Home from Haiti

Rita

We are home from very uneventful travels.  All connections at the airports and designated drivers went as planned.  Actually it was much easier than our recent trip to Italy.  We were more than thankful when we arrived at O’Hare airport for the things our tax dollars provide.  But being home has allowed us to reflect a little on our experience.  We are physically tired – likely a combination of running on nervous energy and adrenalin and our nightly serenades from dogs and roosters.  We are glad for the comforts of home and yet there is little tug inside me to be back in Haiti.  It was a peaceful time.  The veranda of the house was a great place to relax.  We had many conversations with those who lived at the house with us, worked for the University or the Foundation.  It was nice not to be inundated by American politics although everyone there is interested in the presidential election.  The students have a desire to learn that I haven’t always seen in my classes here.

Guest House Veranda

View from the Guest House Veranda

We were aware while we were in Jeremie and since we have been home of how glad we were/are that we were there together.  It wasn’t that we couldn’t have done what we did alone but it was nice to have the comfort and joy of sharing the joys and stresses of the time there with someone I love and trust.  To have someone who wouldn’t laugh at me when I freaked out on a few occasions and someone who could share my feelings of being overwhelmed by the blessings of hearing my students sing “Country Roads” or the women who are struggling to care for their children conclude their meeting by singing “How Great Thou Art.”  It was great to have Bob share with me on his break about the things that were happening in his class.  The experience could be quite lonely especially living in a house where we couldn’t speak the language of nearly everyone else.   Falling to sleep each night holding hands put a wonderful spin on all that we did and experienced.  We didn’t have to talk we just seemed to be able to connect.

We were also aware of the gift of the Sacrament of Matrimony.  Most people in Haiti aren’t officially married.  It requires a trip to Port-au-Prince to have the marriage be official.  That is an 8 to 9 hour trip over the mountain and on basically non-existent roads.  So most of them live together for a time and have a child or more and then go their separate ways.  Women have children by numerous men.  Men might have several women they would call their wives and large numbers of children who they can’t and don’t support.  We were quite an anomaly to be married 46 years and they quickly picked up on the fact that we still liked each other.  The young woman from Germany, working as an intern, commented on several occasions about our relationship.  She said it is rare in today’s world to see people stay together after their children are grown.  She has a boyfriend and wants to marry someday and stay married.  The students quickly picked up on the fact that we were their together and were aware that we did things for and with each other.  Many of the young adult Haitians working for the NGOs (Non Government Organizations) noticed how we related to each other.  We didn’t do anything special we were just being ourselves.

Rita's Class

Rita’s Class

The first day we were there as we sat down to eat dinner I said. “We say grace before we eat, anyone like to join us?” All said yes.  The second day things were hectic with not everyone sitting down at the same time so Bob and I just held hands under the table and prayed.  On the third day, as we sat down to eat someone said: “Aren’t we going to pray?” We did every day after that.  As people came and went everyone was invited not by us but by someone else at the table to join us in saying grace.  It set a nice atmosphere for the dinner each afternoon.  I tried to encourage one of them to lead the prayer but the Haitian law professor said they all digested their food better when I led prayer.

I’m still processing all that happened.  It will likely take some time.  I kept a journal while we were gone.  I wrote on 70 sides of a page in a journal sized book.  My last entry at the airport in Port-au-Prince was thank you God for this experience. What is it that you are going to send us to do next?  It will be interesting to see what it is.  Retirement is certainly not boring.

Bob

We’re home from Haiti and tired but otherwise happy and healthy.  So much happened to us that I sometimes have trouble keeping things coherent when I talk about it.   I will try to keep my topics limited and deal with them one at a time.

Living conditions were somewhat difficult compared to our life at home.  Bathrooms that didn’t work some of the time and didn’t work well at any time.  Cold showers, flushing toilets by dumping water into them from a bucket, using bottled water for drinking, even brushing teeth, because there is no safe water in Haiti.  Having to use hand sanitizer in place of washing hands most of the time.  Electricity available for only a few hours a day and some days, not at all.   Having to wear bug repellent.  Living in a house greatly in need of work and watching our steps on the stairs and in our bedroom to avoid putting too much weight on the “flexible” floor boards for fear a foot would break through.  Riding to the university on the back of a pickup truck over dusty, deeply rutted roads

When we felt burdened by all these “hardships”, we reminded ourselves that we still had life much better than most Haitians and that we would soon be going back to the luxuries of our regular lives.  It kept us grateful to God for all his gifts.  On our return we had a new appreciation for the infrastructure our tax dollars buy.  We arrived at O’Hare airport late in the evening and appreciated that we could use the bathroom and wash our hands with soap and safe, clean water.  The cleaning crews were working, scrubbing floors and cleaning carpets.  We were impressed by how clean and sparkling everything was.

Bob's Class

Bob’s Class

My class was handicapped by the generally poor education system in Haiti and a culture in which most people don’t look too much to the future – it takes all their energy to get through today.  I had to work with an interpreter, which slows progress dramatically.  The chalkboard was in poor condition. The weather was hot, in the 90s, and humid with no air conditioning. The class was large – more than forty students in a room designed for 30 students.  But the class was eager to learn, easily the most motivated class I have ever taught, and that was motivating and energizing for me.  I generally like a good intellectual challenge.  In the end, I was able to help the students think analytically beyond anything they could have imagined.  They knew that they had grown and were very grateful.  At the end of the class they told me that they would remember me “by the knowledge in their heads”.  I consider it a great privilege and opportunity to meet and work with that group of wonderful young people and I am grateful.

Our Ride to the University

Our Ride to the University

The state of marriage in Haiti is not good.  There are obstacles to even getting married, e.g. everybody must travel to the capital, Port-au-Prince to get a marriage license.  From Jeremie that is a long and expensive trip.  Many do not go to the effort and large numbers do not ever marry.  We learned that marriage for the poor has little or nothing to do with romance, but is always an economic arrangement, and arrangements can change with changes in the economic situation.  We found the Haitian people to be impressed and a little in awe of a couple who have been married for 46 years – it just doesn’t happen there.

Drinking Coconut Milk

Drinking Coconut Milk

Rita discusses the effect our relationship had on people we met and lived with, so I will just talk about my experience of the two of us.   I found myself relaxed and comfortable in the guest house, especially on the veranda.  We spent much of our time there, eating, preparing for classes and visiting with other people.  I always felt connected with Rita there.  We could talk or not.  We each used the other to help us get ideas together for our teaching.  I felt comfortable having Rita to share my misgivings about my teaching at times or to let her know that the living conditions were getting me down.  I knew that she would understand and be my support.  Sometimes she would share her misgivings about teaching something that was new and not comfortable for her.  I appreciated the opportunity to sit outside her classroom and hear what a great and creative teacher she is.  I could assure her that she was very good for her students.  During our stay, I experienced our relationship as quiet, peaceful and very close.  That remains as we are adjusting to being home again.  I have been a little “out of it”, as if I’m not quite sure how to let go, or how much to let go of Haiti and get back to some of the things I should be doing here.

Haitian Girls Playing

Haitian Girls Playing

I expect that it will take some time to sort everything out.  Our students and the people connected with the university are eager for us to return.  We haven’t made any commitment, but maybe we will.  I am very grateful for this opportunity to experience God’s people and their goodness, even in their difficult circumstances.  I will use my students’ last words to me as my prayer to God.  Thank you, thank you, thank you!  I love You!

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About Rita & Bob Boeke

Rita Boeke has experience teaching scripture and with her husband Bob has experience in enriching marriages through workshops and retreats. They post a weekly blog at thewonderofmarriage.com and co-authored Forever and a Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime.
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