For some reason, I thought this would feel different. I wasn’t completely sure what it would be like to come to a country like Haiti, but I didn’t imagine it would feel like this. I thought I would be filled with emotions, with sympathy and sadness. I thought my heart would be heavy every day, every time I saw a crumbling home or an underweight child. But it’s nothing like that. It feels normal. When I play soccer with kids on the field across from my home, I’m not constantly thinking about the fact that I’m in Haiti and that the kids I’m playing against are probably a lot poorer than I am. It’s no different from playing with a bunch of kids back home in the US, except that we use sticks for goal posts and there are cows and goats dotting the field and I can’t communicate with the kids. But still, it feels the same.
When it comes down to it, a life in a third world country is still a life. And it was my mistake to ever think otherwise. On our very first day in Haiti, when we left the airport and drove through Port-au-Prince and the rural villages on the coast, I felt all sorts of emotions, like sympathy and sadness. I felt sorry for the people I saw sitting along the side of the road. I thought about how sad their lives must be, how miserable they probably are, how they probably sit there all day and struggle to find food or something to do. I thought I would feel like I was doing a wonderful thing by coming to Haiti, like I was helping to improve the world. Never in my life have I been so wrong. These people are not miserable. They may not have the resources and luxury that many of us have been raised with, but they are not poor. They are happy, grateful, loving people. They have hobbies, they have favorite foods, they like to gossip and dance and spend time with their friends. I was wrong to assume that they suffer on a daily basis. In fact, you could even argue that many people in Haiti are happier than people in the United States. We should not feel bad for them and we should not feel as though they need to be “saved.” In reality, there is so much that we can learn from them.
The grandeur that we are accustomed to is by no means necessary for a fulfilling life. The largest grocery store in Leogane is the size of one aisle in the Ralph’s near my house. Most houses we visit have one or two rooms, and a solid roof if they can afford it. But in our survey, one of our questions asks the subject to classify how poor they are on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “extremely poor,” and not one person has given a number higher than 2. What we may consider a poor, underprivileged, or unfortunate circumstance may be a very happy or fulfilling life for a Haitian. I think there’s a lot we can take away from that.
The research has been going well. I had assumed that doing the same 32-question survey multiple times per day would become extremely repetitive, but every interview is so different and so interesting. Yesterday we met a huge family at their home about a 15 minute walk from our house. There were at least 12 people in the yard, and they even brought us chairs and made sure we were comfortable. After we finished conducting the survey on three of the men, they thanked us profusely and asked us to come back and visit them. It’s moments like those that make all of our work so rewarding.
We’re making new friends every day, with every new person we interview. And it’s even more fun when there are young children present, as there often are. Today, we spoke with a woman whose daughter sat in her lap, and shortly into the survey we learned that her child lost the toes on her left foot when a building collapsed on her during the earthquake. The woman had also lost three children in her lifetime. Her story was so difficult to hear, but her kind eyes and unfaltering smile was yet another reminder of how resilient and optimistic the Haitian people are.
We’re finally starting to feel like we’re becoming a part of the Leogane community. We’re learning how to get around the village without the help of Ric or our translator, and we’ve begun walking longer distances by ourselves. We’re also starting to see the same people. Last week, we surveyed a 20 year-old boy on a main road in the village. He had been with a group of friends when we approached, but he was extremely friendly and eager to talk to us. Today, we went to a home just a short walk from our guest house, fairly removed from the main part of the village. Halfway into our survey with the middle-aged woman who lived there, the same boy that we interviewed last week arrived. It turns out that we were at his house, and the woman we were interviewing was his mother. It was exciting to recognize someone and to realize that Leogane is just like any one of our hometowns back in America – people live, work, go to school, hang out with their friends, and spend every day here.
There are plenty of other things to do in the village when we’re not doing research. This past weekend, we went to to “English club” at a school in Leogane. It was a classroom filled with around 20 students from 12 to 16 years old. Their lesson of the day was learning the lyrics to “Someone Like you” by Adele, which also happens to be one of my favorite songs. Their instructor asked them to copy the lyrics from the board, then asked us, the DukeEngage students, to sing the song and then to read the words aloud so the students could hear the pronunciation. Then he went over the definitions of the words, and used the more difficult ones in a sentence to help them understand concepts. It was extremely interesting to see what classes are like in Haiti. The kids were taking notes in composition books, and they were practicing their speaking with each other. Some of the students were talking, some were texting or listening to music. It very much reminded me of my classes in high school.
Later that day, we went to a food showcase at the Nursing School that we had previously visited. It was like an open house, where you can pay some money and try different Haitian dishes. Caroline and I took a tiny sip of a sample of a “cocktail” that a man was selling, that we later found out was made of Clairin, the sugarcane-based alcohol produced in Haiti that we’ve been warned not to ever drink. It’s a good thing we didn’t buy a whole container!
When we’re not exploring the village and meeting new people, we’re finding things to do around the house. Yesterday I went into town with Samuel, our groundskeeper, and bought a rope for 200 goudes, which is a little less than 5 dollars. Samuel helped me make a tire swing (or “balançoire” in French) outside, so that has provided some entertainment. Sometimes we have visitors – today, a group of 18 people on a mission trip up to Fondwa came to the guest house for a few minutes. And, of course, we have our occasional soccer match with kids in the neighborhood. Yesterday I tripped while playing and cut my knee, but Samuel and Richard, one of our security guards, were quick to clean me up and put Neosporin on it.
Besides the heat and humidity, the cuts and mosquito bites covering my legs, and the occasional wifi hiccup, I really have no complaints. I’m loving our research, our group, our house and its staff, and our adventures in Haiti. Even though it already feels like I’ve been here for months, I’m so glad we still have 7 weeks left.