Nurturing water of life
Colorado Haiti project works to clean drinking sources
By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer
EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which started on Sunday and concludes today, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption. This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.
This is where the river starts.
Sharp raindrops boom from the Haitian sky like buckshot. They splatter mud as they plunge into the guts of the island, about an hour and a half by plane south of Florida.
Amid the mess, Dr. Warren Berggren, of Golden, looks superimposed. His blue button-down is spotless and wrinkle-free. He smiles.
The St. Paul's Mission site, six hours south of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, heaves under the mud. The trees wrinkle from so much water.
The moisture enlists the air forces, malaria-laced mosquitoes, just one of the area's many health threats. The bugs kamikaze against the screens of the rectory porch, where Berggren sits in darkness, camouflaged between silhouettes of the other three Colorado Haiti Project volunteers. It's dinnertime.
Berggren, 76, balances on a wooden chair with lopsided legs. He watches the water war from the safety of the porch. He smiles as the skies reload their artillery with a click of lightning. He smiles, because he knows the earth wants to lose this battle. Haiti's soil is parched. It stretches out its arms and welcomes the blows, which will drip down the tree-starved mountains and join the Bakonwa Spring, the source of life.
The mid-February tropical storm isn't the only fight in progress. The Boulder-based Colorado Haiti Project has its own: against the poverty that has kidnapped this proud nation, once considered the emerald of the Caribbean. Only poverty doesn't back down so easily.
The project has rallied more than 100 Coloradans, mostly Boulderites, who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years. In 2005, the capital fund reached $273,000, plus an additional $95,000 for programs and jobs for Haitians, including teachers and construction workers.
The strategy is risky - never attempted before in Haiti by a nonprofit. But, as the volunteers see it, a big battle demands bigger guns. By the weight of their dream - to hoist up an entire community to the bottom rung of poverty so the residents can begin climbing upward themselves - you wouldn't know the project operates on a tight budget out of the St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Boulder.
The strategy centers around the St. Paul's Mission, near Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti. Here, volunteers have constructed a sort of oasis of hope, complete with a school, church, guest house and rectory, standing for the goals of the project: education, spiritual growth and health care.
Berggren is rallying soldiers for the health-care front.
Don't be fooled by his thin frame or his age. Berggren has been training for this battle most of his life. He lived in Haiti for 15 years. He studied and taught at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's an expert in tropical public health. He can distinguish between the mosquitoes that carry diseases and the "harmless pests" as easily as if telling apart cats from dogs.
Berggren's immune system is iron, his mind is a switchblade and his heart is as sweet and easy to melt as ice cream.
He watches the rain and smiles, as if he knows something the others don't. Which, of course, is an understatement.
Berggren has a plan.
A poisonous spider the size of an apple crouches near the bed on the second floor of the St. Paul's guest house. On the first floor, Berggren'a wobbly voice echoes off the walls in a room that looks like a jail cell.
The area's top leaders listen from wooden benches, perched with perfect posture and hygiene, a reflection of the stubborn Haitian dignity still holding its breath in a deep well of suffering. The leaders and Berggren gather to determine the future of the Colorado Haiti Project.
Berggren and the other three Colorado volunteers are staying in the guest house. So are St. Paul's church assistants, teachers, cooks, maintenance workers, as well as some graduates of the school and some of their friends. Cement buildings this fancy are rare - it has electricity several hours each day - so the rooms are also used as classrooms or meeting halls.
In the same way that Berggren's immaculate clothes looked misplaced amid last night's rainstorm, St. Paul's Mission doesn't look like it belongs in Haiti.
Outside St. Paul's cactus-covered gate, a bus spins out stuck in the mud. Bodies dangle from the roof and back, absorbing the splattering mud and growing antsy with the likelihood of having to walk hours home through muck too thick for vehicles to forge.
Down the road, Frantz Torchen, 29, lives in a typical 120-square-foot, clay-floored hut with his wife, four children and 95-year-old grandmother. Torchen attended St. Paul's Elementary School, but dropped out in 1998 to try to find a job. He is still unemployed. Also typical. Seventy percent of the country has no work.
His house has space for one mattress and two chairs. And a nonfunctioning TV with a turn-dial. His house doesn't have electricity. The TV is a status symbol - a mark of pride - even covered in dust and blankets.
Torchen's wife, Katia, wakes at dawn to make spaghetti, which is breakfast and dinner. She walks two hours to and from the spring to fill jugs with water.
Thirty percent more women and girls than men fetch water for their families, the program says. The water loads are often startling. A donkey lugs 28 gallon jugs: 210 pounds. A woman balances seven jugs in a dishpan on her head: 53 pounds.
The Torchen dinner table is the joint grave of Torchen's parents. His family eats and hangs out on the stone caskets outside their hut. Life revolves around death.
Torchen's grandmother is blind, and her chest bones protrude where her dress hangs too low. She cries. She kisses a foreign face that hovers close to hers.
"You can have everything I own, " she tells the volunteers in French. But she doesn't own anything.
The Colorado Haiti Project started with medical missions. About two dozen Colorado doctors and assistants popped up portable clinics for one week a few times a year, offering free care for about 100 people a day. They set broken bones, treated abscesses and helped children who fell or rolled into open fires.
Haiti has no public hospitals, and nearly half of the country doesn't have basic health care. That's one reason the average life expectancy hovers around 50.
The country has the highest maternal death rate in the Western Hemisphere. The child mortality rate in Haiti is 13 times that of the United States.
A nurse at the primary school tells of the corpse of a 5-day-old infant brought in recently from the Grand Ravine area. A classic story of a child born healthy who began having chest spasms and trouble breathing. Now dead. The mother wasn't immunized against tetanus. Hardly anyone in Grand Ravine is. The nearest clinic is three arduous hours away. Vaccinating personnel rarely visit, and residents rarely leave.
The volunteers could have done medical trips forever, says Don Snyder, president of the project's board of directors, from Boulder. He didn't attend February's trip.
But, he says, the clinics were merely a Band-Aid.
"Why have a health clinic without fixing the water? Most patients you see drink bad water, " he says.
Students can't study if they're dying. They can't start a business without money. And they can't keep the momentum going without knowing how. The Colorado Haiti Project realized all pieces were interrelated. Their oasis was born.
Back in the guest house, Berggren unleashes the plan he's been grinning about all week.
It's simple, but unprecedented in Petit Trou. It takes him two days to explain, plus a 45-minute debate over his suggestion that women conduct the survey. Residents argue women can't crawl around the hills like the men. Berggren laughs, remembering the dozens of times he clamored up the rocks using both hands while women glided past him, no hands, balancing tubs on their heads.
"The houses here don't have cornerstones, " Berggren says. "Women are often referred to as the center pole. You pull them out and the whole thing collapses."
So it's settled. Women will visit the hundreds of huts in the 19 villages St. Paul's serves and ask them questions to create a measuring point for the project's successes and needs. Berggren will stay at St. Paul's until they census is done, for weeks after the other volunteers go home.
He expects one problem to rise to the top: clean water.
Only a quarter of the people in rural areas have safe drinking water. More than a third of the deaths of all Haitian children stem from contaminated drinking water.
The Bakonwa Spring is more than five miles from St. Paul's Mission. Two boys stride with clunky white jugs as hands. They wear no pants and platforms of mud under their arches instead of shoes. They should be in school. Instead. the boys hurry past mules and shaggy goats. They pass a man sitting at an empty desk in the middle of the road. That's the bank.
As they draw closer to the spring, the trees look like they're blooming with tattered clothes, hung out to dry. The shores are colored with blankets, buckets and residents, mostly women and girls. Thousands of jugs are filled here daily. The spring is the hub the community, as a hang-out, as well as the only source of water.
The jugs bubble and groan as the boys hold them under water to fill them. Upstream, a man washes mud off his donkey, and the animal defecates in the stream. Naked children bathe and leap from limestone ledges. Women wash clothes. The two boys gulp from their jugs before sealing them. The water is dysentery or hepatitis A waiting to happen.
The Colorado Haiti Project hopes to some day run a waterline to St. Paul's. It'd cost about a quarter of a million dollars. But first, the Haitians they hired need to finish building the school. Later this year, the project will begin offering micro-loans so residents can start businesses and stimulate the economy. About 65 percent of the Haitian economy comes from international aid. The average Haitian lives on the equivalent of less than $1 a day.
There's also the leaky ceiling in the guest house. The grading on the school building that leaves puddles of standing water; mosquitoes love that. The cook needs to keep the chickens and dogs out of the kitchen. Maybe the project will add health-education programs.
What happens now depends on the survey. If the thrust comes from the locals, they'll be more invested, Berggren says. Hopefully that will equal sustainability.
The Colorado Haiti Project is constantly changing, but it's always moving in the same direction. Like a river.
It starts in lofty mountain shelves, sometimes with the bang of thunder, other times with a drizzle of water squeezed from the ground - a grassroots organization, like this one.
Boulderite and longtime Colorado Haiti Project volunteer Pat Laudisio spends the rest of the afternoon on the bank, watching the children work and splash. A Bible verse, Amos 5:24, is lodged in her mind: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
"We live in an unjust world and extreme poverty is one of the results, " Laudisio says. "We are all part of one creation and we are all co-creators. ... In the struggle to survive, the people of Haiti reveal life, with all its richness and pain, and within their souls - and ours - the same God lives."
Water gives life, she says, and everyone, including the Haitian community, has a responsibility to keep the water clean and flowing freely.
If left alone, the river Laudisio watches is deadly.
As she sees it, this is where the river of life starts.