A couple of days after the earthquake, a news crew hurried down the street in Port au Prince. The photographer hustled to keep up as the reporter gestured wildly during the live “on-scener” for CNN. As the reporter emotionally described the trash piling up in the streets, women trying to bathe modestly in public, and other deplorable conditions, I thought, "This is his first time in Haiti!"
Sadly, and unbeknownst to those who are seeing the Haitian slums for the very first time, these conditions are absolutely not exclusive to post-earthquake Haiti. In many neighborhoods, the streets are always filled with trash. It is quite common to see folks bathing in culverts on the side of the road and in rivers on the edge of town, to see children in t-shirts and no pants begging for food or money.
In much of Port au Prince, tiny houses are built into the hills, one on top of another with cinder blocks and corrugated tin roofs. They have window openings but no windows, dirt floors where people sleep, no plumbing or electricity. Where there is electricity, it is unreliable, often going off and on at inconvenient times.
Even before the earthquake, many of these homes were crumbling. In the morning you will see a parade of people gathered at a neighborhood well to draw water used for cooking and washing up. The dusty, gray landscape is brightened by colorful laundry hanging on lines connecting one neighbor to another. You can look down from the house above and see a woman sweeping her dirt patio; across the street children are playing on the roof.
One of the blessings to come from this epic tragedy is that the world—the U.S. in particular—now sees the desperation of this poorest country in our hemisphere, a mere 600 miles off the coast of Florida. The extraordinary need in Haiti pre-dates this earthquake. For those of us who’ve been there, there is some understanding of the logistical difficulties of relief efforts. Toussaint Louverture International Airport does not compare in any way with airports in the United States. Roads in Haiti are notoriously bad and bridges are often flooded out from the last hurricane. Police are ineffective and the government is always in a shambles. In Port au Prince, disorder is always the order of the day.
Extreme poverty and neglect by the rest of the world are part of this Caribbean nation’s legacy, along with rampant disease, filthy drinking water and corruption.
Another part of Haiti’s legacy, however, is the indomitable spirit of her people. The centuries of economic, social and political oppression miraculously have not pummeled the hope and faith right out of these beautiful people. Haiti’s children still beam at you with their beautiful Pepsodent smiles, and even among the desperate ruins there is joy.
Another TV report days after the quake showed men, women and children, hands clasped together, dancing in the midst of the rubble that remains of Port au Prince. Reminiscent of the whos down in Whoville after the Grinch "stole" Christmas, these resilient, faithful souls were singing songs of praise, thanking God that they are alive, and revealing to the world one of the prevailing truths of living in Haiti: Even the heartbroken can be hopeful.