The Missionary Years
When I was 11 years old, my parents sat us all down. By this time, there were 4 of us kids.
My brother Chad was 10, my sister Jayme was 4 years old, and my baby brother Travis was 2 years old. We were moving to Haiti.
I was angry. I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to leave my friends. This was one adventure I could do without.
We started to prepare. I remember receiving lots and lots of vaccination shots as part of the preparation.
A couple of weeks before I turned 12, we were boarding a plane. We landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
I remember crowded streets with people everywhere. Women walked carrying HUGE baskets on top of their heads. Half-naked, dirty, starving kids crowded around our car and begged for “one dollar” at each and every stop the car made.
Traffic was INSANE.
We drove past shacks made from tin and cardboard pitched on massive heaps of garbage.
The stench was like puke and shit mixed with rotten dead fish.
It permeated your nostrils.
For those that lived there…it was the smell of home.
It made me nauseous.
Everywhere we went, calls of “Blanc…Blanc” (this means White) echoed in our ears and ALWAYS there were scores of children begging for “one dollar” following us.
During our first year there, we lived in a village called Miragoane.
Located in the center of the town square was our new home. It seemed like a mansion to me. Huge 14-foot tall heavy metal doors guarded the entrance on the main floor. It had been built hundreds of years ago. The “Mansion” was 3 stories high.
We excitedly ran up the dusty curving staircase.
A GIGANTIC tarantula welcomed us.
We all FROZE.
My dad killed it with a broom.
We explored the place. It was very spacious. The rooms were huge with tall ceilings and gigantic windows and doors. My room was on the top floor with a view of the town square. At the back of the house was a courtyard with a huge cistern for collecting rainwater.
The house had no kitchen per se’. We only had electricity at certain times of the day, but it wasn’t consistent. Keeping food cold and trying to cook was a real challenge for my mom. (Most Haitians cooked on open fires) We eventually hired a maid to help us cook and clean.
I distinctly remember a fight between my brother and the maid. (Haitians do not waste any scrap of food) and we had gotten a chicken from the market to cook for dinner. She planned to cook the whole thing…feet and all. My brother was in a full-on tug-a-war with the maid over that chicken. He had the feet and she had the head and they were both pulling with all their might.
The maid won.
The chicken feet were cooked and consumed by Travis and Jayme who quite enjoyed the crunchy chicken feet and declared them delicious.
My brother Chad and I REFUSED to eat them.
Meals were challenging for us kids.
I remember Jayme complaining and picking out “bugs” from the oatmeal porridge. We all ignored her complaints for months. We just thought she was being picky. One day, we closely examined the pile of “bugs” on her placemat.
We had all been eating MAGGOTS.
(It took me 10-15 years before I could eat oatmeal again)
There were baked ants in the bread.
The peanut butter was flavored with pepper.
Fish dishes were served with the head intact.
Conch tasted like rubber.
Spaghetti flavored with dried herring is NASTY.
Rice and beans are very good and we ate that every day.
I learned to speak a bit of Creole (the language is similar to French), I remember a few phrases but most of it is lost to me now.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The average wage equals a dollar a day. The poverty is overwhelming.
We had only been there a short time when we were invited to a wedding in the country. I remember walking down a dirt trail through farmers’ fields. We arrived at a hut, complete with dirt floor and straw roof. The bride was a young Haitian woman. She had a pot of stewed chicken and rice and beans on the open fire. She was beaming with joy and happiness and pride. She gave us each some of her food. I felt sick. I didn’t want to take it. It was clear to me that these people had nothing and even the chickens running around the place were skinny and scrawny. To refuse would have been an insult, so I took my portion. It was incredibly tasty and delicious. I have never forgotten her face. Even at 12 years old, I understood what it meant for these folks to be able to share their food with us in celebration of their marriage and it touched me immeasurably.
My parents knew I wanted to become a nurse. Because of this, I was sent out to a village with a missionary nurse that my parents had become acquainted with. I remember trekking through jungle to get to this village. It was hot and muggy.
The village had one extra large hut. This was where we began to triage and treat patients. What I clearly remember was this young boy with two extra pinky fingers that hung off the side of his hands. I watched in fascination as the nurse began cutting the extra fingers off. Bright red blood spurted out, splashing drops across her glasses. I instantly felt unbearably warm and the edges of my vision became black. “Put your head between your legs!” She shouted at me.
It took me quite a long time to feel better. I couldn’t “help” with anything else that day. The experience made me wonder if I could actually become a nurse.
We lived in Haiti for just over 2 years. The second year we were there, we moved to Port-au-Prince. We needed to leave in 1986 because of increasing violence and political unrest.
In 1957, Haitian elections put Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in power as “president-for-life.” When he died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier took over. Both presidents used force to keep the people subservient. They used secret police called Ton-Ton Macoutes (Haitian Creole for Bogeymen), to oppress and control the people.
Towards the end of January 1986, political unrest was manifested by frequent protests. The company my dad worked for asked him to carry a gun for protection. My parents hired a Haitian man to guard our home at night. We heard gunshots frequently.
Protesters began destroying government offices in some outer towns and blocking major roadways around the country. Rumors were rampant. State violence increased. Duvalier suspended certain civil liberties and declared a state of siege. Stores closed and remained shut. Activists defaced a large statue of Duvalier in front of city hall.
I remember graffiti.
I remember mobs of people looting and rioting.
I remember cars burning in the streets, and I remember seeing stores empty of all food and supplies.
On February 7, 1986, Duvalier fled to France.
The violence got worse after that.
It was soon after a soccer game was played with the cut-off heads of several known ton-ton Macoutes that we left the country. Our safety was at stake, and we fled to Florida.
We had very little money.
It was the beginning of our next adventure…
Thank-you for reading.