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  • Michael Dunne

Haiti 2017 - The Third Day

Whenever I travel to Haiti, my thoughts turn to the differences between short-term missions (what I referred to as missioneering on the first day) and long-term missions. The main differences are likely obvious to everyone: instead of (relatively) brief exposure to a culture/community, long-term missionaries live in that community, often for years. The fundraising required to sustain a long-term mission is never-ending. Projects undertaken by long-term missionaries can have a much greater scope in many cases, because they are there, day after day, to see them through to fruition.

I neglected to mention in my second day article that we ate dinner with a wonderful family of long-term missionaries at the guest house. Pastor Benis Guerrier and his wife Dominique have served as missionaries in Haiti since early 2007. As we ate and talked, Dominique expressed surprise at some of my questions. Perhaps I was too aggressive – skimming quickly past introductions and normal, polite chit chat – but I am intensely curious regarding mission work in general and Haitian missions in particular. Here at our table were a family of missionaries who had lived on the island of Gonâve for years – and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to try and understand more about what makes an effective mission in Haiti.

Île de la Gonâve, Haiti

Île de la Gonâve sits astride the outlet of Port au Prince Bay north-northwest of the capital. Known by the name Guanabo to the Taíno locals, Gonâve Island is roughly 60 km long and about 15 km wide. Pastor Benis and Dominique are affiliated with International Ministries of Hope. I don’t know a lot about their history or structure, but in talking with these good people, I know they are working hard for the communities they serve on the island. Their vision, as stated on the organization’s website, is simple: “Build churches for spiritual growth; build schools to defeat illiteracy; build vocational schools to liberate from poverty and teach practical skills for self-sustenance.” They have also partnered with a number of other organizations to help bring potable water to the island’s residents.

I don’t know much about Île de la Gonâve apart from the bare facts above. The island is reachable only by boat and, by definition, that makes it harder for them to gain access to electricity, water, etc. If families in Port au Prince and other mainland Haitian communities struggle with these things, how much greater must the struggle be for Gonâve’s residents?

Still, by the end of our meal, I was encouraged. Pastor Benis and Dominique both have master’s degrees in education and they are hard at work teaching children and others in their community. While the focus is on building a solid foundation of primary and secondary education, they also deliver English classes for everyone.

It may seem odd that there is such an emphasis on English in Haiti. Even on our first trip in 2010, if we became stuck for something to hold a group’s attention, we discovered that pulling out the English flash cards was an instant way to gather their focus – Haitians, both young and old, are avid learners and a knowledge of English helps them communicate with visitors as well as their own government bureaucracy.

The staff of those bureaucratic structures primarily speaks French, which is still considered the official language of Haiti. However, the educated class who populate Haiti’s government and business offices also speaks English. Between the government and business classes, and the rest of Haiti, is a great divide. According to its March 2017 education fact sheet, US Aid reports that, “The majority of Haitians still lack access to quality education; a prerequisite for sustained social and economic development.”

US Aid goes on to identify low enrollment, a shortage of qualified teachers, and lack of government oversight as key contributors to the ongoing education needs in Haiti. Perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome? “Nearly half of students finishing second grade [can] not read a single word. Further, only 61 percent of the adult population is literate.”

I don’t have to read the report’s assertion that, “These issues put a generation of Haitian youth at risk of lacking the knowledge and basic skills necessary to succeed in the labor force,” to know that right above food, water and shelter, education is the most dire need for Haiti.

This is one of the reasons I was so encouraged by our conversation with Pastor Benis and Dominique. They (and many, many others) are in the trenches every day teaching and guiding the next generation. There is hope for Haiti and, if anyone reading this is led to contribute, please follow any of the links in this blog series or reach out to me personally via the contact page, and I will be happy to help you connect with those who are working so hard to help Haiti.

We started off our third day with a trip to MSC, Haiti’s version of Home Depot. I had to chuckle while walking up to the door; the orange paint on the building could not help but remind one of that well-known American hardware store. The downside of our visit to MSC is that it’s definitely out of the way in relation to our route to Marianie. The upside is that we drove past the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. Embassy; Port au Prince, Haiti

I’ve already mentioned in this series that I’ve lived and traveled overseas. For most Americans, the sight of an embassy or consulate is like a little reminder of home. The flag flying in front of the building signifies that, at least within the walls of the complex, it is American sovereign territory despite its location in a foreign land. It also put me in mind (again) of 2 Corinthians 5:20. Inside the walls, the Ambassador likely worked at his desk or sat in meetings. Outside, we rode along as ambassadors ourselves – not just for America, but for Christ.

Our words, our behavior and our actions would be judged by those who saw us and/or came into contact with us. It struck me that morning as a heavy responsibility to bear.

Today was probably the worst traffic we faced all week. Our usual route took us past Kwabosal (in French, Croix des Bossales), the old slave market and now the largest market in Port au Prince, and perhaps in all of Haiti. If you’ve never been outside North America, specifically to rural locations in Africa, the Middle East, India and the like, it’s doubtful you’ve ever experienced anything quite like Kwabosal.

Imagine your neighborhood farmer’s market, but no one ever cleans up. Stalks, leaves, rotting fruit and vegetables, boxes, and any other waste are dropped and left to lie. In one section, the butchers work. Dirt, animal waste, blood and more are mixed in with the general detritus. Then it rains. Then the sun comes out and the temperature approaches 100 degrees. Flies and other pests abound. As you ride by, windows open to catch any sort of breeze, with traffic moving at a crawl, exhaust fumes, dust, and the pungent aroma of the market envelope you.

At times, Haiti – and especially Port au Prince and the surrounding communities – strikes me as one huge marketplace. Although it seems like everyone is selling something, that’s not really the case. However, with unemployment ranging from 40% (an optimistic estimate, in my opinion) to 80%, the de rigueur push toward self-employment in America is, in many cases, a necessity here.

Eventually, we broke free of the gridlock somewhere past Carrefour and made our way to the base of the mountain in Marianie. Perhaps due to our lengthy confinement in the vehicle, we made it to the top in about forty minutes. Even so, we didn’t arrive until after noon.

In the ongoing good news, bad news cycle that one seems to encounter in Haiti, we were happy to find that some of the items we purchased that morning at MSC were just the ticket to repair the rain water collection system installed on the house next to the church. The bad news? Thinking ourselves wise, we had purchased a Ryobi 18-volt circular saw in the States and brought it with us. Knowing that we would only need to make a few cuts – predominately splitting the long PVC pipes we had purchased – we did not bring an extra battery. You guessed it: the saw died about a quarter of the way into the first cut. With no way to recharge the battery on site, we resorted to plan B: we hired some locals to cut the pipes by hand.

I refer to our failed technological solution as bad news, but the truth is, working with Haitians from the local community to complete any project is always good news. Plan B gave us a chance to have a positive impact on the community by paying workers to help with the projects. Recently, I read an article that stated, “A new minimum-wage law was passed in the fall of 2012 to ensure workers in the Haitian garment-outsourcing sector would earn 300 gourdes for an eight-hour day.”

The current exchange rate is somewhere in the neighborhood of 62 gourdes to one US dollar. So, earning 300 gourdes for an 8-hour shift means that a garment worker in Haiti would take home about $4.85 each day. I’ve heard that translators at Mission of Hope earn somewhere between $9 and $11 a day, whereas laborers can make as little as $1 to $5 per day, depending on the employer and the situation.

We paid our workers 350 gourdes apiece each day. I can guarantee you that, although that is not much by our western standards, it was a decent wage for them, considering they weren’t laboring away all day without breaks or refreshments – something a lot of laborers in Haiti have to do.

On the way down the mountain, we stopped at two houses and spoke with the families. We provided them with buckets and water filters. Berdy explained how the filtration systems worked, how to clean them and so on. We talked some more, but with the afternoon wearing on, we had to continue our descent. After praying with each family, we made our way back to the truck and headed toward Port au Prince. The return journey only took about an hour even with a few spots of dense traffic here and there.

Berdy and Pastor Pelege walking down the mountain

Our third day in Haiti yielded some progress. Although we did not accomplish nearly as much as we hoped, we had moved forward nonetheless. The time spent sitting in traffic, while frustrating, had given us ample time to consider life on the street in Haiti. We had seen a dwarf embroiled in an argument with local bystanders. Sadly, the onlookers seemed to be having some sport at the smaller man’s expense. We also saw the ever-present vendors, selling just about everything from water (d’lo) to various foods, household goods, clothing and so on. Orphans, laborers, professionals, mothers out shopping, dogs scavenging for scraps, the ever-present lottery booths, Digicel and Natcom reps hawking cellular minutes, huge trucks with strident horns blaring, and much, much more.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is Haitian vodou. There is a vodou temple next door to the guest house. Last year, I recall one night where the drums and singing went on well into the night. This year, it seemed like every night was vodou night next door. I managed to get plenty of sleep, but remember waking up several times during our trip to find the ceremonies still going strong as late as 4 a.m. One of these days, I need to get a closer look at what they are worshiping and singing about.


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