The first time I saw true starvation and deep destitute poverty with my own eyes was when I did a semester abroad in Chile my junior year of college. During that time I spent some time living in the slums of Santiago and in the rural mountain villages of the Andes. There was desperation there and it changed me. I had seen what I had known as poverty before-- I had grown up in an area where rural poverty was not uncommon, and I had worked in urban day camps in the U.S. during summers as a teenager-- but what I saw in Chile shocked me. It was that "third world poverty" that you don't really understand until you actually are on the ground witnessing it with your entire soul. I thought I'd seen the worst of what it could be. And the truth is, that what I saw was extreme. But I was very naive about just how extreme it could really be. As I think the vast majority of us are. Throughout our twenties Braydon and I travelled quite a bit. We saw extreme poverty (especially in places like the Dominican Republic and Mexico and South Africa), and we saw extreme wealth (in our own country and everywhere else). The disparities always fascinated, and disturbed, us. During much of that time Braydon and I lived in a pretty hard core, predominantly Hispanic and African-American section of Jamaica Plain in Boston. We saw, and experienced, real heart-wrenching poverty right there in our own neighborhood. But nothing --absolutely nothing-- could have prepared us for our trip to Haiti to get our boys in January of 2005.
We were well-read on Haiti. We had watched documentaries. We had talked, in depth, with people who had traveled there. Yet still, we were shocked to the core. It was mind numbing and all we could think, over and over and over, was: "This is a humanitarian crisis to the greatest degree." What we saw, smelled, heard, tasted, and felt shifted our entire perspective on the world. It was altering. I have not met a person who has been to Haiti who didn't have a similar experience. There is something about it that is indescribable. It shakes you. The profound depths of the injustice, the merciless inhumanity, the atrocities... it goes beyond anything I had ever previously imagined.
From our hotel room we could see some of Port au Prince. I vividly remember just staring out at it blankly, a baby boy in my arms, the filthy smoky air making me have to squint my eyes, just thinking, "Oh my God, how are we going to explain this to our children? How are we going to educate them about their roots? How can we possibly equip them to bring them back here someday?" Braydon and I spent hours talking about it in that hotel room in Haiti, and we have spent countless hours talking about it since coming home. What we could see from our hotel was miles and miles of shanty-like cinder-block houses, people starting fires at dawn to cook over, and people sweeping out their dirt floors. It was unbelievable to think that Kyle and Owen might have grown up living there. What was too unbelievable to even think was that they would have been lucky to have lived there--- that those areas that we could see were actually the nicer sections of Port au Prince--- and our boys were not from those places. In the relativity that is the deep destitute poverty of Haiti, our boys had been born about as low down as you could possibly get on the "Not Privileged" spectrum.
How do you bring a child out of that, and into the life that we have, and try to empower them with the information that they need to understand their own history?
In the orphanage our boys suffered. Kyle, especially, was sickly and weak. He rarely made a sound for his first eight months (we were told that they had never heard Kyle cry), and he moved very, very slowly. It is a testament to Kyle's inner strength that he survived. Kyle was the more malnourished of the two. But Owen was the more spirited. We heard stories of how Owen would scream, day and night, to demand bottles. This was not looked upon fondly by the nannies at the orphanage, and they treated him badly as a result (read between the lines there). When they ran out of water or formula (which happened often), they would give Owen an empty bottle to try to stop his screaming. He would suck on it, realize quickly that it was empty, and then throw it -- hard -- across the room, screaming wildly. They told us these stories to illustrate how "bad" Owen was. We heard these stories as testament to how amazing and astonishingly resilient Owen was.
Twins can be very different from one another. And to this day, the way our boys handle their early histories is a case in point. Kyle accepts it and seems to just bear it in his soul. Although he is deeply empathetic toward the people of Haiti, so far he expresses no mournfulness about his own past. Owen's spirited soul, on the other hand, still battles it. One of the many ways we see this is in the night. If Owen doesn't eat a dinner that completely fills his belly he will --always-- toss and turn in the night, his whole body writhing, every muscle flexed, until, finally, he wakes screaming in horror and terror with traumatizing nightmares. We have found that the only thing that calms him then is warm milk. And even now, with our five year old 50+ pound boy, we have learned to hold him "like a baby" (often per his own request), and feed him a sippy cup of warm milk. And he sucks and sucks and sucks like an eager hungry infant. And then he can sleep.
Over time we have slowly been giving Kyle and Owen little pieces of information to gather up and process as they begin to piece together their own stories. We have given them much to celebrate about Haiti, and embedded in them a pride in being Haitian. But we began, just this past spring, showing them pictures of some of the more difficult aspects of Haiti. And with those pictures we began talking about what it all means. The first time we showed the boys a photo of Haitian slums Owen's immediate reaction was to ask, "Is that our place?" We knew what he meant, so we answered honestly, "Yes, it is." Our trip to Mexico in May was eye-opening for all of us. For the boys it was eye-opening to see, not in pictures, but first-hand, what deep destitute poverty looks like. It was a lot for them to take in and they had lots of questions. It was eye-opening for Braydon and I to be with them as they began the journey of a discovery that I wish they didn't need to ever know. It was gut-wrenching to see them begin to wrap their minds around some of it.
Progresso, Mexico - taken while on our vacation in May
For a long time now Kyle has wanted to go to Paris, France. He asks us regularly about when he'll be able to go there (how he got this into his head we're not really sure). When we were in the airport getting ready to fly home from Mexico Kyle was telling us how much he wants "our next big trip to be to Paris, France!!!" And then, suddenly, he stopped quick, tensed up, turned, and asked us, "In Paris are they dirt floor houses or real floor houses?" "They are real floor houses," we said. And with a visible sense of relief he exclaimed, "Oh good! Because I don't want to go to places with dirt floor houses. I really don't like dirt floor places. I only like real floor places." And in its perfect honest simplicity, it was clear what he meant: Like so many of us (most all of us?), he would prefer to just turn and look the other way. It is not comfortable to look something terrible in the eye. And like Braydon and I said to each other later, as we discussed Kyle's proclamation-- really now, as Haitian orphan adoptees, really, why on earth, if given the choice, would they ever want to be in "dirt floor places"??? We will always want for them to use the privilege that they have with responsibility; we will always want for them to do good work in the world; we will always want for them to have a heart for Haiti... and we will always understand their desire to be in "real floor places."
Recently at bedtime Owen said this prayer: "Dear God, Thank you that I have a mom and a dad. Thank you that I have this mommy and papi. I really love this mommy and papi. They are the best mommy and papi ever in my whole life. And I have them now, but I didn't have them when I was a baby. And thank you that they adopted me and my brother. Thank you that I have a house that is a strong house that water can't get in when it rains. And I really am sad for the people in Mexico and in Haiti who don't have such strong houses. Amen."
We had talked a bit about poverty, but for a long time I had still been waiting to introduce the concept of starvation to the boys in a real honest way. They knew what the word meant, but they didn't really have a handle on it. Then, one day, the photo at the top of this post appeared on the Livesay Haiti blog. I happened to see it right before I ended work for the day. I was working from home and at that moment Braydon was getting the kids ready to go out to dinner at the boys' favorite restaurant, Carraabas. I knew it was the right way and the right time to really dive into it with Kyle and Owen. I called them in to my office and we looked at the photo of Renald (click here for the original post). We talked about starvation and malnutrition, and we talked about Renald and how old he is and how much he weighed. The boys couldn't stop staring at the photo of Renald, and they got it. And we talked and talked about it. "I wish we could go and get him and take him to Carrabas," Kyle said. Owen said, "I wish I was a pilot and I could just fly a big airplane straight to Haiti and give him a lot of food." We have been talking about Renald, and about all the kids like him, often since.
Recently, over and over, Kyle and Owen ask us, "Did you know we were starving?" And they want (need) to hear us tell the story again and again: "Yes, we knew, and we went as quickly as we could to get you. We went right away, as fast as we possibly could." And we talk about how some starvation is worse than others-- and how they weren't starving as badly as Renald was/is. And we talk about how it is never o.k. (at least not in our family) for any of us to ever use the expression, "I'm starving!" when we really are actually just very hungry. And we talk and we talk and we talk, and we will continue to talk. And the conversations will surely get more sophisticated and more challenging as the years unfold.
And everpresent in our lives is the subject of starvation and deep destitute poverty. And everpresent is the question of "What can we do?"
I first starting reading about Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food a couple of years ago (click here, for example, or just google it). Paul Farmer has been a huge advocate for this, and my thinking on it is that if he advocates for it, then it must be good. The more I learned about it, the more I became a believer that this is a tiny morsel of hope for the people of Haiti and other places like it. Please go here to learn more about it:
And if you possibly can spare 20 minutes of your time, I urge you to watch this series of three short videos:
Malnutrition in Haiti, Part 1: click here
Malnutrition in Haiti, Part 2: click here
Malnutrition in Haiti, Part 3: click here
On May 25th the Livesays posted for the first time about Medika Mamba (Haitian Creole for “peanut butter medicine”/Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food) --click here. And on May 27, Licia from the Real Hope for Haiti Rescue Center wrote about it on her blog-- click here. Through the work of the people on the ground in Haiti, and through the use of Medika Mamba, we can see, viscerally, the power of this approach. Here is Renald, the same boy at the top of this post, after 20 days of being on Medika Mamba-- a full 5 pounds stronger (and 5 pounds is a lot on a 13 pound 3 year old):
For more about Renald click here. And if you're still not convinced that Medika Mamba works, then check out these posts from Real Hope for Haiti -- click here and click here. And if you still need more convincing, then check out these posts from the Livesays blog -- click here, and click here, and click here.
We are all on this planet together. And a lot of us, by sheer circumstance, will never be directly impacted by starvation and deep destitute poverty.
That is how it should be. However, a lot of us, right now, today, by sheer circumstance, are suffering from starvation and deep destitute poverty. That is not how it should be. A small donation of money toward work with Medika Mamba will not shift the huge structures that have led to these circumstances of extreme inequality. But... a small donation will make a difference. A difference that will be felt on the ground in Haiti.
Children at the Real Hope for Haiti Rescue Center, taken a couple of weeks ago.
And now, because I just feel in my heart that I must do this, I need to ask...
Each day there are about 600-700 people reading our blog. We know you are reading because we have a blog meter that tells us so. Some of you are total strangers all around the world who have found us. Others of you are friends, or aquantances, or friends of friends, or family members. Some of you are near, some of you are far. Some of you know us in real life, many of you don't. Some of you have let us know that you read here. Many of you have never let on that you do. All of you know that we give freely on this blog, and that we have never asked you for anything significant in return. You trust that we're not in the business of begging.
But I need to ask...
If you read our blog, will you please pay it forward by making a donation to the Medika Mamba program in Haiti?
There are two ways (at least) that you can do it:
- You can support Tara Livesay's marathon fundraiser for Medika Mamba -- click here. Or...
- You can donate directly to Meds & Food For Kids -- click here.
- Please donate, if even only the smallest of sums. And...
- Leave a comment here to let us know you donated, and/or send me an email at hbj2(at)lehigh(dot)edu I have turned on anonymous comments so that anyone can now comment here.
Please, will you do this?
We are hoping for all of our readers to give... and until they do... we are going on a peaceful blog strike. We will return to blogging once a lot of people have let us know they've given.
"It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness."