Even my small boat couldn’t approach the island so shallow was the water. I had to shout to fishermen to come and get me in their tiny boats, really hollowed mango tree trunks.
I was investigating reports of human rights abuses in Haiti and had come to La Gonâve, a tiny island west of Haiti. Haiti, the poorest land in the American hemisphere, has La Gonâve as its poorest part. I stepped on to La Gonâve and thought I had landed on the moon.
Hilly, barren and bare, as far as my eyes could see La Gonâve had nothing except a few miserable shacks made of straw, tin, plastic and cardboard. A few rickety children played naked on the beach; the fishermen and women wore little more. The roads were mud tracks. Further down, there were a few modest brick houses, all in imminent need of repair.
Old people lay around, ill and emaciated, waiting patiently for the next day. Even in the worst slums of Mumbai and Manila I hadn’t seen anything quite like this. It was just another world, a lost one, about which the galaxy I came from had no clue.
I stumbled through the sand to meet the only doctor in town, a soft-spoken Belgian paediatrician, who was examining the horribly swollen limbs of a child. An assortment of women waited outside in mute pain.
I watched as she took time to check the child very carefully. She smiled as she whispered her questions in broken Creole. Then she made notes, and finally wrote a prescription. The child bent, kissed her hand and then scampered away.
I felt both impressed and confused. How does a qualified, experienced doctor bring herself to practice here? What makes an attractive woman choose to live in a place as primitive as this? I wondered as I talked business.
When the time came to leave, I finally expressed, hesitantly, my private curiosity. What, I asked, made her toil on in that bare island. She looked up and signed for me to walk up to the window.
Outside on the beach nearby a gentle sun was taking its last bow, radiating a tawny glow into every little shack and bathing the gaunt landscape in mellow, ineffable glory. Against this backdrop were the silhouettes of sickly children playing soccer with an old tennis ball.
Did she mean the rude beauty of a dirt-poor islet? Or succour for the helpless who need it most? I wondered as I returned to my boat.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]