By Brittany Duke
When I blindly plunge my hand into the ceramic shell bowl on my dresser and my fingers close around a small gold stone ring, I’m reminded of my 16th birthday. For reasons different that most people’s the week I turned 16 was life-altering. Instead of a lavish “Sweet 16” party I spent the week in Haiti learning about how people survive in orphanages that are severely underfunded and concrete villages without electricity. The poorest country in the world by many estimates is one without social nets designed to help others from falling into extreme poverty. Unlike the United States, extreme poverty is not unusual or cause for great concern.
As we arrived to the orphanage we visited, people in our mission group began snapping pictures of the children in faded and torn school uniforms as though they were exotic animals on a safari. It was difficult watching people that had the latest iPhone and luxury car waiting in their garage try to relate to these children. Asking their favorite toy or activity quickly became an awkward experience. Unlike five year olds in the US who can easily identify their favorite organized sport, favorite TV show, favorite electronic toy, these children were amazed by the ability to take pictures of themselves on our phones.</p
As time passed, privileged adults began to relate to the children on a basic level of love. The language barriers were quickly forgotten and soon small dark hands fitted easily into larger white ones as the children dragged the adults to their rooms and proudly showed off the bunk beds they shared with so many others. Young children had the signature dirt stains on their knees telling the story of the baseball they loved to play with a stick and a cloth tied together. Everything became a game of “how can we make this a toy.” My shoelaces were quickly removed and two young girls with plaits in their hair started jumping rope with it. Our electronics were quickly put to use by the Haitian kids and photos have never been taken with more frequency or excitement than that day.
Many of the children gathered around kissing your cheek, holding your hand, sitting on your lap vying for attention. The whole combine that they lived in was open-air, had dirt floors, and three small structures that would have been called shacks by United States standards. They showed us the chipped colored concrete wall about 3 feet high separated the two classrooms, which had desks that were shared by as many as three children. The blackboard in the front held lessons ranging from learning about the alphabet to geometry. When asking a small boy in the signature green and see-through white shirt what he enjoyed the most he pointed to the small outdoor classroom with a smile across his face. The opportunity to get an education is rare in Haiti.
At noon the teachers and caretakers started cooking in an open air kitchen and 15 minutes later the large rusty bronze bell was rung to tell everyone the food was ready to be eaten. Each student grabbed a slightly dirty looking plastic bowl with designs on the side from a shelf in the common room that served as a dining area. One small girl waited in line for her food, dwarfed by the larger children on either side, received her food and came running over with a large smile and gave me the bowl. Upon inspection, the bowl contained rice mixed in with some sort of meat and some small green cubes which served as their vegetables for the day. These children get two meals a day; this was the large afternoon meal which by American standards would be a side dish. I shook my head and said thank you, but I would really like it if she would eat the food. I’m a vegetarian, I don’t eat meat, and I haven’t ever eaten out of a bowl that is cleaned with sand and unpurified water. I also have access to food at any time during the day. But the lesson to be learned wasn’t about the food or bowl, it was the act of unselfish love and giving. This girl was willing to go without eating that afternoon if I had accepted her offering. With no thought for herself she gave unselfishly and from her heart. It is easy to give from our abundance and donate our cast-offs to the nearest goodwill after we have no more use for an item of clothing; however, the act of giving by the small Haitian girl in a wrinkled and stained white and green school uniform dress was an example of true love.
Later that day, a girl with dark hair plaited and tied with plastic clips caught my attention. She looked as if she were around 13 in her green and white dress with two buttons missing. Unlike some of the younger kids she seemed more reluctant to involve herself in the festivities. I learned she was 15 and was about to turn 16. Our birthdays were less than a week apart. It was apparent that she looked after some of the toddlers and infants and had to be one of the oldest girls at the orphanage. The more we connected the more I found out about her life. Her parents had passed away in the earthquake and she had no other family that she could turn to. The man who ran the orphanage had found a temporary place for her to stay in the wake of the tragedy and eventually provided her and about 21 other young people a place to sleep, a school, and food twice a day. She brought us over to her bed and told us she had gotten a mattress last year. She pointed to her pink mosquito net and you could see the pride spread across her face. The room she shared with nine other younger girls had roughly hewed concrete walls with open windows and no air conditioning. To contrast our upbringing and experiences, I was born into a privileged middle class family, attended private school since the age of four, enjoy traveling with my family, and have an air conditioned room with a mattress which I never fully appreciated until the week of my 16th birthday. After showing us her room she began to chant and move her body to the beat of her chant. She inquired whether or not we would like to take a video of her performance and so we dutifully pulled out our phones and recorded a song and dance that was amazing. She told me that if she was able to choose what she could do with her life that she would love to be able to be a famous singer. With a smile on my face I confidently assured her with my parent’s catchphrase, “you can do anything you set your mind to.” Her head moved back and forth and we got a wakeup call as to the lack of opportunity she has in her life. She isn’t told by anyone that she can accomplish anything, or be anything that she wants to be. That mattress in her open-air room, at the orphanage will probably be the best accommodations she has for a long time after she leaves and moves out on her own. She explained she was planning to get a job working a fruit stand with her friend. She hoped to make enough money to live off of it, however it all depended if she had a good day at the market.
The competition is ruthless in the markets they sell food in. The one market we visited overwhelmed all of my senses. It was possible to hear the yelling of the vendors from half a mile away. Each vendor fought seemingly to the death to try and get you to buy what they were selling. Hands grabbed at me as if I was the newest game flying off the shelves of a store. Each seller tried to persuade me to buy their goods by dragging me as close to their stand as possible. The initial fear of being moved against my own will left after I became aware of the cultural selling practices. The smell was overwhelming, there were aromas of spices mixed with sweat and you immediately knew showering was viewed as a luxury, not a necessity. Although it was impossible to buy something from every single seller that particular day I was blown away by the desire and will to succeed. Each person was fighting for survival and if that meant groveling over the price for a good and trying to sell a classic Haitian piece of art to a tourist they were willing to do anything necessary to assure they would get the sale and be able to support their family for another day.
When there are hard experiences of my life I’m often reminded of a phrase a mentor shared with me, “that’s a first world problem.” Everything is put into perspective when you realize how little others have. For my 16th birthday I received a few presents, one of them being a gold ring which will always be a symbol of abundance and a lesson I learned from a 15-year-old girl in Haiti. To take any opportunity I have for granted would be inexplicable after this experience. If this Haitian girl, as able to express such a gratitude for what she had, meant I was able to take advantage of every opportunity given and give thanks for everything, no matter how small. The true genuine love expressed by so many was an amazing takeaway, whether it was a girl trying to give me her food or a man trying to sell some good in order to take care of his family. The experience was life-altering and I will always be reminded of the time I was immersed in another culture and learned more about myself in the process.