Mission Report Haiti: Zanmi Lasante

From last Wednesday:

It’s impossible for me to describe the place in anyway that does it justice. So I’ll just tell you the story, and include some photos that equally fail to do justice.

I never imagined 8 years ago that I would be standing in that spot at that moment. Nevermind that moment. I never imagined I would be standing there at all. 8 years ago I was contemplating medical school, reading a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains. It was a defining moment for me. I started reading it one morning and cancelled two tattoo appointments that day because I didn’t want to stop. It seemed that important to know the story. It’s the biography of a doctor named Paul Farmer. It’s an extraordinary story, the type that will make you question what you’ve been doing with your life. Paul Farmer has been active in Haiti for decades. And the book centers around a hospital he built in a place called Cange. He picked it because it was the worst. Shit and mud and deep poverty even by Haitian standards. He picked it because people said it couldn’t be turned around. All he did was, start planting trees and go from there. He had a different vision than “they”. And I can say that his, and all the other hands cut in the labor, succeeded… unequivocally.

Getting off the motorcycle after a long trip, sweaty and dusty, hot, sun blaring down, reflecting off the tarmac, stepping through the gate onto the grounds of the hospital is nothing short of a renewing experience. Perhaps the first act of the healing experienced by anyone coming to this place. The entire campus is shrouded in 50 ft trees. Aside from the walkways and manicured grounds, it’s what I imagine Haiti used to look like before the deforestation. It was profound to cross a threshold and be struck with the very tangible feeling of something I thought was just a word, a concept. That something was hope.

8 years ago I read about Haiti, and the challenges there. They seemed insurmountable. 7 years ago I worked at a refugee camp amidst a civil war in Kenya. Completely out of my element, I managed. I survived. I contributed where I could. I developed a bit of confidence. Still, Haiti seemed daunting. Something outside my ability. And it never really crossed my mind to take a crack at this place, it being what it was, what it is. But then little by little the path of my life inexorably bent, shifted, twisted itself. Finances being a prohibitive factor, my road to medical school seemed to turn to dust in my fingers. I was lost for a while. Traveled a bit more. Southeast Asia. Cartel contested central America. And still Haiti didn’t occupy a space in my mind. It was too much. Beyond my ability to affect positive outcome. I have an ego. I don’t enjoy failure. So I shied away from what seemed… insurmountable.

But life being what it is, a series of coincidences, or mysterious circumstances, or unlikely events, whatever you want to call it, conspired to give me a little push. I met a woman named Pam Burwell, whom it seemed everyone else I knew had already met, in the air and on the ground. Repeatedly I was told by different people that I needed to meet this woman. These urgings came from people in my life who had no connection to each other, save me. So I contacted her with the information from an old crumpled card I had kept for several years, knowing I would probably need it eventually. She and I met for coffee and water, respectively, one morning. She had been to Haiti, after the earthquake, and because of the cholera, and had a plan to do something. If our conversation had lasted only five minutes, it would have been enough. I was in. Whatever it is she had planned, I could at least carry bags or something.

That was in 2011. One trip, two trips, crazy how life flips.

I find myself face to face with the medical director of the hospital that seemed like a myth 8 years ago. And not only am I standing face to face with him, I’m discussing future transport strategy for the patients we might have that might be beyond our capacity to treat at our small, rural clinic. He tells me about the services they offer. They are ample. They are comprehensive. They are competent. And they are free. He tells me about their sister hospital down the road in Mirebelais, even more modern, picking up where this one leaves off. He thanks me and the people that I represent for our efforts. He remarks how there aren’t many who will go that deep into Haiti. It’s challenging. I’m a bit taken aback. I think about how afraid I once was of this place. How I dismissed it out of hand because I didn’t think there was anything I could do. From that to this. The gravity of the moment is hard to describe. I tell him I like the trees. He says, you know, this whole project started just by planting trees. As soon as I could get internet access, I write Pam about planting trees at the clinic. Gard Hiram is deforested. Hot. Bright. Without refuge. She loves trees, too.

There is absolutely no way for me to convey the feeling of being in a place of myth. It has never happened to me before. But I can tell you this, the sense of possibility it bred inside me will not go to waste. More importantly, this is what I realized. The only reason any of my dreams are possible is because of the legion of people that would pick me up when I fall, push me forward when I slow, and hold me up so I can see a little further than I can on my own. The sheer existence of the hospital in Cange is part of what drives me. Knowledge that the implausible is possible. And if it weren’t for the confidence that others have in me, I honestly don’t know if I would be sitting here writing about how everything came full circle, about how it’s all gonna work out. It may take decades. But a persistent march toward even a foggy goal will end in success. The goal comes more clearly into view with each footfall. One foot in front of the other. And it’s not just a few sets of feet laying tread on this path. With as many people as there are marching in rank, the Haitians themselves most of all, unified, the thunderous sound hypnotizes us to succeed. Who was it that said the challenges in this place were insurmountable?

On the drive to Cange from Ranquitte, I saw some things that I hadn’t seen in years past. I confirmed them with people in the know. There are roads and power lines heading this direction. Progress. Within the decade, the north and south of Haiti will be connected by a passable, maintained road and a nationwide power grid. This is a boon for the people. With it will come more opportunity, more relief workers, a better life. Things here will get easier. We will remain until we are no longer needed, 2 years or a decade from now. And when that day comes, Peacework, Ropa, Pam, myself, and everyone else who is working to make this happen… we’ll be off to the next place that no one wants to go. A place without power, roads, maybe struck down by nature or man, seemingly without hope. At first glance, it too, will seem insurmountable. Then a thunder will be heard to rise in the distance…

6 comments for “Mission Report Haiti: Zanmi Lasante

  1. Tracy
    04.22.13 at 21:17

    Very inspiring! xoxo

  2. Paula Davis
    04.23.13 at 09:31


  3. wendi fields
    04.23.13 at 09:42

    Colton – You continue to amaze me!! Your writing brings forth such emotion and awe… my soul is happy we crossed paths and I got a chance to know you. I have tears in my eyes reading this, feeling the hope amongst the despair. And the photo of Jean Rose that Pam shared… what a beauty she has become!

  4. Debbie
    04.23.13 at 12:09

    Reading about your adventures and the passion that drives you is nothing short of amazing. Cant wait to hear more!

  5. Lindy Pass
    04.23.13 at 21:44

    “Audi partem alteram”
    St. Augustine

  6. Shannon
    04.28.13 at 09:42

    Love, love, love reading your posts Colten! This one in particular brought back all the feelings of hope I get when I think of Haiti. The road before us will be long but I am confident that God will provide what is needed to get things done. I look forward to staffing the clinic soon. Keep up the good work my friend. Please say hello to all our Haitian friends for me!

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