Friday, September 4, 2009

There is no beginning or end...

Jeff told me something early on my first day in Port-au-Prince that has stuck with me; when it comes to the need for help in Haiti, there is no beginning or end. You just jump in the middle and try to make a difference. I didn’t understand the implications of this statement until our first trip into Cité Soleil.

We boarded the water truck for the first of two runs that day, to bring the only free water into the projects on the backside of Bobby Duval’s soccer fields, where about a hundred kids were practicing and learning life skills (disguised as a soccer camp) by an attentive staff. These kids, I was soon to find out, are very fortunate to have this facility and the opportunity to escape their daily existence.

As we wound our way through the pot marked streets, and still war torn buildings into the main thorough fair my senses were overwhelmed by what I saw, smelled and heard. Nothing in life can prepare you for experiencing this for the first time. The corrugated tin houses built over a flimsy wooden skeleton with roofs held in place by broken cinder blocks sporadically placed over it. The air, thick with the combined stench of raw sewage, garbage, diesel fuel and burning charcoal. (It was 98 degrees that day, with a heat index of 114.) The never ending mounds of garbage that invade everything you see- the streets, the open sewage canals, the doorsteps to a shanty where the barefooted children play, eat and sleep. The eyes of these kids staring at me, some smiling at the “blanc” staring back at them, others shouting “Hey you!” and holding out a tiny, empty hand.

As we drove deeper into the shanties, I was weighed down with the reality of a people struggling just to live beyond today. The make-shift stands in front of their houses selling anything that may be of value, but with little results as no gourdes are to be found in Cité Soleil today or any other day.

As the truck navigated to the narrow cluttered intersection that was our first stop, the bucket line had already formed, easily fifty yards long with others running, buckets in hand to the back as it grew to well over a hundred yards within seconds.

Kids were coming from every direction now, surrounding us, wanting to hold a hand, play a game, sing a song, or to get in the way of the hose as it fills the buckets, getting a moment of relief from the ovens their tin houses become in the summer heat of Haiti.

As the water began to flow the controlled chaos began. People saw the line was too long, and unless they could get in front somehow there would be no water for them today. Most respected the fairness and intention of the line, others kept trying again, and again, and again to get their buckets spirited to the front. I have never known in my life the certainty of life or death residing in the position of a five gallon paint bucket that doubled as the only clean water available to me. My heart hurts for them, but I don’t know how that truly must feel.

As the water tank filled the last bucket, the line still a hundred people deep, we walked with the children through their neighborhood. We ambled through the narrow paths between the shanties, the temperature now 20 to 30 degrees hotter as the sun reflected off the tin, and any breeze was blocked by how tightly compacted the shanties had become. We slowly emerged into what seemed like the back side to Cité Soleil and a narrow path that wound along the side of a drainage canal filled at least ten feet deep with garbage that emptied into the bay a half mile in front of us.

This path led to a vast open expanse that ended at the ocean’s shore. It quickly became apparent why this space had not been built up.

As I looked down, dodging the ever present garbage piles, and navigating the two small children holding my hands through this maze, I saw their bare feet instinctively missing the intermittent human excrement piles we were walking through. We had indeed stumbled into and were walking through their bathroom. As the reality of this hit me, I looked up and immediately saw the children and few adults squatting not a few hundred feet from us.

These children walking with us, bare footed, some naked, all hungry and suffering multiple untreated sicknesses, live in this reality every day of their life, knowing nothing else.

As I fought back the tears, I knew there was no beginning, no end, I just had to jump in the middle and begin to make a difference...

Michael Cohen

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