When one of my Italian midwife friends heard that I had left Haiti, she wrote to me and said something along the lines of, “I can understand completely your decision; it is very hard to find space to care for ourselves in Haiti.” Since I’ve been back—and had time to somewhat process my sadness and guilt about leaving, and how frantic I felt when I got back—I’ve thought a lot about what she said. It is hard. I arrived in Haiti feeling excited, energized, hopeful, and optimistic…and I returned feeling desperate, overwhelmed, and burned out. Full of love for the country and the many friends I made there, yes, but also utterly exhausted, both spiritually and emotionally.
For me, Haiti is a country that can chew you up and spit you out. Bearing witness to the crushing need day after day can both break your heart and harden it. I know I grew far more accustomed to seeing and carrying corpses than anybody ever should, but if you cried over every dead body in Haiti, your tears would never stop. The decades and decades of foreign aid (and now, “voluntourism”) have also bred a culture where handouts are the norm and asking for things is de rigueur, which can be a confounding challenge—growing up in a wealthy country, I was completely unprepared for the level and type of demands. I was used to saying yes in every volunteer situation and came with a heart and mind wide open to give everything I possibly could…but I learned the hard way that this can empty you quickly—in a place where people will literally ask you for the clothes off of your back, you must, must be prepared to say no and to focus on the appropriate ways in which you can contribute. I also struggled with feelings of guilt because despite living in what most Westerners would consider Spartan conditions, I knew that we had much more than many others in the country. I felt like I never had the right to complain or feel badly. I often heard others saying, “We are here to work,” which although true…can be a destructive sentiment if it’s used to minimize or brush aside legitimate issues or problems. We are in Haiti to work, yes, but we are also there to live, and we are as deserving of care and compassion as the people we are there to work alongside.
That said, there are many ways you can care for yourself (and others!) while you’re in Haiti, and I think it’s vitally important to make them a priority while you’re there.
Yoga mat! My sister teased me about using one quarter of my packing space for a yoga mat…but I was grateful for that decision every day! Depending on where you live, there may not be many options for physical activity or personal space…so having a mat and a few DVDs (I like Rodney Yee) can be a lifesaver. Yoga became a fond ongoing joke with my Haitian friends (the security guards seemed especially fascinated) and was a great bonding experience with the other volunteers—I ended up leading multi-national “classes” in the unfinished kitchen at the villa.
Play. One of the best ways to blow off steam was to go across the street and play with the kids that lived at FWAL. They were always up for a game of soccer, some jump rope, or just talking, singing, and being silly. Their attention and affection could easily erase cares and worries for a while and put a smile back on your face.
Playing games with other volunteers was also great—although Cards Against Humanity (an “adult” version of Apples to Apples) might not be for everybody, we cried from laughter when some American visitors brought this game out! We weren’t sure it would translate well for non-native English speakers…but Jenga is also another great option that can be played in any language.
Music. One of my neighbors at the villa was a lovely German woman who liked to sing—I hesitated initially when she asked me if I’d ever like to sing with her, but once I started, many of the other volunteers at the villa joined us and we had a great time with “choir practice” and singing at mass. Her husband played the guitar, as did another Haitian friend and French and Irish volunteers…it’s a great way to connect in any language. Some of my best memories from Haiti are singing or listening to talented friends play.
Travel. Sometimes you need to get out of the fray to clear your mind and remind yourself of your purpose in Haiti. We were able to get to Jacmel shortly before I left and it was amazing!!! The beauty and culture of Haiti are everywhere, but in Jacmel, you are also safe to journey and walk around. Bassin Bleu is not to be missed (http://bassin-bleu.com/). We stayed at the hotel Cyvadier Plage, run by a friend and her Haitian-German husband, and I would highly recommend it! (http://hotelcyvadier.com/page7.html)
Connect with home. One of the reasons I came to Haiti was because I love foreign languages and cultures, and the opportunity to be immersed in another country is a gift. That said, the intensity and lack of mobility in a developing country can make your worldview eventually seem as tiny as it initially did enormous. It’s easy to forget who you were before you came and why you came in the first place. Using WhatsApp to text on a daily basis and Skype as much as possible with family and friends can help to keep some perspective and remember that there’s a world outside of your country and organization.
Kindle and stateside library membership. I love reading and books and swore I’d never use an e-reader…but I was convinced to get a Kindle before I left and was extremely grateful in the end! I brought some print books with me and there were plenty in the share library at the villa, but with membership at my local library at home, I was able to check out anything I wanted online and have it available instantly. (Although I didn’t need it for work, it could also be extremely useful for accessing reference books, etc.)
Write. I initially hesitated to start a blog because I wasn’t sure what I’d write about or if I’d want to keep it up…but it was one of the best decisions I made in Haiti. Writing can be an excellent way to sort through your thoughts and feelings, and a blog can also be a great way to make new connections. The positive feedback and encouragement I got from people at home who were reading my writing could be really uplifting when I was feeling disheartened.
Green. Day trips to Kenscoff and Wynne farm (http://wynnefarm.org/) were a great breath of fresh air!
Prayer/Reflection. We were able to go to mass daily if we wanted, and even volunteers that weren’t religious found services to be peaceful and a good space for reflection. I also really appreciated some weekend retreats that were organized by a nun friend; it was a great opportunity to process our time spent and connect with the other volunteers who had more experience and wisdom.
Ideally, we can always find the time and means to care well for ourselves and others. But inevitably, it will be challenging, and we will probably fail now and again. I know I did sometimes in Haiti, and I’m sure I will again…. When that happens, I like to think of something that I read recently: ”A broken heart is an open heart.”
by Katie Lawler on June 4, 2015
Be sure to check out Katie’s personal blog @ http://katiemarielawler.blogspot.com/ for more stories from her life and work at the Saint Damien’s Pediatric Hospital in Tabarre, Haiti.