Ten days ago I arrived in Haiti to take up a teaching position at a school called Hope House. I wasn’t sure whether to expect a tropical paradise or a country on its knees, still struggling to come to terms with the succession of disasters that struck so violently only a few years ago. My first impressions are, perhaps not surprisingly, a mixture of the two but undoubtedly there is indeed hope.
I am staying with the family of Pierre-Richard and Yvrose Telfort. Together they bring up around 30 kids, most fostered, a few adopted, and all with their own story to tell of how they came to live here. Some of their experiences are too upsetting to write here but the atmosphere in the house is amazing. There is laughter, there are games, there is singing and there is love.
We are lucky here in that there are regular meals, fresh water, sanitation and even electricity for parts of the day. The water comes from a well in the courtyard outside the main house. Courtesy of a lever which they boys enjoy taking turns on, it pumps up water from 30metres down. Apparently the American engineers who installed it were surprised at the purity of the water coming up, and it’s cold too which is a blessing in a climate where the mercury stays above 30 for most of the day. Meanwhile, the electricity supply powers a few lights (supplemented by solar power), a couple of fridge and even a TV and DVD so we could sit around and watch Spiderman the other night. Cooking is achieved on a gas stove and only this morning I saw an empty cannister, almost as tall as a grown man, being lifted into the back of Pierre-Richard’s 4×4, presumably to be exchanged in Port-au-Prince. Finally, there is a 3G signal which means mobile phones and Wi-fi, albeit a little patchy. In Fond-Parisien, the local town, where there are no landlines or even a postal service, and a trip into Port-au-Prince and back can end up taking most of the day, this is a lifeline.
Fond-Parisien is a beautiful place too. The balcony of the house looks over a large lake, fringed by palm trees, rows of rugged hills stretching into the hinterland, higher ridges appearing through the haze from far off. Each morning we wake at dawn as golden light causes the water shimmer and the hills glow, while long wisps of cloud ride between the ridges like Chinese dragons. But it is not all so idyllic. In truth, the lake is salty and populated by crocodiles. The palm trees soon give way to an endless landscape of scrub, covered with thorny bushes and cacti. Rocks lie everywhere and the land is covered in dust which whips up in the midday breeze (a very refreshing local weather pattern that is I suppose is due to our proximity to the lake) and sticks in the eyes).
Most strikingly, there are so few trees. Apparently chopped down for fuel over a period of decades, they were superceded by coffee and sugar cane plantations which gradually extracted all nutrients from the ground and so it comes to this. I remember studying this at Secondary school but it is still hard to accept when you see it for yourself. Denuded and depleted, the land is taking its time to recover. Rain seems to be irregular here, even in the rainy season, and when it does come it pours so hard the top soil is washed away.
Life carries on however. As we drive along the main highway which connects Fond Parisien to Port au Prince in the east, I get to see all of Haitian life from the window and it’s clear that not all families are as fortunate as us. Many live in simple huts of one or two rooms with tin rooves and no electricity or sanitation. Along the streets of the capital however you get a sense that Haiti is picking itself up and wanting to make a better life. Small barber shops and food stalls jostle for space with private schools, brick merchants and welders. Men walk up and down lines of traffic selling drinks or phone credit. There are a pair of guys near the airport who seem to have cornered the Haitian supply of paddling pools and TV aerials. As they stand under the baking sun breathing in the fumes of battered lorries and colourful tak-taks, with rubber rings slung over their shoulders and metal antennae held low to the ground, I wonder how much trade they do on an average day. Nonetheless, business in Port-au-Prince appears to be brisk. You see it in the way people walk that there is a sense of purpose and a belief that the future might be chaotic but it can be better too.
Back at Pierre-Richard and Yvrose’s place, which I now call home, there is peace. At least once the children have gone to bed and we can sit on the patio and reflect on the day. Yvrose has many interesting stories to tell and I look forward to learning more about her life. We have started work at the school and it’s clear we have very similar ideals and a sense of what needs to be done here. But more of that another time. School does not begin until next week and for now I can still enjoy spending time with the children at home. The loom bands were a great success, as was the Frisbee, although boys being boys, as long as they have a football or a basketball to play with, they are happy. The girls do perhaps more of the domestic chores around the house while the older boys are employed doing the manual labour of which there is much to do. Yvrose has a vision for what this place can become and has trained her older boys to a level where they can build classrooms for the kids and small bungalows for the missionaries who visit. It is a real team effort, and it gives the family a sense of unity.
Each morning and evening, we come together to sing and pray. It all takes place in Haitian Creole, or Kreyol, though I can at least read in English when Yvrose or Pierre Richard picks out a passage from the Bible for us to study. In fact, listening to the family sing Haitian hymns Is really uplifting and I can make out the odd word given the language’s connections to French. I hope to get better at this, and in Gilbert, one of Yvrose’s eldest sons, I have a conversation partner to practise my mistakes on.
So school starts on Monday, and when I left the house this morning the children were busy trying on school shoes, donated by supporters of the charity. I have had a gentle introduction to life in Haiti so far, let’s see what happens when the bell rings and it’s time to start learning…