Located on the south-eastern coast of Haiti, Belle-Anse is the poorest village in the western hemisphere’s poorest nation. It is a city untouched by the rest of the world, isolated by a harsh climate and landscape and few reliable means of transportation. The people of Belle-Anse are rife with contradiction. Their circumstances have made them necessarily strong and independent, yet they are incredibly welcoming to others. Unlike many places in Haiti, they are not actively searching for help. Belle-Anse and its people live surrounded by saltwater and mountains, a valley of souls left silent and unseen by the rest of the earth.
Most days, the boys and girls of Belle-Anse pass the time by building kites. They collect pieces of garbage and meticulously bind them together into varying shapes and sizes, and competitions are held to determine which kite is the most beautiful. Children live with an innate sense of possibility. In even the most desperate circumstances, a child looks beyond what is and can see the beauty in what could be. What others would understand as a mere pile of trash, the children of Belle-Anse see as a dazzled creation floating in the sky.
She is one of the lucky ones, one who has been taught to read and write in a country with a literacy rate just over 50%. For people who live in a place as isolated as Belle-Anse, reading is one of the only windows to the world. Education creates an expansion of cognition, imagination, and reality—reading enriches and edifies your existence and teaches you about yourself and others. The opportunity to read is the opportunity to bring about change for yourself and for your people.
In our world of instant updates and online immediacy, we may never contemplate what a privilege it is to be seen and to be heard. It is no small thing, being recognized and validated by others. Most of us even have the opportunity to decide how we’ll portray ourselves on social media, what particular narrative of our lives would be most impressive or interesting to our followers. Meanwhile, countless people across the globe have no opportunity or means to tell any part of their own story. They live hidden by poverty and silenced by the roar of the world. The people of Belle-Anse were eager to share their stories when given the chance, and often asked for their photographs to be taken. I stopped for a few minutes and spent time with this man who was keen on being photographed. Now, in some small way, he is seen.
In Haiti, few things are more important than family. Family is synonymous with pride, respect, and tradition, and decisions are made based on what is best for the entire household, not the individual. For instance, it is considered a great dishonor for a family to adopt their child out, even if it would mean a life of more opportunity. While in Belle-Anse, I heard stories of families rejoicing over their child’s gains in health, and stories about children being routinely sacrificed to the village voodoo priest. Families do what they think they must in order to survive. To those in Belle-Anse, the threat of a curse over their home can supersede the well being of one child.
Oftentimes in Belle-Anse, children will be put in charge of their younger siblings, which might mean a boy as young as four watching over his infant sister. Much is asked of these young sons and daughters, forced to shoulder the responsibility of another human life long before anyone has shown them the value of their own.
The land in Belle-Anse deals in plentitudes and scarcities—too little rain, too much dry dirt and sand, too few fish to catch and eat. The earth can be harsh and cruel, especially in a place like this, but humans inhabit it just the same. Here, a mother looks at her precious boy as a mama pig nearby is trailed by her piglets. The people and animals live and move in balance with the land here, all trying to carve out their own space to survive.
There is little to no outside aid for this community, a fact easily confirmed by glancing at an NGO aid map of Haiti. As in most impoverished villages, hunger and starvation are significant issues for many in Belle-Anse, and threaten to wither the small bodies of many children there.
Two-year-old Jubilee was the size of a six month old baby when I met her. Her swollen body and face, common symptoms of nutrient deficiency, belied her empty belly. Jubilee’s mother abandoned her after she was born, so her grandmother is looking after her now, seeking the help and nourishment her grandbaby needs to thrive.
When drought comes, and the people of Belle-Anse journey days into the mountains for water, they may not find even a drop to fill their buckets. Import and export is made nearly impossible by the harsh landscape, so food, too, is scarce. Most villagers survive off fishing, or, like the child in the photo, Mamba food packets delivered to the malnutrition center.
Starving bellies, however, do not necessarily mean famished hearts. Even though these children are reared in impoverished families, it is evident in the way they interact with each other that they have been shown immense love.
A life in poverty is not a life without joy. As in any family around the world, there are celebrations amidst the sufferings and grace found in simplicities. Brittany Hilker, a missionary who works with malnourished children, shared a story about a thirteen-year-old boy who was the size of a seven-year-old. He had been small and starving since he was young, and his family believed he was beyond help. He was taken in to the malnutrition center, but before his treatment was complete, the little boy wished to return to his family. In situations like those, Brittany said, it’s easy to judge and worry. “Is he going to be loved and cared for? How did they let him get this sick?”
They took the boy back to his home made of sticks, and though he was nearly unrecognizable, his aunt dropped everything she was holding when she saw him, and she picked him up and twirled him through the air. His family cried and rejoiced for their boy who was no longer skin and bones. Life is not easy for the people of Belle-Anse, but they know love and the importance of family.
What is it that every human deserves? At the very least, perhaps, each one of us deserves to be seen, to be acknowledged as a person with significance and worth. Veiled by the heat and mountains, the people of Belle-Anse are almost invisible to the rest of the world. How do we comprehend the weight of another human's life? Or the deep grooves its absence leaves on the earth’s skin? How do we love our brothers, our friends, our neighbors, or those many different-tongued people across the seas?
How do any one of us endure the earth? How can we comprehend the losses we suffer or the desperations of innocent people? Sometimes the world feels heavy and opaque. Sometimes the land pitches us back, and we rise, eyes covered in dirt. We move forward, blindly, and we trust the breath we breathe is grace. We trust that moments washed in holy light are enough to name the world good.