Today I went to the public library and checked out the three books they had about Haiti. We are planning a trip there this summer to staff a medical clinic, and serve in whatever way we can. Over the years I have led many short-term teams, and met wonderful people in desperately impoverished places.
On a reconnaissance trip to Gabon years ago, I arrived into Port Gentil. We were warmly received by a pastor, and then driven inland to the small city where the church and the guesthouse were located. We had traveled from the capital by arranging passage on an over-night freighter full of bananas and furniture, and I was covered with black soot. We had packed lightly, so the women who would be cooking for us also offered to wash my clothes. It was a relief to know that I would have something clean to wear.
The next morning the pastor took me out on the lake and away from the main fishing port, back into the smaller coves and inlets, to the neighborhoods where many of the people he served lived.
These were groups of homes built with scavenged wood, all about ten feet above the water, with ladders down to the boats that they used for fishing and transportation. There were footpaths into the city, but no roads. The isolated area was surrounded by marshes and swamps.
It is difficult to describe what the houses looked like, but the tree-house that I once built for my kids was a palace in comparison. Kids were everywhere, playing on the wooden planks and a network of bridges that connected the houses. Some were jumping into the water and swimming, some sitting and playing.
The lake was used for everything: catching fish and cleaning them, transportation, sewer, recreation, cooking and drinking. And laundry.
I saw the ladies from the church, washing my clothes on some boards.
There is something in us that likes to think that most of what happens in life can be controlled. That we can make choices.
There are about a billion people in the world that don’t have clean, safe water available to them. And this is something they cannot control. They either have access to clean water or they don’t.
That trip was in 1986, a distant memory. But I remember thinking that there were probably three or four generations of people living in those shacks, perched over the water which was at once a source of food and of illness. I thought about it as I ate the fish and rice the family had prepared especially for me. And again about six months later when I was under treatment for some kind of parasite that I was hosting.
Today I remember the kids jumping off the docks. I guess they didn’t read Rick Steve’s guidebook, which clearly warns about swimming in fresh water lakes.
The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.
from "The Lemon Trees"
by Eugenio Montale
(Translated by Lee Gerlach)