"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Death and a Beating are Part of Life in a Haitian Neighborhood

Anyone who’s been to Haiti will tell you they’ve seen some awful things. Even when we steel ourselves for encounters with extreme poverty, we can’t help being overwhelmed by trash piled on trash piled on in the streets… by a woman with no legs, begging, shaking her tin cup as you approach… by another, lying in the middle of a dirt road dead, or drunk, or halfway to one or the other. We return with a case of Barbancourt Rum, show pictures to our families, and tell stories to our friends in hopes of shining light into the darkness.

Some tales are so bleak, we don’t want to tell them. Besides, how do we give voice to unspeakable despair?

I saw—actually heard—two really horrible things when I was in Haiti last summer. Besides my traveling companions, I haven't said very much about these things. Until now, I have thought of them, shed tears over them, ached for them so many times, but I simply could not repeat them. Usually we groan about the roosters that rudely awaken us, cock-a-doodle-doing before dawn; But I'd rather hear a hundred roosters crow before I hear these sounds again.

It was a warm June morning, rainy season. I heard terrible yelping and whimpering coming from outside and rushed to the balcony, expecting to see that a dog had been hit by a car. What I saw was worse because it was not accidental. A man a house or two away was beating his dog with a heavy, knotted rope. Although the dog was not tethered and could have escaped, it did not. It simply cowered and cried and took its punishment, a victim of its master’s despair. I almost screamed at him to stop… but something stopped me. In an instant, I somehow knew that I shouldn’t mess with this man, that I was a visitor in this neighborhood, that it would be very bad to insert myself—not to mention my teammates and our hosts—into a situation I didn’t understand. So I shook and sobbed and prayed to understand how a man could be so wounded, or hungry, or desperate that his recourse was to abuse a defenseless dog who was probably starving, himself, and very likely had snatched a bite of breakfast from his master’s table.

On the same street, several days later in the early evening, I heard a wailing that was unmistakable. It was the sound of a woman giving voice to life’s most unfair and unfathomable grief: the death of a child. A friend was bringing the woman home from the hospital on the back of a motor scooter. There was now no doubt in the neighborhood that the fifth grade girl who had been rushed to the hospital just a few hours before had quickly succumbed to cholera. Her body would remain in the hospital morgue until the family could afford to bury her. There are no words to describe the despair in that mother’s voice. It was a grief that will forever haunt me.

By telling these stories, I have made them true. This is what happens in Haiti. These are things you don’t see on the news when they show people—a half million of them—still living in tents, and rubble that still hasn’t been removed two years after the earthquake. Those of us who’ve been to Haiti will tell you the Haitian people are extremely resilient, that they have hope and faith, that the children have beautiful smiles. We will tell you that when we leave there most of us can’t wait to go back and that we are never the same, even when it seems like things there don’t ever change.


  1. Anonymous6:41 PM

    Amazing blog as always my friend. Missing you! Sorry I missed our call. Responsibilities took over the afternoon. Sending love to you and John. M

  2. Lovely and heartbreaking.

  3. Thanks for sharing these stories Mary. Makes me wonder if the reason I didn't share mine for 20 years was because I knew when I did that I would be admitting they were true. Of course, once I began telling them I realized I didn't feel as much shame as I imagined I would. In fact the more I share the less guilt and shame I feel. Interesting. .

  4. Mary ... this is so beautifully told. Your melancholy is like dust on the surface of your life in Kansas, a life that no doubt would be a surreal Disneyland-like fairytale to either the man beating his dog or the woman visibly in the depths of utter despair.

    I firmly believe in giving the things in our life that we most fear, whether a memory or an event or grieving the loss of a loved one, the light of day. Thank you for letting us share the emotional burden of your experience.


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