The children started filling the large cafeteria 90 minutes before lunch. They came, two, four, nine at a time and squeezed quietly 10 to 12 onto row after row of wooden benches. By the time the food was ready, over 600 kids, and the occasional mother cradling an infant, packed the room. Late arrivals were directed outside to large concrete steps where they sat unshaded beneath the afternoon sun or stood in line hoping that there would be enough food to go around.
Before the meal, adults led the kids in songs and repeated in unison, “Piti piti na rive!” The old Creole saying is a testament of hope and means “Little by little, we will arrive!” Then the other volunteers and I were instructed to form four long lines stretching from where the plates were prepared down the aisles and, like a fire brigade, started passing steaming plates of red beans and rice and a small chicken drumstick to each other and then along to the waiting youngsters.
For many of the children this would be their first and only meal of the day—even though it was 2:30 p.m. I was struck by how kind they were. No one grabbed for a plate and all willingly passed the food on to the child sitting next to them before taking a plate for themselves. Most, even those four or five years old, had an even younger child with them, who they made sure was taken care of before helping themselves.
One lanky boy dressed in blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, upon seeing my name tag, beamed and called out to me, “Mwen rele David!” (My name is David too!) I joked with him and his friends, then spied a toddler staring up at me with large round eyes. I made faces and talked in a funny voice to see if I could make her smile. But she shyly drew back instead, watching my every move.
I was in Haiti to observe the work of our Buddhist Global Relief partner, the What If Foundation and its Haitian counterpart, Na Rive. The last time I had been in the country was 1988 after the fall of Baby Doc, Jean-Claude Duvalier. I had spent nearly two weeks traveling the country, visiting orphanages and witnessing first-hand the human toll of colonialism, dictatorship, and oppression. I had hoped that I might see progress since my time there nearly 30 years ago, but I did not. As a result of continued political unrest, lack of natural resources, absence of basic infrastructure, social, political, and economic inequality, a devastating earthquake in 2010, and calloused disregard by the U.S. and other developed countries, Haiti is worse off today than ever before.
Poverty, for the average Haitian, is their life. The gross per capita income is $1710. But with 26% of the wealth held by the richest 2% of the population, 77% of Haitians survive on less than $2 a day and 54% on less than $1 a day, with children suffering the most.
According to the World Bank 73% of Haitian children 6–24 months are anemic; 30% under the age of five are stunted, 19% are underweight, and 10% are wasted; 25% of infants are born with a low birth weight; and 68% of children aged 6–24 months are not fed according to recommended infant and young child feeding practices. While nearly 88% of Haitian children attend some form of elementary school, few than 20% will enroll in a secondary school and only about 2% will receive any post-secondary education. Given that the average time spent in school is 4.9 years, it comes as no surprise that Haiti has the highest illiteracy rate in the Western Hemisphere with fewer than 62% of Haitians able to read or write as compared to 87% in Jamaica or Cuba and 99% in the Dominican Republic.
The Lamanjay feeding program and Father Jeri School, which I visited, are located in the Ti Plaz Kazo neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, a jungle of flimsy tin shacks built back to back and covered with blue USAID tarps, reminders of the 2010 earthquake. The community is a 30-minute drive from the airport along crowded, litter-strewn streets, brightly painted buildings, and hundreds of sidewalk stands, where residents eke out a living buying and selling their meager wares.
The Lamanjay Food Program feeds over 1000 children, five days a week and Father Jeri School will house upwards to 400 children by running two shifts a day. Both were the dream of the late Father Gerard Jean-Juste, an outspoken advocate for Haitian refugees abroad and the poor of his country. The food program was established in 2000 through the efforts of Margaret Trost, founder of the What If Foundation. But it has taken over 16 years for Margaret and her foundation, with the help of Buddhist Global Relief and other donors, to finish the school.
Returning to Haiti was a disheartening reminder that poverty is a plague born out of fear, ignorance, and greed. It infects everyone it touches, including those who perpetuate it. Built on slavery and human exploitation, Haiti was once the richest and most productive colony of the French empire. With the slave revolt of 1891, Haiti became the Caribbean’s first independent nation, but was forced to pay what would in today’s dollars amount to billions in reparations to France. For its first 60 years, the U.S. refused to recognize Haiti out of fear that the Haitian revolt might spread to the slaves at home and European nations refused to trade with it. In the early 20th century, thep U.S. invaded Haiti, trained its military. and then left, opening the door for Duvalier and decades more of exploitation and oppression. International aid has often lined the pockets of the ruling elite and done little to benefit Haitian citizens. And when a democratically elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was elected in 1990, the U.S. conspired to have him overthrown.
There are no simple solutions to Haiti’s myriad of challenges. But compassion isn’t interested in simple solutions. Compassion demands that we take action and do what good we can, no matter how overwhelming the circumstances. When we started BGR several years back, we were inspired by the dream of engaging people from around the globe to help in easing the suffering of children, women, and men who seldom have enough to eat. We know that hunger is a scourge on humankind, not because we don’t have the resources to ensure that everyone gets enough to eat, but because we lack the political will to end this plague. The involvement of Buddhist Global Relief in feeding and educating young children is an affirmation that you and I can make a difference and that our dream can become a reality.
After the food ran out, I watched the throngs of children exit through a small opening in the steel gate that sequestered the Father Jeri School from the surrounding neighborhood. Some were running and jumping or playing games and laughing as all children do, and I wondered where they were going and what the future held for them. Would this small island of good in the midst of such dire poverty really make a difference?
My thoughts were interrupted by the tentative touch of a small hand encircling my little finger. When I looked down, I saw the little girl I had tried to make smile earlier staring up at me with those two stunning eyes. I picked her up and she gave me a hug and smiled. Then she wiggled out of my arms, took her sister’s hand, and walked away. As she did, she stopped and turned and waved as if to reassure me that the good we do, no matter how insignificant it might seem, when born out of compassion, does make a difference and always will. Piti piti, na rive!
David Braughton is the vice-chairperson of Buddhist Global Relief.