By John Scally
Viatores Christi was founded in 1960. It recruits, prepares and places Irish people who are willing to volunteer overseas. Since 1960 over 2,000 people have volunteered abroad with Viatores Christi. Inspired by Gospel values and equipped with their experience and skills, they have gone to the poor and marginalised areas of countries in South and Central America, Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.
Ballygar native Michael Nolan spent Summer 2015 as a volunteer with ‘Our Little Brothers and Sisters’ orphanage in Haiti. He has written some memories and experiences of that time in a new book Memories of Haiti and Other Stories and included some other stories and poems in this volume. The proceeds are in aid of the orphanage.
Michael’s initial impressions of the country were dramatic. ‘We passed tin shacks, cloth-like tents and decaying buildings with feeble frames peering out of dusty entrances. We dodged around rugged chunks of concrete, gaping holes and piles of litter baking in the sun.
Women drenched in sweat carrying large baskets on their heads with buckets of water in each hand, walked beside us. ‘We eventually reached St.Germaine’s House, where my host Gena Heraty and her friends had a warm welcome for me.
Gena is from Westport and is a volunteer at ‘Our Little Brothers and Sisters’ Orphanage, my destination. She also set up and runs a special needs programme at the Orphanage and still finds time for some administration’. Michael recalls, ‘The dusty, clay track turned into a firm, tarred surface but with the wide craters remaining.
We drove by elderly vendors standing behind small tables of mangos, melons and potatoes. Our climb was getting steeper and harder on the engine. As we climbed the temperature started to drop but the engine was straining. The driver deftly manouvered around a family of goats, large boulders and deep hollows.
With a struggle, we reached the orphanage and there to meet us were many smiling, little faces willing to help with my luggage. Opening my eyes on my first morning in Haiti was a bit of a jolt. Looking up at the peeling ceiling and rubbing my hand along the rough, stone wall, confusion flourished.
It was daylight and a dozen questions entered my mind. Looking out the window, a beautiful valley was there in front of me. My head wasn’t fully right, it felt a bit strange – maybe because of the 5,000 ft altitude?’
Michael quickly discovered the realities of life in Haiti. ‘It still has its beauty. It was foremost in the Caribbean for the production of tropical fruit when it had good farmland. Now it has extreme poverty, crime and recently kidnapping. But there are lights shining also. In recent years and for the first time the Government has embarked on a programme to cater for children with special educational needs.
As Haiti produces two of the world’s most popular type of cocoa, but in small quantities, a collaborative effort to immensely increase production started. That should greatly improve its trade balance.
Access to health care is an obstacle for many including street merchants. In recent years, local action groups were set-up by volunteer nurses, who go to these areas and perform free blood pressure tests and distribute appropriate medication to those in need. Tourism is on the increase. In 2014, more tourists visited than in the three previous years combined. Still, little compared to Ireland.’
He explained how ‘There are children in the orphanage from Cite Soleil, an area in Port au Prince that Mother Theresa described as ‘’the poorest place in the world’’. Children are also there because of abandonment, crime and tragedy. Education got lost along the way. Illiteracy rates are still one of the highest in the world. The government’s insistence on teaching through the medium of French appears unwise as only 15% of the population speak it. On leaving school, about 90% resort to their mother tongue, Creole.’
Within a short time Michael immersed himself into life in the orphanage. ‘Shortly after arriving, twenty teenagers and young adults showed interest in learning English. I assisted them while they helped me with Creole. Settling into life in the orphanage and getting in on the Haitian culture was a novel, wonderful but very different experience for me. Gradually the children started to unfold their sad, stories of times before the orphanage rescued them.’
Michael outlined that ‘There is a Special Needs Programme at the orphanage which caters for children and adults with physical and/or intellectual, developmental difficulties. Volunteers participate here.
I helped some mornings, cracking open the shells of peanuts and releasing the nuts, the first stage of the production of peanut butter. There wasn’t much conversation but a lovely understanding, an ease and a joy. The next stage is removing the brown skin and then the crushing.
The real business starts then and the end result was the beautiful, peanut butter and it was cherished. Others did art and crafts, while others helped with cooking and washing. Occasionally, while gardening with the special needs classes, Docilles, who helps at the orphanage joined us.
He is a member of a fast-diminishing breed, he wears his cap backwards, with the peak shading the back of his neck. He showed me how to use the right-angled, handled spade more deftly.’
Michael was greatly saddened by some of the suffering he witnessed in Haiti. ‘Olsen was abandoned when he was two, then he was rescued by the orphanage and was part of the Special Needs Programme since 2003 with Gena Heraty being a mother and father to him. Olsen had many illnesses since birth.
His health started to deteriorate towards the end of July and he was brought to St. Damian’s hospital, the only children’s hospital in Haiti, a country of ten million people. Everything possible to improve his ailing health was done at the hospital and there was always someone at his bedside.
Gena spent many hours with him but he passed away peacefully on a fine Sunday morning. Later that evening, his little body in a little box on the back of a truck was brought back to the orphanage – his loving, caring home for twelve years. Gena emerged from the truck, pale, exhausted and weary. Olsen’s crying friends ran to her and clung onto her. Olsen was waked that night accompanied by prayers, hymns, tears and friendship.’
Michael retains a treasure trove of memories of his time in Haiti. So what then are his lasting impressions? ‘I don’t know if I will ever really understand this world, where small children can be so totally lost and desperate that they will happily get in a car and drive away to a new place to live with complete strangers, while smiling.
I don’t know if I will ever understand how children are in such a state that they find hope in those they don’t yet know. I am thinking of broken pasts but promising futures. I am reminding myself of the role we can all play in the lives of the lost to make things better for them and the huge responsibility that we all bear together as we do that.’