Willingness | Uncertainty | Color | Vibrancy
I volunteered with the Clermont Foundation, for about a year before deciding to take my first trip to Haiti. I had begun advising the Maryland-based nonprofit on growth strategies, and as we worked through the logistics and figured out the programming needs for an expanded orphanage, I knew I needed to get down there to experience Haiti myself.
Mrs. Renee Clermont started the organization in the late 90's after the death of her husband in a car crash. She wanted to continue the Haitian doctor's legacy of giving back to his childhood home of Jacmel, a small town on the Southern coast of the island, so she opened a center for homeless youth in his memory. I wanted to meet the children I had been learning so much about to really understand their needs from their perspective. I also felt a compelling desire to help and a sense of connection because of my own story. I still remember vividly my experience growing up in Trinidad in the ‘80s, studying by candlelight or by kerosene lamp when there was no power. I remember fetching buckets of water for my younger sister and I to have our baths before school and how cold that water could be in those dark, dewy, pre-dawn hours. I saw a bit of myself in the boys, and knew that if I could make it, that with some help, so could they.
Now by no stretch of the imagination am I implying that my experience in Trinidad is directly transferable to Haiti. For starters, Haiti's population is 10 times bigger, with far more widespread poverty, no real middle class, and a history and culture too complex for any outsider to fully grasp. Add to that mixture the fact that Trinidad’s primary language is English and the fact that I spoke no Kreyol at the time, and you can begin to understand why boarding my first flight to Port-Au-Prince (PAP), I was humbled by and respectful of the intricacies of all that Haiti represents. I had to acknowledge that, in order to share what I had learned as a design professional, there was much I needed to learn from Haiti first.
People in the U.S. responded differently to the news of my trip. Some were interested in helping and learning more. Some looked genuinely relieved that someone was doing something about Haiti, and while they congratulated me for taking initiative, they would also say that they could never do it themselves. Others asked, “Why Haiti?” and inquired about my mental health. But who could blame people for their uncertainty about Haiti?! Our media rarely depicts the positive aspects of country, and with that as a sole reference, it's easy to see why people might imagine a bleak, starved, dusty, hurricane drenched, wind ravaged, war zone.
As the captain announced our final descent and the plane parted the clouds above Northern Haiti, looking out the window you could see the strikingly bare, almost muscular formations of the mountain tops. These gave way to pixelated clusters of blue and white relief tents in the lowlands and the pinks, greens, blues, lilacs, and greys of the bidonvilles (Haitian shantytowns) that dot the hillsides near the city. What a visually enchanting country! I couldn't wait to get my feet on its soil.
PAP was and is a sensory explosion. Street vendors seemed to occupy every square meter of sidewalk; their colorful wares on display. You could buy anything there from fruits, to food, to furniture, right there on the side of the road. Artists covered the walls and sidewalks with yards of vibrantly painted canvas. Even the Tap-Taps (local Haitian buses) were covered in murals that spoke of espoir et pasyans, hope and patience en Kreyol. The art spoke to the resilience of the people. Traffic whizzed by with entire families piled onto tiny Motos (motorcycle taxis) zipping between the gridlocked cars. There weren't many working traffic lights, so people used their horns... A LOT. There was also the smell of grilling meat on some streets and the thick, black, choking smoke of burning garbage on others. Vendors reached right into your car window with their goods, jostling and competing for your attention in an effort to make the sale.
I feel the vibrancy. I'm beginning to see the revolutions and uprisings. I now have twice as many questions for Mrs. Clermont and the boys but first, some Prestige.