When the sun is lower in mid-afternoon, that's when many of the children come to the canal. This is the space where a lot of our community collects water to use for various things around their homes. The canal runs all the way down from a clean water source in the mountains, passing through all kinds of communities until it reaches its final, somewhat dusty destination in Seboy. People use that canal like anyone would use their only source of free water. Unlike the United States, people cannot just turn on a tap and get the water they need. So, many times they bring their cars to this source, parking them nearby and scooping up the water from the canal to wash their vehicles. Other times, people use it as a bathing site. Though perhaps undignifying, it also makes things easier (especially if you are a kid). Others come to the cover that our friend Dan built to retreat from the scorching sun and do their laundry as a group. Needless to say, the canal is always busy with some form of life as a rural Haitian knows it.
Our development center/home/headquarters is all right behind the canal. While it once seemed like a "random" location, I see the benefit of it now. I can't imagine having a place anywhere else as we have grown our programs and reach in this area. I am thankful for the ways that I have been able to so seamlessly interact with a community I love but am (obviously) different from and the way the location of our house has helped me to do so. I am also so thankful for the lessons I have learned from the other staff people from within that house. The way they interact with the community has made me inspired, has empowered me to persevere, and has been a learning experience in belonging.
We have all the technological advantages at our fingertips in the country I am from, the United States. We have ways to connect that I am too old (and disinterested) to understand. We have ways to share our feelings and thoughts and "friendships," but there is something missing. And, it's a deep "something." Somewhere along the way, in between making sure our children and our friends and our homes and our country gets "the best," we have forgotten what it means to belong. We have forgotten the importance of taking care of our brothers and sisters. We have become so tunnel visioned that we perhaps even forget there is a world outside of our busy lives.
It is draining, for me, to live this way. It is difficult to connect with people over the internet. It is hard to truly get to know the heart and motivation of folks who are flying by. It is a fast paced world we live in, and I know many people who wish to slow down (and some who even succeed in this). But, the slowing down doesn't necessarily bring us together. If anything, it continues to seperate us based on the pace of our lives. We still don't remember, in many ways, what it means to belong to one another.
One night, as I was in our kitchen cleaning up with Clelie, I heard a scream from outside. "Madam Dan!" the little one cried, "Madam Dan!" She laughed and answered back to the child through the window. I smiled, knowing it was one of the many kids in our children's program. "He's bathing out here in the open!" the child shouted, tattling like children do. I laughed and looked at Clelie, who rolled her eyes and promptly rebuked the child for not caring if they were exposed to the community. It was at that moment that I realized just how impactful her life was, not just to me, but to the entire community.
I have spent the better part of 3 years watching this woman operate. She's a mother of an active two-year-old, a wife, and a leader in Konbit Haiti. She goes to school for education. She cooks and helps organize life in Haiti. She helps organize our women's program. And, most of all, she teaches us all how to belong to one another. There is never a time where her door is truly closed to a community member. In times where I have felt overwhelmed and wanted to tuck away, she has challenged me by her own life, opening her hand to those in need. We do not do "feeding programs," but she takes it upon herself to make sure that many of the children in the community are fed regularly. She is quick to give advice. She is the mother of an entire community.
No matter where we live, there are always people who care for the community. And, usually people have something to say about it. Maybe she's from there; she "gets" the people better. There are always excuses like that, right? But, the honest truth is that while she is Haitian, she is not from Seboy, our little community by the canal. It is actually quite different than the community she is from and she did not have to adjust in the way she did. She moved there when she got married and struggled to connect with our community, too. Perhaps what spurred her on was her own culture and faith. She remembered an essential lesson that her nation has not yet forgotten: we belong to one another. Her heart hasn't turned cold toward the needs of her community, no matter how new it may be.
I have learned a lot from Clelie, but this is perhaps one of the biggest lessons. Today is Mother's Day in Haiti, and I wish the happiest of all days to the mother in our community. Clelie, you are a gem and we love you so much. Thank you for teaching us.
The whole month of May always has me thinking about mothers. In the USA, we celebrate Mother's Day on the second Sunday of the month. In Haiti, it is usually the last Sunday of the month. Between planning for my mother and mother-in-law in the USA and then helping our family ministries plan for our huge Mother's Day Celebration, I am pretty much fixated on one thing this month: mothers.
I have a wonderful mother, one who has always embodied sacrifice in a way that I have always been able to identify. She sacrificed sleep, she was always the first one up and the last one to bed. She sacrificed her own wants and needs to make sure we had what we needed, which I realized more as I grew up. She sacrificed so much for us, and I will always be thankful for that.
As my time in Haiti marches on, though, I often think of the sacrifice that is not seen. It is often misunderstood by us, as well. It's the sacrifice of a birth mother, bringing her child to an orphanage or children's home.
Haiti is filled with orphanages. It's a serious problem that has grabbed my heart. As I figure out ways to put more language behind my significant feelings, I will write about it. In May, though, I often think of the birth mothers I have known and those I haven't known in Haiti (and beyond). I think of how they are such unsung heros in a world of total misconception.
On my first day in Montrouis, Haiti, I went to work at an orphanage we fondly called the "Number 7 Orphanage." The blue gate, at that time, had a mere #7 spray painted on the front of it and inside lived about 30 children with a Haitian pastor and his wife. I remember all of the misconceptions I had about this place when I first began working there:
I can't believe all of these children had parents who died in the earthquake!
I can't believe none of these kids have been adopted!
I want to adopt all of them! Right now!
Somehow, without asking a single question, I began thinking about the parents who had died in the earthquake in Port-Au-Prince, a good two hours away from this orphanage. I began wondering, aloud, how many of these children I could adopt (maaaaajor faux paux). I did not stop to ask anything about the children or their histories. I just assumed.
When I tell people I work in Haiti, many tell me about their own experiences. Often times, it is of working alongside an orphanage. They go to "love on the kids," and talk about their important work. I often wonder at these things, but I stop in my tracks when I hear about the "horrible mother who abandoned her child." It visibly changes my face and...let's face it, I usually say something (I mean, I can be quite emotional ;)). The fact is, these perceptions are so one-sided and biased. It places the assumptions of the "best" on us and the "worst" on these mothers we have never met. And, it makes me sad.
I don't know when it was that my assumptions about the #7 Orphanage started being challenged. I wish I could say it was when I realized how ethnocentric I was being and that I started asking all the questions I could ask. However, I really think it was when I could start understanding Creole, the native language of Haiti. I remember hearing my dear sweet Jean Cleline, one of the kids in the orphanage. She had told me about her mother dropping off her and her brother and sister at the orphanage.
I remember my mouth agape, looking at my husband and friends. I loaded up in our blue truck and stared out into the busy road, "I had no idea they had parents..."
From that moment on, my life became about understanding the situations that drive parents to feel their children are better off in an orphanage. As a matter of fact, this is the exact thing I will be writing my Master's degree thesis on starting this summer. It is so interesting to me, in part, I believe, because it is so misunderstood. By me, and by others, too.
I remember moving into our house and people asking when they could drop their children off at the center. We laughed, but after a little while, we started asking "Why would you want to drop your child off here?" The answer was almost always the same: I want my child to have a good life.
What I have realized about the universality of motherhood is this: everyone wants what is best for their child. And, in Haiti, people have far less options for support and help. As a matter of fact, in a recent study, developing world mothers were asked how likely they were to feel equipped to keep their children if they had access to schooling programs and other supplemental programs for their children, and a whopping 90% said they would certainly keep their children in this case(faithtoaction.org). Guys, this is a large number.
If this is true, which the research shows that it is, then we need to start seeing the orphan system as a great sacrifice for parents. We need to make sure we understand just what we are doing when we go to an orphanage on a trip. We need to get the point when people bring up orphanages, especially in the developing world, that we understand just how difficult it must have been for a parent to say their goodbyes to their children and head back up that mountain. We must understand what it means for someone to feel so hopeless and so helpless that the best option for their child is to drop them off at a place like an orphanage.
I would like for us to stop demonizing mothers like this, who have their children in orphanages, and instead look at them for who they really are. They are mothers making an immense sacrifice for their children. Additionally, they are making a sacrifice that is perpetuated through our Western desire to volunteer at an orphanage instead of give toward family empowerment programs. We play a part in supporting this system when we go on trips to support these systems, de-humanize the mothers and their own stories of sacrifice, and continue to see ourselves as the heroes of the story.
I am not attempting to dumb down the complex situation of the orphan crisis, nor am I saying that every birth mother is a saint. But, I am saying there is another, more holistic and honest, option out there to be aware of and know. The sacrifice is real. The ways we can help are real. So, let's start there!
Happy Mother's Day to Mothers- all of you who sacrifice in various ways to make sure your children are taken care of and loved.
A covered pot cooks in the corner and the sòs pwa scent rises up. Sitting on a small stool, she sits down and begins poking the ground with a stick. Sweat beads on her brow and her children run around her. She asks one of the children to go fetch some water for her while she laughs at what her friend says as she passes by. She is making dinner for her family, and likely many of her neighbors and friends who might stop by. The rice boils up, and it is not a lot. She is thankful for the some that she has. She shucks the peas as she waves off the flies that have gathered around the cooking food.
She is a Haitian woman.
She gets home after a long day on her feet. She comes home to a messy house, kids shoes thrown on the ground and screaming down the hall. She sits with her tea for a moment, and glances at the crossword puzzle in the paper. She sighs heavily as she gathers herself together to prepare a meal for her children. She checks the fridge to see what ingredients she can scrounge up before asking her teenage son to run out to the store. She laughs at the children down the hall.
She is an American woman.
My life has been a practice in observing strong women so that I might become one. Like the creation of a good meal, I have watched women all over the world work with what they have and make something beautiful out of their lives. I have been inspired by their confidence, their quiet self-assurance, their integrity, and their willingness to get things done.
Today, as it is International Women's Day, I can't help but thank God for the women I have had the privilege to know. To me, these women embody an entirely new perspective on the character of God. While we can call Him our Father, I also believe He is big enough to embody traits of a Mother.
I have seen women create something from nothing. Driven by the love they have for their families or friends or communities, they can't help but bring something together in a tender and caring way. Their imagination is second only to their strength. Through their dreaming, they are able to know their own strength to see their creations through: from meals, to new programs for their communities, to "just" making it work.
I would be lying if I didn't say that it took me a while to notice the women in my life as strong leaders and people to emulate. Growing up with three strong brothers, I often felt out of place and out of touch. I felt like I was supposed to care about things that I simply didn't care about. It was confusing. Until I noticed my mother. Either unaware or just not caring, my mom never put constraints on who she was. She was unapologetically herself, sometimes to my teenage embarrassment. But, she was herself. As I began to know her more as a woman, I began to embrace that part of myself. I grew an affinity for the "funky teachers" who were these unconventional women who dared to be dreamers and schemers. They challenged the status quo and in turn, challenged me.
In my work in Haiti, I was blown away by the charisma of many of the men I met on the island right away. Their loud and boisterous personalities and freedom drew me in from the first time I worked there. I remember telling my friend that I just didn't feel like I understood the women in Haiti, as they were quiet. Incorrectly, I mistook their meekness as weakness.
Though my time growing up in the USA taught me to be unapologetically myself, my time in Haiti has taught me to be myself no matter who thinks otherwise. Haitian women are genuine to the core. They can sense if someone is trying too hard and they are very protective of themselves and their tribe. They give meaning to the word family- and they do in such a way that is humble and sincere.
Through my time watching these two types of women live their lives, I realized that there are more similarities than differences. That fact, really, blows my mind on its own. Because on the surface they look so different, but underneath it's all the same.
We want to be seen. We want to be known. We want to stop being underestimated and start being respected. We want to know that our spouses/significant others respect us and take us seriously. We want to create and dream and be free enough to believe that those dreams aren't just for the boys, but are for us, too. I have seen the dreams that are on the hearts of the beautiful women I know around the world, and I know they are capable.
Strength doesn't always look like gregarious displays. Sometimes it does, though. Today I honor the women that display the heart of God- of caring, of love, of fighting for those they love. I thank them for the ways they press on in spite of difficult and harsh circumstance. And, I continue to want to find ways to connect with them, love them and carry on.
I walked through the community, weaving in between houses and trying to keep up with my two friends who knew where they were going. Some of the walls we passed were brightly painted pink and caribbean teal, but most of them were that concrete grey. The direct sunlight hit right down on us and there was no shade around. We walked up a small hill, covered in white rocks, and yelled out the Haitian Creole phrase for "You there?"
We'd arrived at Georgette's house. She answered back with the phrase for "Come on in!" and we opened the two sheets blocking her porch.
Georgette has stood out to me since the day I met her. She has a look about her, you can just tell she has been through so much in her life. Her community surrounding her call her "Ti Fanm" affectionately, meaning "Little Girl," due to her short stature. Though she is little, she has so much life behind her eyes. I learned a lot, even that day on her porch.
She was upset. Her daughter, one of the kids in our children's program, was pregnant. The man was older. Her daughter couldn't attend school any longer. She'd just sold her bed to help send her daughter to school. She was without a job, without choices.
I remember how much admiration I had for my friend, Clelie, who was with me. She so calmly assured Georgette that her life would be ok, yet also spoke sternly to her, with love like a mother. I listened on, mostly understanding their fast paced Creole conversation and vacillating between wanting to burst into tears and just bottle it up. What a world this woman faced every day.
We left her house with a hug and a smile. We had a plan of how to help her and her daughter work through the 9 months that would follow. But, even more than that, we had a connection with her.
Georgette began coming to our ministry house randomly. She'd stop by for a little food, offer to wash some of our clothes, hang out with us, and share about her life. She'd shared about her old hopes and dreams. She'd bring her other, younger daughter by when she was visiting. The way she spoke was as if she was a 75 year old woman, looking back at her life. But, it wasn't until I started to know her more that I realized she'd lived all that life in a mere 32 years.
Heartache, disappointment, being taken advantage of, being told she was worth nothing without a husband, struggling to find something to eat, taking care of her children...feeling alone and desperate and in need of help all at the same time.
Georgette represents a large majority of women in Haiti, and really many women in the developing world. She has more rights than some, far less rights than others around the world.
As I got to know Georgette more, I liked her more. She became this hilarious light in my life and shared her broken and hard story with me. Even though there were times I was not in Haiti, she'd still write me (and writes me still) updating me with pictures of her new grandson, her life, and her work. Becoming friends with Georgette has unpeeled a layer of definitions that I always held close to my heart, being in this line of work. I had clung to words like "empowerment," "freedom," and "opportunity," but I had such conceptual and American views on what those words meant. Not that American women do not know struggle, but knowing Haitian women opened up an additional world to me.
I have always been passionate about the rights of the marginalized. Women's freedoms are (obviously) very personal to me. However, meeting Georgette and the women in her community showed me that being passionate about women's rights means more than caring about myself. It means so much more- sisterhood transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. It is about knowing that somehow, as Lilla Watson once said, "my liberty is bound up in yours."
I have realized, through my friendships with women in Haiti (and the DR, and around the world), that my life is different through knowing the struggles of the international community. My freedom has truly been bound up with theirs- and the staggering differences between my freedoms and theirs shocks me consistently.
This has been an inspirational cornerstone for me these days. Today, as the Women's March on Washington happened and I proudly (metaphorically) stood with my sisters as they brought attention to some issues that certainly warrant it, I also received a text from Ryan.
It was a picture of Georgette. Working on her bags with our small business, Fanm Konbit.
When I met her just over a year or so ago, she was angry and sad. She was hopeless and wanting out. She had given up.
Through the love of a community, through the efforts of many realizing their liberation being bound up with up hers, through the empowering and fearless and ferocious love of God, she has begun to come up out of her heaviness of hopelessness and into a light of liberation.
Let's not just throw around these catch phrases of empowerment and freedom, without realizing what painstaking work this is. Giving someone else freedom might mean losing your own privilege or what you believe you deserve. But, its worth it.
Because what happens when we aim to empower and help free those we see in shackles, something interesting happens: they free us from the chains we don't realize we wear.
The Love of God is such that He gives us this fellowship- this love and devotion- that we would set folks free and in the same breath become more free ourselves.
I thank God for Georgette and the work she is doing in Haiti. For the life she is living now. For the ways she has taught me to be more real and truer to myself; for the ways she's shown me beauty in weakness and defeat. I am most thankful for this sisterhood of wonderful women, all over the world, but especially in Haiti. What a family to have.
overthinker and under-planned; development worker, believer, friend, wife, sister, daughter; learning a lot every day.