Tuesday, September 3, 2013

How I spent my summer vacation in Haiti

Haiti post = information overload! But then again, Haiti = information overload.

I was in a deep reverie, wondering how best to use the money from the vaginas—I contemplated buying computer equipment that would make all my subsequent medical illustration jobs look more exquisite, and buying designer swimwear for every day of the week, and buying this at Nino’s—when Jesse asked if I wanted to go to Haiti.

A few months ago, Jesse thought he needed more stuff to do. He wanted a service project that would allow him to offer service without having to leave the house. At first, all he could find were ads for cat sitters and vacancies in sewing circles that made blankets for dementia patients and other ops that required public appearances.

Then he found Project HOPE Art (PHA). They needed a financier/accountant/human being with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a master’s in finance who could offer advice/opinions about very important things via skype/email. Or in person if residence was in/near PHA’s U.S. headquarters in California. Jesse likes art, and counting other people’s money, and not dressing up unless he absolutely has to, so it was a good fit.

PHA directors visit Haiti several times a year to work with kids in hospitals, orphanages, and schools. They scheduled a trip for July 2013, and invited Jesse, and Jesse invited me. 

Because I didn’t know anything about Haiti, and hadn’t followed much of the earthquake coverage, I said, “Yes. Yes, I do want to go to Haiti. That would be really fun!”

Later in the travel clinic, while waiting to get immunized, I was reading the country profile, scanning information about cholera; malaria; yellow fever; rabies; typhoid; influenza; hepatitis A & B; dengue; ciguatera poisoning; the warning to carry loperamide and/or azithromycin for presumptive self-treatment of diarrhea if it occurs because of a high risk everywhere, even in deluxe accommodations; evacuation to Miami in the event of an emergency due to substandard medical care throughout the country; the hazardous and unpredictable security situation; armed gangs; murder/kidnapping/armed robberies/burglaries/carjackings occurring in broad daylight; hours-long traffic jams; the recommendation that travelers comply and not resist if attacked; flooding and landslides during hurricane season from June to November; the suggestion to avoid all forms of public transportation because buses are mechanically unreliable and overcrowded; the lack of, or very limited availability of water/electricity/police protection in some cities and towns… etc.

I thought then, that maybe this trip would be slightly less fun than I initially thought.

Monday, July 8: PHA said someone would be waiting for us with a sign when we landed in Port-au-Prince. But our flight arrived 2 hours late so whoever was hired to find us wasn’t there. We were herded out of the underbelly of the baggage claim and into the airport’s crumbling parking lot to wait in the sun. As we emerged, a wave of bodies jostled forward, offering to drive us wherever we were going. A particularly aggressive man insisted that he knew exactly where to take us. He had one eye. I thought of the travel advisory I read: Personal and luggage security cannot be guaranteed at the Port-au-Prince airport. Arriving passengers are often overwhelmed by the large crowd of loiterers outside the terminal who pretend to offer porter or taxi services. I fantasized about being in Harry Potter and finding a port key that would take me home while Jesse tried to explain to the one-eyed dude, who was denouncing our myopic foreign worldview for not trusting him, that the polite thing to do would be to wait for whoever was expecting us. Just when I thought he couldn’t yell any louder, a tiny lady with a crooked back ambled toward us and held up a faded piece of paper with our names on it.

Our cab deposited us at the “crumbling gingerbread hotel” Oloffson, a building made famous by a scene in Graham Greene’s 1966 novel, The Commedians, in which the dead body of a government official is found at the bottom of the hotel pool. The Oloffson was a clean, quiet haven guarded by tall iron gates. Outside was everything else—miasmas of sour, sticky air; streets teeming with vendors selling mounds of charcoal, recycled tvs, baskets of shoes made from old tires; emaciated dogs with shriveled nipples grazing the dirt; pigs rooting through curbside trash mountains; chickens scratching in the rubble; motorcycles zipping through traffic carrying bundles of screaming goats tied up by their legs; little girls without shoes, the sashes of their dresses trailing in the mud behind them; shanty towns of one-room houses without doors and ragged tarps for roofs, so crowded and unbearably hot that their inhabitants find things to do outside all day and return after dark.
Tuesday, July 9: Cite Soleil has the distinction of being one of the poorest, most dangerous areas of the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest slums in the Northern Hemisphere.

It was built in 1958 to house factory workers for an industrial park. But even after industrial sectors were damaged in political uprisings and Haitian products boycotted, people still flocked to Cite Soleil. Thousands came looking for jobs that didn’t exist, and thousands displaced by fires in the slums of Port-au-Prince came looking for places to live. Now, the population is more than a quarter of a million, and the living conditions are pretty much the same as ever—no water, no sewage treatment, sporadic electricity (if any) siphoned from somewhere in Port-au-Prince, a few makeshift hospitals and one government school (I think). Most of the jobs promised by whatever factories are left—sewing bras, hemming jeans, making baseballs—barely leave workers enough to pay for lunch and transportation, and it often takes forever to get to/from anywhere in Port-au-Prince. And gas costs over $7 a gallon. Haitian workers contracted with foreign textile companies used to make 61 cents an hour, the Haitian minimum wage by law but their employers, and the Obama State Department, reduced their pay to 31 cents an hour, or about $3 for a ten-hour workday. Maybe Hillary Clinton’s reasoning went something like this: “Well, 31 cents is better than nothing at all.”

And an added bonus: armed gangs terrorized the Cite Soleil communities for years. Even the thousands of UN troops brought in to keep peace didn’t do much good until recently. In 2006, Haitian police finally made it into CS (for the first time in 3 years) and stayed for one whole hour while UN troops patrolled the city. Since 2007, gang activity has declined, but the forces that maintain order have a long way to go in completely eradicating gang behavior. The day we visited CS, children and relatives of prominent gang members were students in the classroom.

Getting to CS was delightful. In Port-au-Prince the quickest way to get around is by motorcycle, or moto-taxi, because they zip between gaps in congested traffic, and if you squeeze your knees in tightly, they won’t scrape the sides of adjacent cars. Motos uncomfortably seat 2 passengers and a driver. We needed 3 motos to transport art supplies and teaching materials for the half hour ride. PHA director Melissa negotiated the price of our rides in advance and made sure each driver knew the final destination, just in case one of the motos in our caravan got lost along the way. Our motos left the Oloffson in single file, with Jesse on the middle moto, and me on the last one. The minute my driver pushed off, I could see us all tipping over and slamming into a mud puddle, because public roads in Haiti are rocky, muddy, and puddly. Luckily, I was squeezed in between the driver and the other passenger, with significantly fewer odds of falling off when the moto bounced over ubiquitous potholes.

Miraculously, we didn’t tip over. But unmiraculously, my moto puttered out at the bottom of a hill, five minutes into the ride, and the other two raced ahead of us. Our driver dumped us off on a street corner behind a pile of garbage and said, “10 minutes! 10 minutes!” then drove away. While waiting for our driver, declining the advances of four other drivers who swept in to take over once they realized we were stuck, I wondered if he would really come back. I wondered if I would ever see Jesse again. I wondered if the chickens pecking in the garbage at our feet could possibly benefit from the diapers that supposedly offer “protection against the inevitable!” on pamperedpoultry.com. But then the driver returned much sooner than I expected and we caught up with the others.

PHA works with a teacher named Luc Winter who started a small community school in one area of CS. He raised funds to buy concrete and tools, and then figured out how to build the school once he had enough people to help him. The concrete building was almost finished when we arrived. Before the new building, the school consisted of a tiny shack with a dirt floor and no windows, which meant it was really dark and stuffy and could seat maybe 10 kids at a time. We took a 5 second tour of the old school and could hardly stand up inside it.

Then we made our way to the new building. Kids without shoes ran to us and held our hands, smiling and leading the way to their school, then occupying every empty chair. When every seat was taken, children and parents filed into the back. When there was no more room inside, more gathered outside to watch through the windows. 


Last year, when PHA came to CS, one of their projects was a cross-curricular art and science unit in which kids learned about the nutritional benefits of the moringa tree, a super plant that grows quickly and is drought-resistant. Pretty much all parts of the tree can be used for one thing or another: to purify water, combat malnutrition and famine, and provide medicinal benefits. The kids helped plant over 200 moringa trees in CS, learned how to draw trees, and compiled recipes and planting guides to produce a book that is being published to raise money for supplies and materials needed for their own future educational endeavors.

This year, the summer project was to create art trading cards. PHA teacher Kathy Barbro, who has a fantastic website with ideas for showing kids how to draw pretty much anything, collected art from kids all over the U.S. and internationally. The art was created on cards 2.5” by 3.5,” and she brought these to show the kids in Haiti. Then we showed the Haitian children how to draw and design their own cards. Eventually, they submitted their art and traded it for a card of their choice created by children in California, or Georgia, or Alaska, or Thailand. We later gathered all the cards created in Haiti for an upcoming art show in California. 
We expected 20-30 kids in CS. But about 60, ages 2 and up, participated, each one hungry for attention, and possibly a diversion from an empty stomach. This was a room crowded with kids whose only meal of the day might be lunch, kids who were always thirsty. This is why, when we gave them Dixie cups with a hint of water to wash their paintbrushes, they drank it instead. With enough food and water, they would be the best students I’ve ever seen. Even while being hungry and dehydrated, their lives of little comfort make them genuinely interested in everything you say and do. Deprivation makes it easier for a little to go a long way in a place like Cite Soleil, where it is a gift to hold a pencil or a few crayons. 
I love how the cards turned out, each one unique and expressive. Interesting to look at on its own or as part of a collage. I’m amazed by the variety that resulted from a simple lesson for kids who don’t have traditional art supplies. But with a seemingly innate sense of knowing what to do with paper and paint, they made stunning pictures in a dusty, concrete schoolroom of one of the most desperate shantytowns in the world. 
Wednesday, August 10: We went to Pastor Jules’ House of Hope, an operation run by a Christian ministry that is mom and dad to over 70 orphaned or abandoned children and has a K-10th grade school. Although most of the kids here don’t have shoes either, they fare much better than kids in CS. If they want to be doctors or nurses after high school, they have many more connections to those opportunities. They have school uniforms. They get more to eat. They get to sleep in beds, not in the dirt. It’s a good place to be if you’re an orphan.

Like the CS students, the House of Hope kids loved the art lesson and created cool pictures. We worked with much fewer kids here than in CS, so we had time to play with them and make little toy balls by filling balloons with sand. It felt like a stark version of Christmas morning, with all the goods Kathy brought: the watercolor lessons; sand balloon balls; a basketball, soccer ball, and Frisbee for the high school boys; a tote bag full of new flip flops; and, the highlight of the hour, Jesse’s iPhone. After we finished our lessons, it started to rain, so we waited under cover and Jesse took out his phone to show the kid sitting next to him the Mustachify app. Once the other kids figured out what was going on, they all wanted to take their picture and try on a mustache, even the girls. The kids were also fascinated by Jesse’s hair, gasping in awe as they touched it. Maybe they were amused by the color and texture and non-afro-ness of his head.
After the House of Hope, we went to Ti Kay, Dr. Megan Coffee’s tuberculosis ward at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince. So here’s a bit of the context of Megan’s presence in Haiti.
 
In the wake of the earthquake, hundreds of foreign doctors rushed to Haiti to treat victims. Many of these doctors were trauma specialists and orthopedists who arrived on scene and worked nonstop in triage tents. One of these doctors makes me laugh. Amy Wilentz in Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti describes him on various occasions. Here, he’s talking to a new group of volunteer doctors who just deplaned in Port-au-Prince:

            At the center of the circle, illuminated only by his headlamp, Hyman began an ad hoc lecture, arms flailing and gesturing to accompany a dramatic account of what he’d seen so far. He told the Haiti newbies that they were about to practice medicine as it had last been practiced in the Civil War… He mentioned doctors pissing into bags because the work was so unrelenting that you didn’t have time to find a toilet….

And later:
            When Hyman was working in Haiti, although apparently he and his colleagues couldn’t manage to get to the bathroom, he did manage to blog for the Huffington Post and to appear on 60 Minutes, both of which were arguably important to getting the word out on the enormity of the catastrophe, and links to which can be found now on Hyman’s website, drhyman.com. Here’s one thing he wrote in his first HuffPost blog: “Tomorrow we will start the first surgery here after the earthquake; the first amputation with nothing but a hacksaw and headlamps and a bottle of vodka to sterilize the equipment and a few rusty instruments to start. But we will do it because it has to be done and there is no one or nowhere else to do it.” In the 60 Minutes section, you can see the actual hacksaw being used on a child, and hear Hyman lament the lack of sterilizing alcohol and laud the appearance of the vodka bottle. It is a comment on the weirdness of our word that a doctor flying down into an earthquake could blog for the Huffington Post—via satellite phone or iPhone or whatever—but have nothing better on hand for amputation than a hacksaw.

Hyman came to Haiti and couldn’t wait to leave and get back to his “real life” in the states, according to Wilentz. Megan, however, has remained “in country” since 2010. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, with a PhD from Oxford for tracking the epidemiology of HIV patients in the Bay Area, she’s 37 years old. She could probably do anything she wanted, anywhere in the world. But Haiti called, and she answered.

Megan has been living in tents, concrete bunkers, and small apartments paid for by friends since arriving in Haiti. When her stay became permanent, she learned Creole and French and sometimes lived on less than a dollar a day. This was long after she and some nurses established a TB inpatient and outpatient ward in a group of tents housed in the courtyard of the general hospital. Even when Hurricane Tomas loomed over Haiti in late October and early November 2010, her patients were still sleeping in tents. The day Tomas swept in, the hospital administration decided to shelter them in stable, empty rooms of the hospital, but only for the duration of the hurricane. However, it wasn’t long after Tomas that the hospital built a semi-permanent building solely for the TB patients, and Megan has been running a fully functional TB ward there since.

While providing free, high-quality medical care to TB and HIV patients, she works 12+ hour days and handles everything beyond patient care: grant writing, because her entire operation is privately funded; the creation of healthy food systems, transparent banking records, sourcing medical supplies; and management of interns and volunteers. Her reputation for being generous with food, oxygen and kind words, draw patients all over Port-au-Prince. People walk miles down from the mountains to ask her advice. Everyone wants her care, but she has to turn them away if they don’t have tuberculosis. She says, “I break people’s hearts all the time by telling them they don’t have TB.” P.S.: she doesn’t earn a salary.

Also, every morning for about a year, Megan used to get up early and boil a huge pot of clean water so she could cook 10-12 pounds of spaghetti to feed her malnourished patients. While the pasta cooked, she’d take a shower—if the place she lived in had a working shower. The cooked pasta was then dumped into a black garbage bag, then placed in a cardboard box, then loaded into the car that came to pick her up for work. This morning ritual started about 6 months after the earthquake. With blue latex gloves and mask over her nose/mouth, Megan took up the box of spaghetti, and huge containers of generic ketchup and mayonnaise and distributed the food. Each patient well enough to eat received a mountain of spaghetti with a good splash of ketchup and mayo on top. And this would be their favorite, every day. Eventually they’d get sick of it. Then Megan would buy hotdogs from the market ladies outside the hospital. The sickest patients got to have whole hot dogs, and the rest only pieces or halves.

We asked Megan how long she planned to stay in Haiti. She said, “Until they tell me I have to leave.”

The day we visited Ti Kay, a category 1 hurricane was in the works. The patients were agitated, anxious, and nervous with the impending storm. So were the rats scrabbling around in the rubble outside. The ward was more crowded than usual, with beds stacked up against every inch of wall space. In the center of the room, a narrow aisle functioned as a walkway perpetually congested with the traffic of hospital staff checking blood pressure and oxygen monitors and passing out big bowls of soup. We jumped into the stream of able-bodied people flowing up and down the aisle, distributing paper, watercolor, and brushes for painting, and yarn to weave into braids. The painting and braiding seemed to calm their nerves, even if only momentarily. Even patients who couldn’t sit up or move their arms found a little relief in at least being able to hold a paintbrush and a blank piece of paper.

Melissa, the PHA director who accompanied us on this trip to Haiti, has worked with Megan on many occasions, but this particular visit to the TB ward was so overwhelming that it got her to think about something we could do to help Megan. Something more than giving paintbrushes to patients who could hardly lift their arms, because what good is a paintbrush, when you’re starving and in need of oxygen? So Melissa decided to start a fundraiser to collect one year’s worth of rent so Megan could live comfortably in her own private space with amenities.  All Melissa wanted was $2,000. All she asked was that donors give $10. But enough people love Megan and her work in Haiti, so they gave much more.  


Thursday, August 11: After breakfast, we visited the Organization of Young Girls in Action (OJFA in French). This orphanage was started by two Haitian attorneys in response to the treatment of girls who serve as “restavecs,” (house slaves) or prostitutes in the Carrefour slum of Port-au-Prince. After the earthquake, the OJFA founders also took in homeless girls who were living in cardboard boxes in the streets, and one boy whose family beat him in the head with bricks until blood came out of his eyes.

OJFA provides a safe shelter for these kids with bunk beds, a propane stove, a rainwater collection system, clothing, books, and school fees. In exchange for this miracle of a life, the girls express their gratitude in everything they do. The oldest girls watch out for the youngest ones; they all take a shift of cooking and cleaning in the house; they wash their own clothes; when they get to eat their main meal of the day at lunch (usually a mountain of rice and beans or spaghetti), they all sit at the table and wait with their arms folded until each girl has food, then they say a prayer.  
  
PHA has worked with these girls for a few years and collects various items for them throughout the year—feminine hygiene products, swimsuits, underwear, shoes. When PHA began working with OJFA, Melissa and Kathy quickly saw that the girls needed clothes because all they had were tattered dresses and worn flip flops. And so commenced the Homemade Dress Drive. Initially, the goal was to collect 30 handmade dresses. But the response was overwhelming and 470 dresses were donated from moms, daughters, schools, and girl scout troops all over the country and even as far as Australia. A PHA policy is to hand deliver all donations to make sure the children receive them, so someone is always taking the maximum 70 lbs allowed by the airlines. Dresses were loaded into suitcases, along with sunglasses, flip flops, and purses and after the girls tried on all their new gear, they had a fashion show.

We didn’t bring the girls dresses this time, but they were excited to see visitors anyway and greeted us with a kiss on both cheeks. All we brought with us were balls of yarn so we could show them how to make pompoms that they could wear on necklaces. But because they never get to have yarn, it was a treat. What I loved best about these girls was that they were willing to figure out how the pompoms worked just by watching us make them once. They had more patience and persistence than most of my American students. 
After pompoms we took them back to the Oloffson so they could practice swimming. It was a good day. It was sad to say goodbye.

In the evening, we went to visit Atis Rezistans, a sculpture gallery in downtown Port-au-Prince, where Claudel and Racine hang out with the other artists associated with Atis Rezistans. Claudel and Racine are two of the artists PHA contracted with for the 2013 Ghettos to Galleries project that Jesse wrote about a few months ago. At the moment, I can’t explain what Atiz Rezistans is better than it’s described here, so check it out sometime. The gallery is a courtyard with tarps for a roof, and sculptures line the walls, floor to ceiling in every room. The whole space reminded me of a demented I Spy book. If one of the cats or chickens that roams around freely in there got lost in a pile of sculpture, it might not ever be found.

 
 


Friday, July 12: This was the “best day ever!!!!!” for reasons which shall soon be made clear. We were scheduled to leave for Jacmel, a southern town that Jesse and I knew nothing about, other than that we had to take a “tap tap” to get there. From Jacmel, we would ride motos up a mountain to get to the village where Pastor Baba lived because he would host us on Friday night, then take us swimming at Bassen Bleu on Saturday morning. Last time Melissa rode a tap tap, she said it was awesome, that she got a great view riding on top of the open air bus, and that hopefully we wouldn’t mind that it was a 2 hour ride with nonstop hairpin turns up the mountainside. “No big deal,” we thought, it will be awesome.

As it turns out, the Port-au-Prince tap tap station is a big parking lot in the middle of the street where buses and vans park anywhere and who knows how they get in or out because it’s so congested. Market sellers swarm the doors of a bus that’s waiting to fill with passengers before taking off. Four of us from the PHA group were traveling to Jacmel together, but none of us had ever been on a tap tap.

The first mistake we made was getting into the vehicle too early. Our tap tap was an old van that in any country with driving rules, would legally seat 12 people with seat belts. We didn’t know that tap tap drivers wait in the parking lot until their vehicle has at least 20 people crammed inside. This makes the drive more economically profitable, but deathly uncomfortable for all passengers. Had I known we were about to experience claustrophobia in the most extreme sense of the word for the next 2.5 hours, I might have chosen to sleep in at the hotel.

Jesse squeezed in first, next to the window, and I sat next to him. A Haitian climbed in next to me. Then two more people climbed into our seat and we were all sitting on top of each other. With the heat and little ventilation (windows are not a luxury of the tap tap), I’m surprised we didn’t pass out before the driver finally put the key in the ignition. We sat around for 20 minutes, waiting for the van to reach a capacity that satisfied the driver. Then we were off.

We were doing really well, ignoring the numbing ache that surged up our legs, when Jesse heard it. Someone behind us, sitting too far from a window, started throwing up in a plastic bag. I was really surprised that we didn’t pass out then, either. And then Jesse saw IT. I was zoning out, staring into space in front of me to distract myself, when Jesse alerted me to the lady in the seat in front of him. She was throwing up too. She didn’t have a plastic bag though. But she was sitting right next to a window, so she opened it and stuck her head out. And you all know what happens to the people behind you when you vomit out the window of a moving vehicle. Jesse had to wipe slimy brown flecks off his shirt and glasses. And we were still about half an hour from Jacmel.

In my opinion, the scenery of Jacmel made up for being barfed on in the tap tap. Jacmel is considerably less populated than Port-au-Prince, so there’s more space to breathe. There’s more water and there are more trees and architecturally sound buildings. 
After the tap taps, we rode motos across the river and into the mountains. Motorcycles apparently do really well in the water, since it’s common there to ride with the exhaust pipes submerged. The river bottom was rocky and I was banking on the tires slipping and all of us falling in and getting soaked. But we had seasoned drivers who do this all the time without getting wet.

Pastor Baba organized a school in his mountain village that services maybe 30 kids. They need five teachers to meet all their needs, but currently have two. He told us teachers make about $20 U.S. dollars a month and that hiring enough teachers or paying them more isn’t really on the government’s to do list. So Pastor Baba does what he can to keep the school going and whoever wants to learn will come and participate. 
We made more trading cards with these kids, and then we drank coconut water.
That would have been the end of our day if Pastor Baba’s wife hadn’t insisted on cooking dinner. It took her at least 3 hours from start to finish, maybe because she was working in the dark without electricity? But it was worth the wait because it was the best food we would eat in Haiti. Haitians eat a lot of pasta; beans and rice; salads with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and avocados; spicy coleslaw; fried chicken; and plantains. But good luck finding anything that isn’t fried to death in rancid oil in Port-au-Prince. When we got tired of the hotel food in the capital, we ate avocados and crackers with oil and vinegar, which worked in Haiti, but is less appetizing at home where the avocados aren’t almost the size of ostrich eggs. We all agreed that Pastor Baba’s wife should take over the kitchen at the Oloffson. His wife reminded me of my mom, who also performed comparable feats of kitchen alchemy, making gamey food taste exotic even when the facilities were lacking in those early days of living in Alaska.  
 
I’m not sure what time dinner ended, but by then we’d been sitting in the dark for hours and were too tired to change into clothes that weren’t caked in four layers of bug spray. When it’s that late at night, and that dark, and there’s no toilet or shower, and when you’ve been on a tap tap all day, you stop caring and just lie down and hope you don’t have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. 


Saturday, July 13: We got clean the next day when we hiked further up the mountain and jumped into the waterfalls of Bassin Bleu. And this was the highlight of our day. For 15 glorious minutes, my nails weren’t grimy and I didn’t smell like deet. 
Pastor Baba's cute daughter, Cecilia.
Family pet.
More family pets.
 

Also lesser highlights of the day were the rides back. Instead of waiting for the moto to slip and fall in the river, we got off and waded across instead; the donkey crossing the river at the same time as us waited to pee until we walked all the way across. And while people threw up in the tap tap on the way back to Port-au-Prince, they weren’t sitting next to us. 

Sunday-Monday, July 14-15: Our meetings with orphanages and schools were finished so we had a few days to process all that had happened. I started reading Farewell Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti only to realize I’d started a month too late. Had I read it before we left for Haiti, I might have been prepared to be there without feeling guilty for having too much to look forward to after going home. Wilentz says, in Fred Voodoo, “My rule is don’t be full of pity and charity. Don’t feel sorry for them, rule number one. Be glad you’re not in their situation, but don’t pity.” Of course, Jesse told me the exact same thing the first night we spent in Haiti, long before I read Fred Voodoo. I imagine living in Ecuador for two years might have given him this perspective, but maybe he always knew this because he has more common sense than I do.

Fred Voodoo is full of unfortunate facts about international relations that have facilitated the ruin of Haiti. A few notable examples:

1.  Haiti is the first black republic of the world, and before Haitian slaves revolted and won their freedom from the French in 1791, they were the most profitable New World colony. However, they might not have been so poor if France hadn’t forced them to pay reparations debt for almost 100 years afterward. 

2.  Because the U.S. still believed in slavery, they ignored Haiti and boycotted the independent country in its infancy, refusing to integrate it into the world economy. And so did everyone else. There wasn’t much use for Haiti without its economy of plantation slavery.  

3.  The U.S. occupation of Haiti from 1915-1934 didn’t help. Since 1915, Wilentz says, Haiti has been viewed as a “rubber stamp” for U.S. policy, American businessmen, and Haitian-run businesses inclined toward American interests. This is why for most of the 20th century, only U.S. approved Haitians were presidents: “The embassy looked the other way at internal political repression, to say nothing of continuing starvation, as long as Haitian governments were friendly or at least anticommunist…Only when friendly dictators became so kleptocratic that people started fleeing the island en masse for the Bahamas and Florida did the United States perk up and perform regime change.” Basically, any president who’s tried to get something done for the common Haitian majority before prioritizing the agenda of the elite Haitian business class has been ousted.  But this was even a trend before the U.S. occupation, Frederick Douglass observed the same phenomenon in 1893:
             
The fault [for the instability] in Haiti is not with the ignorant many, but with the                   educated and ambitious few […who make] politics a business of their country. Governed neither by love nor mercy for their country, they care not into what depths she may be plunged. No president, however virtuous, wise and patriotic, ever suits them when they themselves happen to be out of power.
           
I wish I could say that these are the only conspirators against the peace of Haiti, but I cannot. They have allies in the United States. Recent developments have shown that even a former United States Minister, resident and Consul General to that country, has conspired against the present government of Haiti. It so happens that we have men in this country who, to accomplish their personal and selfish ends, will fan the flame of passion between the factions in Haiti and will otherwise assist in setting revolutions afoot.
     
To their shame be it spoken, men in high American quarters have boasted to me of their ability to start a revolution in Haiti at pleasure. They have only to raise sufficient money, they say, with which to arm and otherwise equip the malcontents, of either faction, to effect their object. Men who have old munitions of war or old ships to sell; ships that will go down in the first storm, have an interest in stirring up strife in Haiti. It gives them a market for their worthless wares. Others of a speculative turn of mind and who have money to lend at high rates of interest are glad to conspire with revolutionary chiefs of either faction, to enable them to start a bloody insurrection. To them, the welfare of Haiti is nothing; the shedding of human blood is nothing; the success of free institutions is nothing, and the ruin of a neighboring country is nothing.

4.  And one more for good measure—“The American Plan” initiated by the first Bush administration, although arguably well intentioned, destroyed Haiti’s agricultural economy. In the 70s, most of Haiti was rural and many of its inhabitants were peasant farmers who were feeding themselves fine on their own. But incredibly high population density + about 95% deforestation rate + so much land being used for farming crops = severe erosion issues. Along with all the usual indicators of underdeveloped nations (illiteracy rates, poor infrastructure, inadequate healthcare, etc), the erosion situation inspired U.S. intervention. The basic plan was to transition peasants from their “destructive” cultivation of beans and corn to urban areas where they could be factory workers in U.S. affiliated industrial parks. They imagined Haiti’s potential as the “Taiwan of the Caribbean.”

And another part of The American Plan involved the U.S. promising political/financial support to Haitians who wanted the really, really, really, corrupt president at the time (who had just been ousted in 1986) if they would cooperate and lower tariffs on U.S. rice and make it super cheap to dump subsidized American rice on the Haitian market. Haitians lost control of the importation process, and the rice came in so fast, and so cheap that it was practically given away and nobody wanted to pay more for Haitian rice when they could get American rice for so much less. And then U.S. government organizations funded reports that basically said Haitian farmers couldn’t feed their country and if nothing more was done about it, Haiti would die of famine and malnutrition. These reports circulated, even as another group of researchers that was actually monitoring food production reported that Haitian farmers were producing enough corn to more than feed the average family. Of course, this report was ignored. So Haiti had to keep importing from the U.S. and this continued with support of Clinton’s administration. It got so bad that Haitians abandoned their farms, and moved to industrial sectors that later shut down due to riots anyway. So it was one big mess that spiraled into lots of other messes. Clinton apologized for the rice in 2011.

The point of that digression was that reading Fred Voodoo reminded me that if you want to help Haiti, don’t make Haiti's decisions for Haiti. Ask Haiti what it needs and enable Haitians to solve their own problems because with the right kind of help, they can.

I read an article recently that appeared in the June 2000 Ensign about an LDS couple in charge of humanitarian efforts in Haiti. While it’s an old article, it demonstrates the correct approach to helping in places with ongoing need. This isn’t to say that the LDS Church has a monopoly on knowing how best to help people—there are lots of organizations not affiliated with the Church that have done good things. After the 2010 earthquake, every bit of aid that came to Haiti was needed, regardless of where it came from. But you can’t take the same approach to chronic need as you do in disaster relief. Aid for chronic need must be sustainable. LDS humanitarian relief is so successful because it’s sustainable, and based on the principle of self-reliance.

So flash back to the year 2000, when Elder and Sister Kouri were serving their humanitarian mission in Haiti. They were in charge of assessing local needs and seeking out projects “where there would be meaningful participation on the part of the recipients.” They could see that “there would be no end to food aid as long as the Haitians did not become self-reliant.” So they decided to start three agricultural organizations to represent 81 subgroups of farmers in rural areas outside of Port-au-Prince. The Kouris talked to local people who helped them understand that pigs = livelihood, but they needed pigs of their own first. They didn’t have pigs partly because in the 80s, an African swine fever broke out and guess who got rid of Haiti's pigs and replaced them with foreign breeds that required unaffordable feed?  
The Kouris designed a program that worked like this:
1.     Government subsidy program helps purchase 20 young sows and 4 boars.
2.     Government agronomist trains farmers to breed pigs.
3.     LDS Church funds the building of the piggery.
4.     Farmers breed sows, fatten male piglets for sale.
5.     Female piglets given to family members who contract to breed them (instead of eating/selling her) and then pass two female piglets to other subgroup families.

So eventually, all families in the subgroups have their own pig-raising businesses and another source of income. After two years, the original donation of 48 pigs to three organizations of farmers was projected to give 1,160 families a female piglet every year without requiring the Church to invest more money. One of the locals they put in charge of one of the three small agricultural organizations turned his small group into 40 subgroups representing about 3,000 people. Profits earned from pig sales financed pig feed, fertilizers, and provided money for other needs like healthcare and school supplies.

While this happened long before the 2010 earthquake, it’s projects like this that work in Haiti when so many other NGOs have failed to make a lasting difference because they don’t invest in projects that make Haitians self-reliant; they give too much money or too many supplies without holding recipients accountable.  

The story about the Kouris reminds me why PHA is important. We support PHA because to some extent, it has potential to be what the Kouris’ work was for Haiti. PHA believes in self-reliance too, in enabling Haitian artists to be their own problem-solvers and decision-makers. One example: PHA is training Haitian artists to build their own photography program; some cameras donated for students, plus $50 pays a teacher for a 13-week photography class for over a dozen kids. The photos students take are put in exhibits and sold to make money for future classes. Another example is the moringa tree project mentioned earlier.

PHA is a young organization with a long way to go in making itself truly sustainable with Haitians working independently of the directors who live in California. For now, it’s enough for us to know that we have time and resources to give to a worthy cause, and that the recipients of PHA funds are good, hardworking people who deserve to be successful. 

6 comments:

Fife Family said...

Wow this is a great review of your trip! I was hoping you would do a write up. :) It seems like such an eye opening and humbling experience. I'm impressed you guys made it a whole week. You're amazing! Seriously though, it got me wondering if there is anything we can do as a family with our kids to help any of the people that you are working/worked with. Let me know!

Jesse Rich said...

Thanks for sharing our epic adventure. It was a lot of fun to meet all the people that we did. One interesting note, I asked Megan Coffee how long she planned to stay and she said, "Until they kick me out." That's quite the commitment for a place where most people burn out fairly quickly.

Barbara Rich said...

This is an amazing article, Sarita! You guys sure did a lot during the time you were there. Thanks so much for sharing!

Katie said...

I knew almost none of the history about Haiti that you shared. It is sad to see the impact of so much negative intervention. I don't hear much about Haiti in the news anymore now that the earthquake is so long passed, but there is obviously so much need there. Aid that breeds independence and self-sufficiency and that can quickly become Haitian led sounds like the only real solution.

Thanks for writing about your experience.

Abigail said...

Sarita, I finally finished reading this blog post! It was long, but full of great stuff. I'm glad that you and Jesse found volunteer work that you really enjoy being involved in, and that you took the time to write about it. Very enlightening.

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