Humanitarian trip offers lessons of grace
As her classmates bundled up against the polar vortex, freshman Kara Stevens was swallowing malaria pills and being pricked with syringes, her gaze focused on a much more temperate location. These precautions were taken not for a mid-winter vacation, but for a humanitarian trip to Haiti - one of the poorest and most disaster-ravaged nations in the Western hemisphere. From January 18-29, Stevens traveled with Ventures in People, a nonprofit group founded to ‘help Haitians help themselves’ through student education, a 4-H program, and a clean water initiative. Stevens took part in the latter, and explained that humanitarianism runs in her blood.
“My grandma has been going to Haiti for over 30 years with Ventures in People, so we went down there to help people,” she said. “This time we went down to distribute water filtration systems. They come in a bucket with a hose connected to it, and basically it filters all of the germs out of it because they get all their water from this one river. They also wash their clothes, themselves, and use the bathroom in the river.”
Stevens decided to refrain from bathing in the river, noting the lack of public sanitation.
“We were driving around and we saw what looked like a river. But when we drove by again, I saw that it was all garbage,” she said. “They don’t have dumps; there’s just garbage everywhere. When the garbage gets to be too much they just burn it, and you can smell it.”
For her first week, Stevens stayed in the city of Mirebalais, which features a solar-powered hospital built following the 2010 earthquake. She stayed at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, a shelter that gives homeless youth, orphans, and child slaves a home and provides them with an education and safe support group.
“We were lucky because we stayed in places that did have electricity, but it was because we had the money to,” Stevens said. “Most houses don’t have electricity. In Port-au-Prince, the electricity company just shuts down the electricity for the day. So after breakfast until 5:00 at night, the power would go off.”
Free-flowing electricity was not the only first-world convenience Stevens missed.
“If you wanted a hot shower, you had to use a solar bag that you fill with water, put on the porch and let the sun bake it, but it was tiny bits of water at a time,” she said.
The water that did run was not drinkable; safe drinking water is a problem that is ubiquitous in Haiti, and according to Ventures in People, many Haitians rely on rainwater or boiling stream water. But even that is a luxury, as others may have to travel up to five miles in order to gain access to drinking water from a well. Paving a path to fresh and potable drinking water was Stevens’ group’s main objective. They sold the filtration units relatively cheaply, at 100 Haitian Gourdes (about $2.25 USD). Still, even this price presented a bit of an economic burden.
“In this one community, they had the money, but it was all broken up into fives and ones and tens and coins. You could tell they had saved up a lot for this,” she said. “It’s hard to watch because they will do everything to keep even five Gourdes, which is not that much. Every little bit is extremely valuable, and it was heart-wrenching that they have to go to these great lengths just to get something as basic as water. Whereas here, fresh water is everywhere. You take a 30 minute shower and you don’t even think about it.”
Haiti has about 15,800 schools, only 10% of which are public; contributing to the country’s discouraging 53% literacy rate. Rural conditions, a scarcity of qualified teachers and supplies, and the fact that most families cannot afford to send their children to private schools also leads to this tragic figure. Stevens recognized the sharp contrast between American and Haitian education systems.
“They pay for school, so they want to get everything out of it. They don’t have any electricity either,” she said. “There are a ton of kids in really small classrooms, all just crowded together writing.”
The way of life for the average Haitian differs from the one Stevens is accustomed to. Two-fifths of the Haitian economy relies on small subsistence agriculture, which is threatened by the destruction of environment and deforestation. With poverty and economic corruption rampant, exorbitant inflation rates, and unstable infrastructure, the future of Haiti may seem grim. But Stevens argues that pure economic assistance is not the way to bring Haiti out of the depths of poverty - the solution needs to be human-powered.
“People can help others in our global community by just going and educating people about things like hygiene,” she said. “The thing that’s hard about people living in abject poverty is you can’t give them money. That won’t work because they don’t have anything to buy. They can’t just go out and get things to buy a new house because the resources aren’t there.”
Despite the cultural differences and lack of American conveniences, Stevens enjoyed her time. The children that she was able to interact with proved to be her most beloved memory from her brief time outside the comforts of home.
“We went to a lot of schools and [the children] would all come up to us,” she said. “They don’t have mirrors so they’d come up to us and we’d take their pictures. They thought it was so cool. They would freak out about it.”
Affected by the culture shock of assisting in the poverty-ridden country, Stevens reflected on the life lessons she has learned.
“I see now the privilege that I have, and I learned to just be grateful,” she said. “While it seems like the Haitians don’t really have much, they’re really happy people. They’re very honest and kind, and here we have all this stuff and we want more. We’re not nearly as grateful as they are, and I think we could take a lesson in humility from them.”
By: Emma Thompson