November 29th 2015. I am on my return flight from Haiti, heading to Atlanta to get a connecting flight to Rome. I have time to reflect on this mission, on this amazing adventure, and to rethink of the reality where I have been immersed in the last few days. There is one thing I am sure of: no story, though vivid and detailed, and no photo, nothing and no one, will ever convey the emotion of living for one week in Haiti together with Haitians. The Italian friends to whom I told I was going to Haiti, continued to repeat sentences like: ‘How lucky you are to go to a warm country’ or ‘have fun and relax’…I have tried to tell them that it would have not been a relax trip in a five-star hotel, but in collective imagination, when you think of Haiti it is always a sunny beach full of palms and shells, topless Haitian girls offering coco milk, putting the straw straight away in the coconut just opened by a muscular Mandingo with a saber, while relaxing music is being played by an ukulele folk group, with a lot of self-taught percussionists, who have music in their blood. Well this is not the Haiti I have seen. I knew what to expect, having cured the ABF website, and having had access to the entire archive of photos taken during the last missions, I had had the possibility to figure out the places I would see and the poverty my eyes would see. But being there and live the daily life that, relentlessly, every day is the same, has had the power to touch the inner strings of my soul, something that, probably, no one had ever done before. In Haiti I have gone through several experiences, both in the middle of town, and also crossing the island many kilometers away from the capital, in a small village situated on the tip of the island, Jérémie. Thanks to ABF I think I have been able to live scenarios that only a few foreigners have had the privilege to experience in their life, either due to danger: you have to be accompanied by natives who know how to escort you without running the risk of being attacked, and also due to the imperviousness of places, where to go to, you need skilled drivers who can reach places that are not indicated, not even on the best satellite navigation systems. If I close my eyes and think of this experience, I remember the deep eyes of children looking at us in disbelief, curious and amazed on seeing us on our arrival. The kindness, the innocence, the unawareness of the reality that there is in the rest of the world, made those looks more real than any look I had ever crossed in my life. They wanted to communicate, they wanted to show their dignity, something that in western countries is more and more an abstract concept. Those were not eyes looking for compassion, theirs were looks of gratitude. They were happy. Happiness is often the research of welfare, self affirmation, luxury. Those children were happy without any of these, they were happy because they were there. Because they were alive, because the sun sets, and flowers bloom, because they could see friendly people, who, though they did not know, were ready to lend them a hand. ABF is a Foundation created by Andrea Bocelli to aid these populations. Sometimes there is some hesitation in entrusting money to a charity because news reports, have sometimes shown, how organizations, worldwide, have proven to be a great bluff useful to launder money. ABF is a Foundation that is able to get money from their supporters straight into the hands of people who really need it. In Haiti, I have visited five large school structures, built by this Foundation, which gives more than two thousand children a chance to learn, eat (for free) and hope for their future.
ABF has bought tanker trucks that (for free) bring water to the Slum (the Shanty town of Port au Prince, Haiti’s Capital) three times a day. Abf has built and is building hospitals and aqueducts that give people the possibility to drink and take care of their personal hygiene. Abf has a project to raise awareness and treat HIV that gives the possibility to mothers of HIV positive children to get treated, and to take care of their children, thanks to food and the necessary medicines. These are only some of the projects that I have been able to document in my photographic reportage, and I hope they will urge those who are willing to see my shots, to do something for these people. As a child I was a scout, and they used to tell me that if one is a scout as a child, he will remain a bit so for the rest of his life. Today Robert Baden-Powell’s words have been echoing in my mind “Try to leave this world a little better than you found it.”I believe that these words and my experience marry perfectly. We need gestures of solidarity, even small gestures to improve the quality of life of even one child in Haiti. One of the first visits I paid to the school facilities built by Abf was to Jérémie. From the guest house, where I was staying with the entire group, it took about nine hours to get there. We were in a four-wheel drive pickup truck with tinted windows, which we had borrowed, for the occasion, from St. Luke Hospital (Haitians, usually, do not attack ambulances), we were driving along uneven roads, on whose sides there were, for kilometers, small shacks or sheds made of rusty sheet metal supported by wood pieces. In some small towns there were concrete buildings and some hand-painted signs. Signs of local politicians attacked a bit everywhere: some of them were on the ground and others had been used to light the fire. There were people, children, elderly people, all equally filthy, because of smog, earth, and of a poor hygiene, probably due to problems with water. Vans with cracked mufflers, leaving a trail of smoke in the air, that were carrying groups of people packed like sardines. Improbable means arranged almost like hand painted carnival caravans that, with sentences praising Jesus and showing great love for him, touched the almost imperceptible limit between “trash” and Pop Art with an aftertaste naively blasphemous. Almost no means was perpendicular to the road; at least one of the four wheels was different or deflated. All around, a smell of diesel that, despite the closed windows, penetrated into our nostrils. After crossing a river with the pick-up and eating a lobster cooked by an old lady on a small kiosk by the sea, we reached. Jérémie. The first impression was to see a spaceship landed in the middle of a godforsaken mountain. A breathtaking natural landscape; a place far from everything, without a real road to get there, without a signal or a sign on a map. And right there in the middle of nowhere a beautiful horseshoe – shaped structure built by Abf, a school. Behind those woods, that we had crossed driving during the night lived hundreds of families in huts made of clay, earth, straw, and wood. The children of those people have access to that very modern building with a canteen, water mains, power, computer, a sixty inch plasma TV, toys for children, and a library. A structure that has given much work and hope to local people, and to their children the possibility to study as every child, on earth, should. After sleeping a few hours on some bunks, we took a long walk in the brushwood that has gradually become a village. A paradise on earth: children were already bathing in the river, at five thirty in the morning; exotic flowers, palms, and occasionally a corner inhabited by someone. People with nothing, people who probably do not even have a real idea of what lies beyond those mountains, but people who look serene and full of dignity. As I was climbing down towards the sea, I met a girl wearing the uniform that Abf gives to children for studying; all students in Haiti wear a uniform.
On her head precise and well arranged, pigtails culminating in hair ties of the same color of the uniform. Socks with frills at the ankle. She must have been three or four years of age, and she was very cute. She looked at us surprised and stood still. I tried to ask her name, but she looked at me without replying. She was not afraid, but amazed. Her eyes were two little gems that were shining in the forest. She did not utter a word. Her look followed us until we moved away, and then she started walking up the hill towards the school. Many memories crop up; it is quite difficult to place them back in space-time. Too many inputs concentrated in a few days, too many strong emotions to be stored. After visiting the beach we headed back towards the school. Once through the large gate we saw a crowd of children from three to about twelve-thirteen years of age, all wearing a salmon pink and chocolate brown school uniform. As soon as we arrived, in a few moments they arranged themselves in formation, as not even a military battalion could have done, in the large court-yard in front of the school. They were ready for the flag raising and to greet us. Suddenly they sang one of their songs and occasionally I could decipher the word “thank you.” I felt a lump in my throat, and I, “the man made of ice” melted, with tears streaking down my face. After breaking the ranks, some children came to me and almost all the volunteers were surrounded by them. Some took us by the hand, others would cling to our legs. Many touched our clothes as a greeting. Happy faces, cheerful looks. They were pleased to be in that school and somehow seeing the logo printed on our jerseys, they saw us as friends, they wanted to become familiar with us, and they were smiling. Someone climbed up to over my shoulder, while I was shooting some photos; it was a cute little boy, an acrobat who then rested his head on my shoulder. A great day; it was really worth all the hours by car to the limit of endurance. After this experience, perhaps the most positive, I would like to tell about another one I made on the last day in Haiti.
I must make a premise for those unfamiliar with the story of this island. Even though I hope only a few don’t know about it. Haiti, after the earthquake that devastated it in two thousand and ten, has yet to get back on its feet, the Slum extends for tens of kilometers and consists of a shantytown of mud and makeshift materials, in which thousands of people live, many of them arrived to the capital in search of a better life. A cruel fate for many, that has forced them to take refuge in the one place where, I think, many would have never wanted to live: the slum.
I entered the slum and children immediately came to us. I was with other volunteers. Those white, broad smiles contrasted with the surroundings, I could not understand how they could be, apparently, so happy in such an absurd life condition. Perhaps it was because they had been born there, and for them that was normality. To my mind it was inconceivable.
There were piles of stinking rubbish, open sewers, where some children were playing totally at ease as our children play at the seaside with sand. They were mostly naked or wearing some rags. Some were wearing shoes with holes in them, or slippers, anyway, a privilege only for a few. A child was running holding a wire to whose ends was attached a small kite, made with a few wooden rods and used plastic bags. Others approached me and asked me:”ball?” They wanted a ball to play with, but unfortunately I did not have one. Some tots, one or two years old, were standing there, motionless, and were looking at the group of volunteers with cautious eyes. Some older boys, smiling and laughing, were looking curiously, ecstatically admiring our sneakers. Some women were washing clothes in large tin buckets, and some elderly people leaning against the mud walls, were waiting for a tram that would have never passed. Small, dirty, black, rattling pigs were passing by. We could not delve too much into the slum, because not all the gangs that share the various areas of that ugly marshland are tolerant, and it would have been too risky.
A woman tapped me on my shoulder and asked for a photograph, I looked at her through my camera lens, and she started making pinup poses, a game of a few seconds, to break the daily routine. Maybe when she was a child, she dreamt of becoming a top model. From time to time I stopped taking pictures, and behind that camera I was hiding my sadness. One of the priests that we met in Haiti, took us to see an area of the slum, which, thanks to a project similar to those of ABF, is reclaiming the Slum. They are replacing the huts, a bit at a time, with small brick houses. I must admit I have no great liking for priests, I’m not even a believer, but I can distinguish the look of a good person from the one of a bad one.
Well, that person in life has got a mission, help the others, and he is doing it in Haiti: one of the most difficult populations to help throughout our planet. And he is doing it with eyes full of love. Chapeau father! Whatever is your religion, what you are doing is wonderful! Has this experience been of any help to me? I compare it to a hangover, when you are not feeling well and somebody takes your head and puts it in a bucket of ice water to make you come to your senses. Life is often a hangover. The head in the icy bucket is Haiti. I would like to thank my fantastic travelling companions, wonderful people. I must thank my friends Veronica, Olimpia and Laura, who have put my head in the ice bucket. This wealth of experience that I’m bringing back with me to Italy will be useful to face the future with much more lightness.
Real problems are another thing, and I hope I will be able to go on giving my contribution to solve them.
Finally, from my heart, all my compliments to Andrea, for this great ABF project.
I want to dedicate to you all the smiles that those kids have given me.