Journey to Haiti
After a couple of hectic days, putting things together and getting set for the long awaited journey to Haiti, it was time to go. Theresia and I got on the plane on Monday May 17th to finally begin the journey. We breathed a sigh of relief when the plane actually left Nairobi for Amsterdam. The reason being that we had survived a minor scare at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, Nairobi.
When checking on our passports, an officer raised an alarm that we could not pass via Princess Juliana airport, St. Marten, without Theresia needing a visa. We were kept aside for at least 40minutes for some scrutiny and map reading by the officers before finally being allowed to proceed with the check-in. It was also a somewhat funny experience because some of the officers, who said Theresia by virtue of her Indonesian nationality needed a visa at St. Marten, did not actually know where St. Marten was. Thus much of our time was spent watching them keeping themselves busy meticulously looking up the exact location of St. Marten on the world map!
The journey to Amsterdam was good and peaceful. I had some sleep since fatigue was catching up with me. After a couple of minutes at Amsterdam, we were on the plane again on our way to St. Marten. Princess Juliana airport, St. Marten is a lovely, petit international airport.
According to our tickets, we had to spend the night in St. Marten before proceeding to Haiti. Theresia and I had a trivial dilemma to deal with. We did not know if we would spend the night at the airport or be asked to go out of the airport for the night. Before knowing our fate in St. Marten, we had a torrid time dealing with a very stern but professional officer at the airport. We responded humbly and calmly to a myriad of questions. Another stale moment at the airport came when we were asked to present an official letter of invitation to Haiti. Theresia and I had duly forgotten to print out the letter of invitation from Fr. Scott. We were instructed to print out the letter although there was no trace of a public or commercialized printer around the airport.
Well, after the night in St. Marten we started dreaming of life in Haiti. A short and anxious flight we had of it from St. Marten to Port au Prince. Upon our arrival at the airport Brigit, a member of another NGO (LandsAid), was there to receive us. A couple of months ago Haiti was the top story on every news channel. No need to recount the ordeal of the unfortunate earthquake that extinguished close to half a million lives and property in this one of the world’s poorest countries. From the airport, Brigit took us straight to St. Damien for a cluster meeting. In attendance were predominantly representatives of the seemingly close to 600 NGOs in Haiti, according to some sources.
The topics centred on mobile clinics, wheel chairs for those who underwent amputations of various kinds among others. The meeting gave me a feel of the situation in Haiti as most of the doctors and psychotherapists deliberated on the best methodologies to be used and improved in offering humanitarian assistance to the Haitians.
I spent my first week with the mobile clinic of LandsAid in the area of Cazeau, Port au Prince. The mobile clinic consists of a doctor, a nurse, a pharmacist and some Haitians who serve as translators, drivers, as well as an assistant doctor. The head of the team asked me to assist in the pharmacy. For most of the days, I helped out in the counting and distribution of tablets. Working in the pharmacy is not a new experience from me. During my school days in Cameroon, I often offered a helping hand to my mother since she runs a small pharmacy up to this day. The names of the tablets are not unfamiliar to me. Occasionally, I served as some sort of translator in the pharmacy because the two Haitian ladies who work in the pharmacy do not speak English. Since I do speak some French (not very good French), my services as a translator were sometimes needed because the doctor from Germany, Rose Marie, did not speak French or Creole. She needed me to sometimes do the translations for her when she had to talk to the Haitian pharmacists. For most of the week, my place was in the pharmacy and I was sometimes called upon to assist in any area within the clinic when the need arose. I loved the coordination of the team as a whole. I also appreciated the fact that although in a very petit way, I was making a contribution to the sad cause of many Haitians.
I found the Haitian colleagues a wonderful group of youngsters whose reliability and trustworthiness I very much cherish. Being a very strong extrovert at least as some people say, it took me a very short time to have acquaintances among the Haitians. The week ended on a very positive note, and I remained content working in the pharmacy of the mobile clinic. The teachings and writings of Sts. Therese of the Child Jesus and Mother Theresa of Calcutta on the ‘Little Way’ repeatedly resonate in my mind that the little things people do could be important and make a great impact in the lives of people.
I spent most of my second week in Haiti with the mobile clinic of LandsAid to Cazeau. During this week, my place was still at the pharmacy during which I assisted in counting out the tablets, doing some translations and helping out whenever my help was needed. I still found pleasure and satisfaction in the little things like counting out tablets. During this week, there were also a change in the personnel of the team. Two of the LandsAid members from Germany returned home after a month of service, in line with their contracts. They were immediately replaced by a doctor and a pharmacist from Germany. Indeed, as usual, it was a sad experience to see them leave but life had to continue.
Going to the mobile clinic always brought some satisfaction for me. It was always a nice experience for me to see that the people were being helped through the clinic. Indeed, during a petit send-off party, the members of the mobile clinic had the chance to utter a few words of encomiums and appreciation to our two German who were leaving the team. The words of one of the translators for LandsAid touched me greatly. Among others, he said ‘on behalf of the people in Cazeau and Haiti, I want to thank you – John – for the services you offer to us via the mobile clinic. You may not understand what this means to us but the assistance is magnanimous’. It is not a strange fact that there are some challenges living with the members of another NGO (LandsAid). It is also a challenge for members of two NGOs living in the same house, sharing cost on certain things and living as though all from one organization – although the reality is different.
Sometimes I didn’t know where my rights and responsibility as a member of the SOS Doctors team in Haiti ended and what I could touch and where I could not trespass. Well those challenges are inevitable in a seemingly international environment and are short-lived. In Cazeau, I sometimes have the feeling that some of our Haitian colleagues are not very polite to some of our patients and taking into consideration my African roots and culture, which holds as one of its cardinal virtues, ‘respect for the elderly or senior citizens’, I do not always cherish insolence especially towards the elderly. There is an African proverb that ‘what an elder can see while seating, a young person cannot see even while at the summit of a mountain’. I sometimes discuss with them about respect for the elderly and once I quoted from Paul’s letter to the Colossians that if the young want to lead a long life, they must respect the elders. One of them was very touched by that.
Yes, things are changing. What a pleasure and satisfaction for me to be in Haiti and offering just a helping hand to the people who suffered so much from the earthquake.
Tempus fugit, ‘time flies’ , as the old Latin expression goes. Three weeks in Haiti already. During my third week in Haiti, I spent most of the time with the team of LandsAid. Theresia had traveled to Jeremy, which I heard is quite a long distance from Port-au Prince. According to what she told me, she had gone to have a look at certain projects around that area, which may help inform the decisions of the SOS Doctors long term plans in Haiti. During that week, I also got the chance to meet Fr. Scott in person. Theresia often talks about him and I was looking forward to meeting him. I had the chance to talk to Fr. Scott about my background and to let him have an idea of who I am and where I come from. I did not have a full week with the mobile clinic as I had other things to do with Fr. Scott.
I missed working in the mobile clinic though. It was also a nice experience for me to know that the members of the medical team actually appreciate my presence and work with the team. I did receive phone calls from some and one of them inter alia said ‘John I had to repeatedly had to consult my dictionary before asking a question because you were not there to do the translations for me’. Well the important thing for me is that the people in Cazeau and Haiti as a whole are being offered some health assistance. I really like working with the team and I very much love the team spirit.
The team leader, Dr. Lucy, is a wonderful person and really devoted to her work. She has the people in Haiti at heart and does her work with all happiness and fulfillment. This explains why one of the members among others said ‘I think she is enjoying what she is doing’.
Theresia and Fr. Scott have been busy with unending meetings. According to the updates, they are busy reflecting on the major decisions to be made as far as the mission in Haiti is concerned. I very much appreciate the fact that we almost on daily basis pray the rosary together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. For sure, if the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the laborers labor.
After reflecting on my stay in Haiti, I remain very hopeful that I will have a very fruitful experience in Haiti and that SOS Doctors and the people of Haiti will benefit from my services and my very ephemeral experience in life.