As the wheels of our plane touched down in Cap-Haïtien, the bright Haitian sunlight flooded through the plane’s dirty windows. I had just arrived for a weeklong immersion experience with classmates and professors to learn about the lives of the Haitian people and the economic, political, historical, and social forces at play in constructing their reality. As we drove the hour-long trip from the airport to our residence, we passed through the heart of the Haitian reality. Tin shack homes, thin bare-footed children, muddy trash-ridden roads, and rotting animal carcasses all mingled together, creating an unimaginable landscape of deprivation. This was my first experience of witnessing this degree of economic poverty. The hot sun was beaming high in a cloudless sky, but all I saw was darkness.
The first day in the country, I spent most of my energy trying to emerge from the shellshock of witnessing such dire suffering. The second day, our group had the opportunity to speak with an organization that advocated for the rights of Haitian migrant workers in the Dominican Republic. Members of the organization informed us about the brave history of the Haitian people, the ruin brought on them by negligent intervention from other countries (including the US), and their broken, corrupt government. They shared with us that over 50% of adults in the country are unemployed. These numbers are a very low estimate, as street vendors and tradespeople are considered employed, although many of them don’t have enough income to put shoes on their children’s feet. The statistics were devastating, and the reality of the political situation seemed to offer little possibility for relief. Near the end of the presentation, one of the professors in my group made a comment about the difficulty of hope in such seemingly hopeless economic and political circumstances. Underneath her comment was the question that aches deeply at the center of so many hearts around the world: Where is the hope? How do you hope?
Every single member of the organization passionately offered a reflection on this question. Haitians have experienced cycle after cycle of exploitation by power-hungry countries and ruination by natural disaster and deadly pandemic disease. However, in each reflection shared, the speaker emphasized the resiliency of the people. In reflecting on how Haitians respond to experiences of devastation, one man said: “When a Haitian person loses everything in a natural disaster – job, home, family – he rises the next day saying, ‘God is with me’.” When discussing her hope that Haiti will continue to develop, one woman presented a simple truth: “You never see a tree grow.” Haiti, like the tree, quietly and steadily develops, even through the darkness of night.
The final reflection was given by one of our Haitian hosts, who accompanied us throughout our time in the country. He continued to emphasize the resilience of the Haitian people. His speech burst with energy and vivacity– it was if his entire life’s meaning was packed into each word. He spoke freely and powerfully until he paused mid-sentence, struggling to articulate the wondrous reality of Haitian hope in the midst of darkness. He stood up, eyes closed, voice clear and heavy, and began to sing. As velvety Creole words filled the air, he began to sway his arms, mimicking the patient dance of the palm tree. The entire room came alive with the raw, boundless, unstoppable vigor of the Spirit. Tears filled our eyes as we sat in awe of his witness. When the singing was over, he paused, looked at each of us, and said, “I don’t have to speak to you about hope. You can see it in the way I live.”
The majority of Haitians live in severe, heart-breaking, and seemingly incurable economic poverty. There is a dense darkness that looms constantly, threatening to overtake their light. But the Haitian people are abundantly rich in gratitude, resilience, and hope. In response to each setback they face, they get up the next morning. They continue. And they continue with joy, gratitude, and song.
My time in Haiti provided me with a much-needed perspective check on the first-world comforts I take for granted – running water, sturdy walls, paved roads. But I think the most significant gift I received during the trip was the opportunity to glimpse into the wondrous lives of a people who intimately know the depths of darkness and still emerge each day glowing with the inextinguishable light of hope.