When we arrive at Mona's house this morning, it's been almost 48 hours since Janis or I have seen another white person. In the heart if the city, in the rural areas, in the remote mountain village of Fond Verette, we've seen thousands of Haitians and one Spanish aid worker who stopped to chat while we were stranded, waiting for our tire to be fixed. But we have seen no white faces, and certainly none of the fresh-faced missionaries like those in the matching t-shirts that filled up our flight from Miami. It's a remarkable thing to realize, but it takes on a special meaning when we walk into Mona's courtyard this morning. As Janis and I step over the threshold into the courtyard full of a hundred or so children, one small boy literally runs out of his sneaker in terror at the sight of us. The other children roar with laughter at the boy, who we suddenly realize has never seen a white person before.
A half an hour later, his father will carry the boy -- who's a little shy of 3 years old, I'm guessing -- over to us as the child shreeks and buries his face in his father's shoulder. I hold out my hand and his father touches his hand to mine to show the boy it's okay. He is not convinced. After repeated attempts, I try a new tactic. I take the boy's picture and show him the image on my camera's LCD screen. Finally, I get a smile. A few pictures later, when he thinks no one is looking, the child finally finds the courage to poke my arm with his tiny index finger. Soon I have a new friend.
Before we leave three hours later, I have dozens of new friends, all seduced by my camera at first, then huddled around me like a mob of fans for a teenage boy band, all smiling and talking to me in Creole, touching my skin and hair with absolute fascination. I speak the few words I know in French, which the children repeat in chorus. "Bonjour!", "Mademoiselle!", "Monsieur!", and so on. When I finally tell Janis I don't know anymore French, they shout back in perfect unison, "I don't know anymore French!", although most, if not all, of them don't know what the words mean. So I count to them in English, then in Spanish, and they shout it all back to me with delightful enthusiasm. They even teach me to count to 30 in Creole and don't seem to notice how much I struggle with the phonetics. It's a simple but fun game for all of us. Although we can't really speak to each other, we have connected.
This entire scene plays out in Mona's small courtyard, just before the children line up for their one meal of the day. To back up a bit, Mona is an attorney who took 50 or so children in last Fall, when an old priest running a small orphanage near her home died, leaving no one else to care for them. Mona had been involved with the orphanage before, and stepped in during the moment of crisis, expecting to use her contacts in local government to help find new homes for the kids. But when the earthquake came on January 12, that plan fell apart. In the months since then, families from around the town have brought new orphans to Mona. She is educated and already has so many, they don't know what else to do. Today, Mona has almost 400 children in her care.
Like most others here who have been left homeless, the children live in makeshift camps, set up on vacant lots near Mona's home. Neighborhood women volunteer to help with daily care and supervision, and men from the neighborhood stand guard over the camps by night. Eddie and Ralph provide supplies, and enough food for each child to have one meal each day. Their goal is to build a school on some nearby land, donated just a few days before we arrived, and to find permanent homes or an orphanage where the children can live.
Later today, we will return to the airport to pick up Eddie's friend Char who has brought waterproof tents and medical supplies from Michigan. Tomorrow, we will replace some of the camp's existing tents --- made crudely of sticks and bed sheets, with the larger, sturdier new ones. It will be good to get some real work done.