November 29, 2011
Haitian Paradox: Reflections on a Week in Haiti with Habitat for Humanity
by Mark Lange
Associate Dean Mark Lange, second from right, in Haiti
with Habitat for Humanity volunteers Tent cities and sewage, President Carter and Garth Brooks, 90°F and no shade, armed guards and barbed wire, Irish cooks and performers, destruction and need everywhere—Haiti was surreal. It’s taken two weeks to get some perspective on my week with Habitat for Humanity (HfH) on the poorest island in the Caribbean. The gratification was twofold: working with Haitian families to construct 100 homes while working with 400 optimistic volunteers to improve those families’ lives.
This was the first international HfH Jimmy Carter Work Project I joined. Many others in the project had done this numerous times, and a camaraderie comes with familiarity. But few had been to Haiti, and all agreed that this was among the most daunting projects. Driving from the airport on the first day, we passed food markets at the edge of sewage-tainted streets. The pre-existing poverty was only made worse by damage that was still apparent almost two years after the earthquake.
In this bizarre context, the logistics of moving volunteers and materials, while providing protection for both, was mind-boggling. Fences, barbed wire and armed guards surrounded our living quarters and work. With desperation everywhere, nothing—and no one—is safe.
The constant, dramatic contrasts provided a week of unparalleled paradoxes. Like the Haitians, we lived in tents, but ours were clean and protected. Those outside our compound had none of our luxuries: clean water, electricity, flush toilets, showers and plenty of food. More important, we knew that the tenure for our humble quarters was only a few days. The Haitians have no idea how long they will have to wait for such basic provisions. And while we worked hard everyday, nighttime brought entertainment. We even had beer.
The homes we built were more modest than modest: 12 x 16 feet, the size of a typical U.S. dining room. But, compared to the tired tents so many residents inhabit, they are mansions. While we worked in the scorching sun, armed guards patrolled the perimeter, occasionally coming down the paths between the homes. Thinking about the potential violence that their presence represented was unnerving—and another reminder that those outside the fence live in perpetual danger.
The mega-entertainment couple, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, provided an impromptu concert after the midweek dinner. I marveled at their down-to-earth style and their comfort as “regular” people, working with the rest of us in the midday heat. And I chuckled at the touching absurdity of being treated to a priceless, personal, café-style performance, thousands of miles from home, that couldn’t have been matched in a sold-out arena. Immediately afterwards President Carter delivered one of his briefest, and best, speeches ever: “Tonight we are the luckiest people on earth.”
I have long thought that Carter has been the best former president this country has ever known. My respect for him continued to grow as we learned of the Carter Center’s global efforts to bring peace to far-flung corners of the world, often tackling obscure problems, unknown to most of us (African guinea worm disease?).
I wish my daily environment had the positive atmosphere of that week: a large group, committed to the same mission and mutually supportive in the midst of challenging conditions. That is what the Carters are trying to create. They want the whole world to be a better place. Initially, I wished that some of my colleagues had gone to Haiti, because they could benefit from the experience of appreciating how good they have it. But really, claiming that others need to be more positive doesn’t improve the climate. I intend to follow JC’s example and make the effort myself.
I am richer for the trip and deeply appreciative of the support that made it possible. Garth Brooks said he and Trisha Yearwood participate in Habitat projects for themselves as much as for the intended beneficiaries. I found that to be the case, especially on the last day. All week I had worked with Jehosephat (“Joe” will be a homeowner) as he happily tackled anything that was required. On the last day, while packing up, Joe took my hand in both of his and said, in pretty good English, “Thank you. May God repay you for this, if not in this life, in the next.” Here was a man who had so little, praying that I would benefit from a week’s labor. The simple reality was that I had already been paid in advance.