Haiti is a moveable feast. With due respect to Hemingway and his eponymous book. I went to Paris, when I was a young man, as the famous writer, who committed suicide, used to recommend, and I have also been there, in the past months, and apart from many works of art robbed to the world and locked in sumptuous cages, I have had little fun and have not at all enriched my soul. Instead, I would go back to Haiti tomorrow.
Because Haiti is like one of those endless wedding celebrations of the past, it is the best place I know today where to feel happy and “content” that is to say pleased with the content. That content is, and never mind if it seems a rhetorical statement, the sound of life that is passing (and there is no better music, and sooner or later I will have to make up my mind and go to shake hands and compliment the composer). It is the perception of the immense gift I am given every day and that, more or less consciously, I keep on squandering every day. In Haiti you can see and hear life every day; you exchange it in every smile you get on the street, (and, it always ends up that, for exhaustion, though being quite surly, I reply to the smile and I smile). In Haiti every moment is a moveable feast, and wherever you turn, you understand how useless and silly it is not to be happy, even more in these different Caribbean that are close, but are the opposite of any exotic tropical fun fair for melancholic well off people.
No love, no charity, in Haiti, for what I have been able to perceive, those who land, learn (or understand that, sooner or later, they will learn the liberating force of Mercy). Not for the others but for themselves, mercy for their misery. And it is just like finding the key to the problem, the point from where to start once again. Finally weak, you cry and you laugh aware of the great strength that generates the fact of being aware of your own smallness.
Haiti is a feast. Even where I came from, theoretically, everything was a glow of festive lights. And yet, where I came from, everything was, and usually is, all blurred, in winter like in summer. Death in Western countries, where I was born, seems not to be contemplated, it is an awkward burden to keep away from the parlor and from the kitchen, death is constantly spying us, and we keep on spying it all the time with an anguish that, often, leaves no sleep.
In Haiti death is a travel companion, or better, the guest of honor. Its presence, though difficult to accept, though burning and full of despair, enhances life and focuses its values. Joy is contagious, and in Haiti you get infected a thousand times more than with dysentery. Joy makes you feel at peace and you understand (no, you perceive) that before you would take branches for trees, while now you know that when it is time for leaves to fall and for branches to dry, they will do it, as it has to be, but roots will continue to be firm and lush (on condition that you are able to find them).
Tenderness, admiration, and a memorable lesson (that, if I forget it, I will never forgive myself)…That is what I have brought back with me, leaving a crumbling airport that has more staff than passengers. It is the greatest gift that you can do to yourself, go and watch Haiti gardeners, while they spend every hour of their days, quenching the thirst of those branches, trying to keep their leaves attached as long as possible, then accompanying them softly to the ground.
I think of Father Rick. Come to Haiti, walk or swim here, come just to greet him, to greet this gardener, this holy cowboy (because if Father Rick is not a saint, then there aren’t any), who seems straight out of a movie with John Wayne. Father Rick, Doctor Rick, who welcomes you in his office/kitchen of the pediatric Hospital he has built with his own hands. He welcomes you after a long day in the hospital wards, while the wild smell of chicken entrails he is cooking for you, is spreading around.
At first he will offer you ice-cream, gin and tonic and coffee, then the “Delicacy” that is cooking on the camp stove and that he is praising while smiling, because his chicken (but also his fish), thousands of them, feed many, poor, sick and malnourished mouths, and when it is necessary to take their life, for the very good reason to give it back to others, he summons for the holocaust even the fellow surgeons of the hospital.
Each with their own small, watering, can. Even I was looking for one, in Haiti (I do not know where it is, but I know that it’s worth looking for it). If you come to Haiti, you too, you can find one, German, French, Dutch, American, Italian volunteers, people from everywhere, nurses, priests, engineers, students, doctors, musicians, all with their small watering can, happy with the few drops they pour, with their small piece of land, happy for the leaves that thanks to that water become green again.
Perhaps I had better start all over again, if this is to be a testimony. I should tell dates, mention places (schools, hospitals, orphanages, I have visited), season with some statistical, telling the naked truth
(“on the island, a baby out of three does not reach the age of five”), and then tell of colors and impressions reporting them with a good narrative rhythm and a decent form.
Writing, not music but words, writing which has turned out to be my job, thanks to which I can raise my son, is anyway a mined path, loved and dangerous, because any time I can run the risk of stumbling into the trap of fiction, of aestheticism. While telling about Haiti, however, I spoke to myself swearing that I would have never played dirty using the ordinary craft tricks and playing winning cards – punches in the stomach and cuddles – in a smart sequence closing with an edifying finale. In case, I had better lay down the pen, and may be that is just what will happen. We will see.
If I think of my first experience in Haiti, at the moment the last one, but the first, I hope, I think of a celebration, of something happy, of the enthusiasm you feel when you open the blinds on a sunny day.
I think of Haiti and I would like to dedicate this little effort (put pen to paper and give shape to this personal thinking), to three children I have met, three young lives I have come across at a very particular time, for them and for me.
Of these little companions, to be honest, I do not even know the shape of their faces, but I know their names because Father Rick called them, at the beginning of the service. But I have felt them close to me, I have said good-bye to them, I have cried them (emotion is an ugly beast; it is useless when it arrives unexpectedly and, treacherously, takes you by the throat). I have seen them in their small cardboard coffins, wrapped up in plastic, covered with a cloth in the center of the small church of St. Damien Hospital. While Father Rick once abandoned the role of doctor and of chicken cook, worn a white cassock, was going around their toy coffins, and was reassuring them, filling the air with incense, and I myself I felt the illusion I was talking to them. I pretend I have soothed them, in the preposterous coincidence that has made me meet them in the most intense moment, the one of their passing.
The three children and all of us have attended, greatly amazed, the sweet rite early in the morning, and the words of relief in French, Creole, English and Italian pronounced by Father Rick, Father Enzo and Father Alfred (who came with us from Italy). While, through the open door, were coming other prayers, with other voices (Muslim) who were talking to the God who stays on the other side of Heaven. Then a sign of peace, that every time you exchanged with a stranger was like hugging a close friend. Eventually outside, we all climbed onto a truck and all together, dead and alive, singing for those who could no longer do it, we took our children to a quiet clearing on the back of the hospital. There, praying and saying goodbye, we left them to rest in a sort of container room, the kind that are stacked on board ships, where they would remain together with other children…until Thursday the day of the week to return to land and be buried.
Do you like speed? On Sundays do you watch racing cars on television? You pay what you can, or perhaps even more, for two or four wheels burning tires and asphalt, to have the idea of taking off? Then come to Haiti. The risk threshold rises a bit but it is worthwhile. In Haiti the streets are the arena, the car you have in front of you (or anyway the more or less unscathed and motorized means, overrun with people and things, that goes on wheels) is the opponent to beat, the challenged challenger, the obstacle to overcome. It is a matter of honor: the winner is the one who makes room at all costs, he who bets on common sense and on the will of survival of the others, he who honks the horn louder, goes faster and leaves no breath, and does not even leave a little room for the others to try to overtake.
Teachers during recreation time, make children dance and clap hands singing “When you are on the road …be careful…When you are on the road be careful!” In fact every street every path driveway, more or less cracked or flooded, if it rains, turned into a river or a swamp, has at its sides, men, women and lots of children, even four or five of age, ready to escape from danger, to avoid this army of Caribbean pirates.
They are all, without any exception, buccaneers at the wheel, fast to honk the horn, prone to use the vehicle code to straighten the leg of a table, or, when the case, a rum barrel, rather than for its proper use…
What do they want from me? I do not even have a candy, my pockets are empty, and I cannot even play well, or make faces to entertain them, I do not know how to play tag, or take them for a piggy back ride.
On opening the gate of the orphanage (which already existed before the creation of the Foundation bearing Andrea’s name
thanks to the proceeds of one of his concerts), children start to study you, they choose you and then they come closer, they start climbing you, clutching at you with their hands, trying to climb your trousers, asking for attention, posing for photographs, or for a smile, once twice, ten times a hundred times. Someone asks for money, but they do it without believing in it, just because it is a gesture that they have seen repeated several times.
Well, I will try to joke, to open up to them, but not without feeling uneasy, because all that I feel in the meantime is like a constant blow in my stomach…Under the porch some old toys, some monitors looking kind but numb because of the sunny afternoon, and a list of diseases, of age and disability of all sorts. Together with other children, apparently more or less in good health, there is a creature of a few months, who is hardly breathing, lying on a small bouncer, her spine does not hold her head up. Then a teenager with a look that seems new for this world, and many clothes to dry on the ground, on the grass, the smell from the refectory and from the hospital, the moving odor of infants. None of them cares about fruit having no pulp, about mine or someone else’s mercy…They are differently hungry: they are all like open taps who give love to anyone who has a moment to stop and take it, they want love and are thirsty of physical warmth, to feel it on their hands, on their cheeks, on their necks… They cling to you, you are their father, their mother, you are immediately their great friend whom they can rely on, they can totally trust.
Then you have to go. But first, damn you, you have to take pictures, because they are useful to raise awareness, to bring back the memory and the spur, even if in this bitter task you feel like a robber stealing those eyes, those expressions full of confidence and of loud, sudden joy. Then I have to go and children know it, in fact they go back to their place without protesting, even accepting to lose once again that warmth, and the new found father, brother, friend.
It is not the capital: there is less of everything, less merchandise to sell, I suppose less delinquency, less roads worthy of the name, less (even less) money running, and, however, less misery. Jérémie, in southern Haiti, appears like a mirage, after endless hours of travel. Just a break, halfway, to take breath on the sweet, colorful, touristic waterfront, with no tourists, at the Gelée Beach in Les Cayes, among dogs begging for food, postcard views, some rich Haitians who can afford to have lunch served, and others who, quietly, watch the scene of our tired group.
Then again inside, like tuna fillets, in eight in the back of an ambulance and a bit less in the back of a pickup truck…The dim lights of Jérémie are a goal heavily longed for, because the trip has been an unexpected rally, because theoretically this should have been the ultimate goal. Instead the best is yet to come, another one and a half hour of darkness and dirt tracks, of fords and screes, of wheels undecided whether to continue or get stuck, to reach late in the evening the community Laserengue in Apricot, where in a milky and surreal light finally open the school gates of St Augustin.
The structure, vast and silent, is one of ABF most recent achievements, and – at least in my opinion – one of the most courageous of the Foundation. A miracle signed ABF. It is like a spaceship, where to study and think of the future, placed in the middle of the forest, with dozens of classrooms, outdoors games, and a media room that even the pilot school in the capital, where I grew up, would envy.
They are finishing fitting the kitchen furniture (the following morning it will be ready); running water is still missing, because the tower just a few meters away, is at the moment dry: the drilling did not give the desired results. Another one– which means a new substantial financial commitment – will be decided in the next days. And this time the contract will have to ensure the certainty to find an aquifer.
Without water, for the moment, we wash our teeth and faces in the less enlightened corners of the square, and we sleep in a dormitory sparsely arranged…for this event…No more than three hours, thanks also to a stout friend from the States, who has joined the group, and who looks like a three-door wardrobe, very amiable and friendly, but snoring, when sleeping, like a steam threshing machine.
The following day, at dawn, we take the path that leads to the sea through the forest and the huts of mud and reeds. A spectacular horizon, straight out from the centerfold of a glossy travel magazine: the beach, sand, and palm trees, shells so big that you have to pull them up with two hands, and calm and harmony out of time. Silence is broken by the cries of children and the sound of their dives: they are getting washed in a protected corner, playing and shouting in perfect joy, before wearing their colorful uniform, with the pride and care that is used for an object of worship.
We get back on a truck, and the kids who are already going to school (sometimes they have to walk for more than one hour), when they can, run and try to cling, enjoying the lift, and crowding the old wrecked carpentry truck.
At the top, are waiting for us eight hundred perfectly lined up, wonderful students, young and old ones, who are singing the anthem, thanking donors and showing the future that, day after day, they are forging.
On the opposite hill, a five minute walk from here, is growing between scaffoldings and bricks, made on the spot, what will be the guest house, to offer a place where to sleep to those coming from outside. From high the beauty of the landscape is breathtaking: on one side the sea, then all around thick, inviolate, green vegetation that covers this rolling land and then the space ship, the building that gathers everyday eight hundred braids and smiles, giving them food for their minds and for their tummies, and to their families, solar lamps to brighten the night, their work, and their future.
Andrea Bocelli’s profile is printed in blue on the side wall of the St Augustin, inside the initials of the Foundation bearing his name. From the Tuscan Hill, up to this piece of land of the fourth world, he has taken food and education; he has given a concrete hope. I am sure that what I am thinking right now would embarrass him, and that he would change subject in five seconds … Just so, in fact, I will not tell him and I will not even write to him. But, just like Fr. Rick, I believe that Andrea is a saint of our times, a person who has wider horizons, larger ones. And what about his tough, a bit crazy, surprising, ministers from Tuscany and Marche, Laura and Olimpia? Eight times, this year, they have come to Haiti, just to implement the projects, one who sings opera, and the other one who dances the Caribbean carnal Kompa?
In my suitcase
What have I taken back from Haiti? I mean what else, after more than a dozen life trees and leafy variations on the theme, beaten on metal, carved, hand forged, and hand painted on the iron recycled from oil barrels. In my hand luggage, unpacking my suitcase, I have found for instance a series of preconceptions removed one by one, they have the faces of the fellow travelers of this mission. Father Alfred, a Monsignor who plays a very delicate and important role in Vatican, a man of confidence of Pope Francesco’s, a high priest, a profile of great responsibility, (and equally of power).
Docile and witty man, thoughtful and kind, very modest in his
requests, brilliant and generous, when in a group, as well as in the greetings of the Holy Father, whose spokesman he has been, for a hundred times in the classrooms, of a thousand Haitian students: a good person who in a few days I have come to feel as a friend who was listening to me, was listening to everybody.
He listened, and even enjoyed, the peppered joke told with a hint of provocation by Giacomo, the web creative, the photographer, with his disenchantment and his caution towards cassocks. It was funny though, because both of them, the high priest and the art-director, seemed to be almost relatives as to sensitivity, quality of feeling, and depth of vision of the world.
And then Giuseppe, a lawyer, that, you would never think he is a lawyer, (to avoid any doubt, it is a compliment), and that “never get in line behind him” at the airport, because it is certain that he will be stopped for accurate control. And then Stefano and Monia, father and daughter: he is an ABF donor, the co-founder of a financial reality, among the most famous in the world. She is a young woman, who is the daughter and also the friend of her father (only nineteen years of difference among them). Anyway everybody, as all of us, during this trip, was looking for something inside them, and, on their return, from their looks and smiles it seemed that they had found it. Both of them, unconditionally, good souls and “good people” which is the most beautiful expression we can use.
On the second day of the Haitian week we were joined by Gunilla and Charlotte, mother and daughter, one an ABF donor, and the other one a volunteer, catapulted from New York to Port au Prince airport, and immediately after to ten hours of uncomfortable journey to reach Abricot. Also in this case, just the opposite of what I might have foolishly imagined. Not a single request different from the others, not a complaint, not a whim, by people who are, anyway, used to a life style one thousand miles higher…
But from these Scandinavian beauties, who spend their time between Tuscany and Monaco, we received only kindness, smiles, gratitude, and humanity, together with true and warm hugs for the children, and their constant availability to be silently useful to others.
What have I brought back from Haiti? The full immersion in the schools and Community supported by ABF projects; the Children’s Hospital of Port-au -Prince, the beautiful and as hard as stones, words of our guide (I have recorded them and sooner or later I will write them down), as he recounted the daily miracles, the various departments, the needs, the choices to make, as he described the wing of the building dedicated to the premature, the operating room, and the project in the neonatology department named after Virginia, the section dedicated to AIDS, its treatments and prevention…
What else? The slum of Cité Soleil, a huge Dante’s circle of wrecked iron sheets laid on mud and debris, and not far away the possibility of a new reality, where to give to these poor people a roof and dignity, (thanks, in this case, to the wonderful work of the Haitian Foundation Saint Luc, the ABF partner, that was created by Father Rick Frechette, who has been on the forefront for more than twenty six years).
I am bringing back to Italy the joy of water distribution thanks to the water truck that ABF daily runs through the slum, I am bringing with me the warm scent of the agricultural rum Barbancourt, the cheerful familiar atmosphere of the dinner that brought together, in addition to us, ABF visitors, Don Enzo and a Cardinal of the island, a friend of Don Alfred’s.
I am bringing back with me the encounter with a sweet radiant population, devoted to music and beauty, their hopes and the strength of their potential, Gerald’s friendliness and kindness, the marvelous and yet surly Roselyn, the many old and new Haitian friends, doctors, managers, drivers, volunteers.
From Haiti, from the side free from five star resorts, the ancient Hispaniola, called Quizqueia, that is “mother of all lands”, I have brought back the desire to do something, of trying to do something good and also the memory of those three little fellow travelers that I met on the very last day of my stay, in the small church of St Damien: those three children that I cried for and said good bye to, because of a strange coincidence that made me meet them in their most intense moment in life, during their passage.
Hell Haiti? To the first who will tell me so, (because that is what I sometimes read), I will reply smiling: then come with me down to Hell! Because Haiti is something else, it is a feast, and if you know how to look at it, how to help it (helping yourself as well, indeed first yourself), it is an Eden with its good array of Saints. May be at the time, not really. But it is a Paradise, anyway, a Paradise in the near future.
Giorgio De Martino