Preparing for my sixth visit to Haiti (and first since the earthquake), I’ve been in a reflective mood. Here is a chapter form my book, Embracing the Gray that explains my attachment to this struggling nation over the years:
After passing by the hazed eastern tip of Cuba, our American Airlines flight banked steeply to the right and within minutes we were passing over the northern peninsula of Haiti, so recognizable due to the heavily rutted landscape. The French had not been kind when they ravaged the once lush western half of Hispaniola of all the mahogany trees and shipped the lumber back to Paris to make fine furniture. Over 200 years later, the nation is still 90% barren, and what little good topsoil remains is being eroded into the Caribbean. We circled over the Canal du Sud strait approaching Port au Prince, a teeming city I had not been to in nineteen years. As we touched down on the single runway “international” airport, memories began to take focus.
I had been to this second-poorest country in the world three times in the 80s. In fact, my very first trip to a developing nation had been here in early 1984 when I was managing Petra. We had begun a relationship with Compassion a year earlier, and had seen thousands of needy kids find sponsors with their enthusiastic concert audiences and via album inserts. It was so humbling for us to meet some of the children we had been sponsoring, and to see the life-changing results that child development in a Christian environment could bring about.
A wiry American with a unique accent was our guide on that trip. He had been living in Haiti for six years, assisting with various ministries, and eventually signing-on full-time with Compassion. His deep, expressive voice had been influenced over his lifetime of being raised as a missionary’s son in West Africa, then attending various universities in America earning multiple degrees, as well as serving as a linguist in the Army on the Eastern Front of Europe. Along the way he had mastered seven different languages, and we heard him speak fluently and persuasively in the unique language of Haiti known as Creole. Thus began a twenty-eight year friendship with the man who is now my boss. Wess Stafford has since gone on to become the president of Compassion International, overseeing an organization that has grown to twenty times the size it was then, now giving manifold assistance to over 1.3 million children in twenty-six countries.
I’ll never forget as we were sitting in some sort of traffic back up—a very common Haitian occurrence—along the N1 Highway near the coastal town of Arcahaie. I snapped one of my all-time favorite photos: a little boy of about three with a distended belly from malnutrition, wearing a ragged striped t-shirt and nothing else, proudly hoisting his torn little hand-made kite on a ten foot string made up of whatever scraps of twine and wire he had found. The breeze was keeping it only about five feet aloft, but he was as gleeful as any child I had ever seen.
Wess was seated next to me in our van, and noticed my fascination with the tiny urchin. “Ah, yes…another little Ti Chape,” he observed.
“What is a Ti Chape?” I asked.
“It’s a Creole phrase that many parents in these poorest areas of Haiti use with their youngest kids,” Wess explained. “I’m sure you’ll hear it often over the next several days as we visit homes. It’s a term of endearment…but it’s also one of a harsh reality that reminds everyone every time it is uttered of how devastating each day can be for people living on the brink. Ti Chape means ‘little survivor’ or ‘one who has escaped death’.”
By this time, several others from the band were leaning in close to hear what Wess was explaining.
As a very tenderhearted man, Wess could not conceal his passion for these people, and tears began to well in his eyes, and with a catch in his throat he continued: “Sadly, for the majority of the poor here in Haiti, the infant mortality rate is as high as fifty percent for children under the age of five. So, often times parents won’t refer to their littlest ones by their birth name until they celebrate their fifth birthday, because they know all too well that many of them won’t make it that far. While they are still in this most vulnerable toddler stage, they are affectionately called “Ti Chape.” I guess it is overly painful to consistently call them by their real name for fear of assigning too much hope to their prospects. This same phenomena happens, by different names of course, in other desperately poor cultures around the globe.”
I watched intently for a few more minutes at that toddler joyfully trying to keep his tattered toy buoyant on the air. Then we lurched forward in the traffic flow. For the rest of our stay I pondered what his chances were really going to be within the next few months.
Later that day, I saw my first human corpse abandoned in one of the filthy alleyways of an intense slum on the bay known as City du la Sole. It wasn’t the only one I would ever see in Haiti. Even now, whenever I look at that tyke’s photo in my collection, it gives me great pause, and it was all coming back to me nearly twenty-five years later as we drove through the packed streets of Port au Prince.
On our final day of this just-completed trip, we drove out the N2 highway along the southern Massif de la Hotte peninsula, weaving past colorfully painted tap-taps (old pick ups converted into buses often over-loaded down with upwards of twenty people), soot-spewing diesel trucks, and UN troop patrol vehicles that help keep the peace in this politically unstable environment.
As we pass tiny farms, my mind drifts back to meeting Horele Georges. He was the third son of a meager dirt farmer near the town of Miragoane. Hector Georges supported his family of seven on a rocky plot about one-half of an acre in size. He toiled with one emaciated cow nearly every daylight hour trying to squeeze each ounce of productivity out of that parched earth as was humanly possible.
When Horele was registered into the program at age five, he began learning new agricultural techniques that showed how yield could be increased dramatically with the help of better seeds, certain fertilizers, irrigation techniques, and so on.
A year passed as he observed through a couple of growth seasons how the corn at the project was markedly bigger than what was growing on all the area farms. Horele started asking Hector if they could try these processes on their crops. At first his father just ignored him, but Horele persisted. Eventually Hector said, “Son, I’ve worked this land in this way my entire life. My father before me did the same, and your grandfather and great grandfather before them. There’s nothing that can be done that we haven’t tried.”
But Horele knew that some of these ideas had not been put into practice…or at least he wasn’t aware that they had been while he helped his father every day before and after school. So, he continued trying to explain to his poppa what he had been taught. As it was just the beginning of a new planting season, Hector finally relented, and said, “Alright, Horele. I’ll let you have one row of this section where you can try your silly tricks. I’ll be surprised if whatever it is you try even survives the first heat wave.”
Taking what he had learned at the Compassion project, the little boy eagerly set his attention on that modest row of newly planted seeds. Each morning he tilled and watered. Each afternoon he blended in the fertilizing techniques he was being taught, pulled weeds, and watered more.
Eight weeks passed, and lo and behold, Horele’s row was two feet taller than the rest of the plot. His daddy had certainly noticed, but kept waiting for the stalks to wither. When it was apparent that indeed his little son’s crop was going to be substantially better than his, he sheepishly said “So, son, ummm…what is it exactly that they are teaching you to do?”
By the time the next growing season was finished, Hector Georges’ little farm was producing forty percent higher yield than it ever had.
I look back fondly on Horele, because he was a boy I sponsored for twelve years. And I finally met him less than four months before he was to graduate from high school, near the top of his class. His dad became so good at the farming techniques his little son had taught him that he became a regular volunteer assistant with each new class at the Compassion project. Skepticism and even fatalism had been superseded by the youthful zeal of his child. Hector eventually ended up on staff at the project.
Horele in his mid-thirties now, with a family of his own. He’s a leader in his church and in his community. And on the same tiny scrap of land he’s still raising some of the best corn on that side of the island.
It would be easy to assess that not much has changed for the better in Haiti since that visit in 1990. There were still massive piles of stinking refuse at nearly every street corner. Sewers were packed and overflowing with debris. The charcoal based energy and cooking lifestyle was still evident with a thick haze that covered most urban areas. And tens of thousands of people packed every sidewalk and spilled out into the bumpy streets…just barely avoiding dismemberment from crazed motorists.
We were headed out to see one of Compassion’s projects that had been in existence for twenty-three years, but had just a few years before added a new program that is helping revolutionize our work.
When we arrived in the rural town of Papette, where the Wesleyan Church had become a real community center over the past two decades, and it was obvious that the one thousand residents had a deep respect for all that the Compassion project had helped them with over the years.
My little group of radio professionals and I were ushered into the sanctuary where ninety-three mothers and their infants had been patiently waiting. It was amazing how quiet and disciplined the 120 or so little ones were—we commented amongst ourselves that the same scene in America would’ve been utter pandemonium. There was a look of gentle appreciation on the face of each young woman when we made eye contact.
A handful of the moms came forward to give testimony to what had revolutionized their lives. You see, over Compassion’s fifty-six years of existence, we’ve always been laser-beam focused on child development for kindergarten age kids through high school. But in the past five years, we have launched a new initiative called the Child Survival Program (CSP), which supports mothers and children all the way from their pregnancy, on into infancy, and through the toddler years.
One of the young mothers, Irmice, had her little eighteen-month-old boy draped on her shoulder, fast asleep, as she shared with the crowd. “I serve a living, loving God,” she confidently declared. “If not for Him or Compassion, I, and certainly not my baby, would be alive today.” She went on to explain the loving care and instruction she had received from the CSP staff, nurses, and social workers who showed her how to improve pre-natal health via exercise, nutrition, and supplements. Then after her son was born, the encouraging practical lessons like proper breast-feeding, preventive vaccines, immunizations, and other medicines have continued.
On a subsequent tour through the CSP wing of the project we saw cribs, tiny chairs, baby swings, scooters, tricycles, a huge supply of learning toys and instruments, exercise mats, building blocks, and everything else you would see in a well-run education based nursery. They even had weekly classes for social interaction/training and early literacy. For these moms, who come from households where the average monthly income is perhaps $40 at best, this is a sanctuary for their babies in the truest sense of the word. The CSP Director, Rose, explained how the tots were regularly weighed, measured, and examined to make sure they were within healthy parameters. There was a full pharmaceutical closet with everything a young mother could need for their child. Extensive files were kept on each mom and baby that was regularly updated with the weekly visits at their homes as well as at the project. We were thoroughly impressed. And the results were obvious in the shiny eyes, gleeful giggles, and yes, even the healthy full-throat wails of some little nippers.
We saw the wall charts that were proudly displayed showing the progress of each and every infant that had come through the program…and not a single one had died. In fact, once the three-year-olds “graduate” from CSP, they then become eligible for Compassion’s regular child sponsorship that runs from pre-K all the way through their late teens. And all of them from four to five years ago were now enrolled there.
“What an ongoing blessing we have seen as Compassion has been involved here for over a generation,” said Rev. Thebaud, the aging pastor who had formed the church three decades ago. “So many more precious little ones have been saved physically and spiritually since we began partnering with you. I am retiring soon, and will probably be going to be with the Lord very soon as well…however I can rest easy knowing that things have changed so much for the better from when we started back in 1985.”
Outside the project, we saw some much healthier looking kindergartners sailing their tattered kites. But they were in their school uniforms, with good shoes on their feet. I always like asking these little Haitian dynamos their names. It swells my heart every time to hear them proudly blurt out their moniker: “Pierre!” “Camille!” “Sebastien!” “Monique!” “Alain!” “Simone!” “Yves!” I close my eyes and see a skinny tyke waving some big ears of corn yelling out “Horele!”
And when I asked these mothers on this day to introduce their littlest ones, there wasn’t a single “Ti Chape” answer in the bunch.
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If you would be interested in reading Embracing the Gray: A Wing, A Prayer, and A Doubter’s Resolve, you can get it via Kindle for just 99 cents via Amazon.com here:
Or you can get it as a FREE PDF download at my website here (donations accepted):
It is also available at most bookstores and internet sites in book form as well.