Every American has a dream about the kind of life that would be happy and fulfilling, usually a life that each one can aspire to. The dream may include a home, family, and good income. For immigrants to this country might be freedom and citizenship. Just as individuals have dreams, America also has dreams as enunciated by our prophets and presidents: Martin Luther King dreamed of equality and freedom for all; Franklin Roosevelt talked about the four freedoms; and President Kennedy dreamed of a corps of young volunteers who would go into other countries to share their skills and promote peace in the world.
I was one who volunteered although instead of going into the Peace Corps I joined the Church of the Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) program. My dream was to do as Ben Franklin recommended: do well by doing good. BVS was a way that I could do that. BVS had been around for about twenty years and had similar goals as the Peace Corps: young people sharing knowledge and skills with the poor and needy. We were not missionaries but demonstrators of peaceful, caring activities.
My assignment was to assist to health care workers in Haiti. I had two years in chemistry and an Associate Degree in electronics so I was supposed to be a lab and x-ray technician. During those two years I had plenty of opportunities help save lives and interact with people who had always been told that blancs (white people) would come back to enslave them as the French colonists had in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. That was one of Haitian nightmares. Another one was their own government. The vast majority of the population was peasants living on a few dollars a week while government officials and the elite who lived in the hills around Port-au-Prince stole from the treasury instead of using the money for infrastructure, education and health care. And then there was the line of presidents from the revolution to the present man.
In the United States, we hold a presidential election every four years. Anyone can run for president and we have elected men who have come from diverse backgrounds, from the richest to the poorest, from slave owners to slaves. We hold the belief that any natural-born citizen can be president. Only three times since George Washington first held office has a bullet ended a presidency while in Haiti, the gun has been the preferred method of getting rid of the president; either though forced exile or assignation. The ballot runs a distant second choice.
Francois Duvalier was one of the few men to be elected. He rallied the black majority to overcome the powerful mulatto elite who had held power for years. After the election, Duvalier, or Papa Doc as he came to be known, replaced the mulatto army generals, civilian administrators and clerics with people from his black supporters.
Duvalier did not trust the army which had often seized power so he formed a militia commonly known as the Tonton Macoute, meaning boogey man in the Haitian Creole language, In April of 1963, Clemont Barbot, the head of the Tonton Macoute, hatched a plan to overthrow the President but Papa Doc threatened a blood bath and mountain of bodies if anyone supported Barbot. The United States government recommended all US citizens leave Haiti until the situation was resolved.
I arrived in Haiti in July of that year. Tensions still ran high but Church World Service staff and missionaries of various denominations thought Papa Doc had things under control. Although Barbot was still at large he had few supporters. Rumors had it that Barbot had not been caught because he had changed himself into a black dog so the army and militia shot every black dog they saw. Finally Barbot was caught and his corpse spent a week tied to a chair and sitting in a park near the presidential palace as warning to black dogs and potential rebels.
I worked most of my two years in Haiti in the American Baptist hospital Le Bon Samaritain in Limbe on the north coast. Rt. 1 (sometimes known as Route Only One) passed in front of the hospital, through the middle of town, and on to the north end of the road at Cap Haitian, fifteen miles east of Limbe. Port-au-Prince was the south end. It was the only paved road between the capitol and the north coast so, even though it was full of pot holes and narrow in the mountains, it was heavily traveled.
The hospital compound occupied about three acres with the hospital building running along the highway. About fifty yards back were a house where the doctor’s family lived, a house for the Haitian caretaker and his family, and a guest house where I lived. At the back of the compound was a house for temporary and short term workers. All the one story buildings were constructed of concrete blocks, white washed and had corrugated metal roofs.
Dr. Bill Hodges and his wife Joanna, a trained nurse, staffed the hospital along with 15 – 20 Haitians that the Hodges had trained. I worked in the laboratory with Celamise Cadet who had been trained by Dr. Hodges. Mostly we did exams on blood, urine and stool samples. Pregnant women and malnourished infants comprised the largest number of patients. In addition the doctor saw a number of new and retuning adult patients. Bill tried to limit the number of people he saw each day to seventy-five but at night there sometimes was a delivery the midwife couldn’t handle or another crisis so he was called and if he needed lab tests I was called too. Whenever a mother had problems with her delivery that needed a higher level of care I put her in the jeep and drove her into the hospital in Cap Haitian. As we bumped over the pot holes I worried that the baby might bounce out but that never happened.
I was in my mid-twenties and a curiosity to the young nurses at the hospital. As they bustled around in their white dresses, pink smocks and plastic sandals, they often stopped by the lab to ask Celamise about me. It wasn’t long before I knew enough Creole to have conversations with them. They wanted to know about my life in the US, if I had a girlfriend there (I did) and things they might expect if they moved there. They knew they weren’t qualified to be nurses so they asked how much domestics were paid. They wanted the American Dream of freedom and the good life.