Today marks the end of my first month in Haiti. I still remember arriving in PaP on the 19th of August as if it were yesterday. A lot has happened since my last post...
Back in August, on my first day of work, I sat at my desk and read documents about CNP’s nutrition programs. Currently, CNP’s two main programs are the Outpatient Therapeutic Program also known as the Programme Therapeutique Ambulatoire (PTA), and the Positive Deviance/Hearth Program (PD/Hearth). I love the concept behind PD/Hearth: mothers who have healthy children, help teach other mothers with malnourished children, how to use locally grown foods to bring their children back to good health. The mothers with the healthy children are the “positive deviants”. The program is carried out in the homes of volunteer mothers (the hearth or, in Creole, ti foyer). CNP plans to implement PD/Hearth in all 13 sections of Leogane and we’re currently working on getting the GPS coordinates of every home in 4 of the 13 sections.
I work mainly with the PTA and my work has picked up quite a bit in the last 3 weeks. I literally work under a mango tree in front of CAMEJO (one of the hospitals in town). I leave the house/office around 8am with my PTA co-workers, Meti and Guerleine. Once we reach CAMEJO, we unload a bench, chairs, a table, and dossiers for our patients. My first day at the PTA went very well. I met a mother and her infant who was recovering from a bad case of conjunctivitis. I have seen worse things in science text books, but not in real life and up close. So, I did my best to suppress my sudden squeamishness. At the PTA, we take anthropometric measurements: weight, height, and brachial perimeter. We use these to find the child’s Z score (standard deviations above or below the mean rget weight) and determine whether or not the child is severely malnourished. We had the mother remove her baby’s clothes so that Guerleine and I could get her weight and measure her height. I helped put the baby into a pouch and onto the weighing scale. Then, I held her head in place as Guerleine measured her height. Doing all of this was a great experience for me. I am always reading about these types of things and it’s amazing to get hands-on experience. After that, Guerleine took the child’s temperature and heart rate, among other measurements, to write on the baby’s dossier. We determined her Z score and based on her weight provided her with about 21 bags of Plumpy’nut (a fortified peanut-based paste). It does wonders for the children and it is amazing to see them improve within a week’s time (the mothers come on an assigned day each week).
I am officially the supervisor of the PTA. “Supervisor” is a great title. However, Guerleine and I work side by side and we make an awesome PTA duo. I have learned so much from her and the mothers I encounter on a daily basis. We’ve talked about a variety of things: the Duvaliers, MINUSTAH (the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti – people here don’t like them very much; they brought cholera to Haiti. So, the feeling of distrust make sense…), relationships, food, and many other things. It has helped me improve my Creole and smoothed my transition into life in Haiti. The experience is great for me; I get to work in nutrition and meet and learn from other people.
Guerleine did a great job introducing me to all of the mothers at the PTA and jokingly made it known that I am a blan (it literally means “white” and refers to any white person in all of Haiti, but for me it means “foreigner”). My Creolish was also a dead giveaway… I let them know that I am from États-Unis (United States), but that my parents were born in PaP. Guerleine and the mothers have used this as an opportunity to ask me questions about anything related to the US. The first topic of discussion: condoms. I cannot remember exactly, but the first mother I met was a born-again Christian and she and her partner decided to sleep in separate beds so that they wouldn’t have sex until they got married. I thought that was very admirable. Guerleine asked her if she was sure nothing would happen between her and her boyfriend and the mother laughed a little and said, “Wi (yes)”. That wasn’t so convincing to me. So, I told Guerleine to give her some condoms just in case. Given the health issues in Haiti, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.
I went back into the mountains last week from Monday to Wednesday. We are working on starting up our PD/Hearth programs in the rural communities of Leogane and I wanted to experience what the monitrices (health monitors) do on a daily basis. I ended up in the section known as Citronnier and stayed with 5 monitrices. Three of us stayed inside the first day because the other monitrices were already out mapping houses and they had the one GPS for the entire group. When they returned, we showered, ate dinner, and were in bed by 6pm (the sun goes down at 5:55pm and there’s no electricity). The next day, we left for work around 8am. The monitrices sang and said a prayer before our hike. It was a lovely sight.
The 2-day hike I went on during my first weekend in Haiti was a warm-up compared to the hiking I experienced with the monitrices. We climbed up and down steep trails, walked on extremely narrow paths, and crossed streams more than twice over to map houses. I am not terribly afraid of heights, but at one point I felt like I was doing a tight rope act and starting losing my balance. So, they had to hold my hands as we walked on the slim paths etched into the side of the mountains. I had sneakers and these women put me to shame in their sandals and flip flops! As I walked on, my footing got better, but I’ll be honest, someone held my hand about 70% of the time. Again, better to be safe than sorry…
We mapped about 40+ houses on Tuesday and about 20 houses on Wednesday. At some of the houses, we had to weigh children that weren’t weighed during the monitricies’ first visit. So, I had the chance to help take the weight of some children and talk to the mothers. In addition to getting into the mountains, I came on the trip to supervise their work. The monitrices were extremely thorough with their mapping and very committed to their work. I was so happy to be there helping them. That night, we stayed up a little longer and joked around until we all got tired. My cheeks hurt at the time from laughing so much. It was like a huge slumber party. On Wednesday afternoon, it was time for me to head back into town. They didn’t want me to leave and asked me when I would come back into the mountains. I told them I wasn’t sure yet, but that they would definitely see me again.
The night life here in Haiti is kind of wild – in a good way though. On the first Tuesday, I went out with Michael and Alex to a singing contest in the center of town. The event was scheduled to begin at 8pm and didn’t start until 10pm. It wasn’t all for naught though. We had some drinks and talked about various things related to Haiti: aid, development, the earthquake, President Martelly, etc. It rained on and off as well, which is what probably caused the delay. However, I enjoyed being out of the house and getting a taste of the night life. Many people were out walking, talking, selling food, sitting around, and eating. I loved it. This is Haiti. Nothing stops people from doing what they need to do and carrying on with their lives. It shouldn’t amaze me because I’ve seen this drive in my mother for my entire life, but here, it always amazes me.
Later in the week on Thursday, we went to Masaje, a resto-bar in town. It was salsa night. I heard they’re really strict about shoes so, I had to squeeze into my heels (my feet were still swollen from the 2-day hike the weekend before). I wore shorts and a plain v-neck (I kept it casual because I didn’t know what the attire would be like). They checked my shoes at the door and let me into the restaurant (they don’t mess around). The atmosphere was compelling. The raised thatched roof was high enough to allow me to see the stars. It was just beautiful. However, what really captivated me were the dancing skills of the people there. My jaws dropped, literally. You wouldn’t even know an earthquake had struck the town 20 months ago if you saw what I saw. Everyone was so well dressed and danced like they were professionals. I sat and watched for a long time. I couldn’t take my eyes off of them. The music was great – they played cool remixes of songs like Yesterday by the Beatles and Kiss by Prince. The salsa, bachata, merengue, tango, cha-cha-cha had me moving in my seat and itching to get on the dance floor (to do what? I’m not too sure because I don’t know all of these dances that well). I do know the salsa a little bit though and got up to dance with Michael. I was soon danced off the dance floor by a guy who switched partners in the middle of a turn. He worked at Masaje and apparently, I couldn’t wear shorts. Boo!
I returned to my place as spectator. Then, one of the dancers caught my eye – it was one of our security guards. His footwork was superb and his movements were so effortless. I thought to myself, “I want to dance like that!”. He saw me and asked me to dance. Yay!...We dance for about 2 songs. I thought I was pretty good since I was able to keep up with him: “Hey, I’m pretty good, right?” “…You’re alright”, he said. Thanks… Well, there’s always room for improvement. It turns out, he also gives dancing lessons. I made a little promise to myself to set aside some gourdes, get a lesson or two from him, and to not return to the dance floor until I knew what I was doing. I had the greatest of times though, and soon it was time to go home.
The days go by quickly because there is a lot to do with the PTA and meetings take up a good chunk of time as well. However, the week itself is very long. On Fridays, the past Mondays always seem so far away, kind of like distant houses in a rear view mirror. During the weekend, my coworkers like to head to la plage (the beach). We went to a nearby beach in Grand Goave on Sunday and another beach 4 hours south in Port Salut the following Sunday. The beaches here are gorgeous! I am continuously blown away by the views every time I go. When I am not playing around in the water, I am on my beach towel reading Mountains Beyond Mountains or writing. The beach is so relaxing after a busy work week. It’s also a good place to chat with the locals and meet other expats.
This past weekend we headed back to Grand Goave. I missed the last weekend trip to the beach because I wanted to watch the semifinals and finals of the US Open. I can’t believe Federer lost with two match points and Serena’s top blew off (get it together Serena). However, I’m glad I stayed in because the matches were insanely awesome.
The beach was packed with many expats and locals. Rachel (a new intern) and I met Jimmy. He has been in Haiti for about a year working for Notre Dame's Filariasis Program and IsraAID (an Israeli NGO). He introduced Rachel and me to one of his coworkers and his other friends working with Cordaid (a Dutch NGO), and Architects Without Borders. I love meeting expats when I travel because the stories behind what people do fascinate me and help me learn more about different types of aid and development projects.
Jimmy helped Rachel and me get a ride in a canoe. It was so much fun!! Then all three of us went snorkeling. I’ve never gone snorkeling before (I passed on my first chance when I went to Zanzibar). We explored the coral reefs and I had some scary encounters with two jelly fish. I escaped unscathed, thankfully.
I showered when I got back and was getting ready to watch the Emmys online when Jimmy gave me a call. He invited Rachel and me to dinner at Cordaid’s place. Rachel was up for heading out and we took a mototaxi to their compound. At a picnic table on the roof and with lighting from Christmas lights, we ate a delicious batch of spaghetti with parmesan cheese that Jimmy cooked, and drank some quality white wine, Sauvignon Blanc, and red wine from Chile. For desert we had ice cream!! I am a sucker for cookies n’ cream. So, I enjoyed the treat. I thanked Jimmy for the invite and a great dinner. We were in great company and talked about the constellations, breakthroughs in science pertaining to mosquitoes and dengue fever, surfing on the southern coast of Haiti, and what we did for work in Haiti. This is what I live for - experiences like this. I learned that Cordaid has been replacing destroyed homes in Haiti with new ones for free. Sometimes they will build 100 houses in one week! That’s incredible and it's what people here need the most.
The night (and day for that matter) was a huge success.
Haiti is crazy, awesome, beautiful. I am scared, anxious, and excited all at the same time. But, the culture is rich, the people are so kind-hearted, and there is so much to learn – I’ve only scratched the surface.