If you follow my Instagram – which is about to get super boring again – you may have seen the bed I’ve been sleeping on for the past few nights. I’m sitting on it right now as I type this. The mattress is 24 inches wide, 4 inches thick, and not quite long enough for me (I’m 5’7”). I was given one pillow and one sheet. I was able to get another sheet because it gets so cold here at night that despite 4 layers on top, 2 pairs of socks, polar fleece pants, and a wool hat I’m still cold.
When it comes to water, we follow the old rule “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down.” We’re in the mountains, so all the water is carried up to us. Our water tank empties from time to time. Today we spent the afternoon at the beach where many – including me – got their first shower of the trip. I could only stand to wash my hair – even at the resort the water was not heated and came out in a trickle.
Teeth are brushed with bottled water. The electricity gets turned off when we’re all in bed. Soap and towels are brought in by the participants from their homes. Resources here are scarce. But everything that I’ve described represents a situation that is better than a lot of people have here. For many, they must steal their electricity because it’s too expensive to keep the lights on at night. They have to carry their water on their heads up the mountain roads to their homes. Our first night we had a delicious dinner of chicken and rice prepared the traditional Creole way – with a well spiced red sauce. The chicken was lean and on the bone. But it was Haitian chicken – more expensive than the fat Dominican or Miami chicken, but it’s the best so the women in the kitchen used only the best for us.
That’s the way we’re treated here, with a lot grace and too much thanks. This morning we spent a few hours at a tiny school in the mountains. It’s run by a woman named Madame Claudette, in a small enclave carved into a hill. She thanked us for visiting the “hole.” The name of the school is “SOKAMA” coming from the Haitian words for Solidarity, Home, and Godmother. This school that serves just over twenty students of all ages, is what an American would consider “outside,” but when their corrugated tin roof was finished the children were so excited that Claudette gave up on trying to get them to focus on their lessons that day. The main room is missing one wall, meaning the space is open to see the rolling hills and Port au Prince below. They have two other dark rooms, but most of the work is done out there, outside.
When we brought the kids jump ropes, jacks, and bouncy balls, they were so excited that these impeccably behaved children couldn’t sit still. The girls lined up to get their nails painted. The boys hoarded bubbles and off brand Nerf balls. Two children were so excited they lost control of their bladders.
Their new roof cost only $250. That’s five dollars over the MSRP for Yeezy 2s. Soles4Souls presented Claudette with money today – more than the cost of the roof, but less than my rent in Brooklyn. Claudette has books, but she needs more. She has enough chairs for the kids to sit in during lessons, but not enough for them to sit at the tables to do their work – they stand around them instead. When she picks up the kids their parents ask her to keep them, and they’re serious – they cannot provide for them, or they can’t handle the strain.
Mme Claudette’s uniform for the kids is simple: a yellow shirt or blouse paired with a black dress/skirt or pants. When we came to see them, those that had uniforms were dressed in them. Those that didn’t have them approximated them – yellow teeshirts, some even green. They had taken time out of their Christmas vacation to prepare a presentation of songs, displays of color knowledge, even a skit wherein the kids conjugated verbs. We are a small group and they are a small school, but it was important for them to share this with us. When we started to leave Claudette asked us to wait and ran into a dark room. She came out with her beaming smile holding 25 straw hats having been painted with “HAPPY NEW YEAR.” She put them on each of us as her children sang to us.
I don’t know what the hats or paint cost her, but I know in a place where there’s nothing to spare it was more than just a gesture of generosity. It was a gesture of hope, of kindness, and out of joy. It was a gesture of thanks. Not because we gave her things – Claudette didn’t even believe our leader when she told us we were visiting. She made the hats before she knew she was getting a monetary gift. She is proud of the work she’s done and of the work she’s doing. And she’s thankful for the attention paid to that work, even if it doesn’t result in dividends. Sometimes when you have to create something on your own, when it seems too much to bear, just hearing “I see you” can be the most beautiful thing in the world. And make continuing possible.
We see her, and we see her work.