After Goodwill, There Is Haiti

Author: Melissa Musick Nussbaum

The people of Haiti wear the clothes we cannot sell or give away. After Goodwill, after the Disabled American Veterans, after Saint Agatha’s rummage sale, there is Haiti.

My daughter Anna, who recently finished her freshman year at Notre Dame, says Americans are T-shirt literalists. If you see a guy with “Varsity Swim Team—Palmer High School” on his shirt, chances are he’s a teenager a few credits shy of graduation with a decent backstroke. Literalist T-shirts require a context: the big game against State or the protest against the new Wal-Mart out on the highway or the annual race for, not a, but “The,” cure. Haiti is—the whole place—out of context, at least any context with which I am familiar.

I saw a man pushing a wooden handcart along the streets of Port-au-Prince. He was barefoot and traveling the way any of us might have traveled 200 years ago. He was wearing a shirt on which bold black letters urged one and all to “Shop Online.”

Boys hawking peeled stalks of sugar cane in front of the Merci Jesus Barber Shop wear shirts with the names of colleges they will never attend, or even visit, colleges they probably couldn’t locate on a map: Colby and Carleton and Texas Tech and the University of Puget Sound.

Lots of young Haitian men wear shirts with the tough Nike slogan “Just Do It.” As I understand it, “Just do it” involves getting up off the couch, turning off the television, putting down the Krispy Kreme, pulling on some sleek (Nike) athletic shorts, tying on some sleek (Nike) running shoes and moving. Moving not to work or to the market or to a clinic or to a friend’s house, but moving around a track or through a park. The indoor track at my local YMCA announces each day whether we will be running clockwise or counter, and just how many circuits we have to complete in order to have run a mile. “Just Do It” is the cry for people who can run a mile and never go anywhere. It is an odd sight on the back of a man who walks everywhere he must go—to get water and food, to receive medical care, to sell wares on the streets of the city.

I saw a man with a shirt advertising the wonders of Aqua Fresh toothpaste, which offers, the shirt says, “Triple Protection.” Three kinds of protection against oral offenses—bad breath and gum disease and tooth decay—seem somehow less comforting and important in a country where people die of typhoid from eating and drinking contaminated food and water and others die from eating nothing at all.

At the Saint Boniface Clinic in Fond des Blanc, where my daughter Elisabeth is a nurse, patients routinely walk miles for medical care. They come, carrying their children in their arms. They come, running high fevers, cradling broken limbs, vomiting, dangling gangrenous hands. Children walk the streets of Fond Des Blanc carrying filled water jugs. Women walk the streets with bundles balanced on their heads. I saw one woman walking with a 50-gallon Styrofoam cooler, filled with food to sell, balanced atop her kerchiefed head. They just do it.

I don’t know where the plus-size cast-offs go, the Big and Tall men’s shirts with the ample belly space, the wide-hipped 3X stirrup pants from the Big and Beautiful Shop. The Haitians I saw are lean. Many look, in the words of my children, “ripped,” as though they spend hours in the gym. Does the fitness industry know about hauling water? Would that make a good shirt: “Just Haul It”?

My daughter was visiting the States from Haiti when a relative saw her and exclaimed, “You’re so skinny! How did you do it?”

Elisabeth says she didn’t know how to answer. “The Haitian Starvation Diet”? “The 5 Percent Employment Plan”? “The One-Meal-A-Day-If-You’re-Lucky System”? The folks in marketing would have to come up with a new name.

Americans wear brand new shirts, often tailored to fit the occasion. I thought of this while standing, on the Feast of the Epiphany, in the airport in Port-au-Prince, surrounded by American missionaries. I carried a watch and a radio for friends of my daughter and her husband. Others brought their own gifts, and their T-shirts alerted us as to what they bore. There was the kid wearing the long-winded logo:

“If you meet me and forget me, you have lost nothing.
If you meet Christ and forget Him, you have lost everything.”

He was a Baptist (the shirt told me so), and I stood for a long time wondering what happened to the grace-filled Baptist proclamation of the God who knows that we fallen will forget, but who remembers us, always.

The surgery team whose matching green shirts read “Medical Missions of Northern Haiti” were just that: tired men and women back from days of performing eye operations near Cap Hatien. They wiped their hands repeatedly on antibacterial Handi-Wipes pulled from zippered fanny packs. They pulled sealed cellophane-wrapped packages of food from their packs, opened them and ate, wiping their hands before and after eating.

There were the men from South Carolina: carpenters and drywallers and bricklayers and electricians and roofers. They wore matching blue T-shirts that read, simply: “Here I Am . . . Send Me.” The illustration below the words was a line drawing of building tools: saws and hammers and wrenches and screwdrivers and drills. They were going home after wiring a rural village for electricity and hauling in donated generators. Some years they build houses or clinics. They always come back. I asked one of them why.

He smiled and said, “I don’t know. It just gets in your blood, I guess.”

I liked those men. I liked their shirts. Perhaps it has to do with that most American of values, truth in advertising. Perhaps it has to do with context. In a land of so many needs, they show up with exactly who and what they are printed on their chests. Like Catholics on Ash Wednesday, they wear the brand of their first and final belonging.

“Here I am . . . Send me,” they announce, with pictures—illustrations for the nonreaders in their midst!—of just what it is they have been sent to do. And then, well, and this is the best part, they just do it.

Melissa Musick Nussbaum is the campus minister for the Catholic Community at Colorado College. She is a writer and speaker and the author of six books. She and her husband, Martin ’74, are the parents of five children, including Notre Dame graduates Mary Margaret ’02 and Anna ’06.