Sharing space at the guesthouse in Port-au-Prince creates its own commentary on points of perspective. At 66-years old, I am the oldest of the group by a significant margin. Of course, the very word ‘significant,’ like the word ‘time’ is relative. As Tobit observes in Tobit and the Hoodoo Man (2012), “A long time to one man may be a short time to another. A year is a long time for a man in bondage, but the blink of an eye to the man who enslaves him.”
And so, I marvel at the words and body language of those around me, not only the men and women with whom I share this guesthouse, but also at what I see in the eyes of the Haitians in whose land I am but a humble guest. There is a ‘significant’ difference among them as well, a notable distinction in the demeanor of those who are fortunate to be staff members of Tony Sanneh’s Haitian Initiative, and those not so fortunate who line the narrow ways of Cite Soleil. Gratitude graces the eyes of many, but as often, suspicion, even anger. I hesitate to look into those judgmental eyes, but I do.
If there is a North Star in Cite Soleil, it belongs to the children. While I might consider the conditions in which they live despicable, even horrific, the children find reason to smile and be happy. This attitude is not limited to the 320 who come each day to play soccer at HI, and it flows like fresh spring water from the children who swarm the dirty streets of Cite Soleil. Every child I have encountered – and after three days, I am sure that number is in the thousands – is happy. There are occasional tears from skinned or bruised knee, but no tears shed to draw attention to their inescapable lot in life, which brings joy to them. The children are proof that – as Father Michael tells Bronek in The Hamsa (2010), “There is a light in the heart of darkness.”
The attitude of joy was never as obvious as when we approached the city’s decrepit – from my perspective, but not from theirs – fishing dock. Large groups of children swam happily – and many naked – in water made cloudy by the untreated sewage that ran through the streets. My grandchildren flee from the pristine water of my swimming pool at the sight of a bug. These children are not distressed by a dirty swine as he roots about a rotting fish covered with flies that they might pass as they run unclothed into the water to escape the heavy, humid and still air that hangs over the slum refusing to disperse the unpleasant odors – to my senses, but not unpleasant to theirs.
I felt shame as I strolled through the streets lined with garbage and sewage. I felt shame every time a Haitian man or woman who squatted in front of his hovel made eye contact with me, a shame that humankind allows such disparate condition to exist.
I have listened many times as well-intentioned preachers tell us not to turn our eyes from the homeless man who stands with his cardboard sign at the intersection of well-traveled roads in our cities. We nod agreement in the comfort of our churches and meeting places, yet most of us forget the pastor’s plea as soon as we walk out the door. In 66 years, I have never seen a more holy place than Cite Soleil. Perhaps Mother Teresa would have said the same thing about Calcutta ….
I sit here in the comfort of this beautiful guesthouse knowing that in an hour, I will be back on the street fighting jammed traffic to return to Cite Soleil. As I ponder my place in the world, I do know this. While I may not solve the political, social and economic issues in Haiti during my lifetime … while homelessness will exist everywhere in the world as I live and breathe … I will never … I WILL NEVER waste another morsel of food or drop of water, and I will be grateful for what I have regardless of how ‘significant’ that may be perceived by kings or by paupers. That is the only way I can move forward with an unburdened conscience after what I have experienced in Cite Soleil. If the children in Haiti can smile and be grateful for what they have – as little as it is by my standards – I can be grateful for what I have and commit myself to share it with those who have less.
Prior to this trip, I told myself I would not ‘feel sorry’ for anyone here, particularly the children. I do not. Their smiling faces prevent that. That does not, however preclude me from feeling shame, even anger at the condition of the world and the apathy with which humankind perceives members of its own race.