Taxis and buses show the extent to which religion is part of society
One of the slum areas of Port-au-Prince
Major Anna Kristina Herje with some of ‘her’ children
A nurse gives health information at a Salvation Army clinic
Pupils at the Salvation Army school
Children of all ages live and play together at La Maison du Bonheur
Weighing a baby in the medical centre
Photos by Ruud Tinga
Love and Haiti
by Ruud Tinga
When Haiti is in the news it is often because there has been another attempt at a coup d’état or more violence on the streets. In the past few months there has been unrest in the streets of Port-au-Prince, the capital. There are demonstrations and strikes which are not always peaceful and quiet. The number of shootings is increasing because more and more people have guns, resulting in more and more innocent people being killed.
The unrest and violence also affects the activities of The Salvation Army, which have to be cancelled. The walled centre of the Army, in which a children’s home, a school, a church and offices are situated, is on the border of one of the poorest areas of Port-au-Prince. Clean water, food and electricity are in short supply but typhus, malaria, dysentery, tuberculosis and Aids are never far away. The Salvation Army fights against these and the other symptoms of great poverty in Haiti.
The country has a troubled past as well as an uncertain future. The native Arawak Indians, who inhabited the island of Hispaniola when it was discovered by Columbus in 1492, were virtually annihilated by Spanish settlers. At the beginning of the 17th century the French established a presence on the island and in 1697 the Spaniards ceded to the French a third of the island in the West – Haiti. The rest of the island is now the Dominican Republic. The French colony, based on forestry and sugar-related industries, became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean, but only through heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation.
At the end of the 18th century, Haiti’s nearly half a million slaves revolted under Toussaint l’Ouverture. After a prolonged struggle, it became the first black republic to declare independence, in 1804, with the original Indian name, Ayti [Haiti], which means mountainous country.
Characteristics of the history of the country are political violence and coups d’état. Nothing is left of the wealthy past. It is now one of the poorest countries in the world. All bauxite, copper, gold and marble mines have been closed.
Eighty per cent of the 7.5 million people live in great poverty. Child death is high (76 per thousand) and life expectation low (less than 52 years) because of the bad hygiene and malnutrition. It is estimated that 250,000 people are HIV-positive or have Aids. In 2001, 30,000 people died of the disease. Despite efforts to stop emigration, many desperate Haitians flee to the Dominican Republic and the USA.
For most people it is just not possible to flee the poverty and misery. The capital Port-au-Prince is one great slum. On the hills are the villas of the rich and a few luxury hotels for the tourists, looking down on the millions of people who have lost their faith in those who have power. Their hope and faith is found in God.
They don’t hide this. That is why taxis and buses are painted with texts from the Bible and portraits of Jesus. Many names of shops are based on God and the gospel. On Sunday all churches are full because those who have nothing can still be rich in their faith in God.
It was into an already-poor Haiti that The Salvation Army arrived more than 50 years ago.
For more than eight years Carrie Guillaume, together with his wife, had been trying to establish a mission in Port-au-Prince. In a leaky mud and wattle hall in one of the less favoured districts he held meetings. A friend described the dedicated couple as The Salvation Army of Haiti, whereupon the evangelist cabled the USA National Headquarters in New York on 22 May 1949: ‘Want to join you. We have 350 members. Respond quickly. Carrie Guillaume.’ Soon after, the doctrines and disciplines of the Army were being studied in Haiti. On 2 February 1950 the work of The Salvation Army was officially opened by raising the Haitian flag and singing the national anthem and a Salvation Army song.
The daily ceremony at the College Verena of The Salvation Army in Port-au-Prince resembles that service from more than 50 years ago. About 1,000 primary school students gather at seven in the morning. While they sing the national anthem the Haitian flag is raised, followed by the Army flag accompanied by the Founder’s song, ‘O Boundless Salvation!’
The head of the school then opens the day with prayer and soon the pupils are sitting in the classrooms, all dressed in their school uniform. More than 12,000 children go to the 48 Army schools in Haiti. At College Verena the daily ceremony is repeated in the afternoon. There is also a secondary school where 700 boys and girls are educated. It is an important step into a future which should not be in the slums. Good education can be the beginning of a better life.
Among the pupils are children of ‘La Maison du Bonheur’ [The House of Happiness], the Army’s children’s home that is on the same compound.
It is home to 52 children but more than 200 get financial support with their school fees or health care. Sometimes even the rent on the place they live is paid for to prevent parents and children becoming homeless. Four walls and a leaking roof always seem to have an owner who wants to make more money.
The children’s home was built as an eventide home but in Haiti not many people reach old age. The German owner asked the Army to run the place, but only 12 elderly women could be found who wanted to live in the home. For many years they shared the house with the children, who called them the grannies. The last ‘grandmother’ died last year.
For more than 30 years Major Anna Kristine Herje has been in charge of the children’s home. Her biggest problem is financing the work. The other main concern is finding a place for the older children. The former ‘granny’ rooms are now occupied by those who are really too old to still be thought of as children.
One of them is Conceptia, who arrived at La Maison du Bonheur when only a little girl. She is now 23 and in her fifth year of education to become a doctor. There is cooperation with a university in Paris where she will follow a course this year. The foundation for her future has been laid in the Salvation Army school.
Major Herje has no days off, at the most a few hours. Even then there is always something that has to be done, like taking pictures of the children for the sponsor parents. The pictures are sent with a personal note. On an old-fashioned typewriter she writes the annual report of the children’s home.
She has a computer, but often there is no electricity. Colour pictures are cut out and stuck in by hand until the major has an interesting document to use. The colour copies go to the bigger sponsors, like Kindernothilfe in Germany and The Salvation Army in many countries.
Even Major Herje’s holiday is spent usefully. The last time she was in Norway, her native country, she gave 28 lectures to raise more money. This extra funding enables her to pay for university fees and to teach the children a profession, like carpentry, plumbing, tailoring, bricklaying or working as a domestic helper.
A few months ago, Major Herje found and paid the rent for a house for a mother with six children. The landlord had kicked them out when they could not pay the rent. The mother felt she had no other option than to ask total strangers if the children could sleep in their homes. The family even slept in cardboard boxes on the roof of a house. When it rained, they got wet through. The eldest son caught a cold which cost him his life.
The mother’s greatest fear, particularly with the prevalence of HIV/Aids, was that her teenage daughters would be raped while they were sleeping. Now they have a place to stay for the next 12 months and the major is looking for a sponsor who can pay the US$1,000 rent for next year.
At the same time that the pupils in the school start their day, many mothers are waiting outside the wall of the compound until the door of the medical centre opens. There they can get medical care for babies and toddlers.
While they are waiting to see the nurse or doctor, information is given about hygiene, food, vaccinations, birth control, Aids and other issues. Blood and urine samples and smears can be processed in the centre’s own laboratory.
The number of children that are weighed and examined can be more than 400 per day. Most of them are younger than five and many of them are undernourished. In the nutrition centre, children who suffer from second- or third-degree malnutrition get special food.
The Salvation Army in Haiti recognises that it is important to inform young people about the dangers they may face so they can avoid making the same mistakes as their parents. The two-year ‘Children for Children’ project teaches boys and girls everything about having a healthy lifestyle. The graduates from the programme are called health scouts and they can share their knowledge in their own home and environment. Little by little, people are learning how to stay healthier.
Nurses also go into slum areas to educate the people about the dangers of poor hygiene and unprotected sex. The number of people who are infected with HIV/Aids is increasing and more people are dying because of Aids then ever before, leaving many children as orphans, some of whom are HIV-positive themselves. Ti Madeline Charles may turn out to be one such child.
Four-year-old Ti Madeline has been in the care of Major Anna Kristine Herje at La Maison du Bonheur since the summer. She used to live with her grandfather, who took her to The Salvation Army. He told Major Herje that his daughter, the child’s mother, had died. Ti Madeline was very weak and unwell but, when the major went to the hospital to have her checked for Aids, the test was not available. Now she has to find a private clinic, where the test is more expensive.
It would be easy to think that, in situations like these, there is no real hope but The Salvation Army does not only concentrate on physical health. It teaches about a God who comforts, who gives peace, who can heal people from evil and who teaches that people should love and respect each other. It is a message that makes people happy and – more than that – it is a message that can change their lives.
The uniforms of Haiti’s Salvationists seem whiter than white, which is a miracle in itself as they are often washed in water from a dirty stream, but the real difference goes far deeper. The happiness can be seen on their faces, because every Sunday the poor people of Haiti can enjoy the richness which can be found through knowing God. Even those who have nothing can have everything they need.