Posted by: universallearningcentreblog | September 26, 2011

A Loaded Question by Michelle Lemenager

Once again, ULC is fortunate to have incredibly dedicated volunteers we can count on.  They do so much for us in so many ways.  Volunteer Michelle Lemenager was one of the instrumental team that set up our library in Pilate.  She brought with her experience from other developing countries and a great desire to do something for Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake.  We are so lucky she chose ULC when she had to choose from easily thousands of other organizations.  The trip would not have been the same without her.  Below is a poignant glimpse into the Haiti she arrived in on that October afternoon in 2010.  

As the plane begins to circle lower in preparation for landing, I rest my forehead on the window trying to take in as much of the Port-au-Prince landscape as I can. From the air, the sea seems to extend deeply inland in the form of blue UN relief tents that cover large swaths of the land below. I have been to several developing countries in the past, but none that were still recovering from such recent tragedy. I’m simultaneously excited and admittedly nervous for what awaits me on the ground.

Port-au-Prince, Toussaint Louverture Airport (post earthquake)

Evidence of the earthquake is immediately apparent upon landing at Toussaint Louverture Airport (named for the Leader of the Haitian Revolution that led to the first successful slave revolt that created an independent country). Hangars are used to operate the airport because primary buildings have large cracks running up the length of them. There are relief workers and charitable organizations in matching shirts swarming baggage claim. After a long wait, my bag and the rest of the ULC volunteers arrive from different areas of the U.S.

During our drive from Port-au-Prince to Pilate, I was absorbed, taking in the scenery and bombarding Jacques with questions about everything I saw. Of course, Haiti’s Caribbean water & beaches are beautiful, but what really made an impression on me were the mountains; if for nothing else, just the sheer number of them. Every time we crested a mountain, another mountain awaited us; divided only by rivers at their base. They are covered in green trees and bushes that produce fruit, nuts, chocolate and coffee. The mountains in the distance seem to shift between shades of green and blue. The sky is large with puffy clouds that cast interesting shadows on the hillsides.

Beyond the mountains, there are indeed, more mountains, just as the Haitian proverb tells us

Just noticing the condition of the roadways makes it apparent that Haiti lacks basic public infrastructure. Outside of Port-au-Prince there are few paved roads. The roads are largely made of dirt or mud with large potholes and ravines in them. It’s not uncommon for the road to lead to a river that you must drive through because there are no bridges. The roads that wind into the mountains contain many hairpin turns, aren’t wide enough to accommodate both directions of traffic & don’t have guard rails along their cliffs.

No bridges can be found to help drivers pass rivers, let alone smaller streams like this

There is no public transportation. All of the available transportation is owned & operated by individual businessmen, not the government. Within the cities, people who can afford it, pile into smaller, brightly colored buses, called tap-taps to get around. To travel between cities, there are large buses that become so full their contents spill out onto their roofs where men perch on top of it, riding to the next town. Weaving between the buses are pedestrians, people riding donkeys & large numbers of young men acting as cab drivers on motorbikes. There are no sidewalks, or street lights to control traffic or light the way for pedestrians or motorists.

Our late model rental truck certainly raises curiosity as we pass people. The townspeople will pause from what they are doing to watch us pass, looking intently through the window to exam Jacques, who is driving. It appears that they assume this must be someone important based upon his ability to be driving his own vehicle. The Haitians’ daylight hours are absorbed by getting simple chores done like collecting water, washing clothing and transporting harvests to the market, often on foot with heavy loads for long distances. Everything takes longer without having simple resources. The ingenuity of how they accomplish some of these tasks, with little, is impressive.

Washing machines are unheard of; people do their wash in the river.

We stopped briefly along our drive to check on how the tire pressure was holding up against the poorly constructed roads. While we were waiting, Jacques’ cousin, Rubens, asked Saskia and I what we thought of his country. Perhaps because we did not want to insult his country, we both first responded by commenting on how beautiful the landscape is. He looked at us astonished and insisted that there is nothing beautiful about it. His response made me take pause. I couldn’t think of a single other time I had been traveling and a native of the area had denied the beauty of their country. It also embarrassed me to feel like I had not immediately validated the constant struggle for survival that occurs there everyday.

Impossible to ignore the poverty and harsh conditions, it is equally impossible to ignore Haiti's beauty

As we continued our drive, I tried to process the view through the eyes of someone who has never been anywhere else and has little hope of ever seeing anything else, trying to view it as someone who lacks simple amenities that we take for granted everyday like food, clean water & electricity. Someone like Rubens, who is young and smart and has just as many aspirations of success and comfort as anyone else in the world but, who seems to have become resigned to the fact that furthering his education and achieving those aspirations is nearly impossible due to lack of money. Through these eyes, it’s easy to see that the mountainous terrain and lack of opportunity in this country would make this land difficult to view as anything but oppressive.

The oppression of poverty is evident throughout Haiti

It reinforces my desire to help and to bring educational tools to the people here. Having witnessed what they accomplish on a daily basis with meager funds and tools, you can’t help but wonder what they would accomplish if given the solid foundation of education fueled by their deep desire to be educated. There are no public schools here. Only those children whose families can afford tuition, book fees and uniforms can attend school. Education is a privilege here, not a right. In contrast to this, it seems preposterous to me that there have to be laws in the United States mandating that children attend school.

P.S. Sak pase, Rubens! I miss you and hope to see you in a few months!

Michelle & Rubens at "Three Rivers"



  1. These posts are amazing & so interesting.

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