March 28, 2012 by anmassa
Cindy Fung ’14, co-vice president for programming, was one of fourteen VHP members who went to Haiti over spring break. Below, she explains an unexpected lesson the trip offered her. Cindy will present this reflection as part of an opening speech in a VHP meeting with the Poughkeepsie-Arlington Rotary Club tomorrow morning.
Our four days in Chermaitre were productive and intense, gratifying and frustrating. One of the most unforgettable parts of our visit was the census. We went to 9 families in one morning – a little less than I’d hoped, but then again I hadn’t considered how spread out the houses in the village were. We asked many questions about their daily lives, such as what kind of food they ate, if they planted anything to sell or eat, where they got their water from, and where they would go if they were sick. I was a note-taker, so I processed all the answers into tidy, bullet-pointed lists. But what I saw and felt was far beyond what these lists could possibly express.
One of the homes we visited housed a 10-person family. There were 8 children living with their 70-year-old grandfather and 66-year-old grandmother. Throughout the visit I’d felt really uncomfortable because I was standing directly under the midday sun. There was no shade at all around the house (which was, incidentally, badly damaged from strong winds). The place felt like a furnace, and the thought of going back into the shade, or returning to a sheltered room back in the school was very enticing. The grandmother spoke very quietly, and our translators had to ask her to repeat her answers a few times. It was through this soft voice that we found out how desperate a state her family was in. “Everything we plant dies,” she said faintly, “because of the sun.” When I heard that, I was immediately struck by my own absurdity. There I was, standing in the sun for 10 minutes and already thinking about leaving. The sun had maybe only made me sweat a little more in those 10 minutes, but this family had to live with it. And to live with it means that every day their peanuts struggle to grow, every day they wonder if they would eat once or twice, and every day, the children adapt little by little, so that hunger would stop getting into their way of studying or having fun. I was ashamed of myself.
Some think that Chermaitre is like a piece of paradise. I beg to differ. Living the simple village life may be a wonderful escape for us. But the truth is, we can always leave – the people of Chermaitre cannot. We leave, just as I eventually left the soft-spoken grandmother, but every day people go on living their four-hour hikes to the market, their one meal per day, their unclean water, and their risks of cholera and malnutrition. Chermaitre is only paradise to us because we can leave it.
Our visit there made me see how incredibly important it is for us to continue our work in Haiti. I am going to keep giving back to Chermaitre because I know how frustrating it is to see 11.4% of the school children malnourished and not be able to do anything immediately helpful. I know how heartbreaking it is to learn that a child has to walk for 2 hours in half-fallen apart shoes to get to school. I know how helpless it feels to see a little girl use a piece of string she’s picked off the ground to tie a pen to her skirt so she wouldn’t lose it.
But I also remember how encouraging it is to find out that the school faucet has greatly reduced the time and distance that many families have to walk to get water. I know how motivating it feels to realize that the villagers’ goals and ours are aligned, and we are all determined to bring clean water to Chermaitre.
Vassar Haiti Project is an all-volunteer collaboration effort. Some people may doubt our ability – we are just college-age volunteers after all; what could we possibly do? Not much, when put into context of the entire country. But for us, right now, the big picture is Chermaitre, and our cooperation with the people there is more important than ever before. In these 11 years VHP has built a 7-room primary school, planted 8,000 trees, and begun the construction of a medical clinic in nearby Fierville. We have installed an effective and popular water access system. These projects have made a great impact on Chermaitre, and as we grow as an organization, it is our priority to continue expanding these initiatives and improving the lives of the people.