BC Seal Boston College Magazine Winter 2001
Linden Lane
Q and A
Works and Days
Letters to the Editor
BCM Home
Contact BCM
Coming Events
The do-gooder:  A long look into the eyes of the poor
. Photograph of building in Haiti


In so far as you feed the hungry and clothe the naked, you feed me, Jesus' parable of the Last Judgment notes. I have done precious little feeding and clothing of the poor, and it's getting late in the day for me. So a few years ago, when it was announced that a group from my parish church would be going to Haiti for 10 days to work at a medical clinic in the backcountry, I signed up.

Fifteen of us left on a frozen January night. At three the next afternoon, we landed in Port-au-Prince: a blast of tropical air in a valley enclosed by parched mountains. A crowd of black faces surrounded the terminal. We pushed through to our bus, fending off bagmen, beggars, hawkers, and importuning children.

The airport road was rutted, cracked, and clogged with old cars, pick-ups jammed with people and cargo, and taxi buses painted with "Jesus Loves You" signs--all moving like a clamoring herd toward the city. We slowly rode past people with cows, pigs, roosters, and skinny dogs; people standing beside tin-roofed shacks and heaps of trash and roadside stands stocked with cardboard boxes of American toothpaste and hair lotion; people selling goat meat, charcoal, and paper bags of sugarcane. "Bonjou," I said through the open window to some little girls in satiny, colorful dresses. Their eyes widening as they looked up at the white face in the bus window, they replied, "Bonjou," and then smiled.

We stayed one night at the Convent of the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate of Haiti, a grand name for two buildings set in a walled-in compound in the hills above the city. The next morning we set out for the medical clinic at Fond des Blancs, 60 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince.

We traveled in a van whose roof we had heaped with more than 30 suitcases full of medicines, lotions, bedsheets, and silverware that we'd been asked to bring from Boston. The condition of the road was grim, and it took six slow and hot hours to make the journey. Eleanor, one of our parishioners, fell ill, and I took off my shirt and hung it on the back window to keep the sun off her.

St. Boniface Hospital was a clean, compact concrete building of four wings around an open square. The idea for its creation had come to a group of parishioners from St. Boniface, a Catholic parish in a low-income section of Quincy, Massachusetts. One year in the early 1980s, the parish hosted a walk for hunger and then decided to use half the receipts for poverty relief in Haiti. Since they were a poor parish, the pastor reasoned, they would help the poor.

When the parishioners subsequently learned that the only way to get the money to Haiti was to bring it there themselves, they went and saw and decided to build a clinic in Fond des Blancs, a parched village at the center of a remote district of 40,000 impoverished people who have built a life out of subsistence farming and burning their forests to produce charcoal for Haiti's cooking pits. Led by Nannette Canniff, a Quincy housewife, the Americans formed the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation in 1983, and the clinic was completed in 1992. It now serves 26,000 patients a year. When we finally arrived at St. Boniface Hospital, we hauled the 30 or so suitcases of goods up to a second-floor balcony. There, under the direction of Sr. Lila, an intense Polish woman from the Sisters of the Order of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, we began tearing pills from the sample packets donated by doctors and hospitals, placing them in the clinic's dispensary containers.

The next day, a Sunday, we pilgrims went to services at the parish church, where for almost three hours we listened to earthy high-pitched voices singing in unison to the drum. That afternoon we went to swim in the Caribbean a few miles south of Fond des Blancs. The beach was beautiful and the ocean was glorious, and when we looked up from swimming we saw that we were being watched by laughing children with distended bellies and stick legs.

And so the days went by in Fond des Blancs. Some of us went with the nuns into the hills to do vaccinations, some of us stayed and straightened shelves at the hospital. We shared one bathroom, flushing when convenient, spitting toothpaste over the side of the porch, borrowing one another's soap. Our host, the young pastor, would join us over goat stew dinner and try to explain in broken English what life was like in Fond des Blancs--a place named for the Polish soldiers who in 1802 had refused to fight after Napoleon shipped them to the island to put down the Haitian Revolution. His eyes shone in his dark face as he talked. The deeper the anguish, he told us, the deeper the faith. Nannette spoke of how her group hoped to help create a better life in the countryside so that people would stay and not flood into Port-au-Prince's slums. Her next project, just beginning, was to be a nutrition center adjoining the clinic.

After five days we returned to Port-au-Prince and the convent. On the first day back, Nannette led us on what she called "the Haitian stations of the cross," a tour of city squares, church plazas, and sidewalks, locations that were the sites of political murders and assassinations. On the second day, we went to the orphanage of Mother Teresa, where the beautiful children clung to us for dear life. I swung them by the legs and chanted "un, deux, trois" and at "dix" I would jerk them up; and they kept coming back for more.

And then on to the Home for the Dying, where another child, this one a young girl dying of AIDS, was sitting up in her bed dressed in a perfect red dress with a red flower in her hair. "Vous est tres belle," I said, and she said, "Oui." And I said, "Will you pray for me?" and she said, "Oui." I felt her eyes on me all the time I was in the room. They followed me as I left.

At night in Fond des Blancs, and again in Port-au-Prince, we would gather with Nannette in the evenings for a "reflection" session. At the convent we sat on the porch, overlooking the ocean, the mountains, the soaring kites, and the vast city under its haze of charcoal smoke. As night settled in, the valley would fill with noises. A dog would start barking, another dog would join in, and pretty soon the whole valley would be cascading with the sounds of dogs and roosters, pigs, donkeys, chickens.

As we sat on the porch, we would sing a couple of hokey hymns, pray a little, be silent. Then Nannette would open with some bombshell question like: "How did you feel about what you saw today?" And some of us would talk and some would be silent. Some would just say, "Overwhelmed." Once, someone said that they had come to Haiti to help the poor, but now they felt sorry for their own country, so materially well off, but so lonely, so paralyzed, everyone in their shells. And then somebody said, "Isn't this interesting!" That was the great understatement of the trip. It was interesting.

We came together: Laura, who had watched her child die of spinal meningitis and who said she could not imagine being a Haitian mother and watching four children die; the Keenans, who then admitted they had not wanted to come to Haiti but did so in memory of their own daughter who had died; Augustus, our parish priest, who missed his creature comforts and his room in his Boston suburban parish but who could not get through the daily Mass in Haiti without breaking down; Heather, an au pair girl from one of the rich houses back home, who had feared spending 10 days with old folks; Jamie, always saying "Wow," who said she had come to Haiti to find God and had; Jack, a limousine driver, who stayed awake at night laughing at the dogs; Stan, an airline exec, who kept saying Haiti was "a dump" but had come before and kept coming back; Richard, our former parish priest, who looked like Michelangelo's Pieta as he held a blind boy for two hours at Mother Teresa's; Sook, a frightened but determined Korean woman, who was initially terrified of large male Americans, but by the end of the trip was napping on our shoulders in the bus; Eleanor, a housewife and the head of our social action committee, who first suggested Haiti to the parish, and who was sick with flu for five days. And Nannette, the little woman who goes here and there with her shopping bag, who now works out of a suburban cape in Randolph, Massachusetts, writing letters, soliciting contributions, bringing Fond des Blancs what it needs.

Of all the things we did in Port-au-Prince, the hardest was to go Mother Teresa's Home for the Dying. We were given lotions and told that we would massage their limbs. When we heard this, we gulped and said: Okay. And we went into these rooms lined with cots. I went to the men's ward, took a deep breath like my fellow pilgrims, and while our parish priest played the guitar and sang "Amazing Grace," I went up to each man, showed him the lotion, and said, "Okay?" And he said, "Oui." And I proceeded to spread the lotion on the dried arms and back and legs of the men, their skin stretched and almost pale. As I was going from bed to bed, I said to myself: My god, this is what it was like after the Crucifixion, when Christ's body was laid in his mother's arms, and the women began to apply ointments to the body.

After we had finished with our lotions and given the men our water bottles and whatever else we had, the nuns invited us into their side chapel, clean and spartan, with only two words stenciled in English on the wall below the crucifix: "I thirst."

As I was leaving the men's ward, the man closest to the door called me over to his cot and asked if he could have the lotion bottle. I said yes, and he then wanted to give me something in return. He held up his arm with two rubber bands around the wrist. He took them off and handed them to me.

A year later I went back to Haiti.

This time I was a volunteer with a church group from Leominster, Massachusetts, who supported the Convent of the Daughters of Mary Queen Immaculate of Haiti in the hills above Port-au-Prince. We went directly from the airport to the convent where we met Sr. Cadet. An attractive woman, older than she looks, she manages six schools, a medical clinic, an orphanage, a fish farm, and a training program for older girls. High blood pressure takes her periodically to the hospital, and she has asthma, caused, she believes, by the smoke of tires burned for fuel in a nearby settlement.

After we emptied our suitcases of kitchen supplies, medicines, clothes, and checks collected from our parishes, we left Port-au-Prince on a bus that took us to the far end of the Haitian peninsula, beyond Fond des Blancs, to Roche a Bateaux, a village where Sr. Cadet managed a school that had been damaged when a disgruntled employee set it on fire. We were supposed to fix the roof, but discovered there were no materials available. So Sr. Cadet set us to work trying to salvage the school desks and chairs, which the townspeople had thrown into the courtyard after the fire. They were a mass of chipped and broken and termite-eaten wood, but we plunged in, guided by a master carpenter, a maker of fine furniture in the States, who had brought his power tools, batteries, vises.

After we left the school, a torrential rain began and our jeep had to stop in front of a sudden brown flood that came down from the mountain, where the trees had been cut away and burned for charcoal. The flood crossed the road and entered the sea. We sat in the bus and watched Haiti washing away.

At night in Roche a Bateaux, our group was fed by the nuns and the village people. One evening we decided to reciprocate. One of our enterprising pilgrims had brought spaghetti paste and pasta; and some of us went into the village to buy stacks of bread rolls from the women walking the roads. So we put on a feast for the village. Twenty kids were supposed to show up, and 50 ended up coming--the news had got out. As we stood scraping the bottom of the pots and watching row after row of these quiet children take their places, I realized that there would be nothing for us to eat.

Meanwhile, outside, our master carpenter was entertaining the kids with French songs. It was pitch dark, and as I moved toward the group to listen, a little child grabbed my leg to hold me back. And just at that moment my foot felt the flimsy tin cover of a well that I was about to step into.

So we come to Haiti to save the children, but the children save us.

I returned to Haiti with Nannette for a third time.

What before had seemed almost a romance now felt like a chore. The cots at Mother Teresa's Home for Children stretched for room after room, and the afternoon seemed like a journey we had to travel. I held one baby for a long time, who screamed when I put her back down, so I picked her back up. The wet diaper soaked my shirt, and I worried about getting sick. Outside the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince, a woman lay on the ground covered with flies. We tried to explain to ourselves why we had to leave her there. The howl of the broken generator at the convent hurt our ears during Mass. And the Mass was said by a former bishop who had worked with the dictator Duvalier. In the evening, I complained that the glamour was gone. "Yes, the reality is awful," Nannette said. Good to get that learned. Strangely, my commitment to the place had seeped into my bones, down through the levels of sentimentality. Will I remember it there?

We got to Fond des Blancs, where people look like ordinary people living in the country. Has the hospital that Nannette built had this much effect in just three years? We spent our usual useless first day, 13 of us unloading suitcases and stocking shelves. We went into the outback to give vaccinations. All I was good for was to lift babies onto the scale.

We walked to the local convent to meet up with Sr. Lila at Mass. Three years ago, the woman had herded us into this same room and insisted that the people were desperate. "Give all you can," she said, and she named some big figures. We gave and gave. This year she simply sat quietly by the side wall, dressed in brown and white. When Mass was done, she motioned us to stay, and lit a candle in front of the creche. She sang a beautiful Polish carol. Still in shadow, she spoke to us and thanked us simply.

Months later, back in the States, Nannette called a meeting of her board of helpers. She had agreed, on faith again, to build an operating room in Fond des Blancs that would serve 40,000 people. She needed $200,000. She told a story about one of her recent trips. In Fond des Blancs, one of her contacts motioned to her to follow him into the hills. They came to some single-room huts. In one there was a woman with 10 children. Her first husband, with whom she had five children, had died; and she married a man with another five children, and he had died. Now she and her children were starving. Her neighbors occasionally came by to share some food from the little they had. The woman seemed awkward and embarrassed as she and Nannette stood by the door of her hut, and Nannette finally figured out why. The woman did not own a chair and so could not invite Nannette into her home.

What can I do in the face of that? What am I in the face of that?

Dennis Taylor is a professor of English at Boston College. Information on the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation is available at: www.haitihealth.org

Top of page

. .  
  »  Expert witness
. »  Time out
. .  

. . .
  »  Homepage of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation
Alumni Home
BC Home

© Copyright 2001 The Trustees of Boston College