By Nickisha Naulie Berlus
Externat St. Joseph was the first school I attended in Aux Cayes, Haiti. I had gotten as far as Preparatoire II, equivalent to the second grade, when my family and I moved to Brooklyn, New York, where we’ve resided for the past 15 years.
Travelling to Thomonde as a translator for Emory Medishare was the first time I had returned to Haiti. So when I saw the Haitian children in their light and dark blue uniforms and the girls with their hair fully adorned by blue ribbons at the Ecole Nationale Mixte de Marmont-I most definitely had a flashback. We must have driven for approximately half an hour before we arrived at the school.
I imagine that some of those kids had to walk for at least an hour to get to school because I remember spotting those same uniforms earlier in the morning walking past Project Medishare’s headquarters. Many of the students seemed very excited at the sight of foreign faces and many of them were kind of caught off guard when I greeted and conversed with them in Kreyol. Why? Did I not blend in? Maybe it was the scrubs…
Almost in every classroom I noticed at least one face not appearing as enthused as the rest no matter how hard I smiled or how friendly I was. Those same faces also tended to be fairly emaciated, with protruding bony cheeks screaming for coverage, and bulging whites of eyes juxtaposed on dark complexions. For a while I wondered, how anyone can care or even manage to focus on reading, writing, and doing math when he/she is hungry and malnourished. I also noticed a group of older women getting the cooking grill, called recho, started behind the school and wondered how that could be serving as a greater incentive for hungry students to attend school daily. Some classes were filled with as many as fifty-five students per teacher. Classes contained a variety of ages.
That day we handed out brown paper goodie bags filled with hygienic products (toothbrush, toothpaste and a bar of soap) one per student- which we had prepared the night before. Teachers received family packs filled with four toothbrushes, a large toothpaste, and four bars of soap. Everyone showed sincere gratitude for our visit bearing gifts. The school principal personally thanked the team with moving words. Students at the pre-school harmoniously repeated “Mesi Medishare” after their teachers and maintained their well-behaved composures just until we walked out after which they immediately tore through their bags to see what it contained.
Maybe, I’m romanticizing this part of the day a little bit too much because there’s a whole reality of socio-economic and political issues as to why Haiti’s situation does not have to be the way it is. But as a medical student interested in international health, and strongly considering returning to Haiti to work, I’m so glad I heard about this trip and acted quickly to accompany Emory Medishare. This trip has re-introduced me to the Haiti I knew and remember. The hospitable, witty, carefree yet hardworking kind of Haiti I don’t ever get to see on the front page of The New York Times or some PBS documentary on violence and political turmoil, or something on the Discovery Channel regarding the exoticism of voodoo in Haiti. Each day I spend in Thomonde, I see the average Haitian working, laughing or smiling, playing, dancing, singing, planting, living/surviving throughout their daily lives declaring normalcy in the face of extreme poverty and pride despite severe stigma from the international sector.
I see the Haiti I love, filled with hope and potential. What I see here in the high peaks of Thomonde is confirming my desire to return after obtaining my MD and establish that change I want to see. Although I miss not being able to see my family in Les Cayes, I couldn’t think of a better way to make a comeback to Haiti.
Nickisha Naulie Berlus is a medical student at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School
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