Photo Mission to Haiti Taught Many Life Lessons
Cassie Butler, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, worked as a photojournalism intern with The Pilot three summers ago.
More recently, she interned with PineStraw magazine before leaving a few days ago for a six-month photo assignment in Central America.
Here she tells about an earlier trip she took to earthquake-stricken Haiti.
I went to help Haiti. But in the end, Haiti helped me.
As I depart for another, longer stay in Nicaragua, I remember that other poor, poor country, which taught me much more than I could ever put into words.
Cassie Butler's Trip to Haiti
Here are some of the photos that Cassie Butler took during her journey to Haiti.
It’s like that quote from the movie “The Blind Side,” when Sandra Bullock’s friend says, “You’re changing that boy’s life,” and she replies, “No. He’s changing mine.”
For three months, I visually documented All Hands Volunteers’ relief efforts, an American nonprofit that feeds and houses volunteers at no cost. In addition to producing videos and taking pictures for the organization, while living in an open-air structure, I experienced earthquake aftershocks, the cholera epidemic, flooding from Hurricane Tomas and civil unrest in response to Haiti’s fraudulent presidential election.
When I found myself in the Port-au-Prince airport last August, I remember thinking: What have I gotten myself into? I had little to no notice, and suddenly I was beginning a three-month adventure in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I still don’t know how to answer that question I asked myself in what seems like a half-remembered dream.
The dream began with my first glimpses on the three-hour drive to Leogane, the city closest to the 2010 earthquake’s epicenter: A man biking with a rooster dangling upside-down from the handlebars with burlap covering the poor creature’s head; a woman in an alley injecting her chest with a hypodermic needle; a man packed like one of many sardines in a public van, balancing a large TV in his lap.
Remnants of the earthquake were impossible to miss. Tent cities were a blur of tarps. Rubble piles stood everywhere, even in the street blocking road access. Homes were diminished to mere rubble mounds, and one flattened house still had its potted plants intact on the collapsed patio slab.
But despite the rivers of disgust that overflow onto the streets, despite the litter everywhere you look, despite the stray dogs and goats and pigs that roam wherever they please, there is so much beauty to be seen in Haiti.
I can list the things I found comfort in and the things I miss, like the uncanny blue sky; the sun’s warmth paired with the occasional breeze that makes you close your eyes and smile; the night sky free of light pollution and its innumerable shooting stars, if you just take the time to watch them; the underwater galaxies you see when swimming in the ocean’s phosphorescent algae at night, the glowing flecks making you wonder if someone slipped you hallucinogens; the easily entertained Haitians with their continual laughter and contagious smiles and the beautiful contrast between teeth and skin; the humble church services, a genuine, grateful congregation dressed in their Sunday best despite their poverty.
So Much Need Remains
As I find myself reminiscing about my time down south, don’t misunderstand me. Haiti has its own problems just like every country and every person in the world. It will take Haiti a long time to recover from its worst earthquake in more than 200 years, if it ever will.
“Men anpil chay pa lou,” a Haitian Creole proverb, says. “With many hands the work is light.” But this is a hopeful understatement. An estimated 300,000 people died in 35 seconds of sheer terror, and more than a million people are still displaced more than a year later. There is still so much that needs to be done.
With most events advertised with free food, a lot of young people show up. And that’s the case with All Hands in Haiti. The international volunteers basically live free of charge for however long they like, as long as they are willing to do manual labor in return for the beans and rice, bucket showers and bunk beds provided by the organization.
These volunteers are escaping much more than rent, utility bills and rising gas prices. They are escaping commitments, career decisions and unsatisfying jobs. Most people probably volunteer for at least one selfish reason, which doesn’t take away from the fact that they are giving up a lot to go to Haiti.
But what the volunteers do not expect is that they will leave Haiti changed. I admit, I am no different. I went to Haiti with selfish reasons in the foreground — to boost my resume, to travel — but I came home changed, just as everyone predicted.
In Haiti, I learned about gluttony. A new friend gave me the “ins and outs” when I first arrived at the All Hands base: “Sometimes we are served rice and beans. Other days, beans and rice.”
The idea of free food sounded good, but it only took a few weeks for me to begin despising what we were served. When deprived of food variety, people become ravenous. No matter how much you like fried chicken, rice, bleach-water-washed iceberg lettuce and tomatoes, eating it for lunch and dinner every single day gets old.
I swear, unwrapping a candy bar can be heard a thousand feet away in the All Hands base. Unwrapping anything wrapped in plastic, for that matter, draws a beady-eyed crowd. The times I had a special snack I wanted to eat without a swarm of beggars, I would go to the bathroom or the luggage room to scarf it down secretly. At the time, I considered it survival, my primal instincts kicking in, but it was definitely gluttony.
‘Life Goes On’
When I returned to Southern Pines, I hardly ate. Just knowing delicious food options were at my endless disposal was enough to abate my hunger. Now, looking back, I realize how blessed the volunteers and I were to have food every day. The Haitians living around us did not have that luxury.
The first time I volunteered at the nearby baby orphanage, a Haitian mother dropped off her beautiful 4-year-old daughter, whom she could no longer care for. The little girl was wearing a new white dress, and her hair was braided. She looked so put-together, but she was devastated. The Haitian staff didn’t even blink an eye at the girl, who fell to the floor in tears, crying for the mother she probably would never see again.
The orphanage staff must have become immune to these things, just as I had become immune to the earthquake’s architectural destruction, where collapsed buildings turned into helpful landmarks for me to orient myself. From the Haitians, I learned how important it is to be strong and hopeful in times of recovery.
In November, I experienced Mother Nature’s force, but not nearly to the extent of the January 2010 earthquake. Thankfully, Hurricane Tomas produced minimal fatalities, but in the wake of the storm, flooding intensified the ongoing cholera outbreak and indirectly caused more casualties.
The knee-high floodwaters invaded homes and destroyed what little valuables families still owned. The city’s hospital was closed for a week because of flooding, even with the desperate need for medical attention.
Despite the gloomy situation only 10 months after the crippling earthquake, locals were resilient and optimistic. Junior Andres Leopold, one of All Hands’ local volunteers, told me, “The way I see things, it’s just clothes that I lost and I don’t know yet where I’m going to find the money to buy more. Nevertheless, I feel good — I’m alive, I’m not dead. Life goes on for me.”
Learning About Sacrifice
From the volunteers, I learned about sacrifice. I met fathers and mothers with young children back home, along with a newly married couple spending their honeymoon doing hard manual labor to kick off their marriage. After deployment in Afghanistan, one U.S. Marine came to volunteer almost immediately after the earthquake, and he is still there today, leading All Hands’ rubble demolition projects.
I befriended people who quit well-paying investment banking jobs in New York, people who sold all their belongings to buy a plane ticket and volunteer long-term. Some of these international volunteers resemble the Haitians, who are without a home and without valuables. Everyone becomes comfortable in his or her environment. We have eye-opening moments that put things into perspective for us, but how soon we forget and slip back into complaining about our plight.
Americans take some of the most basic, necessary things for granted. When we’re thirsty, we simply walk to our sink or fridge and fill a glass of clean water. Almost a billion people on the planet do not have access to this kind of safe drinking water. And today, one in eight children in Haiti do not live to see their fifth birthday because of preventable waterborne illnesses. In Africa alone, people spend 40 billion hours every year just walking for water.
I am a passionate visual storyteller. I feel called to shed light on darkness, to give a voice to the voiceless, to be an informer and a reformer. This summer, with my camera in tow, I feel prepared for Nicaragua, as if I know what to expect. I’m excited, optimistic, nervous, petrified, curious, cautious. But I know nothing can truly prepare me for the experiences ahead.
Follow Cassie Butler’s travels and experiences by reading her monthly updates in PineStaw, or by visiting her blog at www.cassieangeline.com/haiti.
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