“You don’t know Haiti until you’ve seen it, smelled it, and touched it.” These were the words spoken to our mission team the night before embarking on a girls’ trip to “the unknown” with Food for the Poor in November 2016.
With these daunting words looming over our heads, it was difficult to fathom exactly what we would encounter in Haiti over the next few days.
Soon enough we would find out.
Sensory overload began on our descent upon the beautiful country of Haiti — full of majestic, yet barren mountains (a deforestation that was the result of the Haitian need for building materials and cooking fuel). The crystal blue color of the surrounding waters was mesmerizing. Our first impression of Haiti from the sky was one of beauty. How bad could it be by land?
As we dodged men who were eager to help us with our bags upon landing, we boarded our bus that would become our sole mode of transportation for the next three days.
And there we were – seven women, two food for the poor leaders, three security guards, and one bus driver. Our mission was about to begin.
As we left the gates of the airport, where we had just been serenaded by a jovial Haitian man playing “The Star Spangled Banner” on his trumpet, our anxious chatter subsided as we began to breathe in and witness the truth that lay before us.
What we saw
Garbage enveloped every square inch of earth. An innumerable amount of people walked about, crossing streets as if they were in a hurry to be punctual for a very important meeting they would never attend – all the while accomplishing the amazing feat of balancing baskets full of fruit, water, medicine and other goods on their heads.
Our first stop – Marie Clarac, a school that had been rebuilt by Food for the Poor after the 2010 earthquake, opened our eyes to the importance of education in Haiti.
While classrooms were packed with up to 54 students in the heat, children did not care. Education was priceless to them, and school was a place to learn and to feel empowered by knowledge. School was a safe-haven during the day, for at the end of the day, they would return to the extreme poverty that awaited them at home. Walking miles to school each day was nothing.
As we entered the kitchen at the Food for the Poor headquarters on our next stop, we saw mass amounts of rice being cooked and served as women, men and children lined up for miles to get their small buckets filled with white rice and a drink of fresh water from the outdoor faucets. This food was the only meal that a family would eat daily after walking for miles to receive it.
One person would receive the rice and then have to hide it in a bag in fear of having it taken from them on their way home. They would finally make it home, eat, sleep, and then that child’s or wife’s or husband’s job to get the food for the family would start all over again in the same way each day.
A single grain of rice was precious to these people. And as I served each person their allotted portion for the day, I felt guilt when a stray grain of rice would not make its way into the miniature bucket that would have fed so many hungry bellies waiting for it at home.
In one woman’s home, she took care of children who could not take care of themselves. We stared into the eyes of physically and mentally challenged children – eyes that told us they could hear us and knew we were there, but they couldn’t speak or respond in any way.
We saw villages like Ca Ira where families of six lived cramped like sardines in lean-tos. And we heard stories about how when the rain fell and the seas rose, they would have to stand all night and hold their babies above water so that they didn’t drown.
And just by coincidence we saw Haiti at night, a time of day that made the country look even more like a war-torn city; without electricity and fire pits ablaze, a strange traffic jam of vehicles made their way to who knows where.
One morning, when we got a flat tire in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, we hopped into a “tap tap” – an ornately decorated pick-up truck which serves as a shared taxi system – in order to get to our destination at Food for the Poor’s headquarters. Our “tap tap” ride was an adventure in itself, leaving a lasting hilarious memory in our minds.
But it wasn’t until we stepped into the “tap tap,” with the open air blowing by us, that we smelled Haiti for the first time.
The pollution due to the constant burning of charcoal or small pieces of wood filled my nostrils, causing me to stifle a cough. And the smell of cooked meat, goat, maybe, wafted by as we swerved in and out of traffic.
It wasn’t until our visit to Alpha Village in Gressier, Ouest, Haiti, that we experienced sensory overload.
As we stepped off the bus, excited to meet the people of this village, a strong smell of sewage and garbage enveloped our lungs, triggering a gag reflex for some of the women on our team.
Haitian families initially set up homes in this area, which exists next to a garbage dump, so that they could sift through the garbage in hopes of finding items that could be used or sold as a source of income.
A touching welcome
We quickly forgot about the smell in Alpha, when children whom we had never met, ran to us with smiles on their faces and took us by the hand, excited to lead us through their village.
While women strategically placed rocks on the ground so that we did not have to step in the sludge, we were taken to a few “homes” to see where they lived.
And at that moment, while our hands were held by children, our hearts were touched as mothers explained that their family of six lived under ripped tents, where heat and flies swarmed the interior. In this home, sitting by the sea, mothers explained how the seas would rise during a storm and the tent barely protected them from the pelting rain.
My heart continued to be touched as we spoke to the men and women of Haiti who said that they knew God cared for them and that he would provide them with a better life soon. My heart was touched because I had never witnessed a faith like this before, a faith that could move mountains, in the midst of having nothing.
The children had faith too – not just in this village, but all over Haiti. And they wore smiles on their faces. They were happy and grateful for what very little they had.
On my second trip to Haiti with my husband in August 2016, I had an opportunity to speak to the people of Alpha Village. I looked into the eyes of the men and women and told them that they could no longer live in these horrific conditions. And I would not rest until every single family was living in a solid home with four walls.
I could promise this because I have seen with my own eyes what Food for the Poor has done to transform the lives of the poor in Haiti and throughout the Caribbean.
Food for the Poor has transformed villages of tents into villages of solid homes. I have seen them create fishing villages so that families have fish to eat and sell as a source of income. I have seen them teach villagers the importance of leadership and how to successfully run a peaceful village.
I have seen Haiti. I have smelled Haiti. And I have touched Haiti. But most importantly, Haiti has touched me. I have looked into the eyes of the poor. I have held their hands. And I have cried with them.
I have felt called by God to fulfill a mission to help the poorest of the poor. And there’s no turning back.
Visit Chrissie’s Champion’s page with Food for the Poor to see how you can help her build homes for the people of Alpha Village: foodforthepoor.org/chrissie
Chrissie is a freelance writer and the mother of three boys. She is also a middle school writing teacher at Rosarian Academy in West Palm Beach. Follow her on twitter @gatorchriz1