Touching Hunger in Haiti

girlhaitiby Amy M. King

I met hunger in Haiti and didn’t know we’d been introduced.

She didn’t look like my mind’s pictures. Bloated bellies on naked children and the destitute searching through trash heaps were nowhere to be found in crowded Port-au-Prince, nor in the land-locked regional capital of Hinche.

In the central Trois-Roches village, walking past tall African-descendent women balancing wash and grain on slender necks, I met hunger just outside an American-funded well. Wrapped in red gingham, teeth clenched around a roasted corncob, the child looked into my white face with uncertainty while her brothers pumped water into a bucket.

“What does hunger in Haiti look like?” I asked, touching her head, then loading into a four-wheel drive, snorkeled truck.

“That was her.”

Not only had I met hunger, I touched her. Rested my hands on the red-tipped sprigs of hair that symbolized kwashiorkor, a protein and energy deficiency. Realized I couldn’t guess her age because of the disease’s stunting tendencies.

I found hunger when I knew how to look for her. A boy’s heart beating through skin stretched tight over ribs. The incidence of anemia in a mountainside clinic.

Our team of four set out on our journey with a two-hour plane ride stretching from the melting pot of Miami to Haiti, from this hemisphere’s richest nation to its poorest.

Hailing from a suburb of America’s most influential city, our group from Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., traveled to Haiti, seeking how we can “spend ourselves” in behalf of their hungry. It is a mission our church is addressing Great Commission-style: in Falls Church, Southwest Virginia, Haiti and India.

In Haiti, that means working alongside World Vision, a Christian humanitarian charity tackling the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide. For more than 25 years, World Vision has met needs in Haiti from building latrines and wells to initiating education projects to training local farmers.

It was a five-day trip to gain God’s vision for how we can invest in hunger – physically and spiritually – for the next 15 to 20 years.

Our search for Haiti’s hungry took us to the interior Central Plateau region of the mountainous Caribbean country, roughly the size of Maryland. In Port-au-Prince, we gathered at the local airport to hop aboard a Mission Aviation Fellowship flight, having our bodies, bags and water bottles weighed before we were strategically placed in a five-seater Cessna.

Within 20 minutes, after flying over mogul-like mountains long stripped of their original forest, our plane circled the regional hub of Hinche. Our pilot eyeballed the dirt runway before landing alongside grazing goats and donkeys moved for our announced arrival.

We landed on market day. Loading into white sport utility vehicles set apart from the United Nation’s only by a lack of black letters on the side, we joined the steady stream of children riding donkeys and mothers carrying baskets to the center of town.

Squeezing between children sucking on sweet kanep fruit and shop tables draped with sleeping children in the mid-day heat, we met our first seller. The widowed mother of 10 stood before her CVS-like wares – along with a few colored scarves for voodoo ceremonies – explaining that she works each month to pay off the interest on her rent and start-up costs rather than making a real income.

Another lady sells four potatoes for approximately 20 cents. She makes $3.50 a day and cannot afford to feed her family, an overwhelming norm in a country where 80 percent of the people exist on less than $2 a day. It is a country where proud people who once threw off the chains of French colonization are now slaves to barren, parched soil for their next meal.

There are many problems in Haiti. We heard them first-hand from villagers as we traveled around Hinche, dialoguing with four rural communities Columbia could potentially target, asking them about their needs, greatest assets and collective vision for their village.

From each elderly man, nursing mother and child we heard similar concerns: We have plant diseases and few tools. Our children cannot afford to go to school, or they must live far away to attend one. Water and environmental problems give our families diarrhea and other problems and we don’t have adequate medical facilities to treat them.

Yet, beyond the visible and spoken needs, we saw great reason to hope in colorful Haiti; in these villages where World Vision’s work has already begun. Mothers’ clubs meeting in open fields, discussing nutrition and hygiene to ensure their children in the critical stage of 0-24 months don’t face preventable death. Clinics providing medical services to sponsored children and residents. Some villages planting their own vision, building a new school or farming fruit and forest trees with the help of World Vision technicians.

In one community, we found both initiative and need. Delayed by a tire repair, we rolled into Savanne Plate at 4 p.m. – two hours behind schedule but nine since they’d gathered under trees to await our arrival.

Walking in a river of humanity to a village church, we filled the wooden benches and still others peered through slats. After a speak-and-response introduction of our leaders and theirs, we heard from all types of residents:

Man: “In spite of the fact that World Vision gets us food, the idea is for us to grow our own food. One thing is to catch some springs for irrigation.”

Elderly man: “We consider ourselves as ignorant people. We need training. We need you to help us better know how to serve our community.”

Young boy: “I love my community. It’s where my friends are.”

In Savanne Plate, we found both undeniable need and thought-out plans. We met real poverty but also found young people willing to stay and invest in their community, rather than migrate to Port-au-Prince or the Dominican Republic where work but perhaps prostitution or servitude await them. And we found churches to partner alongside to share the vision that poverty is not God’s will for them.

In each village along the jarring mountain roads, we found welcoming handshakes, honest discussion and potential for Kingdom growth. Yet Savanne Plate is the specific field where we feel God is calling Columbia.

That call may take the form of donating micro-irrigation systems. Or creating a stocked lake for water and protein. Or sponsoring children so education, health and nutrition improve. But we have found a place where we pray to create sustainable growth rather than foreigner dependence. Where Columbia can have more impact than a weeklong mission trip and our lives will be changed.

Before our trip really began, standing in line to board the plane from Miami to Port-au-Prince, a lady with pigtails clothed in an Eeyore flannel jacket and paisley skirt turned to me.

“Are you missionaries?” she asked. “You’re white, so I assume you are.”

Glancing around me at the few clusters of “pale-skinned people,” I could see her point. We were the only ones without matching hot pink or blue or yellow t-shirts with the words “Haiti Mission Trip” emblazoned on the back.

Doing mission work in Haiti is not a new concept. Church groups have long traveled the two hours just beyond our borders to combat poverty in Jesus’ name. Yet, Columbia is seeking to do it in a way that lasts far beyond a weeklong effort. To ignite passion for Jesus Christ from metro Washington to the world…even to the interior of Haiti.

more stories about Haiti

The Volunteer Experience: What would a volunteer trip to Haiti look like? What would you eat? Where would you stay? What are the people like?

One Face of Hunger: Meet Belizare Nelta through the eyes of Columbian Amy King.

A Prayer for Haiti: Join Columbians praying for the people of Haiti and the Spend Yourself ministry using the following prayer or one of your own.