
When we arrived at the farm, we saw a new structure being erected that will become a novitiate or convent. The goal of building new housing is to send sisters to the farm so they can stay for a lengthy period of time and learn farming techniques. The convent that currently sits on the property was built in phases over several years and is not suitable for long-term housing. The sisters produce honey, peanut butter, bread, wine and cream liquor to generate income. In addition, they rear livestock and grow seasonal fruits and vegetables that sustain the sisters. Hinche is known as the “breadbasket” of Haiti because it is rich in fertile land.
As we were returning to Port au Prince, we drove past several tent cities on the outskirts of the city and within the city center. The plastic, plywood and corrugated iron communities are exactly how one would imagine them to be from news reports. The tents are flimsy structures that seem almost uninhabitable. It is hard to believe that people have been living in these dwellings for over two years. Although we saw large areas where tents have been cleared, it is not without controversy. In some cases, municipal governments have been forcing people off of the land they have been squatting on with help from the landowners who want the tents removed. In other instances, the national government has been offering people about $500 to relocate and rent housing elsewhere. The 5 downside to this scheme is that there is no affordable housing to rent because more than half of the buildings in Port au Prince remain damaged. But the majority of people have returned to living in their former homes, even though they are unsafe. These people would rather risk living in a building that could collapse on them, rather than in the tent cities where violence and disease are rampant. Some families have upgraded to temporary homes built with iron-sheet roofs, plywood walls and concrete foundations. But these structures would never be able to withstand another earthquake or a hurricane; at most, they can survive two to three more rainy seasons.
Riverie Froide, Port au Prince
The next four nights we stayed at the Petites Soeurs motherhouse in Riverie Froide. This area of Port au Prince is a steep hillside ravine that is lined with shanty homes stacked on top of each other. A slow moving river meanders through the ravine where women gather to do their laundry, children come to play and domesticated animals drink water from the river banks. Before the earthquake, the Sisters Fund awarded the congregation a $20,000 grant to complete a security wall around the property. Immediately after the quake, the wall was destroyed and now squatters are encroaching on the convent’s property. The sisters do not have the heart to remove the families because they have nowhere else to go. The congregation
experienced many losses from the quake with the death of six sisters (three at a mission station and three at a school) and 150 students at their afternoon school. But the congregation is determined to rebuild the structures they lost around their compound: an administration building, three schools and a clinic. The schools are housed in temporary structures with classes in full attendance, and the clinic is being rebuilt by a generous Haitian donor.
When Sr. Joyce stayed at the motherhouse a few years ago, she compared it to a large barn. The main entry/living area of the convent is large and open, like an aircraft hangar. The convent was built in sections and certain areas are badly in need of renovation. Due to the recent cholera outbreak it was stressed that we must wash and/or sanitize our hands before each meal. We also had to brush our teeth with bottled water. For bathing, we took bucket baths due to the scarcity of water.
Fondwa, Companions of Jesus
The next day, we traveled to Fondwa in the Diocese of Jacmel, about two hours south of Port au Prince, to visit the Congregation of Sisters of St. Anthony Fondwa. In order to reach Fondwa, we travelled on a windy road through the mountains and passed by several terrace farms that were formed along the mountainsides. Barbara commented that terrace farming is the only way for some families to grow food, but in the process, farmers are causing deforestation and erosion because they must clear tress and other vegetation off the land. Barbara also noted that is difficult for farmers to understand the long-term environmental impact created by terrace farming, when their immediate need is to earn income and feed their families.
The Sisters of St. Anthony Fondwa is an indigenous order established by Fr. Joseph Phillipe, who is also the founder of Fonkoze bank—the first micro-credit, non-profit bank in Haiti. The Sisters Fund only wire transfers grants to Haiti through Fonkoze and was introduced to the bank 7 by Barbara. The congregation is young, with just 20 members. The primary sister we met with, Sr. Melicia Singelous, studied English in the US and is the fourth member of the order. The sisters operate an orphanage and help manage a school, clinic, and radio station established by Fr. Joseph. They expressed their desire to start a project of their own and Fr. Joseph is supportive of this idea. Their main priority is education for the poor, but they have not yet decided if their focus will be on adult education, primary/secondary school education or health education. In November of 2009, they sent a project proposal for their Café Lompre nutrition program, but we lost contact with them soon after the January 2010 earthquake. Now that we have re-established contact, we hope to start collaborating with them with their future projects.
During lunch with the congregation, we learned that Fonkoze had great difficulty getting established due to threats and intimidation from other for-profit banks. One Fonkoze employee was murdered and another employee was so severely beaten, she sought asylum in the US. Fr. Joseph explained that the for-profit banks were intimidated by Fonkoze because they did not want to lose control of the power they enjoyed and they did not want ordinary Haitians to empower themselves.
After lunch, we walked along a steep and deeply rutted dirt trail to reach the congregation’s orphanage. First, we arrived at a clearing with a small group of thatch and plywood huts. As we approached one of the huts, we saw a young girl gesturing for attention. It was evident that the girl was mentally disabled, but we were shocked to find that her ankle was tightly bound by a rope to a post. As Barbara and Sr. Melicia were trying to communicate with the girl, her mother walked up to our group carrying a large machete. The girl’s mother freed her by cutting the rope and she quickly scampered off. We learned that the girl, named Lourdia, was about nine years old, although she looked much younger because she was undernourished. Her mother also explained that she frequently ties Lourdia up when she is performing chores to prevent her from interfering. This clarified the open and old scars around Lourdia’s ankle when she was released. Due to the remoteness of the village, Lourdia has never received any training or proper medical care. Sr. Melicia was also totally unaware of the girl living so close to the orphanage. After some coaxing by Barbara and Sr. Melicia, they asked the mother to promise that she would no longer tie-up her daughter and that the congregation would help to get the girl medically evaluated. As we rounded the trail, we found Lourdia squatting beside a big wash basin to “help” with washing the clothes. It was evident Lourdia just wanted to be near her mother and act like a “big girl.” Setting up parenting classes for the families of Fondwa would be a good project for the sisters.
From that encounter, we reached the congregation’s orphanage that was built on a hillside. The boys and girls quarters were newly constructed after the quake, and the roofs of both buildings had laundry drying in the sun. Due to the location, there were no flat surfaces for the children to play or any recreation equipment for them to use. There were a couple of adult women who were helping with the laundry and serving as caretakers, but it felt like the children were watching out for each other. In the boy’s dormitory, it was very disorganized and disorderly. There was evidence of children hoarding their food because we saw a few bunk beds with a plate of food from that day’s lunch behind mosquito netting. The girl’s dormitory was slightly more organized, with the older girls taking responsibility for the younger girls.
Port au Prince, Companions of Jesus
The following day, we met with the Companions of Jesus congregation. Their motherhouse sits on a hillside facing Port-au-Prince Bay, with an ocean view from every window. A portion of the convent was badly destroyed by the quake. With a $25,000 grant from the Sisters’ Fund, the convent’s parlor and one of the kitchens has since been rebuilt. The parlor was constructed from sturdy, prefabricated materials that were shipped from France. Assembly of the project was overseen by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Haiti. The sisters are thankful for their new building and find it of superior quality. But other areas of the convent still need structural support.
The Companions of Jesus’ mission is education and care for the elderly. The order has nine primary schools, one secondary school and three retirement homes. There are 5,000 students in their 10 schools and 200 residents in their homes. In addition, the sisters feed 1,000 students daily in their primary schools with food donated by the World Food Program (WFP). All of the schools were destroyed and UNICEF built temporary school buildings.
We learned that CRS did not contribute any funds towards the motherhouse reconstruction project, even though the sisters applied for a grant. They seemed unimpressed by CRS’ support for projects following the quake. This was a sentiment that was echoed by other congregations we met in Haiti. It appears that CRS is not clearly expressing their goals to the sisters in Haiti and that the sisters have different expectations of CRS. Hopefully, the communication issues can be resolved so that congregations and CRS can come together to rebuild Haiti.
A Catholic church that was badly destroyed by the quake is across the street from the convent. With the church gone, the sisters welcome the public to their compound so they can attend mass in their courtyard amphitheater.
Port au Prince, Petites Soeurs
Later that day, Barbara was kind enough to set up a craft fair featuring artwork designed by three local artisans. The artwork featured paintings, leather goods, soapstone sculptures, wood carvings and metalwork. Barbara personally supports two of the artists by paying for one to continue his education at art school and the other by selling his goods in the US.
We thought the fair would just be for us, but luckily a group of Americans and their Haitian-American guide came to stay at the convent for the night before returning home. Their Haitian guide established an NGO called Uplift Haiti, based out of Maryland. The founder immigrated to the US as a young girl and has remained connected to her Haitian roots. Over the years, she developed a relationship with the Petites Soeurs and started bringing groups of “voluntourists” to her homeland so they could experience Haiti.
After the art fair, Barbara walked us over to the Petites Soeurs home for disabled children. As soon as we arrived, the children broke out in a chorus of singing and clapping to welcome us. Almost all of the children are orphans, some are blind or have a physical impairment. A few of the blind children seem to suffer from trachoma as a result of unsanitary living conditions. All of the children seemed happy to entertain their new “guests.”
Except one baby girl, about one year old, who started screaming and crying when we approached her. The baby was scared because we were “blanc” and she was unfamiliar with light-skinned people. “Blanc” is the general term used to describe anyone in Haiti who is nonHaitian and is not of African descent. Before leaving, Luna led the children in a lively sing/dance-a-long to the children’s song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” which they enjoyed very much.
Port de Paix
On Wednesday, February 22, we flew from Port au Prince to Port de Paix, in northern Haiti. We were met at the airport by our second American guide, Joan Martin. Like Barbara, Joan is also a retired school teacher who has been working in Haiti for over 10 years. Joan is from Tuscan, Arizona and was able to develop a unique position by serving as a representative on behalf of the Diocese of Tuscan in its sister diocese, Port de Paix. Joan’s mission in Haiti is funded through church donations, which enable her to live in Haiti for three-month stints and return home for one month. When Joan is in Port de Paix, she connects parishes within the diocese with sister parishes in the US so the projects of sisters, brothers and priests can receive donations. Essentially, Joan’s main priority is to ensure that women and men religious have enough to eat and a comfortable living arrangement.
While driving through the streets of Port de Paix, Sathiya was instantly struck by how different it was from Port au Prince. There were fewer people walking through the streets, less cars on the 11 road and fewer street vendors. Port de Paix still had unpaved roads and derelict buildings, but there seemed to be less oppression among the people living there.
We drove to the Familie Myriam convent where Joan lives and where we would be staying during our time in Port de Paix. The order is from northern Quebec; its mission in Haiti is to provide a place for spiritual retreats and church functions. The convent is a beautiful, newly constructed building on small hilltop with views of the Canal de la Tortue, Isle de la Tortue and the surrounding city and countryside. At night we would hang out on the roof and talk under the amazing star-filled sky. Because there was no light pollution, the Milky Way and other constellations were clearly visible.
La Croix, Daughters of Divine Love
The following day, we were driven to La Croix, in the interior of Port de Paix. The area is very remote, and we travelled up-hill in a sturdy, 4×4 SUV on a deeply rutted dirt road. Once we reached our destination, we were met by the Daughters of Divine Love congregation. The order was founded in Nigeria and started its first mission in Haiti almost six years ago. Three Nigerian sisters are: the primary school principal, the dispensary administrator and the vocational teacher. All of the projects are within the same compound, with a new church being built in the center of the property.
The primary school goes from kindergarten to sixth grade. The two-story building was rundown, but the classrooms were orderly and tidy. The greatest needs for the school are teachers’ salaries, school supplies and completion of a preschool. Very few of the students enrolled can afford the $30 annual tuition. A grant was awarded to the school in 2007 for teachers’ salaries because there was not enough revenue for the teachers to be paid.
At the dispensary across the courtyard from the school, payment of fees is also a major issue for patients. Since few patients can afford to pay for their treatment, it is difficult to keep medicines and supplies in stock. Yet, due to the severity of some illnesses, the sister in charge of the dispensary distributes some medicines for free. Sister is hoping to start an outreach program for elderly in the area so they can get the care they need before they experience major medical complications. The dispensary was awarded a grant to purchase solar panels in 2007.
The other project at the location is a two-room vocational school for young women and girls. The students either cannot afford to attend secondary school or chose not to pursue a standard education. The sister-teacher does not know how she can keep the school operating because barely any of the students can pay for their tuition. Without school fees, the necessary materials and supplies cannot be purchased for the students to practice their lessons.
During a lunchtime discussion, a common issue among the sisters was the fear that they could not afford to continue operating their projects. The Nigerian sisters find the level of poverty in rural Haiti so acute, they believe it is harder to continue their work in Haiti than in Nigeria. The sisters shared that even though Nigerians and Africans are poor, most people can afford to partially pay for their fees, whereas the majority of Haitians cannot even afford to make small donations. The sisters are also distressed by the number of beggars they must turn away each day. The locals in the area are under the impression that the Nigerian sisters have access to donors and resources. The sisters found themselves unprepared for the culture shock they are still experiencing as missionaries and for the lack of respect they receive for the services they are providing for the community. The last resort the sisters can take is to turn away their students and patients if they cannot afford to pay fees and close the school and dispensary. As difficult as it is for the sisters to do their work, they know they cannot abandon the community.
Another issue that took the sisters by surprise was the absence of support from their parish priest. The priest was unprepared to receive the sisters, even though he requested them for his parish. The sisters have managed to get by with Joan’s help through the diocese and the funding they receive from their congregation’s development office in the US. If the relationship between the sisters and the priest continues to deteriorate, Joan suspects the sisters will appeal to transfer to another parish.
Isla de La Tortue, Missionary Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus
The next day, we set sail for Isle de La Tortue with Joan and Fr. Joselin, a parish priest in La Tortue. The island is about an hour off the coast of Port de Paix. The town’s port is one short dock where everyone gathers, regardless if they are arriving or departing. In order to board one of the sailboats anchored off-shore, you must step off the dock and onto a rickety rowboat, which carries you to a sailboat headed for La Tortue. After boarding the ship and waiting for passengers, we were looking around the boat and questioned whether it were sea-worthy. The boat looked like it had been severely battered by the wind and ocean over the years. The large sail was hand-patched with cut-outs of billboards dumped in Haiti from the US, and the mast of the ship was hand-hewn from a tall tree. All of the ropes on the ship looked as if they could snap at any moment and the buoys were flat tires tied to the sides of the boat. If there were life vests, they were nowhere to be seen. The cost of renting the sailboat for our voyage was $20 one-way.
All merchandise in Port de Paix that can be purchased at a store must be transported to La Tortue by sailboat. This even includes cars, furniture and building materials. Since there is not a traditional port and harbor at either location, larger ships cannot travel between the coasts. And there is no airstrip for planes carrying goods to land. Therefore, it is expensive for locals in La Tortue to purchase any supplies at the island’s markets and to transport their goods across the channel.
As we reached La Tortue, the sailboat anchored and a rowboat came along to ferry passengers closer to shore. When the boat hit the sandy bottom, strong Haitian men came up to the boat to carry passengers over the water and onto the beach. This is the only way to exit the boat without getting wet. Even Fr. Joselin was carried off the boat in this manner!
La Tortue definitely seemed to embody a sleepy, Caribbean island style. The pace of life was relaxed and slow. There are no major towns, only a small village with a few shops and roadside stands. Farming is the main mode of survival because there is no industry. Most people leave the island for Port de Paix in search of work.
We came to La Tortue to meet the Missionary Sisters of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, a Tanzanian order that chose Haiti as the first place to start a new mission outside of Africa. Three Tanzanian sisters have been living in Haiti for about three years. One is the administrator for the government hospital, one is a nurse, and the other is responsible for parish projects. Unlike the Nigerian sisters, the Tanzanian sisters have had an easier time assimilating with Haitian culture and have been welcomed by the people on the island. In addition, Fr. Joselin, the sisters’ parish priest, has gone out of his way to make sure the sisters’ needs are being met and is attentive to their needs. For example, Fr. Joselin outfitted the convent with new bathrooms, upgraded the electrical wiring for new light fixtures and installed solar-heated water tanks. Fr. Joselin wants the sisters to feel comfortable in their new home and community.
Upon our arrival, we toured Our Lady of Palmist Hospital, the government hospital that was established by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1958. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the hospital was once considered the finest medical facility throughout the Caribbean, and patients from other countries would come for treatment. Even though the hospital is owned by the government, it must be maintained by the local bishop. The government is obligated to pay for staff salaries, which happens infrequently. Sister informed us the government pays salaries every other month. Prior to the current bishop, the previous bishop had no interest in La Tortue parish and rarely visited the island. As a result, the hospital fell into neglect for several years and deteriorated. The Tanzanian sisters are the first congregation since the 1960s to work at the hospital. The hospital has about 25 beds and the main health problems in this area are malnutrition, typhoid, malaria and worms.
Through a special arrangement Papa Doc made with Fidel Castro, Cuban-trained doctors and nurses can complete a portion of their residency rotation in Haiti for two years. This agreement is still honored today and the Cuban government pays for the salaries of their medical staff. The Haitian government is only responsible for providing housing. After visiting the Cuban staff house, it was surprising that the medical program has managed to continue. The staff housing was dilapidated and has never been renovated. A large hole in the ceiling allows rain to pour inside and provides a haven for vermin. The main motivation for Cuban medical staff to work in Haiti is that it enables them to choose the medical specialty they want to practice when they return home.
While touring the hospital, we met a newborn baby boy who was delivered when we had lunch at the convent. The communal delivery room was surprisingly modern, but the mother’s recovery unit was sparse with just a few medical beds and chairs. The remaining patients’ rooms at the hospital offered nothing in terms of comfort for patients and guests. The walls were grey from dirt and none of the rooms had furniture, except for metal bed frames.
A few months before our arrival, Haiti’s cholera epidemic also spread to La Tortue and the hospital was inundated with sick patients, some of whom died. Since the outbreak has been controlled, the hospital has been quiet. In order to prevent the spread of cholera, all of the hospital’s mattresses and linens had to be destroyed. The hospital was able to replace most of the mattresses, but then the sisters noticed that mattresses would suddenly go missing. It was discovered that people from the community were stealing the new mattresses, so the sisters had no other choice but to lock all of the mattresses in storage and only issue a mattress when a patient is admitted for treatment.
Also at the hospital, is a USAID-funded unit that provides HIV/AIDS outreach and treatment. USAID’s work is independent of the hospital, and the organization does not offer any funding, even though their work can sometimes be interrelated. For example, an HIV-positive mother recently delivered a newborn baby at the hospital. The mother goes to USAID for medical treatment, while the baby is a patient the hospital’s pediatrics unit. The sisters are trying to encourage the mother to not breastfeed, so she does not pass her disease onto her baby. The mother cannot afford to buy baby formula, so the sisters pay for it, because USAID will not give the mother any formula for her baby, since the baby does not have HIV. This conundrum has motivated the sisters to develop a nutrition project for nursing mothers and their babies, so baby formula will be available and the children will not become malnourished. In addition, the program will benefit adult Tuberculosis patients. The government is willing to subsidize TB medication but will not provide a food allowance. Without proper nutrition, TB medicine is ineffective for treatment.
Before returning to the convent for the evening, we took a walk with Joan and one of the sisters to the nearby Christian Brothers secondary school, where Joan had some business to attend to. While waiting, we watched a group of school children practicing a traditional Haitian dance routine, while a brother gave instruction and played Caribbean drum music. It was refreshing to see the children engaged in an organized recreational activity. During our time in Haiti, we mostly saw children loitering, working in markets, braiding each other’s hair or playing pick-up soccer games. The few lucky children we encountered were dressed in their school uniforms walking to or from school.
After staying one night in La Tortue, we left for Port de Paix and had a very relaxing sail across the channel. The sapphire blue water was calm and the sun was shining—we almost forgot we were in Haiti because it felt more like a Caribbean vacation excursion. We did not have any other plans when we returned; it was nice to have the afternoon off and relax, since we were constantly busy from the moment we arrived in Haiti.
Port de Paix, Community of the La Sallian Maidservants of Jesus
The next day, we took a short walk with Joan to Foyer D’accueil Lasallian pour Enfants (Lasallian Home for Children), a girls orphanage that is operated by the Community of the La Sallian Maidservants of Jesus, an indigenous order with only three members and two novices. The congregation received funds from Italian donors to build a beautiful orphanage that resembles a villa and a primary school next door. The sisters are still receiving some donations from abroad but are responsible for operating both projects. Since the children from the orphanage also attend the primary school, there is not much revenue because the local students cannot afford to pay their full school fees. The sisters are planning to submit their first request to the Sisters’ Fund for a windmill to generate electricity and for a water purifier. They would also like to submit another proposal for salaries, furniture and books for the primary school.
The orphanage has about 50 girls and one boy. Before the earthquake, the sisters only had 12 children. The government asked the sisters if they had any room in their orphanage and delivered 100 children to them. Joan Martin told us that for months the children would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and crying. It was difficult for the sisters to manage that many children at once, especially the boys. Luckily, they were able to place most of the extra girls and all of the boys with extended family, except one boy who is now four years old. The little boy came to the orphanage when he was two, and the sisters could not find his birth certificate or any living relatives. The boy was extremely affectionate and playful—it was evident that he was probably loved and well-cared for before he was orphaned. We hoped the boy could be placed with a loving home soon.
On Monday, February 27, we left Port de Paix and travelled south to Cap-Haitien to visit the Daughters of Wisdom. This portion of the trip was meant to be a holiday for us because we wanted to visit Haiti’s two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Sans-Souci Palace and the Citadel Laferriere.
In 2011, the congregation received a grant to purchase a truck that would be used for their clinic’s health outreach program. Unfortunately, the sisters are having a difficult time purchasing a vehicle because of rising prices. The sisters need a new truck that is reliable because they must travel through the mountains to reach patients in outlying villages and to transport patients to the nearest regional hospital. In addition, the sisters must drive to Port au Prince to purchase medical supplies at wholesale prices for their clinic. Half of the four-hour journey from Cap-Haitien to the capital is over very bad roads that are unpaved, so a safe vehicle is needed.
Before we arrived at the convent, our guide Sr. Immaculee took us on a brief tour of CapHaitien. We were impressed with how clean the city was and that all of the roads were paved. The town’s architecture resembles the style found in New Orleans, with colorful two-story gingerbread houses lining cobblestone streets. There seemed to be a sense of productivity among the people and a feeling of security. The difference in atmosphere compared to Port au Prince and Port de Paix could be related to the presence of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The MINUSTAH has had a large presence throughout Haiti since the ouster of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. On the road from the airport, we passed by a large UN compound, and the sisters convent is across the street from a regional UN peace-keeping complex. Also neighboring the convent, is a prison with a large UN tank and troops stationed 24-hours a day.
The Daughters of Wisdom compound was built in the early 1950s, with a convent in the middle of the property. Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School is on one side of the property and Our Lady of Lourdes Health Center is on the other side. The health center was established in 1954 and serves about 22,077 people per year. More space is needed for the clinic, but additions cannot be made because the clinic is located downtown and surrounded by other buildings. Five sisters live at the convent—three are nurses at the clinic, one is the school principal and another sister does pastoral work. The sisters are well-regarded throughout the community and do not seem to have the same issues operating their projects as the other sisters we met.
Sans-Souci Palace & Citadel
The next day after attending mass at the beautiful Cathedral Notre-Dame of Cap-Haitien, we set out with three sisters for our journey to Sans-Souci Palace and the Citadel, just outside of the town of Milot. We learned through a local guide that both structures were built by Henri Christophe, the revolutionary slave leader who helped to overthrow the French in 1805. After being elected as Haiti’s first president, Christophe declared himself King Henri Christophe I. Through a system of forced labor, Christophe had Sans-Souci Palace constructed for his family in 1810. At the time, the grand palace was known as the Caribbean’s Palace of Versailles. From 1805 to 1820, Christophe oversaw construction of the Citadel—a mountain-top fortress in the hills above Milot. It is the largest fortress in the Americas. Christophe feared an attack by France and commissioned the fortress to protect the newly independent country. An attack from the French or any other country never came. In 1820, Christophe suffered a stroke and committed suicide because he wanted to evade being captured in a mutiny by his troops.
After Christophe died, his family fled the palace and it was looted, but no other succeeding presidents moved into the mansion. An earthquake destroyed much of the palace in 1842.
Luna and I departed Port au Prince on February 29 to return to a world that seemed far removed from Haiti, even though it’s just a 90 minute plane ride from Miami. Throughout my 11 day journey, I was trying very hard to understand how Haiti can be so different from other countries in the Americas that gained independence from their colonizers. There had to be answers for all of the ills that seemed to plague Haitian society: pervasive unemployment, illiteracy, nonexistent public services, unsanitary conditions, widespread crime and endemic corruption. But it was hard to find an explanation that could even partially answer the question as to what events shaped Haiti into the country it is today. Some say that Haiti is a country without roots, it has a history of violence, or that it has been the victim of interfering governments. Each of these statements is true, but how can Haitians chart their own course for the future when they cannot free themselves of the past 200 years?
It’s easy to wonder about what is actually getting done in Haiti. On the surface, it may not seem as if anything improves and that the Haitian people are ungrateful for the assistance that is pouring into the country. But when you stop to visit the schools, clinics, orphanages and churches, you can find change happening through the sisters and the leadership they provide for their students, patients and surrounding community. It is hard to imagine what life would be like for the average Haitian if there were no sisters teaching, administering medicine, providing counsel or offering food and a place of safety.
Although I still do not understand Haiti, I do know that Haiti’s future could not improve without the hundreds of sisters working there. The sisters reiterated how appreciative they are of the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters as a source of funding to continue their service to the poor. Meeting the sisters in Haiti has made me more committed to my job and to the legacy Conrad N. Hilton had for supporting sisters and their missionary projects because “[it is] the Sisters, who devote their love and life’s work for the good of mankind.” Hilton’s observation is completely real and exists in Haiti.
It is difficult to describe the poverty in Haiti. Some places, such as Port-au-Prince, seem more poverty-stricken compared to other areas because of the density of the population. Although we were told that the capital city had been cleaned up since the earthquake, trash and debris still filled the streets everywhere. There are no garbage trucks to collect the trash and, in the midst of all the filth, thousands of families still live in tents with no access to clean water. According to Barbara Wander, a high percentage of the educated population—university students and professors—died during the earthquake. A report from the Ministry of Education estimated that half of the nation’s schools were severely damaged or destroyed, including three main universities in Port-au-Prince. It will take several years before the schools can be completely rebuilt.
In spite of these overwhelming circumstances, I find the country and the people beautiful and full of hope. The people are very resilient and resourceful after learning to survive through years of natural disasters, political corruption and economic instability with little food and material wealth. It would take much more to dampen the faith of the Haitians who are about 85% Catholic and go to daily Mass wearing their Sunday best. The people in general are sweet-natured, friendly and humble, untouched by the superficial, materialistic values of the world.
Aside from the many obstacles and challenges facing Haiti, I believe organizations such as the Hilton Fund for Sisters can and do make a big difference in the lives of many Haitians. One thing we can be sure of is that the money is put to good use. Collaboration with the sisters is essential, as the sisters in each mission field know what is best for the people they serve.