23 May 2014

The Malnutrition Clinic, or, The Education of the Heart

With the TWA group (photo credit: JZ)

On Saturday morning I went with a few members of the Canadian volunteering group to a children's malnutrition clinic located not too far away from our house in Port-au-Prince. When visiting schools and clinics as part of my own schedule I am usually lucky enough to have a driver and a well air-conditioned 4x4 to transport me directly from A to B. I was therefore interested to learn that I would be taking a tap-tap and then walking on the busy streets in order to reach our destination.

Colourful tap taps on Delmas

Tap-taps, as mentioned briefly in my very first post, are a common form of transport in Port-au-Prince. Usually taking the form of a small van or truck, the back is cut out and coloured decoratively and benches are placed so that passengers face each other. Young boys will call out the route of the bus for prospective passengers prior to boarding and, when enough people have taken their seat, will tap the side of the vehicle twice (hence the name) to signal to the driver that it is okay to set off. To alight, passengers shout "Merci!" through the metal grid separating driver and back seating area (or, on some tap-taps, press a button at the top or side of the grid), and the tap-tap will veer off into the nearest available parking space.

After a brief wait, we were finally let in to the clinic. There were a group of women sitting on the roadside opposite the building, looking at our group with hostility; I was later told that these were mothers of some of the malnourished children who would not be allowed in until midday and were scornful that we were allowed in before them. We were met with a chorus of high-pitched howling: the children, aged between 0 and 3/4 and around 24 in total, were hungry and hadn't yet been fed breakfast yet so we got to work immediately. The nurses didn't speak much French or any English and so communication was a struggle. Before I could get my bearings, a bowl of what appeared to be porridge oats was thrust into my hands and I was pointed in the direction of a cot which had been numbered ("Ou! vingt-deux!").

The first few seconds at the clinic were somewhat bewildering. I sheepishly made my way to a cot and met a small baby girl who couldn't have been more than six or seven months old, although I couldn't be sure. Some babies and children had tags on their feet with their name, age and other information. Some did not. I came to learn that many of the latter were orphaned, and so their vital details were unknown to the clinic and thus to us. As there were only four of us, it was difficult to be completely attentive or bond properly with the babies. I must have spent too much time with Twenty Two (unfortunately, she did not have a tag) because the porridge bowl was just as swiftly taken from my hands and I was issued a new bowl for a new baby. Thankfully a second volunteering group arrived and the children were attended to more efficiently.

Celebrating a birthday with the TWA group

The next stage of the morning consisted of what I can only describe as "holding time". The mothers who had been waiting outside were permitted entry and swiftly gathered up their children in their arms. I was invited to do the same. She didn't have a name tag either. She could have been a little over a year old, maybe even older, but her signifier flame orange curls meant that I would never be certain. She had hoisted herself up to the edge of her cot and was howling because she didn't have any parents to come for her, but the moment I picked her up she became completely calm. I can't quite put into words how a moment like that feels; it's something you either have to experience for yourself or watch someone in close proximity experiencing first-hand. The Canadian group - Third World Awareness or "TWA" - please go and check them out HERE - calls this type of experience and others which are similar in Haiti "the education of the heart", and I could not agree more. Watching a baby - someone else's baby! - cry for me as I finally placed her back into her cot because she didn't want me to stop holding her was so amazing to me. Although it was also rather heartbreaking, I use the word amazing because I was (and am) completely taken aback by how powerful human connection can be.

Being in Haiti doesn't allow a person to be passive. It doesn't allow you to not be present. It doesn't allow to to lack feeling. It tugs at your heart when you're not looking and can turn even the most resilient of people into the most nervous of wrecks. Slowly, Haiti is working this magic on me. That little girl helped me in a million more ways than I could have ever helped her, and that Saturday morning will remain etched in my memory for a very long time.

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