Remembering Chris Zahuta

On July 17th, a good friend and fellow volunteer passed away in a tragic accident. His death altered my perspective on life forever.

July 20th, 2011
When I first sat down to write this, I didn’t know where to begin. I am not a writer. I am not a story teller, but I hope that by telling my encounters with Chris, I can celebrate his life with you all. By recounting stories of our time together, I hope to show how he changed himself and how he changed me. I would have hand written this, but unfortunately I have nerve damage in my fingers from sledge hammering and it is difficult for me to use a pen for extended periods of time.

My friendship with Chris grew stronger over time. I first met him when we both signed up for evening dishes a few weeks ago. He played his selection of rap and hip hop, so that we could jam out to music while we degreased the nasty dishes that awaited us. We chatted a bit during this time—getting a feel for each other, asking where we were from, how long were we going to stay at the camp, and why we were in Haiti. He mentioned that he had decided to come to Haiti after turning down a Swiss Bank internship in London. It impressed me that he was willing to forego personal gain to give to others.

On our Fourth of July celebration, Chris took it upon himself to be the grill master for the day. He had flare and skill in his role as chef. He prepared the grill and chicken to perfection. He managed to produce the tastiest BBQ chicken I had ever eaten.

Our friendship really blossomed when we started to work on the building School 13. I teamed up with him to put up the kickers for the foundation. At first we weren’t on the same wavelength, but by the end task, we made a fantastic team. He would pound in the peg and I would level the wood. We had terrific synergy. We worked so well together that by the time we were completed the job even the boss man, Dave, was proud (which I must say is a feat in itself since he is such a perfectionist).

Chris often entertained us during our lunch time breaks with his selection of peculiar spots to take naps or his prowess of physical acrobatics. He could swing from beam to beam in School 12, whereas I couldn’t even jump up on the beam. Those football days paid off.

He was always smiling when he worked and I admired him for that. He would joke around and amuse others by telling them what the “American” way of doing things was and how it was the better way. When it came time to pour the foundation, Chris became leader of our group, Team Dragon. We were quite a productive unit, I must say. When he wasn’t leading Team Dragon in the foundation pour or helping to organize the team in other areas, he would help teach others construction skills—Haitians and international volunteers alike. He worked hard and understood what needed to be done. Chris was so patient in teaching me how to hammer nails into the trellises that we were building. Though he could punch a nail in with less than three hits he would patiently wait for me to finish my thirty hits to get the nail through the wood before moving on to the next section.

After work hours, Chris was a gracious host. One weekend a group of us took off on an adventure to find a magical beach. It was an amazing weekend. We walked down to this beautiful, pristine beach and camp for the night. During that weekend, Chris always was making sure that everyone was happy and comfortable. When we hiked back up the hill to return to base at the end of the weekend, a few members of the group weren’t feeling well. Chris volunteered to go up ahead and get motorcycles ready for the group. I accompanied him. Chris also had graciously taken the backpack of another volunteer, Jen, in order to reduce her burden. I could tell that he was struggling with the additional weight, especially because he kept taking frequent breaks. I cautioned him that he did not need to be the hero by carrying ALL her belongings. He meekly gave me some of her items and we continued our trek.

Our hike from the beach was long but we had each other to entertain. I asked Chris what his big plans for the future were and he told me that he was going back to school in the fall and was planning on a big trip next summer. There was so much fervor in his voice when told me of his plans for next summer. He was going to spend some time with his friends in Malaysia, Bali, Norway, and the UK. He was excited to go surfing with his brother in Bali. After some prodding, he even elaborated on his love life. Chris was definitely a ladies’ man.

Chris was easy to talk to and did not mind opening up to me. I liked that about him. He was very relaxing to be around and didn’t need much to be content. It was obvious from our hike that Chris enjoyed the simple aspects of life and that’s why he loved being in Haiti. That’s why he turned down an internship to make money in order to put his energy into making a future for the next generation in Haiti.

Chris and I bonded over the fact that we both had our WFR certifications. He spoke warmly about his mother and all the medical protocols that she had taught him when he was growing up. Later that week, there was an incident at lunch where one of the local volunteers was bitten by a dog. I had arrived at the scene first and Chris was shortly behind me. Chris looked a bit confused when he got there because Nico, a fellow French volunteer, had told him that a volunteer had bitten someone and not that a dog had bitten a volunteer. Chris helped tape up the volunteer and made sure that she was safe.

I spend a lot of time with Chris during his last 24 hours. After work on Saturday, Chris and I sat by the showers doing laundry. He was complimenting me on my cloth washing style and I was being entertained at his attempt to clean his clothes. As Chris squeezed out a pair of shorts, he told me about his challenging childhood. He said that at this very moment, this was the happiest he had ever been… even when that meant that he had to wear clothes that he couldn’t manage to keep clean.

Later that evening, a large group of us went to Joe’s Bar to celebrate the weekend and wish a farewell to Clint, Whitney, and myself. I sat with the “School 13 Dream Team”, Clint, Dave and Chris, to spend our last evening together. At one point, I asked Chris if he had travelled much before. He mentioned that he often traveled to Mexico to watch his brother surf. When I asked him if he was close to his family, it was obvious that Chris cherished his family, as evidenced by the way he spoke of his seven siblings and his mother. He even elaborated on some highschool stories that involved some intimidation and threats on him and his brother’s behalf.

Eventually, the conversation turned to a more serious personal subject. He spoke of the maturation he had undergone. He had become much more self-reflective in the last few weeks. I told him that his persistence and motivation during work inspired me. I will always remember the appreciation he had in his eyes when I told him this. He replied “Haiti has changed me”. Living, working, and breathing Haiti had made him a better person he told me.

I was exhausted and went to bed around 11pm that evening. Around 1:40am I needed to use the bathroom. I stumbled into the stall. A few minutes later I heard a loud noise. Something shifted in me. Something was wrong. Then there silence. When I exited the bathroom area, I saw the security guard standing near the rainwater cooler with his phone out. As my eyes got accustomed to the moon’s light I realized that it was Chris lying there serenely. I tell you this because I want you to know from my first hand experience that he died peacefully. He was asleep when he hit the ground and asleep when he died. His face did not express any pain. He appeared to be sleeping soundly on the ground.

Chris wanted to move mountains. He was learning how to change the world. His patience, courage, strength and persistence inspired me and inspired everyone that got to know him.

With much love,
Katrina Engelsted, 23, from Massachusetts, USA

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