The mountains of Haiti are spread out before me like a panoramic photograph. A vast landscape of soaring valleys, lush green vegetation and red earth stretch out into infinity. There’s an exquisiteness in the curves and peaks of the mountains. A crystal clear silence fills the windless air and it feels peaceful. In the distance I see narrow plots of farmland and sparse shelters. Exhilarated by the view I snap away at the sight with my Nikon lens as we drive along a rutted track. We’re returning from a school, tucked away on the ridge of a mountainside south of Port-au-Prince. It’s Global Handwashing Day this week and our team are running hygiene promotion activities with school children. Cholera is on the rise due to the recent rains and the numbers of people in our Treatment Unit have risen sharply. In an effort to help prevent the disease spreading, Save the Children have been running local TV and radio ads, providing mobile public handwashing stations and distributing soap.
They say you shouldn’t take photos from the car. I found it hard to resist
We stop at a small town for lunch. It’s situated high up on the mountainside deep in cloud where sun’s rays are weakened. It feels like a film scene where the colour has been de-saturated and everything has turned to grey. The air is cool and moist. The market looks scummy and begrimed. Rubbish is strewn across the road and the market sellers look gloomy and bored. There is no sophisticated architecture here, just plain concrete and drain-marks on the ground from the rains the night before
As I exit the vehicle I see two children thickly covered in soot with sacks of charcoal on their head. They stare at me blankly. Everyone stares at me. To them I’m a “blan” (white man), an anomaly, an alien from another planet. Here, it’s completely acceptable to stare at the “blan” with interest, for as long as you like. I don’t know what their stares mean. Are they just interested? Perhaps they want to talk to me? Groups of men sit idly on the street and shout out to me in Creole. My Haitian co-worker translates. “Look at you, you white privileged asshole” they yell.
Skinny children with mottled hair roam the streets aimlessly. Lose torn shorts and ragged t-shirts hang off their skinny bodies. They approach me looking for money. One boy has his small hands clasped around a case made of scraps of wood nailed together. There are four compartments in the case holding old crinkled empty soft drink bottles. His skin is a powdery black, coated in dirt. His eyes are lonely and empty. He walks alone and sits on a step with his head in his hands. There’s a cruel, hopeless deprivation here where greatest deficit is love.
As we drive down the mountain I gaze out at the view and dream of childhood birthday parties, bath time and swimming lessons. It’s an imaginary tale for children who live in a world where childhood does not exist.
The next day I visit a camp to deliver kits containing soap and other hygiene products. After the earthquake in 2010, 1.5 million people were living in camps. Since then, the number has dropped to around 350,000. Save the children are assisting people to move from camps into neighbourhoods. I see shabby tents of old sheeting situated on the grounds of an old mansion in ruins. Shinny mettle sheeting surrounds the camp as a barrier, glimmering in the sunlight. A group of men and women sit together under the narrow shade of a wall, seemingly with nowhere to go and nothing to do.
I’m guided around the camp and we walk upland past heaps of scattered trash to the latrine area. It’s a space of rough concrete and shabby plywood constructed by the camp inhabitants. There’s no privacy here. Just an open pit with a plank of wood at the back. Human shit is splattered everywhere and the repulsive stench immediately leaves me feeling nauseous. At that moment a feel a pair of tiny hands clasp around my hand tenderly. I look down at a skinny young girl of about 7, shoeless and in filthy clothes. I feel tears prick the corners of my eyes and swallow them away. No child should live here. No human should live like this. She walks me down the hill and around the camp. Stanley, my Haitian co-worker holds up his snapshot camera and takes a photo of us. I venture a half grin. It feels perverse posing for a photo here.
I lie awake that night, nauseous and staring into empty shadows. I picture lonesome children with grimy faces and hear the voices of hecklers yelling at me. Finally, exhaustion pulls me down and all the pictures and sounds fade in a drowned blur.
On Sunday we’re celebrating Global Handwashing Day. We host a festival on the grounds of large school compound. We’ve arranged for children from schools and youth clubs around Port-au-Prince to come. A stage is erected and we have a local rap artist perform about cholera prevention. There’s laughter, clowns, balloons and dancing. The crowd dazzles in matching white t-shirts, luminescent over their dark skin. Pale and drenched in sweat, I look outlandish and ridiculous. I’m the only non-black among hundreds and it generates attention among the children. They accept me and teach me words in Creole. Shy groups of giggling teenage girls ask if I have a girlfriend. The crowd, glistening with sweat, pound and dance on the smooth concrete. A circle forms and there’s a dance off. By the end of the day I’m exhausted from the heat and return home, sun stroked, parched and uplifted.
Dance off, Haitian sytle
On my day off I meet my friends Andy, Angela and Aurelian. Aurelian just joined the staff last week. He’s French and hilarious. We take a car early in the morning, giggling along the way to a beach at La Gonave Bay, about two hours north of Port-au-Prince. It’s down a winding rutted track of feathery plantain, sugarcane and palm trees. I look out at the clear blue ocean and see a fisherman, hoisting a sail made of USAID plastic sheeting.
We lunch on succulent avocado and fried plantain while being tickled by the soft sea breeze. Replete, we strip off and jump into the warm blue ocean and watch the sun descend into the horizon. A hot breeze whips over the waves and the sky turns to a fiery red. Half a mile up the road, children cut sugarcane and run naked in streams filled with sewerage.
As we drive home along the coast road I look out across a barren field that meets the ocean that meets the horizon. I see tiny flames of charcoal oven fires sending hot columns of smoke into the brilliant red sunset. The glowing fires present a haunting apocalyptic beauty as the gloomy dusk falls.
Here, on this island, I see the world through a lens of monochrome extremes: Life and death, beautiful and ugly, joyful and miserable, rich and poor. There’s little in between, switching regularly between the two, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. But out of all of it, there’s a raw humanity stripped bare and it becomes intoxicating.