I fall in step behind an old woman who pads along the rocky path in bare feet, carrying empty plastic jugs. We trek single-file along a ridge, with ochre corn fields sprawling beneath layers of purple hills and mountains, crowned by cerulean sky.
To our left, various structures perch along the ridge – roughly hewn, boarded boxes on stilts and brightly painted siding topped with thatched roofs.
Enamored with textures, vistas, and colors, I lose sight of the others in my group. When I hurry to catch up, trotting along the narrow trail, I arrive at a clearing with various buildings and clusters of people.
My friends inform me that the central feature is a community well sourced by a freshwater spring. Here is the heart of the community, source of life and also fellowship. Here the old woman fills her jugs as she greets neighbors.
I feel a surreal, out-of-body sensation of being in a place completely “other” from my usual experience. At home in Colorado, I turn the tap whenever I want; and clean, drinkable water gushes out. I’ve traveled enough to never take it for granted, to nag my teenage sons when they indulge in long showers, reminding them that there are water shortages in other parts of the world. But, I’ve never before lingered at a community well.
There was something so elemental, so unifying about that moment – there with other humans just like me, dependent on a basic resource that is so difficult to secure in Haiti. According to the Water Project, only 55.2% of Haiti’s population can access improved water sources, defined as sources that are likely to be free of outside contamination like fecal matter. As a result, waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and chronic diarrhea cause more than half of deaths in Haiti every year. Contaminated water also menaces behind this startling statistic: 40% of children in Haiti die before age 16.
Our group turns to leave as the old woman also begins her trek home, lugging full jugs. As I study her face, I wonder at the stories that must lie behind her toothless smile, her weathered skin. How many loved ones has she seen come and go, too many buried too young? How many days has she endured without food? How many times has her immune system conquered disease borne by the liquid that also gives her life?
At first I am hesitant to take her photo. I can’t communicate to her why I am photographing her, and I don’t want to offend her. But my friend urges me in a whisper. Those gathered at the well see me raise my camera, and they say something to her. They laugh and her face lights up. I am relieved that she seems to approve of me capturing her image.
If I could have spoken Haitian Creole, I would have told her my motive for taking photos of her: I, and my friend who urged me on, were enthralled by the beauty of her face, intrigued by the stories of a lifetime that etch her visage. I would have told her that I admire her endurance through hardships I can’t even imagine.
Even today, her glorious face speaks to me of our common humanity, as evidenced by our mutual dependence on water. Photos of her remind me to prayerfully remember those who struggle for daily survival around the world.