Who will all our sorrows share?
I received an email a few days ago from Dr. Steve James in Limbe, “As the skies above us darken with the approaching tropical storm Tomas, new cholera cases appear in Cap Haitian and the north of Haiti.”
In Steve’s newsletter, he writes honestly about the difficulty of preparing for the cholera epidemic, but also of his hope that the epidemic can be halted. The first case of cholera at little Ebenezer Clinic was treated successfully: a 12-year-old boy sent home with his parents. Recovering from this latest catastrophe in Haiti will take enormous effort and skill, but it is not impossible.
When I visited the north of Haiti in March, three months after the earthquake, nearly everyone I spoke with had lost family or friends to the tremblemen de ter, or had refugees living with them, sharing their beds and food. Everyone had been touched by death. There were mass graves in Port-au-Prince. The smell of decomposition c lung to their c lothes. But they hadn’t given up. One young man was organizing a program to ensure that the refugee c hildren who weren’t enrolled in school had enough food to eat. Others were driving down to Port-au-Prince every week to rebuild houses, dress wounds, dig wells. When they spoke of what they hoped for, it was not extravagant: enough to eat; a c lean, dry place to sleep; kids in school; work that satisfied; a good death in old age.
While I was there, I attended the funeral of a woman who had died of natural causes at the age of 72–having survived an earthquake, half a dozen military coups, an embargo, two dictatorships and severe hurricanes. At a time when it felt impossible to adequately mourn all the lives that had been lost, her funeral filled the Baptist church to overflowing. Afterward, a brass band, several singing groups and hundreds of mourners filed out onto the dirt-packed road to walk in stately ceremony behind the casket, the band playing with doleful cadence, “Can we find a friend so faithful? Who will all our sorrows share?”
The majority of the mourners were not wealthy—many were tailors, wash-women, carpenters and cooks—but they walked regally, dressed in carefully pressed suits and prom dresses which they had purchased second-hand from the piles of pépé c lothes at the markets. They hid their sturdy, calloused feet in delicate high heels and navigated the potholes with poise. Their dresses had been washed in river-water, their suits pressed on wooden boards with c harcoal-heated irons. I felt humbled by their pride, by the high cost they paid for their dignity.
This past weekend, as everyone feared, Hurricane Tomas tore through Haiti, leaving behind substantial damage to an already fragile rebuilding effort. According to one estimate, 30% of the temporary shelters in Port-au-Prince were destroyed. And the cholera is spreading. Last week, at Ebenezer C linic, there were only five cholera patients. This week there are twenty-five, in a tiny c linic off a dirt road in Limbe. Nursing students from the nearby university are helping to administer IVs. There is so much to do. But we must resist the temptation to categorize the Haitians as victims. They may know what it is to suffer, but they also know what it is to endure.