Sept. 15, 2003
A study of hope and FAITH
Randolph woman an unlikely savior
FOND DES BLANCS, Haiti
annette Canniff stands outside St. Boniface Hospital and is preparing for the journey back to her Randolph home when a 20-year-old man approaches. The side of his face is swollen and his jaw juts out awkwardly where a tumor grows beneath the skin.
He walked for two days to see Canniff, who has dedicated the past 20 years to helping people in Haiti’s back country.
She is his only hope for surgery to remove the tumor and reclaim some semblance of a normal life. After a short conversation, he hands Canniff an X-ray of his jaw. She promises to take it to a Milton dentist to see what, if anything, can be done to help him.
Canniff, 66, is an unlikely savior. But here in a remote region of southwest Haiti, that is exactly the role she plays.
“Nannette good, good to me,” Jeanine Lajoie said after Mass one day. The mother of six speaks only a few words of English, but she is persistent when she tries to explain how Canniff has arranged to send her children to school and is helping to pay for a concrete house to replace the mud one her family lives in.
“She’s been helping for a long, long time,” Lajoie said, “a very long time.”
A slight woman with short hair and glasses, Canniff could be anyone’s mother or grandmother. Except for the trips to Haiti.
She is the executive director of the St. Boniface Haiti Foundation. For the former EKG technician and doctor’s office assistant, it is a full-time job.
During the past two decades, Canniff has visited Haiti every year, save a short time in the mid-’90s when a U.S. embargo prevented Americans from traveling to the country. She now visits at least four times annually, sometimes for as long as five weeks.
In 1990, she brought home a 13-year-old Haitian boy who had been badly burned. When she found him in a Port-au-Prince hospital, raw, red flesh oozed from beneath the charred remains of his skin.
Ernst Sajous lived with Canniff and her family through years of surgeries. He never left. Sajous, now 27 and a South Shore construction worker, calls Canniff mom.
Canniff, her husband, Fred, and their 10 children were living in public housing in Quincy’s Germantown neighborhood when she and a small group of parishioners from St. Boniface Catholic Church first traveled to Haiti in 1983. It was supposed to be a one-time deal, her single chance to do missionary work. She knew hardly anything about the country.
Now, Canniff says she feels just as comfortable in Haiti’s back country as she does on the South Shore. She rumbles over the dirt roads there in a well-travelled SUV, kicking up a storm of dust. She reaches her arm out the window, waves and calls out “bon soir” to the occasional person walking by.
At the hospital she helped build, she bends over a malnourished infant and elicits a smile and gurgle, then chats easily with the baby’s mother. She learned Creole long ago.
“We can learn so much from the Haitian people, from the great faith they have in spite of the odds against them day after day,” Canniff said. “They have this tremendous spirit, this hope. They’re always hoping that tomorrow is going to be a better day than yesterday. They patiently wait for that to happen.”
Canniff has been in Haiti through three coups. Armed militiamen ordered her out of a bus and forced her to show her passport and other travel documents. She once found herself covered in mud when the donkey she was riding waded into a river. She has slept in primitive buildings infested with rats. She has gotten violently sick from dengue fever.
All this from a woman who didn’t like family camping trips because she couldn’t stand the bugs.
But ask Canniff if she has ever had a bad experience in Haiti and she matter-of-factly says no. It’s impossible to view such inconveniences as hardships after seeing the way most Haitians live, she explained.
“Almost every fear I have ever had has been removed since I started going to Haiti,” she said.
Fred Canniff, a retired painter, has been to Haiti twice. The first time, in 1987, he went with the U.S. State Department to serve as an observer in an election in which Haitians were supposed to choose a democratic government. Instead, voters who lined up at polls in Port-au-Prince were massacred - 20 were killed at one polling station - and a military dictatorship was declared.
Despite such violent flare-ups, political instability and State Department warnings that “there are no safe areas in Haiti,” Canniff said he doesn’t worry about his wife when she travels.
“It may seem trite, but the Lord takes the fear out of your heart. It’s hard to explain,” he said.
Andy Canniff was 8 when Nannette Canniff started going to Haiti. At the time, he thought of it as her job. “It was what she did. She just didn’t get paid for it,” he said.
When Andy was 21, he went with his mother and helped immunize children in the far-flung corner of Fond des Blancs.
“I saw the things that were going on, seeing them helped one by one. It made it real,” he said. “I heard all the stories, but when you see the sick kids, sitting there with their mothers, it made it more real.”
Nannette Canniff said she thanks God for the opportunity to visit Haiti and to play some part in the lives of the thousands of people she has met.
She wishes more Americans could visit Haiti. She is certain they, too, would be compelled to help if they met the people who smile despite their poverty.
“I would want (Americans) to know about the warm welcome of Haitian people who have been trapped in poverty for so long, and misery and suffering,” she said. “They deserve so much more in life. They deserve as much as we have.”
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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