More Than Survivors

Joel Sainton visits the sick and broken people living with HIV/AIDS, and prays for them. Image by Andre Lambertson. Haiti, 2010.

Malia Jean works with a network of four hundred or more women living with HIV/AIDS. Image by Andre Lambertson. Haiti, 2010.

Much has impressed me about Haiti during my visits since the earthquake. Much of it has been the awe of knowing that each building I pass that is in ruins, each person whom I encounter in a restaurant or a store or on the streets or in the camp cities, is probably carrying a complex and painful narrative of loss, trauma, great need and much uncertainty. The actual numbers are staggering to me. There were, if we include those large communes that extend out of the central part of Port-au-Prince—areas like Delmas, Carrefour, Petionville, and Cité Soleil which were all affected by the earthquake—nearly two and a half to three million people living in this sprawling and dense packed city before the earthquake. After January 12, almost 300,000 of them were dead! Almost fifteen percent of the population, wiped out. The scale is staggering. I think of places I know, populations I know, and imagine the scale. It would be like the state of South Carolina losing, in a single day, 450,000 people. It would be like Kingston, Jamaica losing 100,000 souls in a day. How could anyone be unaffected? How could the city be the same again? When Dr. Richard D'Meza, head of the National Program against Tuberculosis in Haiti, who continues to work on HIV/AIDS, wryly explains that the entire staff and students of the largest nursing training college in Haiti was lost to the quake—and then suggests simply that surely this must change the medical system in the city, I am beginning to appreciate the scale of this catastrophe. Dr. D'Meza is a tall man who has the look of someone who has come to see himself as easy-going, but has to fight back cynicism and despair in the face of the tragedies he deals with each day. When we met for the first time, he was working out of a temporary office because his own offices downtown had been demolished completely by the quake. His calm, understated manner gave such weight to the things he described. He would then pause and give a small smile that suggested a shrug: "C'est la vie," followed after a pause, by "C'est la vie terrible."

I walked and drove through this city, talking to people, watching them gather in crowds to cheer with abandon soccer matches, and I could not see in the ordinary daily rituals of people trying to continue their lives any evidence of the psychic wound affecting the city. A stocky waiter with a constant smile at the hotel chuckled to us reassuringly as we joked with him about our worries about getting ill because of the food. Then he grew serious, shook his head and said, "It is hard. You know, I lost my entire family. Everybody. Everybody. C'est la vie." What do you do with that? He is, I suspect, as uncertain of what this means to him now, and what it will mean in a year, as we are. But we who get to re-enter our less shattered securer lives don't have to keep living with this memory, this tragic understanding.

Thousands of those people, like this man, were waking up to this tragedy, having already woken up to their personal shock of knowing they were HIV positive. They woke up to the earthquake's aftermath bearing a double blow. Some said that the disease had long prepared them for the fickle and unpredictable nature of life. They had long wondered about the nature of fate—why they were alive while others had died. I found in them a quiet resolve, an acceptance of the impossibility of constant misfortune, and yet I found more than that. I found people who had long understood that being alive makes certain demands on the living. I am under no illusion that all of the people who are living with HIV in Haiti are stoic and giving people. But I have met three people who have found their own equation of survival. They have found a rationale for their lives that is tied into their faith and a need to find meaning in the fact of their persistence on this earth.

I have left Haiti with a quality of awe and respect for some of the people whose capacity to give, despite their own need, has struck me as peculiarly extraordinary and remarkable. Many of these people can only be understood in light of their idea of faith. I have found myself using them as examples of people who, afflicted with HIV/AIDS and a host of betrayals, tragedies and failures surrounding their lives, have found a way to both embrace their suffering, and then to act against the suffering by focusing on others. They are not ordinary sufferers—sufferers like me, who sees suffering as a private nightmare that I must find ways to survive—they are the special kind of sufferers who have asked God to take them; each of them has considered simply letting themselves go towards death happily. Yet each is convinced that he or she is here still because of the work that has to be done.

We all find ways to survive. This is a truth of human experience. If you asked Joel Sainton, Malia Jean or Mrs. M—three people in Port-au-Prince living with the HIV virus in their bodies, and people who have now given their lives to working in the field of HIV/AIDS—whether their commitment to helping others represents a deal they are making with God to keep them alive, they would say, "Absolutely not." They would argue that they are doing this work because they realize that since God has kept them alive, it can only be for this reason. Otherwise, they would rather be dead and with God. This is the noble position, the position of the Christian. But psychologists would say that they have simply found a reason to live and that has given them the capacity to remain disciplined about their medications, to not give in to despair when they get sick. Because so many people are now depending on them, they have a reason to stay around. Each of them declared that they knew that God was going to allow them to live when they received the news that they were HIV positive.

Each of them has a strong conviction that God told them they would not die of AIDS and that He has somehow intervened to keep them alive. Joel Sainton says, "Even if everyone else dies of AIDS, I will not die of AIDS." Malia Jean said she knew God was not going to let her die and her friends said that she was quite clear in her faith about this. But each of them knows that they will die at some point and each has developed a vision that helps them to make sense of staying alive since, for them, death is gain; it is to be with God. The work they do, and the sustenance of their families are the things that keep them going. Mrs. M. knows that she must stay alive to fend for her children, to feed them, clothe them and send them to school. She also knows she must stay alive for the sake of the many people who depend on her for prayers, for encouragement and for advice about how to survive the disease. Malia Jean knows that her husband relies on her each day. He is going blind quickly because of glaucoma and she is the one who monitors his medication and gives him his eyedrops. He is not an old man, but he is a man who will soon need more care. She knows that she has to do what she can to ensure that her son gets a good start in life, and she is staying alive for the hundreds of women who have contracted the disease who are wondering how they are going to survive, how they are going to find work, how they are going to find the food they need to live each day. And Joel Sainton cares for his aging mother, and fully plays the role of the eldest son in a family of eleven. They do look to him, even when he has very little. He has no children, and he says his wife is now with Jesus—but he has a virtual congregation of people who rely on his visits and his prayers and his gifts of food, when he can find food to give, and support and advice. Were he to go, he would be missed in his own small world. They stay to continue the work that needs them.

Joel Sainton visits the sick and broken people living with HIV/AIDS, and prays for them. He tries to find food for them. He goes hungry himself, but walks for miles to visit these people. It is his mission. He is a pastor without a church. His congregants are the people living with HIV/AIDS. The work he does is keeping him alive.

Malia Jean works with a network of four hundred or more women living with HIV/AIDS. She tries to stay in touch with them on the phone to give them advice about where to go for treatment, how to deal with the challenges of taking the medication, how to find money to get food to eat, how to live from day to day. She is a lifeline for many of them. She rescued her fiancé, a man living with HIV/AIDS from the kind of despair that led him to give up on life. She rescued him, and she is his support and strength. These things are keeping her alive.

Mrs. M. has four children. Her two boys—one seventeen and the other thirteen, are HIV positive. They contracted the disease from her at childbirth. Her two daughters, one a preteen and the other a fifteen-year old, do not have the disease. They depend on her for the food they eat, for the money for school, for love. They keep her alive. And yet she is a quiet roving minister; she walks around her community meeting people living with HIV/AIDS, arranging for them to visit hospitals and clinics, checks up on their medication, keeps them inside a community of care. These things are keeping her alive.

The stories of these three people are stories that offer some insight into the realities of HIV/AIDS in Haiti today. They are stories that can be repeated all over the world. But they are stories that force us to ask deeply unsettling questions about human suffering and human need. But at the same time, they are stories that offer us practical examples of how people survive tragedy and the challenges of HIV/AIDS. In a country in which people are still reluctant to admit to their HIV-positive status, these three people are remarkable in their candor and daring. They share a common faith and in this, they share something that many Haitians living with HIV have. The power of their lives is not shaped by a hand constantly held out for help but by feet, constantly walking and taking help to others. There is something powerful in this.

Photos for this post shot by Andre Lambertson.