On our third full day in Haiti, as we were driving through Port-au-Prince an Pétionville, we, again, passed by the tent cities where thousands of displaced Haitians still live. We, again, passed by the piles of rubble and dust that still dot the city, and the blank spots where the rubble has actually been cleared away. We, again, passed by the big pancaked concrete buildings. We, again, passed by the tiny cinder-block shacks, half-destroyed, but patched up, as best they could be, by scraps of blue tarp.
One structure in particular caught my eye. It had once been a large building, though, after the earthquake, only the front piece of it was still standing. Most of the rest of it was a large pile of jagged concrete that had yet to be cleared away. In the front, parallel to the road, part of a single wall was left standing. There was also a piece of the old second story, which now served as the roof of the new structure. Whoever lived there had found a long piece of blue tarp (I assumed it had been part of one of the tents that had been distributed by an aid organization) and had hung it from the overhanging slab of concrete to create another wall for the new “house.”
A small square of concrete floor extended past the end of the long, tunnel-like house. I couldn’t tell whether the section of concrete outside the half-tent, half-house had originally been part of the house’s interior floor or its front porch, but, either way, it was its front porch now, and the Haitian man who lived there was standing on this tiny porch with a broom and sweeping it, kicking up tiny puffs of dust as he went. And, while he swept away the bits of dust from the tiny porch of his makeshift home, the giant mound of rubble and dust and sharp slices of concrete twice as tall as he was loomed behind him.
When you’re in Port-au-Prince, it seems like a dusty city. Partly this is because of the poor conditions of the roads: In many places, the roads are gravel, so everywhere you drive you kick up a cloud of dust. But the city’s dustiness is also a result of the destruction that still lies about the city, fourteen months after the January 12 earthquake. The earthquake turned 250,000 homes into dust in a single instant, and each time a gust of wind blows, it sweeps a little of that dust up into the atmosphere.
I inadvertently brought a little bit of this dust back with me when we came back from Haiti. It was on my shoes: They’d turned almost white with dust by the time we’d left. But the dust on my shoes didn’t last long. As I was walking around downtown Boston in the snow last Monday, the dust slowly washed away and my shoes resumed their normal color.
While we were in Haiti, however, it was hard not to notice all the dust circulating in the air, especially since the day we arrived was just five days after Ash Wednesday, and its reminder that everything we claim to own and even our own selves will one day break back down into dust. I know most Haitians are Catholic, and I assume that most of them had celebrated Ash Wednesday in much the same way we had. But it occurred to me that in Haiti, Ash Wednesday and perhaps the entire season of Lent are obsolete. In a country where fifty-six percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, and an additional twenty percent live on between one and two dollars a day, there’s no reason to fast because all of life is a fast.
While we were visiting the Saint Joseph’s Home for Boys, we looked out over the home’s reconstruction efforts, and on the other side, we saw a building of two or three stories that had had collapsed and was still lying there in a heap. Our guide from the Home for Boys pointed at it and said, “We still believe there are two bodies underneath that rubble.”
Saint Benedict told his followers that, if they wanted to be holy, they should “keep death daily before their eyes.” In Haiti, where you wake up each morning and look out your window and the first thing you see is your neighbor’s grave, this doesn’t take any special spiritual effort.
The problems facing our Haitian brothers and sisters are unimaginably big. Not only must they clear away what remains of the rubble and the dust and rebuild, but they must also confront the problems that predate the January 12 earthquake: Extreme poverty, a decimated environment, and a political system that’s known barely any stability during Haiti’s two-hundred year history. Everywhere we went, we saw Haitians trying to fix these problems, but like the man sweeping his porch with the mountain of concrete in the background, their efforts seemed tiny in comparison with the work to be done. Yet the Haitian people are hope-filled and they continue to keep at the work laid before them.
Back in the States, there is much thinking to be done about how we contribute to those problems and our obligations to build with the Haitian people. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Port-au-Prince is less than two hours from Miami by plane, the rubble and the dust can seem like they exist in an entirely different world. It doesn’t take long for the dust of Haiti to wash off in the Boston snow. May those of us who have just returned from this journey be a little bit of Haiti’s dust for you, and for everyone else we meet—dust that clings to your shoes and doesn’t wash off so easily.