Nothing Says Thank You Like Sticky Ice Cream KissesMichelle Oetman
Thursday, February 11, 2010
It was the last place I expected to hear a child calling my name; but as I turned I saw my nine-year-old friend, Mala, running up the dirt path behind me. I was trekking through the middle of an internally displaced persons camp in Carrefour, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Each night, it became home to nearly 15,000 people, including Mala. I had met her a couple days earlier when she was getting water, but was still surprised she recognized me and remembered my name. Her mother had sent her on an errand to buy supplies from a small shop. But like most activities involving kids, it had been interrupted to...well... go potty. It was this diversion that caused our paths to intersect.
I’d just come to inspect the latrines and shower stations ADRA installed in the camp when I heard Mala calling me. Mala is bright, precocious and silly like many her age. What’s amazing is that she continues to be all those things despite what she’s been through.
When disasters occur and people lose everything, multiple needs simultaneously become critical. Water is first, but then there’s food and shelter. After meeting those needs first, ADRA then moved on to providing sanitation for those living in the camp. This included the installation of 12 shower stations and 80 latrines. Before they were built, the residents used pit latrines.
Moments before I saw Marla, I met and spoke with an elderly grandma in another zone of the camp. She was living in the camp with 10 family members. They had been living in the camp since the earthquake on January 12. She told me that life in the camp wasn’t easy. “We just accepted these circumstances but it was hard, especially at nights,” she said. “The children would cry when they had to walk to the distant pit latrines, afraid of the darkness.” But now grandma and her family have a set of 10 latrines within their zone. “These are nice and beautiful. You have done a pretty thing,” she told me. “I have happiness.” She and her neighbors assisted ADRA in their construction. “My contribution was to feed the construction workers,” she added with a matriarchal smile. When the latrines were finished, those living in the zone were instructed by ADRA on how to keep them clean and the proper sanitation practices they needed to follow to stay healthy.
Grandma plans to be here for a while. In front of her home, she says, there’s a huge crack in the ground from the earthquake. And her neighbor’s house fell on hers, leaving her home partially collapsed. Thankfully, all of grandma’s family survived, with only one son sustaining a leg injury.
When I ran into little Mala, I took the time to ask her survival story too. She, along with her mom, dad and little cousin were in their home when the earthquake hit. Their home stayed upright, but sustained deep cracking. When the second, smaller earthquake happened days later, they weren’t home; but when they did arrive, they found their home collapsed. So Mala and her family now call this camp their home. Mala is happy here; thankful her family is safe. If there’s any tinge of sadness in Mala’s sparkling eyes, it shows when she shares that she lost her 10-year-old cousin and aunt when a wall collapsed on them.
After chatting for quite awhile, I suddenly remembered why I had run into her at these latrines and felt bad for holding her up! I gave her a quick hug while telling her I was proud of her bravery and thankful she was safe. Then she turned, and quickly scampered across the lawn a few yards and ducked inside ADRA’s latrine.
As I continued up a steep path to get to the next latrine site, an entrepreneurial camp resident came up beside us, flipped over a giant cooler, lifted a big wad of packing paper and revealed several rows of neatly stacked ice cream bars. Astonished to find ice cream in this environment devoid of any luxuries, my colleague and I were quick to support his business. We bought two bars, then continued on our way.
Arriving at the next zone of the camp, Mala popped up again. Giddy with delight at finding me, she introduced me to her friend. Suddenly the pleasure of finishing my ice cream seemed far less than the pleasure of sharing it with them. Soon their lips were covered with the creamy remains.
While eating, Mala started with questions of her own. She wanted to know where I lived and I pointed to show her. Then I told her I worked with ADRA, “The ones who put in the latrines,” I explained, pointing to the logo on my shirt. She now understood.
Through my many years of travel with ADRA, I’ve seen many unique ways people give thanks to ADRA and its supporters. I’ve heard “thank you” in many languages, received personal mementos, listened to songs and watched dances of thanks performed. But today was probably the sweetest of all. Now that Mala knew where I lived, who I worked for, and what we’d done, her response was, “Mwen anvi bo-w.” When the English trickled from my translator, I was quick to oblige, leaned down, and received a sticky, ice cream stamped kiss of thanks on my cheek.
When people learn about disasters, generosity often abounds. Those unaffected want to give water, blankets, food and shelter to those suddenly stripped of everything. But seldom does anyone watch TV footage and say, “Boy I just wish I could send them a latrine!” But imagine if you had to live without. Suddenly it would become almost as important as all your other needs.
The Haitian earthquake survivors are thankful for all the generous provisions sent their way. Many are surviving today due to the food, water and other aid extended to them. Then there are others, like little Mala, who, if they could, would also send sticky, ice cream kisses to say thanks for simple things, like having ADRA provide a place for when you just have to go potty.