On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake with a magnitude of 7.3 struck Haiti. More than 220,000 people were killed and over 300,000 injured. The massive earthquake, the biggest the region had seen in 200 years, left more than 1.5 million people homeless, and resulted in an immense humanitarian crisis. Heather Christie from Clonakilty was part of a team of 13 volunteers working in Haiti for the first two weeks of January with Methodist Missionary Society Ireland. Here she shares her experiences.
On arrival in Haiti’s capital Port au Prince on December 30, my first impressions are of heat, dry air, vibrant colours, streets bustling with people, vendors balancing baskets of wares on their heads — selling anything from vegetables to school equipment. Women squat on the pavements under umbrellas, arranging piles of oranges or other fruit, selling live chickens or cooking whole ones on charcoal braziers precariously balanced on street corners. Taptaps (covered pickup type buses) and moped taxis carrying two or three passengers, horns blowing not to complain but to warn that they were coming ¬– noise and stifling air laden with fumes. Yes, we have arrived in the Caribbean, to the poorest country in the western hemisphere with a winter temperature of 34ºC. Smiling faces warmly greet us, hearts overflowing with kindness – we soon come to realise this is the Haitian way.
Less than 24 hours later we are clearing rubble on a building site by bucket and wheelbarrow, sweat dripping off us. No mechanical help here. No health and safety regulations. Men are working in flip flops or bare feet, their one pair of better shoes (if they own one) are taken off when they arrive at work so that they last longer. No gloves, very few hats and certainly no sun-cream to protect from the searing sun. We are assisting the Haitians at our base, the Methodist Church Complex ‘Freres’, to refurbish chalets that have fallen into disrepair and adapt dormitories by adding bathrooms. Walls demolished by sledges and hammers; septic tanks dug with pick axes; sand sieved to get the finest grains for plastering walls; a flat roof made with concrete measured by ‘wheelbarrow fulls’ and mixed by hand before being carried in buckets up homemade ladders.
During the two weeks we run seven children’s bible clubs, the first two at a home run by the Methodist Church for 15 boys from various parts of Haiti, who are either orphans or severely disadvantaged economically. Delightful boys hug us and wish God’s blessing on our families, our Churches and us. This is so humbling from boys, who are well cared-for, fed and educated only by Haitians standards – standards that we think of as just basic.
The following five clubs are held in churches. The first two are with 80 children, where we play games, do crafts, sing songs, and learn bible memory verses and prayers. The glitter and stickers are new and exciting to the children and are used to decorate not only their craft but their faces as well.
We are challenged not only by the language barrier at the next three clubs (only our leader Rev. Laurence Graham speaks Creole) but also by the numbers. Children keep coming and coming – the largest group has over 240 children. Each one eager to participate, to learn more about God. They come in their Sunday best clothes, the girls with ribbons in their hair. Many at our last club, high up in the beautiful mountains at Furcy, have walked hours along the mountain tracks.
The three nurses on our team assist local doctors and a dentist with pop-up clinics. Again lots of people come and many have walked for hours to get here. As 50 per cent of the population is malnourished, vitamins and mineral supplements are given to every patient, along with worming tablets. Children are measured and weighed. It may be months before some have access to another clinic so these records are vital to check growth rates.
At the clinics, many sick and anxious people come seeking help, often clutching empty bottles of various kinds…washing-up bottles, drinks bottles, even old glass jars. These are for the liquid vitamins, paracetamol or antibiotics if prescribed. Each is charged a nominal amount and is prepared to wait for hours to be seen.
There are many different aliments and Mel, one of the nurses, shares a poignant moment with me, centered on an old lady, obviously blind, who has walked for miles. I kneel beside her, and through the interpreter ask how I can help. She says simply, “Help me see”. Dense cataracts cover her eyes and I gently explain there is nothing I can do; knowing that here in Ireland, minor procedures could have restored her sight. I stroke her cheek and tell her she is precious.
A girl is so determined to get medication that she appears no less than three times, reporting three different illnesses – no doubt hoping the crazy Irish nurse won’t notice! But it is sobering to realise that many of our minor ailments would not be so minor if we lived without basic medications. What a joy to use medicines bought with our fundraising money! Even digital thermometers are so precious; recording a dangerously high fever in a little one who probably has typhoid or a new mum with an infection following a traditional home birth. Thankfully we have medications that will help. I am so thankful to experience nursing in this beautiful land.
…continued next month.