“A demen, si dyè vle!” See you tomorrow, god willing. It took me a long time to get used to the standard Haitian send off. Of late, I’ve started to use it with the same frequency as my peers, although for me it’s an empty expression that sounds catchy, like “what’s up” or “oh my god.” For the locals, these words are anything but empty.
Spirituality is omnipresent in Haiti. The decoration on the brightly coloured buses that nudge their way through Port-au-Prince is a perfect example. Where we in Canada may be accustomed to see an ad for pizzas or a radio station, Haitian buses are covered with “God almighty,” “Christ is able,” “Love of the Lord.”
Almost every Haitian attends some sort of worship. Very regularly my friends and co-workers invite me to come with them to church. To divert the subject and avoid lengthy conversations about religion, I normally tell people that I’ll be attending service at “The First Church of Swimming Pool.”
In fact my Sunday mornings usually involve a run in the neighbourhood, some gardening, a late breakfast and an attempt to address my email backlog. Generally, this combination of physical activity, nature and human interaction leaves me feeling whole and satisfied. Nonetheless, my interest in formal worship is occasionally triggered, most likely because of the people I see out on Sunday mornings. Men, women and children stroll together dressed impeccably with bright dresses and white shirts. This feat is even more impressive when considering that these clothes were often scrubbed spotless by hand in muddy creeks.
Although I’ve now attended services at a few different churches since I’ve been here, the process has been very similar. I’m able to follow the prayers for peace and understand the love of neighbour and fellow human beings. I agree wholeheartedly with the emphasis on honesty, duty and hard work. I start to become uncomfortable with the urging to “accept Jesus Christ as my saviour.” The explanations of the rewards for doing so, or punishment for not doing so, become true energy sappers. The services have been three hour medleys of chants, songs and readings, most of which revolve around one central theme “Faith in the lord!” I fight a futile battle to keep both eyes open, and try to reduce the drops of sweat sliding down my nose by not moving in the stifling heat.
In all reality, addressing the sermon to this sense of faith makes sense. Haitians are very faithful people. I see this faith regularly in my practice. One of my patients is an older gentleman who has been a paraplegic for years. His functional capacities increased dramatically with minimal physiotherapy, but his participation is limited and he is hesitant, constantly unsure of any new activity we attempt.
At the end of every session he makes a similar statement, “I’m happy with the progress that we’ve made, but what I really want is to walk.” I’ve never met a paraplegic who wouldn’t take the chance to walk again if offered. This is very understandable and logical. The problem is that it is physically impossible. I wish I was six feet tall, but unfortunately biology has dictated that I’m 5’6”. Not accepting this reality keeps one from proudly achieving their full potential; in my case as a man who is vertically challenged, in his as a man with no voluntary leg movement.
He then urges me to lean in so that he can tell me a secret, “Anything is possible with Jesus.” Maybe so, but unfortunately no one, including Jesus, is going to get those legs moving anytime soon.
In my head, which has been long sustained on a diet of logic and reason, this absolute faith is very hard to understand. By contrast, when I look around Haiti and the things that the people are able to endure, there is much that is illogical and void of reason. It could just be that this unwavering faith is what keeps Haitians so generally happy and pleasant. After all, my patient leaves every treatment with a smile on his face and hope in his eyes. I sincerely wish that his faith maintains his high spirits, eternally. God willing.
Shaun Cleaver, a physiotherapist from Canada, spent a year in Haiti where he worked for Healing Hands for Haiti Foundation. First published in the 2004 The Niagara Falls Review.