I once read this description of a virus: a piece of bad news wrapped in protein. For most of the people here on La Gonave the chikungunya virus was bad news indeed. The first cases of it locally began appearing in mid May. Within a week the hospital was turning away people as there were no beds or spaces left to put patients. The first symptoms are fever and intense joint, muscle and bone pain. That’s followed by a rash and then weeks or months of crippling joint aches. In fact the word chikungunya is Swahili for crippled or contorted, which is how people feel in its rheumatoid phase.

My first symptoms appeared in June, two days after I returned to the states for the summer. Fever, aches and a few days later a head to toe rash. After 10 days I began to feel much better and considered myself on the mend. But then the Doom set in. My neck hurt so much I could look neither left nor right; the joints in my fingers were swollen and painful and I dreaded even a handshake. What’s worse–I couldn’t pour my morning coffee! The doctor recommended 500 mg. of aspirin every 6 hours because other medicines had no effect. But the aspirin only came in child proof cap bottles. After a full hour of trying to press and turn with no strength in my hands, I finally found online the method for disabling the childproof mechanism in the cap. Really I was near tears. After two months, visits to the acupuncturist, lots of anti-inflammatory foods and encouragement from the infectious disease specialist, I began to notice that the pain was easing up and I could stand, walk and move my hands with greater mobility. My students, all of whom suffered with the virus last June, found it hard to believe I was so smitten with it, but when I imitated how I walked when at my worst they all laughed and said that was exactly how it was for them and many admitted that they still have pain in one joint or another. You can still spot people here and there with the distinctive walk of someone with “chikungunya feet.”

The disease is spread via mosquito and when the heavy rains started in late spring the mosquito population surged thus making La Gonave an island petri dish. The deep ravines in the roads just filled with water where the little buggers could breed. Contrary to what many people think from the sound of the name, chikungunya is not spread by chickens. In fact my chickens are doing very well, thank you One-Eyed Willy. Willy is finally getting his game on with the ladies and they are content enough to lay a few eggs. In fact, my girls are so healthy they have attracted two interloper roosters. Willy chases them out but they always come sniffing back around. In the morning when they try to steal food I throw rocks at them. They run away when they see me, but again they return if I am away. They remind me of Butch and Woyne from The Little Rascals: two bullies who are sneaky cowards at heart. One day my rock throwing will yield a coq au vin.

The Orphans of Mare Sucren….

live in house on a hilly road in a village above Anse-a-Galets about halfway up to the highest point on the island. You can rightly assume that the road there is long and rugged. A young woman named Madam Wanna cares for 22 orphans who have nowhere else to go. She gets by on her little garden, donations from small organizations who happen to pass by and a good deal of prayer. Orphaned herself as a young girl and knowing full well what it means to go from one lonely household to another, she has dedicated herself to caring for other orphaned and abandoned children in her mountain community. I went there last Thursday with three people who were going to help fix her water catchment system that another kind soul had rigged for her a while ago. The PVC pipe was not at the low end of the house where it could catch the most rain for the basin, so we moved it to where it would do the most good. For me it started out as a day to visit another part of La Gonave and a chance to learn first hand how our system in Bwa Chandel will work once the school roof is finished. But those kids had another plan. Any moment I wasn’t holding up pipe or handing off tools I was providing “horsey” rides on my knees, singing songs, taking photos or wiping noses and bottoms. The youngest there is two months old. For reasons unknown to me the mother left him at Madam Wanna’s doorstep when she found she couldn’t care for baby number five. The poor little fellow had chronic diarrhea because there was no proper milk or formula for him, only unboiled water. But the rest of the kids were, for the most part, full of energy and mischief –mugging for the camera and making up games with the leftover PVC scraps. Although it was a good day in many ways, Madam Wanna, who was tremendously gracious, had wave of sorrow wash over her as she talked about the school situation for the kids. Of the nineteen who are school age, she has money for only five of them to attend. For the others she does her best by reading them stories from donated books and teaching them to count. What could we say to her except to have courage, which has in fact gotten her quite far. At the end of the day the water system was fixed, the kids had a meal, we sent up some baby formula and there was a lot of fun and diversion all around. And for Madam Wanna’s children, while there may be no immediate relief from the “poverty of bread,”  there is hope because there is absolutely no shortage of love.

Pretty Haitian for a White…

was what I actually overheard two women say on Saturday. I went to the western most point of La Gonave to a fishing village called Pointe Latanier. Although it is only about 25 miles from Anse-a-Galets, it took four and a half hours by truck. Again, am I ever going to visit a place that’s easy to get to? The road follows the coast so it’s fairly flat, but it was so full of washed out ravine-like holes oozing with thick black mud from the previous night’s storm I thought we’d be swallowed whole. We arrived in the salt flats of Latanier at about one in the afternoon with school books for 25 children who are sponsored by a Haitian community action program. Much of the town was a river of sea water and trash from recent flooding but that didn’t stop the people from turning out. Visitors are rare in Latanier. The kids, and there were hundreds of them, were clinging to us as we climbed out of the truck. Only 25 were sponsored but they all wanted a little attention. I thought I’d teach s few of the girls Miss Mary Mack. Then they taught me a couple of their hand games that made Miss Mary Mack look like the foolish white girl she is. Their songs were full of rhythm and jive, and when I was finally able to pick it up and finish a whole song- complete with dance moves- there was screaming and laughter and hi fives all around. After the children received their books they were each given a bag of rice, beans and cooking oil to bring home to their families. The bulk food had to be divided into 25 parcels. I asked if I could help and the two women doing it said yes, I could divide the beans. But there weren’t 25 small plastic bags, so one woman showed me how to make 6 or 8 bags out of one. Degaje. While working away I heard one woman say to the other “li se pi Ayatian pou blanc”  which roughly means “she’s pretty Haitian for a white girl.” I started laughing and they realized I understood them. I said “thank you” and then they laughed. One started comparing her dark skin to mine as if to show me what she meant. I said “Oh, I thought it was because I was doing such a good job with the beans, but thanks anyway.”

A Murder in Three Eggs…

happened last Friday. Ze Twa (Three Eggs) is the next town west of Anse-a-Galets on La Gonave. Crime of this magnitude is rare on La Gonave. Nonetheless, it happened and proved the maxim: no one can hate you like someone who loves you. Apparently a woman from Ze Twa took a lover, a new partner, after her husband went to the U.S. and disappeared for a while. The abandonment of one partner, usually the husband, by another is not rare in this kind of poverty. But to the woman’s surprise, the husband returned and so she resumed her marriage. This so enraged her new partner that, machete in hand, he set out to kill the husband. But he was nowhere to be found. Some said he left for the states again. Rather than let his rage go unfulfilled, the partner took it out on his lover and, and this is true, beheaded her with the machete. The people in Ze Twa called the police in Anse-a-Galets. There were two cops on duty (for the entire island) this weekend. They picked him up and brought him to a cell in their station here in town. I heard rumors all Friday night that he’d be dead by morning. But in the morning he was still in jail while crowds gathered in the square. They grew in numbers and in passion. The two cops called for help from Port-au-Prince. Before help arrived, the angry mob, a mob with a learned distrust of the judicial system, stormed the station and the cops fled. The crowd tore down the cell wall and beat the man unconscious. They dragged him to the square and threw him onto two old tires soaked in gasoline. Then they burned him. When help from the capitol finally arrived by boat it was too late to do anything but disperse the mob with gun shots and tear gas. After that, a deep silence. It was not the kind of justice one would expect from a community so couched in christianity. All the Sunday psalm singing and hallelujahing held no sway with the mob. It was the ruthless justice born of darkness. And it’s a darkness born of the cruelest kind of poverty, the kind that’s created when one selfish government after another makes food, water, sanitation, health care and most important, education unattainable for all but its cronies. My heart breaks for the woman from Ze Twa who faced a final horror alone, for the husband who abandoned his family rather than face the shame of not providing, for the angry lover who also faced his final horror with no hope of reconciliation  and even for the police who perhaps now wrestle with their impotence and guilt. It’s been a week of light and dark.

100 Beats a Minute…

is the rate at which Wubens’ heart beats. Many of you know Wubens because you follow the work on the little school in Bwa Chandel. Wubens at five is one of the most faithful little students up there. He used to be frightened and shy around me when I’d visit  the school. Now he playfully runs out one door while I come in another only to stop and flash me a wide grin. Two weeks ago a group of nurses from Pennsylvania came with me to Bwa Chandel and did a health assessment on every child in school. Now there is chart for each one and that will be used each year to track growth and general health. The kids were unbelievably cooperative, the older ones quietly waiting for the nurses to finish with the younger grades before seeing them. I was sorting their charts by age and gender when I saw Wubens’. 100 beats a minute seemed to me the perfect number for that little guy who never misses school and always wears his favorite shirt. That same week a truck load of sand on its way to the building sight went down the mountainside. Miraculously no one was hurt and the driver offered to go again (for a bit more money but hey) as soon as his truck was repaired. Now we have sand, water, cement and lumber there and walls are going up. With a little luck, grace and generosity, Wubens will finish elementary school in a real classroom.  Yes it has been a week filled with some deeply disturbing events and realities, but my students, people like Madam Wanna and the little boy whose heart beats at 100 beats a minute are the lights by which I see in the dark.Wubenscheckup
This is Wubens’ smile while he gets his checkup in the school room. You can see the chalkboard in the background.

Enormous love to you all, Nancy