Haiti: This article covers poverty, education, sects, vocations, and the slums of Cite Soleil
By Cecilia Bromley-Martin
Antoine waved us down as our four-wheel drive clambered past him on the steep and rocky mountain track. He was walking home from school, and recognising his priest in one of the rare vehicles that venture into his remote and arid part of the country, asked us for a lift. The temperature was soaring, but there was little shade for the numerous other schoolchildren we passed heading home. For Antoine, it is a seven mile walk, each way. “He probably hasn’t eaten since breakfast,” the priest told us, “if at all today.” It was mid-afternoon.
Yet Antoine is one of the lucky minority, because fewer than half the children in Haiti are actually able to go to school. Although parents desperately want their children to have an education, this Caribbean island nation is the poorest country in the western hemisphere - and with the great majority of schools privately-run, many families simply cannot afford the fees, even when they are only equivalent to one US dollar a month.
For the Catholic church, having a school in every parish is vital in fighting the great number of rich (and aggressively anti-Catholic) sects which are pouring into Haiti from North America. One priest told me: “Every Protestant church has its own school, but the majority of the people are Catholic; if they have their children in the Protestant schools, the teachers will take advantage of this and spread their own doctrine.” Often, however, the Catholic schools cannot even afford salaried staff. “Most of the teachers are voluntary as we don’t have the means to pay them. For those we do pay, there’s no definite fixed salary. Some Catholic schools don’t even have their own buildings; the children have to learn in the chapels during the week. Sometimes they sit on big stones as there are no benches.”
Feeding the pupils is rarely possible either. Haiti is the third hungriest country in the world, and over sixty per cent of the population is undernourished - signs of which are betrayed in an orange tinge to many of the children’s hair. In Antoine’s region, it is a three-hour walk simply to find drinking water. “At school they are always saying ‘Father, I’m hungry’,” another priest said - but there is little the clergy can do to help. Most only get about £2 in their Sunday collection, and some are even dependent on their parishioners for food. If no one has anything to spare, the priest simply goes without.
But despite its own challenges and overwhelming poverty, the Church remains an important part of Haitian life; indeed, in a country of crime, violence, corruption and political turmoil, for many it is the one real hope to which they cling. “The people have a lot of faith, they trust in God,” I was told. “If we cope, it’s thanks to our faith. The people believe much more in the Church than in the political authorities. It is an honour to be a priest to these people.”
Little wonder, then, that vocations are flourishing in this small country: there are over 200 students at the major seminary, not to mention the dozens of young men in the minor and propadeutic seminaries. “Here in Haiti, a priest is someone whom everyone in the parish needs... he is not only a spiritual guide,” one seminarian explained to me. “The Church is poor but we are rich in vocations - that is the greatest grace the Lord could give us. It’s true the Church has challenges, but we do our best so the Church can witness to Christ in a world where war rages and love is disappearing little by little.”
And nowhere is this ‘disappearance of love’ more evident than in Cité Soleil, the notorious slum which sprawls down to the sea in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. While the President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, numbers one of the richest men in the Caribbean, and a half of one percent of the population controls almost half the country’s wealth, Cité Soleil is home to 300,000 destitute Haitians. It is a frightening place to visit.
Though inclined to roam on foot, I was warned it would be unsafe to get out of the car, or even to take photographs. Indeed, few people made eye-contact. Children, ankle-deep in fetid water, played on a dilapidated metal climbing frame. Close by, a dead dog lay on a pile of filth, while naked toddlers wandered among the rotting garbage. Pigs rooted in the mud and sewage around the shacks, many of which were simply sheets of rusting metal cobbled together. The deeper in we went, the more threatening the atmosphere became.
When the torrential rains hit Cité Soleil, nothing stops it from pouring into the homes: the inhabitants simply have to get on with their lives as best they can, wading through the foul water. Disease is rife, particularly TB, Aids, malaria and unidentified rashes; the infant mortality rate is high. It was good to see that there is, at least, a public water supply - but the residents have to pay for it. People do die of hunger, here in the capital’s worst slum-suburb, but the various groups of armed and violent bandits claim a greater number of lives.
Haiti is a priority country for Aid to the Church in Need, for it is hard to imagine how the Church can keep helping and supporting such desperate people, when it struggles just to feed its own clergy. I put this question to a seminarian I met. “The problems the Church faces are linked to the problems of Haiti as a whole. Economically it is a poor country, but you can’t improve anything unless you stay next to Christ,” he explained. “It is a challenge to be totally at the service of others, but I’ll live every moment as if it is the last of my life. I will make Christ known to the people.”
Cecilia Bromley-Martin works for the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need
Photo: Family living near the chapel of St Anne de Benjymin, Lavanneau parish, Jacmel (reddish hair shows malnourishment)