The Tap Tap jostled over the uneven road causing me to reach for the red rubber hand-hold dangling above my head. I peered through the enclosed metal grates that kept our group safe in the back of the truck as we traveled around Haiti.
We were headed today to Cite Soliel, where we would deliver water to the residents of this three square mile slum village built upon a garbage dump. Our family had arrived in Haiti two nights before, a culmination of years of praying and months of planning for a mission trip the five of us could take together. Now we were here, our eyes wide, absorbing what felt like another world.
I had been told Cite Soleil was the poorest place in the Western Hemisphere, yet I couldn’t imagine any standard of living any lower than what I had already observed in the short 36 hours since we landed in Port-Au-Prince.
The initial shock of the last day had not yet worn off. There was trash everywhere, in piles, strewn along gutters, and burning on the side of the road. The smell would wind its way through our open-aired vehicle and then disappear as quickly as it had arrived. There were people everywhere also, sitting in groups in the blazing sun, walking endlessly, selling their wares and stacked four deep atop motorcycles that swerved between traffic. Car horns honked endlessly, the Haiti version of turn signals, and dogs and people and goats wandered through busy streets without hesitation. The city hummed with activity and sound.
And the concrete. It formed endless walls throughout the city and I found myself straining to see behind openings to peek at scenes within. The buildings were cement, the roads another version of hot, solid material, and the homes built from cinder-block. This was the cinder-block and cement that fell on and crushed over 300,000 Haitians in the 2010 earthquake.
Half finished structures created a sense of permanent rubble. The scene formed a dusty, light tan contrast to the yellow bananas and green mangoes splayed out on sidewalk blankets in hopes of catching the eyes of hungry shoppers.
I kept waiting to see the “nicer” area of the city, which never revealed itself. It was like the city had been forgotten by those who might renew some part, any part. The paved roads would suddenly turn into deeply pocketed dirt roads, the writing on buildings long faded from years of heat and sun, the only investment being bars and heavy metal doors to protect what little everyone had.
There was nothing familiar, nothing my American eyes were used to seeing.
Our vehicle bumped down a different road now, following a large truck filled with free clean water for the people of Cite Soleil. This truck was owned by Healing Haiti, the organization leading our trip for the week. Six days a week they deliver free water to the residents of Cite Soleil, where there are no wells or running water. They serve the people of this country with Christ-filled love day in and day out.
The scene now changed slightly. Walls turned into small rusted tin structures that all attached to each other, as if they were locking arms for support. The cars were few, the children barely clothed if at all, and heat and desperation hung thick in the air. We turned down a smaller road, almost as narrow as an alley, lined with more shacks.
Three long blasts burst from the water truck’s horn. I thought it was warning people out of the way, but then realized it was a joyful announcement to the Haitians deep within the village that their water was here. Out of nowhere women and children poured onto the street as our vehicles slowed to a stop. They carried plastic five- gallon buckets, thirsty to be filled.
We had been told to prepare for the swarming. The children instantly surrounded the tap tap, yelling and smiling and reaching out arms. They didn’t want water, they wanted us. We exited the vehicle literally sweeping up children in the process. Most of us had two or three in our arms, which wasn’t difficult since they were so slight of frame. Many were naked or barely clothed. None had shoes.
Some just wanted to be held, and stayed expressionless but content on our arms. Others clamored for our camera, wanting to have their picture taken and then asking in Creole to see themselves in the frame. Huge smiles and squeals of glee at the sight of themselves smiling back at the camera. I wondered when was the last time they had looked in a mirror, if ever.
All around us there was organized chaos. Young women formed a line behind the water truck as the hose poured gallons into the buckets at record speed. When the buckets reached capacity they would deftly lift them onto their heads and turn to walk home. Children crowded around those of us with strange white skin, wanting to touch our hair and not letting go of our hands. We all worked fast, our time needing to be quick to not only make our other stops but for safety.
Cite Soliel is run predominately by gangs. It is how there is any order at all. Guns are prevalent, and tensions between gang members can run high. Violence is a common resident here.
Our four Haitian translators (who reminded me more of body guards) kept watch on the scene. They had insider knowledge of where the gang activity existed and would usher our group into the Tap Tap and out of the area at a moment’s notice if needed. Yet our team of thirteen did not feel nervous. On the contrary, we were overflowing with joy of helping (for this one day) to give love and water to people who desperately needed it.
Sweat trickled down my neck, and the dust stuck to my teeth. The men were noticeably absent–a few hanging out on the fringes. This was women’s work, gathering water. It was the women who carried out household duties, while the men struggled to find any work in general. Haiti has an 80% unemployment rate, and my estimation is the numbers are even higher in Cite Soleil.
Out of nowhere a small girl appeared, possibly ten years old although she looked much younger than her age as all the children did here. She tugged on my shirt and on my Aunt’s shirt, pointing to her bucket sloshing with water and then to the street and somewhere beyond. “Do you want us to carry you water to your home?” We asked pointing also. She nodded and smiled.
We had been told that this might be asked of us, and that we needed to check with the Haitian translators before we left the water truck area to carry water. I asked Brenee, our driver, who stood surveying the scene along a wall with arms crossed.
“Can we walk back into the alleys here?”
“Yes” he responded in a thick Creole accent.
My Aunt Marj and I picked up the handle to the bucket, its weight pressing the metal wire into our palms. All around kids were dragging water, mothers carrying containers with grace and skill, children asking to have buckets lifted on their heads. How could they carry this much weight?
We followed our new little friend, down a main dirt street lined with shacks and people sitting and cooking on the sidewalk. She suddenly turned left between two homes, glancing back to make sure we followed. We wound back between narrow tin walls, water splashing between us. As we went deeper into the slum I looked at Marj, “How far do we go?” She glanced around, “A little farther.”
We had been told to be careful–that it was easy to get lost. I did my best to observe the turns, and just when I felt nervous enough to call it quits, the young girl disappeared into a doorway–her home. She pointed to the exact spot she wanted the bucket–tucked under a thin wire shelf.
I paused to look around. A bed. The wire shelf. Dirt floor. Rusted metal walls.
That was it.
Where were clothes, dishes, food? A place to sit?
What about the stifling heat, holes in the roof, endless dust and dirt?
What happens when the rain comes?
There was so very very little. Not even the bare minimum. But this was her LIFE.
For a moment, time stood still. There was such intimacy being in this family’s one room house, just my Aunt, myself and this young girl. It was a gift I will forever open, being allowed to see how she lived. Her home.
A piece of my heart broke.
Thin arms reaching for my neck snapped me out of my daze. I bent down and this dark skinned, bright smiling little human gave me the biggest, tightest bear hug. We didn’t speak each other’s language, but I have never heard the words “Thank You” so clearly in my heart. She was grateful that we had brought her family water for that day.
She turned to Marj, and with a huge smile gave her a thank you hug also. And then she turned and waved us to follow her out.
I couldn’t speak as I fought back emotion the whole journey back out to the busy street and as I write tears come again to my eyes. This sweet girl, whose life I cannot fathom, was so very thankful for our journey to deliver water to her home. Water! Yet the experience of having my eyes opened to a life so unlike mine brought me waves of gratitude just as deep.
In that instant I understood how poverty and extreme lack can live in beautiful companionship with gratefulness and deep joy.
The water truck and our team appeared as we rounded the last corner. Something inside me had changed in those few minutes, and while I couldn’t explain just what, I knew it was so very good.
The hose eventually ran dry and we were told to return to the Tap Tap. I said goodbyes, gave last hugs and then felt a tug again on my sleeve. It was the girl. I reached out my hand to hold hers and she placed her second hand on top of mine–such a mature gesture for such a young life.
I looked into her eyes and she nodded her head– I think saying thank you one more time.
As we drove away, bouncing along the trash filled road, my heart was so very full, and so very empty at the same time. I didn’t know poverty like this existed. But I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to step into the lives of these strong and surviving people for one day.
And this, combined with several other experiences we shared on this trip has convinced my husband and me that our connection to Haiti will not end when we return home.
There is hope in Haiti and we want to be a part of that.
The next post will be all pictures of Haiti and what we experienced there! I can’t wait to show you.
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