We travelled from Mole-Saint-Nicolas back to Gonaives on Saturday 23rd November. This area of the western coast is low-lying and has suffered many floods and there was some evidence of barren hillsides caused by deforestation as the trees have been cut down to use in the commonly-used charcoal burners. Although so much of the island seems very fertile and farming is widespread the problem of loss of topsoil was becoming more apparent as we headed south toward the urban centres and the mountains appeared gaunt rather than covered in trees and vegetation.
Gonaives is the home-town of our host, Pastor Maula. He had found us some wonderful accommodation in a compound that was like an oasis in a desert – and we would be enjoying a day of rest there on the Monday. The owner was a local woman who had trained in agriculture in Canada and with her architect husband come home to help her people by developing this hotel and garden. They had lost it all twice through the severe floods and were in the process of waiting for finance to rebuild once again! This lady was an inspiration, showing what Haitian people can achieve if they are educated and resourced. She also had a call from her daughter in Paris soon after we arrived, saying she’d seen white people in chains in Cap Haitien on the internet and it must surely be a spoof or a joke? She was able to respond that these same people were now under her roof! It was another place of refreshment for us with a peaceful atmosphere, a pool and good local food. They sold hand-made Haitian jewellery – another great encouragement to see what people are capable of to improve their lot: we all bought many Christmas presents there as an investment in the economy!
Once again this was such a contrast to life on the streets outside in the dust and heat: it is hard to be happily enjoying such comforts, knowing others are hungry and poor not far away. However, that is true of our Western lives all the time and being in places like this actually made it bearable for those of us who are not used to such a lifestyle. Also we were aware we were being looked-after and shown some of the more prosperous side of Haitian life, which is also part of the island’s story. Although we would never get into the centre of Port au Prince in the end we saw tourist magazines about nightclubs and restaurants there – President Martelly himself was previously a famous Haitien musician in what is a very lively music scene – and as we were soon to discover the south of the island, dominated by the mulatto population has a lot more obvious wealth and successful businesses. All this discovery and the adjustments we were having to make was like a journey of conscience going on at the same time as our physical journey! When you are faced with the poverty on a daily basis there has to be some way of finding a response in order to cope with the feelings raised – unless you simply become hardened to it. The message seemed to be that we might not be able to do everything, but we can all do something. This dilemma is beautifully put in an ancient quotation from the Talmud (Jewish writings) which a friend showed me on return home:
“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Our reconciliation walk was our way of doing something – and meeting real Haitien people that I could later give my head-shave money to, knowing they would use it wisely – and so we woke up on Sunday morning anticipating a rather different day with even more personal human contact as not only was a walk planned for the afternoon, but in the morning we were the guests of honour at Pastor Maula’s church. As in many African cultures, Sunday is a very special day in Haiti and we were expected to dress the part for this occasion, so the shorts and tee-shirts were put away in favour of shirts, ties and dresses! On the way to the service we passed this group parading and celebrating the Lord’s Day in their very finest clothes: I cannot imagine how they manage to be so well-turned out all the time with such basic accommodation and laundry facilities!