My mother loves the rain. Some of my earliest memories are of her excitedly preparing my sisters and I to venture outside to splash in gutters, jump in puddles, and carelessly kick around as children so naturally do. She’d laugh, she’d skip, and she’d sing, as if teaching us to love the rain was a life lesson of vital importance. As if we were in some way learning to weather storms, take the sour with the sweet, or appreciate the little things. Our dancing around would be followed finally by us entering our dry home, taking turns to have a hot shower, using a soft towel and putting on warm clothes, and then eating a homemade soup prepared by our singing mother. These early child hood experiences conditioned me well to love the rain – The sound of it, the feel of it, and the aftermath of it. Growing older brought new rainy moments and associations. Romantic dinners in dimly lit restaurants in NYC, the sharing of an umbrella with a stranger, and waiting through rain delays to watch the Mets lose again. At worst, a rainy day at the beach forced us to stay indoors to complete puzzles, read books, or watch movies. All of these activities done with warm, dry clothes and without fear, or in fact even any real relation whatsoever, with the rain that fell outside. Rain was something to be appreciated, observed, and occasionally planned for, but very rarely more or less than that.
I have spent the last two years living in Haiti, and the sound of rain is forever changed. Here I have been enriched and inspired by the Haitian people. One cannot spend much time in this beautiful and magical country before being punched in the chest by the strength, grace, and determination of the Haitian people, who are constantly moving, pushing forward and fighting for tomorrow. I have changed and grown as anyone would through the witnessing of new realities, astounding beauty, and an at times deafening amount of misery and pain. Where the sound of rain once brought comfort and quiet reflection, it now brings unease and worry that comes with my intimate knowledge of what rain means these days in Haiti. Mixed in somewhere is a bit of guilt as well, when the first drops fall and my initial and time-imparted positive associations are met head-on by my newer sympathetic response to the sound of rain on tin roofs. This guilt is in no way an indictment or judgment on those who enjoy the sound of rain from their homes. The guilt comes from being part of a world where the luxury of comfort, joy, or at a minimum indifference to the sound of the rain remains foreign to so many whose lives are so brutally affected by it.
My friend Esther is a devoted mother of three, and a smart, strong, and enormously talented woman. She can break your heart with a song, she has a laugh like a firecracker, and she possesses strength and light that is visible from a mile away. She is Haitian, born and raised here, and is what one might refer to as middle class by Haitian standards. She works at the same hospital I do, as does her husband, and she has been an inspiration to me throughout my time as a visitor in her country. As much as my own mother loved the rain, cherished it, and sought it out, Esther worries over it, fears it, and tries (though to no avail) to avoid it.
It is widely known that Haiti experienced two large-scale disasters in the past two years. The earthquake brought an early and unexpected death to 300,000 Haitians, and with it came cameras, attention, newsmen, and a swarm of international volunteers and NGOs (some heroic and many clueless and in need of help themselves). The second disaster was the cholera epidemic, which began in October of 2010 and continues to this day. The miseries that now come with the rains are in fact closely associated with these disasters.
Have you ever stood in a tent holding your several belongings above your head, standing up right, with dirty rain water up to your knees, while your children sit on the highest chair you can find and try not to fall asleep? Have you ever gone to work the next morning leaving all of your kids with a neighbor, only to then repeat the same thing every other night and day for three months straight? I haven’t either. But this is what my friend Esther did when the rains started after the earthquake. She had lost her simple home, as had so many others, and there was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, and work, work, work. There was no alternative whatsoever for her and for an entire population of people. There has been progress in Haiti and I believe there is real reason to be hopeful. But two years later there are still people holding their belongings above their heads every night. A legion of mothers standing upright to hold their babies until the day comes.
In October of the same year, cholera entered Haiti for the first time in over one hundred years. The strain of cholera, which is widely accepted to have been inadvertently brought in by Nepalese UN troops, was particularly virulent and spread very quickly. Cholera travels in water and thrives in places with poor sewage and sanitation, and in this sense the conditions in Haiti were akin to lighting a match in a gas soaked room. To date over 500,000 have been infected and over 7,000 have died. Education about the disease has improved and people now know how to quickly recognize symptoms. But poor sanitation and lack of access to clean water have changed very little. As the rains come and the water rises and mixes, so spreads cholera. Many organizations that were initially treating cholera have now left. And though there are noble and worthy efforts being made at vaccination, the conditions in the short term continue to be dire. Herein lies the second reason that Esther hates the rain. In the hospital we work at, St Luke’s, Esther has been working with cholera patients since the very beginning. Since that time we have seen over 20,000 sick come through our gates. The disease is brutally quick and can kill a healthy person in a matter of hours without treatment. Esther and the rest of our staff have saved thousands in the past year and a half, but they have also seen many arrive too late to be saved. Esther has seen families crushed by this second disaster as well, and she now knows well that with the rains comes cholera.
Tucked within the response to these two tragedies there is great deal of hope, and it is found in the example of Esther and the rest of our Haitian team and leadership at St Luke Foundation. There are many organizations, St Luke included, that are doing extraordinary things in Haiti, with many of the most effective among them being led by Haitians. In my experience what the Haitian people need is resources and respect. They will take care of the rest. Progress has been made and will continue if resources arrive. The head of U.N. mission in Haiti is asking publicly for more resources so that the U.N. can ramp up efforts to fight cholera as the rains begin. Many international pledges have not been fulfilled. With financial troubles in Europe and the States, and myriad problems throughout the world, it is an easy time to forget the promises made to Haiti, and an easy time to turn away from the brutal hand that these disasters have dealt the nation.
The important and inescapable fact which is immediately clear to anyone who spends any real time in Haiti is that great and sweeping change is possible and in fact inevitable if a foreign aid that respects the Haitian people’s proper role in their future is brought into the country. As the rains begin in Port au Prince my deepest hope is that the Haitian people be provided the resources to work towards allowing Haiti to become a place where children play in the rain. The strength of Esther and the many other Haitian mothers who have held their children throughout nights and nights of rain is a strength that ought to be harnessed as part of forward thinking plans for the future of the country. The rain should be left for playing in, the nights should be left for sleeping through, and this enormous human energy should be used as fuel for the development of the country. In order for the currently abysmal conditions to change, international investment and support must continue. Promised support should not be delayed or withheld a day longer. Without this support the sound of the rain will continue to bring only fear to the devoted mothers of Haiti.
Wynn Walent is the Assistant National Director at Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs and the St Luke Foundation for Haiti.