Recently I started making t-shirts. Like most endeavors, I usually have no idea what I’m doing and find myself tripping and falling along the way. When shirt creating jumped on my bucket list I completely imagined Made in America, Organic, spun by butterflies in the light and never would I think of supporting poor children slaving in hot houses. And then I made a shirt and freaked out because people actually liked it. Completely unprepared I rushed “across the bridge” to Target and purchased the best quality multi-pack of shirts I could find. To my surprise after making several prints, I read the tag “Made in Haiti.”
My first internal reaction was of disappointment that I completely went against all of the moral standards I was intending but that notion was soon replaced with “what if manufacturing shirts in Haiti is positive.” Maybe now there are jobs for people who were otherwise starving and jobless. In actuality I’m sure the impoverished are completely getting taken advantage of and the handful of rich folk who live there are making tons of money on their behalf. I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about all of this because I used to live in Haiti…not many people can say that.
My family relocated to Haiti (the poorest county in the western hemisphere and neighbors with Dominican Republic) in 1984 so that my father could oversee a construction project. I had just celebrated my ninth birthday with a going away party and was completely devastated to be leaving a home I truly loved. I had no idea I was headed to a country in which my first breath of air would immediately eliminate all thoughts of “woe is me” and instead leave me with my nose wrinkled wondering what is that smell? Added to that sense an eye-opening visual of hundreds of people dressed in tattered clothes standing with their hands out. Area: 27,750 sq km (slightly smaller than Maryland) Population: 9,893,934 (2013 estimate) Lifestyle change overload.
The initial shock of being surrounded by people who are so poor and hungry their stomachs are bloated out like a 9-month pregnant woman is intense. Yearly income per capita: $400 Unemployment: 40.6% (2010 est.) I realized most of the Haitians we encountered in the streets simply wanted to touch our hair but they were also looking for any kind of help or handout. There were only a few times I experienced fear. One was when my father left me and my sister’s ages 4 and 2 in the car so he could run into a store for a quick second. We were instantly surrounded with slim bony arms reaching inside the windows to touch us and my sister’s baby doll. I thought he would never come back and we would be carried off…car and all. The other time was when we had first arrived to Port au Prince. My mom, sisters and I were walking down the road when this man approached us with hats stacked up on top of his noggin like a Dr. Seuss character. He made a gesture simulating slitting our throats as he repeated We’ over and over. My mom replied with an authoritative NO’, tightened her grip on us and hurried back to the apartment. I assume he wanted to sell us a hat, however his sales technique was terrible or perhaps that’s how he acquired all those hats.
My memories of our first few days in the country are fuzzy. I don’t recall the initial drive from the airport or how long we actually stayed in the apartment waiting for our permanent housing to be ready. The few solid memories I do have are of peering over the side of the porch into the jungle, wishing I could go explore this new and amazing terrain. I remember being saddened by all the litter and spying my first rat, who was on the large side. I also remember eating spam cold and liking it. We soon moved from Port au Prince to the town of Cap-Haitien and started to settle into normal life…if that is really possible.
That initial journey to our new home was long and terrifying. There were truckers and vehicles top heavy with workers flying around these crazy mountain roads. I was convinced we were going to fall off a cliff and I don’t recall any guardrails ever being present. There were also potholes the size of small cars here…and there.. and there and don’t even think about wanting to stop and pee somewhere. When we arrived at our new home I remember thinking it was beautiful. There were different levels of yard, flowers, and fruit trees throughout the property. I felt like Mary from the “Secret Garden” A big white wall surrounded us with broken glass bottles cemented on the top and two wrought iron gates, one in the front opening to the road and one in back leading out to a large pasture. There was also a pool and in the back where the wall ended a patch of sugar cane grew. The home next door shared our privacy wall and between us was a hill full of mango trees. I felt very safe within this tropical oasis.
Inside the house most of the rooms were large and open, mainly because all that was in them were beds or something to sit on. There were several details that struck my funny bone like the ginormous back door in the kitchen. It seemed 10 feet tall and was made from planks of wood with a large hook to keep it shut… straight out of a fairytale. The kitchen cabinets all had locks on them and the front door easily had 6 to 8 locks, all different styles. There was a brand new addition built on the side of the house that was just a large fancy room with decorative wrought iron for windows. No glass or screens and when it rained the water would just pour inside, requiring us to move the furniture to keep it from getting soaked. My favorite place was the upstairs front porch. My dad and I would spend most evenings playing cards (I got pretty good at rummy, hearts and spades) and listening to the sounds thumping in the winds of the Haitian night. My father suggested we go looking for Voodoo Ceremonies- we never did, but he liked to keep things interesting. We had no television or phone and sometimes the electricity would go out. This happened once during dinner, just as a large rat came running through the dining room. AAAHHHH!!
During the week I attended a Missionary school. My classroom was literally in the living room of a small house, which was comprised of both fourth and fifth grade. I remember being annoyed that I could not wear shorts to school; I mean how can you climb trees in a dress and recess was my favorite because all the children in the school went outside to play. Sometimes on the weekend the neighbors would play a movie and invite several families over to watch it. I remember one night the feature was going to be Star Wars and I was very excited. Unfortunately earlier that day I had been exploring and ran into a hornet’s nest. I cannot remember how many times I was stung (way too many, as I was stiff and terrible sore) but I am so thankful I wasn’t allergic. A friend whose mom was a nurse told me that people died waiting in line for medical help in Haiti. Persons per physician: 10,041 (385 in US)
My dad’s initial job contract was for a year and after 3.5 months we slowly seemed to be adjusting. We had our truck shipped over full of personal belongings to help ease with the transition. There was a lady who helped my mom with the housework. Yes, I have actually seen a real washboard used and worn clothes cleaned by it. A real nice gentleman named Edness and his helper Joseph took care of the yard and things that needed to be fixed. One afternoon my father got out his machete and asked Joseph (through hand gestures as Creole did not come easy) to sharpen it. Joseph seemed very happy and never brought it back. Apparently he thought it was a gift. On weekends we would head over to a private beach for rest and relaxation, it also happened to be topless. A habit my youngest sister adopted for several years after, We seemed to be fitting in to a life in Haiti.
These people were lovely and so kind to us…I got great enjoyment following Edness around and trying to talk with him~
And then one evening my father came home from work and announced that we were leaving the country and could only bring what fit in our suitcases. I was upset but excited to go back to the states. I sent along a note with the morning carpool for my closest friend to have all my precious goods stuffed in my desk and to please give everyone my farewells. Looking back now I can’t imagine what was going on in my parent’s minds that day. Haiti was in the throes of a very violent revolution and we were leaving for our safety. Hatred for their Dictator Jean Claude “Baby-Doc” Duvalier had reached a pinnacle and to try and appease the people a most hated minister had been asked to vacate the country. This man happened to commandeer the particular plane we were actually seated, buckled and ready to take off in. Armed soldiers marched on and commanded all the passengers back inside the vacated airport, where we were locked in and made to wait for another plane. I remember being hot, thirsty and tired. 1986 – Duvalier flees the country after a revolt. When we finally landed in Miami my mom had taken pictures of the gentleman and his family who were fleeing. Later that evening a newspaper reporter showed up at our hotel room and requested her film, which she willingly handed over. Unfortunately it was never returned and the majority of our photos were lost but our memories of Haiti forever burned in our minds and hearts.
the children were from the beach that we often visited…you could only go to private beaches in our area as the public ones were full of garbage. i was always fascinated with how the women were able t0 balance anything on their heads and would often try at home. we would buy our fruit from these ladies unfortunately i was not a fan of bananas~
While I was not there very long and did not actually get a large dose of culture I did learn many valuable lessons. The first one was how much I appreciate being able to drink water out of the tap. I remember taking a shower after we had settled home and suddenly realizing I could drink the water in the shower…simply amazing. I also know what poor really is and I am lucky to have never been truly hungry. I have seen children ecstatic over a small box of crayons and paper and witnessed a child follow me for days because I gave him a nickel. I realized that pollution is everyone’s problem especially after witnessing Haiti’s use of their beaches as a public landfill. I learned that you could fit more than 20 people in the back of a Nissan if you sit just right, that sugar cane is delicious and the song “We are the World’ is meaningful to people who don’t understand English. When the earthquake happened in Haiti January 12, 2010 – A 7.0 magnitude earthquake strikes 14 miles west of Haiti, destroying most of the capital of Port-au-Prince. The estimated death toll ranges between 230,000 and 316,000 I cried…it seemed unfair that such a terrible event could happen to a place already enduring such a daily struggle but I am very grateful for my adventure in Haiti. It is a positive experience to have your eyes wide open and see that you are not the center of the universe. I look forward to the day when I can share similar experiences with my children so that they may understand a little more of what life is about.
As for my t-shirts…I’m still tripping but I’ll get right~
Facts taken from: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/17/world/americas/haiti-fast-facts/