Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cholera in Haiti

Haiti, U.S. and International news feeds are all reporting on the devastating cholera outbreaks that are currently rocking the country. Over 1,030 people have now died, over 14,600 are reported as being infected and as many as 50,000-100,000 might actually be infected. The UN estimates that up to 200,000 are likely to become infected overall. The scary thing about cholera is that it strikes very quickly. Terrible diarrhea and vomiting can cause a person to become completely dehydrated and die within 48 hours. Haitian rural communities with little access to medical centers are understandably afraid. The hospitals in certain towns, such as Gonaives, are completely overfull with cases and cannot accept any new ones. I’ve talked first hand with Haitians over the last few days who express their desperate feelings of powerlessness in the face of this new invisible enemy.

Poulie women asking for cholera prevention trainings in the different local schools to help protect their children.
A lot of confusion exists about how cholera made its way into Haiti and about how it is spreading. Here is what I know or have heard so far. The Center for Disease Control tested certain infected persons and asserted that the current strain of cholera most closely resembles one from Southeast Asia. The cholera originated in the Artibonite area, near the Artibonite river, where Nepalese UN troops were stationed. Many Haitians and international NGO’s suspect that the Nepalese troops might have unknowingly brought the cholera to the country. The UN and World Health Organization contend that they tested the soldiers and that they are not the source. However, many Haitians doubt the truth behind this. As a result, certain protests against the UN troops have taken place in the Central Plateau town of Hinche and in the Northern town of Cap Haitien, where over 50 people have died. We were all very sad to learn today that in the Cap Haitien protest, which turned violent, a 14 year old Haitian boy was killed. Understandably, many Haitians and Haitian organizations now want the UN troops to go. Yet, with the pending elections and fear of potential violence, this leaves the country in a bit of a quandary.

The big question remains…how do we now deal with this cholera epidemic? So much money has been put into International NGO’s and overall health initiatives. One thing that I know for sure, though, is that success can only be achieved if International Donors, NGO’s and Health Systems respect the already existing Haitian organizations and networks. This is one of the reasons why I have faith in my new employer, ActionAid, and other similar rights-based organizations. I believe that they truly respect and partner with local Haitian organizations. The results can be amazing. I have the proof.

The ActionAid Cholera Prevention Training taking place in the small village of Poulie in the Central Valley, next to Lascahobas.
On Sunday, I was able to join the 10 member ActionAid Emergency Response Team as they executed a series of cholera prevention trainings in Lascahobas (the town that I blogged about on 6.27.10) and the neighbor village of Poulie. What an impressive endeavor. On Friday, after an ActionAid staffer came back from the field and reported on new cases of cholera and a request for ActionAid’s help, the team immediately contacted their local Haitian NGO partner, COSADH. COSADH, in turn, notified their field liaisons that ActionAid would be arriving on Sunday to do the prevention trainings.

Explaining the contents and use of the cholera prevention kits.
Our team arrived in Lascahobas at 11:30am on Sunday. We met for an hour with our partner COSADH and a team of local ActionAid/COSADH trained facilitators who are from the area and know the people well. We split up into 3 different teams. I joined the team going to the small village of Poulie, where we worked with the ActionAid/COSADH facilitator, Jacqueline Morette (who also serves as a facilitator for Oxfam.) Jacqueline is an amazing woman…strong, warm, well educated…a real community leader who helps to lead the Association of Women of Poulie. I actually had the pleasure of meeting Jacqueline in Washington, DC, when Oxfam brought her to the States to meet with NGO’s and members of Congress. (She remembered me well and was quite surprised to see me show up at her door in the middle of this very rural area.)

Jacqueline, ActionAid Emergency Response Trainer, Wesner, and Me in the village of Poulie in the Central Valley
Jacqueline sprung into action and mobilized the youth and local artists, who then went door to door to announce that there would be a community-wide cholera prevention training in 1 hour at the local school. We spent that hour talking with Jacqueline under her coconut tree and learning more about the community and the concerns over the growing cholera threat. At 2pm, we headed to the local school and low and behold, over 100 community members were gathered, ready and eager for the training. It was a wonderful, interactive, productive hour long training on the different ways to prevent and treat cholera, that included singing, story telling and community engagement.
I just kept thinking during the training, “this is how you do community development and community emergency response…with people, not for people…through the community, not above the community.”

Poulie Community members waiting in line to receive ActionAid cholera prevention kits.

This is the type of cholera response that Haiti most desperately needs right now. One that is considerate of local Haitian organizations, knowledgeable of the language and culture, connected into community leaders, and sensitive to the unique geographical needs. If International NGO’s and donors want to really help Haiti, we need to first look at our own intentions, prejudices and hierarchies, and seek to reach out in more authentic and respectful ways.
The ActionAid Emergency Response team handing out image-based educational flyers and cholera prevention kits (1 gallon bucket, chlorox to treat the water, soap, toilet paper and oral rehydration solution) to Poulie training participants

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mountains Beyond Mountains

The book is right, Haiti is ridiculously gorgeous. I had the most amazing opportunity today to join my new friends, Alexis and her husband Ben, on a hike through a nature wonderland of sorts. Alexis is the head advocacy person at Mennonite Central Committee, based in Port-au-Prince. Born of American parents, having grown up for 18 years in Cameroon and having spent the last 2 ½ years dedicating her life to progressive Haiti development (and learning fluent Creole) she is quite the global citizen. Her husband, Ben, (also American, a good Creole speaker and a real globe trotter) is a talented photographer who works with several of the different International NGO’s operating in Haiti. After a few meetings with Alexis and realizing that she was my kind of person (down-to-earth, respectful of Haitian culture, warm and welcoming,) I was delighted when she and her husband invited me to join them for a day of hiking on a beautiful nature preserve in the mountain village of Kenskoff, about 20 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince.

The preserve is the work of a Haitian American woman named Janie, who bought up the land to protect it and turn it into a natural reserve where community members could help repopulate the land with indigenous plants. The result is a lush Eden of orchids, begonias, impatients, fruit trees, vegetables and green, exotic plants that I have never even seen before. We started up into the hike surrounded by a distant mist that gave the mountain and its flora an ethereal glow. We greeted every Haitian that we passed in Creole and were received with the warmest, most sincere response at every turn. (Creole goes a LONG way…It is inspiring how the Haitian people have held onto their language and so respect its use by foreigners.) I oohed and ahhed over the amazing agriculture projects all around us: terraces of sweet potatoes, cassava, peppers, tomatoes and onions. Green houses with marigolds and lettuce and herbs.

After several wonderful hours of exploring this natural treasure, we finally decided it was time to descend. Just then, the mist began to rise and the mountains and valleys and tiered terraces leapt out before us. Breathtaking. As we carefully navigated down the red earth path, we passed by a procession of community members dressed in red shirts, making their way up to the top of the mountain for a planning meeting. We said “Comment ou ye…or how are you?” to each person and were greeted with a warm smile and laugh. “Mwen byen, par la grace du dieu.” “Very good, by the grace of God.”

Once Alexis, Ben and I made it back down the mountain, we ventured to the town market, where Alexis enthusiastically greeted her friend Christine, a vegetable saleswoman who also dabbles in horticulture. I witnessed such a beautiful and sincere warm embrace between the two women. Christine was obviously delighted to see her old friend Alexis and talked a mile a minute in Creole to her, updating her on the news of the town and market. I felt the divides of race, culture and nationality just slip away at the moment. This is the Haiti that I came to see…a land of mountains beyond mountains and human connection beyond connection.

After Alexis and Ben bought a good sampling of vegetables and I bought a lovely orchid arrangement that Christine had created, we said orevwa and began to head back into the reality of Port-au-Prince. The traffic and noise and pollution and cramped corners slowly emerged. Yet, I still felt high from the day, and seemed to carry a new lightness back into the city with me. My new friends showed me that Haiti still has many wonderful things to teach me. And today proved yet again that one of these lessons is hope.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Parlez-vous soccer?

This is the gorgeous view from the ActionAid Guest house in Haiti, in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Pacot. It is a wonderful reminder that beauty really does exist in Haiti...even despite the earthquake effects, cholera outbreaks and aftermath of Hurricane Tomas. I have 3 great examples to back up this claim.

First, beautiful views abound. If you just head up into the hills or mountains a bit, you can see bright blue waters, towering mountains, lush trees, colorful flowers. The higher you go, the more you realize that Port-au-Prince is not the only part of Haiti, and that its rubble, trash and compact IDP camps are not the only things that define its character.

Second, the Haitian people are beautiful. Warm, thoughtful, quick to laugh, sensitive, strong, loving...Haitians constantly amaze me. How, in the middle of so much destruction and sickness, can people be so human, so connected, so solid? Two wonderful proofs of this fact are my current roomates: Marie (our ActionAid Haiti Human Resources Director and overall organizational mom) and Irvy (Marie's best friend of over 30 years.) I will have to devote another blog entry entirely to these two women. Despite the fact that both women lost their husbands years ago, that both women were traumatized by the earthquake and lost people they cared about, that both have children to worry about educating and overwhelming responsibility to care for the lives of others, they are free, loving spirits. Their full belly laughs fill the home. Their kindness and smiles are infectious. They really know how to live (and how to make a foreigner feel right at home.)

Third, Haitian children are beautiful (ok, children do officially count as people, but they still get their own category.) When I emerged from the Guest House yesterday early evening to go for a walk with Marie, the children and their soccer ball descended. A round of voices started asking me if I knew how to play soccer. I joked and teased them and said of course I did, but did THEY know how to play soccer, or would I have to teach them. This resulted in the most beautiful chorus of giggles and laughter and enthusiastic pleading for me to come and play a quick game with them.

I am proud to report, that I scored 2 goals, blocked over a dozen attempts and successfully managed to not embarrass myself on the makeshift soccer field (consisting of a small dirt patch of semi-even ground, rocks for goals and a sadly deflated soccer ball.) In fact, I even got some good praise from the gathered bystanders. Of course, my fellow players were only 8 year old boys who were playing without shoes, but that's beside the point. Soccer turned out to be a language that we could all speak. And the children's supreme delight with me playing reminded me that Haitian children are beautiful miracles...with a joie de vivre that deserves our greatest respect.

I suspect that my next blog might be a bit more reflective of the many challenges that Haitians are facing right now: the cholera deaths, the slow pace of removing rubble, the disputes of land tenure and fact that Haitians are being pushed off of IDP camp land. Yet, today, I just want to bask for a minute more in the beauty that is Haiti. I hope that you get a chance to do the same.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Haiti, Take 2

Just a quick blog post to announce that I'm heading to Haiti tomorrow for a week-long work trip. My June trip to Haiti exposed me to the massive damage that Port-au-Prince had suffered during the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Tomas and Cholera outbreaks, I'm not quite sure to expect. So, again, I'm really, really, really going to try and just listen, watch and learn. I'll also try to update my blog with pictures and stories from the field.

And I promise, promise, promise both my mother and my husband, that I won't eat any street food this time. Learned my lesson the hard way last time;)

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Office of One's Own

One of the many blessings of this new job at ActionAid is that I have my own office, with a door that closes…if I pull the couch out to just the right place and wedge the door past it. And, I have a big window, so that if I lean way over to the right, I can just see a bit of sky in between the tall buildings. This little space that I call my own is no small thing. (Ok, it technically is a relatively small space, but I’m talking metaphorically here.) It is a place where I can regroup…a place where I can seek refuge…a place that I can call my own.

In the spirit of owning up to my space, new job and general work callings, I’ve decided to thoroughly decorate my office. Hence, I have the usual suspects in the room with me: Mahatma Ghandi, butterflies, a map of people from around the world, my friends and family (with my hubby right in front of my computer, where I can keep an eye on him;)
Last week, I made a proud purchase of 3 sweet little office plants that the woman promised me would be very difficult indeed to kill. An added bonus is that the kitchen (and hence the potential for them actually getting watered) is right next to my office. I grabbed a cute little pumpkin while I was at it, plunked him down in full view at the corner of my desk and declared it fall time, as verified by the Monterey calendar on my wall. My space felt almost perfect...more like a work home. Yet, I realized yesterday that there was one more thing missing.

And so, I surrounded my computer this morning with some key reminders. They’re little pieces of advice that I’ve accumulated over time from wise friends, family members and prophets. Here are a few of them:

- Listen and Look
- Do not be afraid
- Knock, and the door shall be opened
- When in doubt, give
- Seek and you will find
- Live by faith and not by sight
- Forgive
- Be patient

And the big one, placed right at the center of my screen so that I just can't ignore it...Love.

Last week, I had a few work days where I think I broke just about every one of these guidelines. This week, I’m trying to make them a little bit harder to forget. So, I’m thankful to have the space in which to do that.
The final item that I have in my office as a reminder of how I want to work and live my life is a poem, given to me by a dear friend. It goes something like this:
"I asked for strength...
And God gave me challenges to make me strong
I asked for wisdom...
And God gave me problems to solve
I asked for prosperity...
And God gave me brain and brawn to work
I asked for courage...
And God gave me danger to overcome
I asked for love...
And God gave me troubled people to help

I asked for favors...
And God gave me opportunities
I received nothing I wanted
I received everything I needed."


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

An Ode to Working Mothers

My church, Foundry UMC, www.foundryumc.org 

I was amazed this past weekend by the women who spoke at the Haiti education event that we organized at my church, Foundry United Methodist. Both women are of Haitian descent and work on Haiti recovery and policy efforts around the clock. Both are married and mothers to young children. Both travel back and forth to Haiti for their work, with one woman in particular traveling at least twice per month. Yet, there they were this past Sunday...dynamic, eloquent, passionate, soulful women who are so committed to Haiti reconstruction that they packed their entire families into their cars and gave up a portion of their incredibly limited free time in order to help educate us. Talk about having a WOW moment.

Something that particularly struck me during their presentations was the amazingly challenging path that committed working women have to walk. Due to a lack of available childcare, both women had their 3 year olds pulling on their skirts as they attempted to present and then answer questions. (I was lucky enough to take care of one of the women's darling 1 year old daughter...but still had to use every trick in the book to keep her amused for an hour.) I just kept thinking that these women probably get an average of 5 or 6 hrs of sleep per night (if they're lucky.) They work long, hard weeks and some how have to balance being 100% available to their families.They must have been exhausted. Yet, they were able to give perfect, intelligent, comprehensive commentaries on one of the most challenging post disaster countries in history as their 3 year old children yanked on their clothes, jumped up and down and tried to get their attention. And they performed the roles of professional, friend and mother all without blinking an eye. My question is, how did they do it?!

Two of my dearest friends, both of whom are intelligent, successful professionals, just recently had their first child. Already, they are having to navigate through how they will balance their new roles. How much time can they afford to take off...how long will they nurse their babies...when will they need to go back to work...when will they get sleep...how will they maintain their friendships and community. And, both friends are incredibly blessed with progressive, caring, engaged husbands who are thrilled to be fathers and to co-raise their children. I, myself, have every confidence that my husband Mark will be an equally wonderful father some day. Yet, it is still the mothers, for the most part, who must play the most challenging roles. It is the mom's who must be all things to all people at all times. Perhaps that is why these women who presented at our Haiti church event were able to navigate through multi-tasking so easily. Their lives inevitably center around this skill.

I hope and pray that I am blessed enough to experience this challenge of multi-tasking through the roles of professional, spouse, daughter, sister, cousin, social justice advocate, church member, neighbor, friend and especially mother one day. In the meantime, I extend some much deserved admiration and appreciation out to all of you working mothers. May we, as a culture, work to better support our mothers (and fathers too!) so that they don't have to choose between their careers, their families and themselves.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Haiti: Six months on - Fault Lines - Al Jazeera English

Haiti: Six months on - Fault Lines - Al Jazeera English

I just attended a Transafrica Forum event at which I was privileged to watch a powerful short documentary on post-earthquake Haiti produced by Al Jazeera. As I watched the real story behind what is happening in Haiti camps, I kept thinking, "what can I do about this...I mean really...what can I personally do about this?"

Of course, this might seem like a slightly crazy question, since my full-time job at ActionAid centers most of its attention on Haiti advocacy. Herein lies my life and career dilemma, though. Advocacy sometimes feels like a slow and clumsy beast...so very distant from real life people. And it's real life people that I want to engage with. Yet, where would we be without big picture changes? I suspect that we'd be stuck in the mud somewhere...trying to get the same metaphoric disaster truck with only two wheels on it out of the mud yet again.

I guess this is why I've always gravitated towards film and documentaries. They can tell a personal, real life human story, but in big picture ways that can have positive ripple effects over time. I love that.

Haiti has an important story to tell...a deep, rich, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes inspirational story. I only hope that we can find authentic ways to share this story, and to especially bring it to big picture policy makers. So, to all of us advocacy and policy folks out there, let's try to remember that Haiti's story is first and foremost a human story.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Walker's Way

So, it’s official. I just began a bonafide, full-time, salaried position as Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA. Wow! I feel so incredibly grateful for this blessing. After an entire year of searching for a job (I just completed my 100th application a few weeks ago,) it feels like I can finally fully breathe again. I will continue to work on Haiti advocacy efforts at 85% time and will start to integrate work on Central America at 15% time. I’m excited to get to use my French, to learn Creole and more Spanish and to advocate for the anti-poverty initiatives in which I believe. To show my great appreciation for a year’s worth of support and prayers, I want to send these words out to the Universe, God, family and friends: Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

A few weeks ago, Mark and I were also able to take a vacation up to Maine, to celebrate our 3rd anniversary and revel in a little R&R before the start of the new job. During our trip, we and my mother visited my great uncle, Richard Walker, at his retirement home outside of Portland, ME. This past year has been a hard one for Uncle Dick, as he lost the love of his life, his wife of 62 years. Talking with my favorite great uncle helped put my own last year into perspective. No matter what kind of challenging transitions and job searching I have had, it pales in comparison to the loss of a beloved spouse. Uncle Dick showed us picture after picture of Sally, telling stories of their many adventures together in raising three girls, leaving the family business to pursue their dreams in ME and making a new home by the ocean. He has such love for this woman. I held Mark’s hand a little tighter with each story, thankful that my husband is still with me for the journey. 

93 year old Uncle Dick and his beloved wife of 62 years, Sally Walker 

What I love about Uncle Dick is that despite his own loss, he is still able to contribute. In fact, his whole being seems to gravitate towards this. As he gives us a tour of the grounds, he points out little projects here and there that still need his full attention. “Those benches over there need to be redone, so that’s my next project,” he tells us. Or, “I still need to check in on Henry in the care unit, he’s been having a rough go.” Uncle Dick finally brings us to his favorite place at the home, a beautiful distant view of the ocean. He explains that it used to be impossible for the residents to actually walk down to the ocean, without having to climb over boulders and bushes. Then he says with that well-known twinkle in his eye, “Follow me, my friends.” 

He leads us down a new walkway through the woods, saying jolly hello’s to everyone we pass by name. We come to a special bench, a resting place on the path. “Now, we finally have a way for us old geezers to walk down and see the ocean up close,” he explains. He points to a small sign over the bench that reads, “Walker’s Way.” It takes us a few moments to realize that this walkway is named after Uncle Dick, after my mother’s family name. He suddenly looks a little shy and explains that is wasn’t his idea to put up the sign, just to build the path. I marvel at my uncle, who at 93 years old, is still finding ways to blaze new trails and give of himself.

Liz and Dick Walker at "Walker’s Way" in Piper Shores, ME 

Afterwards, we head back to Uncle Dick’s apartment, where we are able to ask him questions about his older brother, my grandfather William, their sister Bobbie and their parents. Uncle Dick tells us about growing up during the Great Depression, of how his own mother (who has sometimes been branded a bit of a tough cookie through family lore) was the glue that kept everything together. When the Depression struck the hardest, and his parents were uncertain if they would be able to keep their house or feed their 3 children, Marian Walker took matters into her own hands. Marian was wonderful with flowers, a true botanist. After some unsuccessful attempts at selling flowers and seeds, she decided to try writing. She finally amassed everything that she knew about gardening on paper, drove herself to the New Jersey train station, took the train by herself up to New York City, and began knocking on the doors of every Gardening Magazine in town. An unknown, jobless house wife was somehow able to convince these magazines to publish her articles, through her own sheer conviction. My great uncle explains that this income was what saved the family through the worst part of the 30's. Despite her sometimes tough exterior, Marian Walker was a survivor and a provider.

My great grandmother, Writer, Artist and Botanist, Marian C. Walker 

This story inspires me. Political analysts have sometimes likened our current economic plunges and unemployment rates to those of the Great Depression. I don’t believe, though, that the majority of us truly understand what it must have felt like to live during the 30’s. Of course, current immigrants and those living in poor, rural and urban neighborhoods do. Many of us, though, take a lot of what we have for granted. However, I believe that both the Depression and the current economy are proof that no one is too smart, educated or wealthy to be immune from potential loss. Therefore, every job and paycheck is a blessing. Our houses, cars, food, water and clothing, they are also blessings. AND, no matter how hard it gets, loss always presents a new opportunity to grow…to try something new… to give.

As we hug Uncle Dick goodbye and wave a final farewell, I start to think about this next stage of my life. The truth of the matter is that my new job might just be a temporary gift… an impermanent step on a long pathway of learning. My husband, my family, my convictions, they are the cornerstones. Thank you, Marian Walker, for teaching me that perseverance can indeed save the day. Thank you, Uncle Dick, for showing us that it is always the right time to clear a path for others. And thank you, Mom, for guiding me towards the greatest gift that I will ever need to survive in this crazy world: faith.

My mom, Liz Walker, Me, my husband, Mark, and Uncle Dick

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Voices of Haiti's Civil Society

Yesterday, after meeting with several Civil Society leaders and finding a little time to visit a local Artisanal Shop, I finally encounter something that brings me to tears. Maybe it’s because the sign is in English. Maybe it’s because the camps had finally gotten to me. But the words, “We Need Help. Food, Water, Tent and Doctor,” moves me in unspeakable ways. Packed onto the grounds of what must have once been a great palace, displaced Haitians are practically sitting on top of one another in makeshift tents. The old African-American spiritual comes to mind, “How long, Lord, how long?”

Even though the common theme in Haiti is that people need jobs, this sign reminds me that some people are still in desperate need of immediate help. This sign must have been a humbling one for people to have written. It is my understanding after 1 very brief week in the country that Haitians are a strong, proud, unified people. Creole signs like “Ansanm Nou Fo” are everywhere. “Together we are strong.” Over and over, I hear from people that they do not want aid handouts. What they want is national and agricultural sovereignty. 

Yesterday, I met with the organizations Tete Kole and PAPDA. One of my goals on this trip is to identify potential partners on the ground who can help our Haiti Advocacy Working Group to effectively lobby the U.S. Congress. Congress, the UN, the World Bank and the international media have often portrayed Haitian Civil Society as a poorly organized, dispersed force, much like the displacement camps that populate Port-au-Prince. Organizational leaders Jean and Camille, however, have a different story to tell. By their account, Civil Society is indeed well organized. The “4 G’s,” an effective coalition of peasant and agricultural NGO’s, can testify to this. Jean and Camille, whose organizations are members of the “4 G’s,” are eloquent, intelligent, detailed organizers and strategists. So, wherein lies the disconnect?

Camille Chalmers, Director of PAPDA

The truth of the matter is that Haiti has amazing talent and spirit, with a much better organized civil society than the International Community has portrayed. It does lack sufficient infrastructure; that is painfully clear. However, unfair debt and loan burdens, an elimination of tariffs that allow unwanted products to be dumped on their markets and exclusion from key national and international reconstruction planning are what have really choked the country. The havoc wreaked by this earthquake is not simply due to natural disaster. This many people did not need to die. Hundreds of thousands did not need to be imprisoned by displacement camps with sub-human conditions. This is a question about political will and needing to listen to the voices of the “4-G” and other Civil Society organizations. Haitians are crying out for inclusion in their own reconstruction. And it is up to us to start listening.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Score: 1 Goal for the Americans

The entrance to Lascahobas in the Central Region

Yesterday, I was riding next to my Action Aid Colleagues, Alcee, Wesner and Thomas, climbing a green mountain pass to a majestic overlook of Lake Peligre, and trying my very best not to be sick. Our driver, Thomas, was an expert road nagivator. So much so, in fact, that he was attacking the curvy turns with the strength and determination of a 400 lb sumo wrestler. My stomach, however, was down for the count. Once we finally cleared the mountain pass, though, life improved considerably. We were entering the Central Valley and Lascahobas was on the horizon.

Lake Peligre

My colleagues graciously agreed to escort me to the site of an Action Aid ‘Cash for Work’ project that employs about 110 community members with partial funding from the United States. The participants work to conserve soil and improve harvests by utilizing a series of naturally made barriers that prevent flooding and soil erosion. In this rural zone where farming and small intraregional markets present one of the few sources of income, soil is worth its weight in gold.

The first town that we come to in the valley is Mirebalais, what I affectionately now call, Pothole Heaven. Actually, the word ‘pothole’ does not really sufficiently describe the state of the roads. To come to think of it, the word ‘road’ doesn’t really seem to suffice either. Think rocks. Think boulders and mud holes and craters. 

View of the rocky "road" in Mirebalais

Trying to break the ice with our sumo wrestling driver, Thomas, I throw in a joke or two about the art of driving in such conditions. “On doit vous appellez Colonel Thomas, comme vous devez etre un soldat pour passer sur cette route la!” Translated in English, “We have to call you Colonel Thomas from now on, since you have to be a soldier to make it over these roads!” I get nothing but a slight head nod from Thomas. After years of having lived and traveled in Africa, I know that it is always smart to make friends with your driver. Your life can depend on it! But, Thomas is just as stoic as his sumo counterparts, and doesn't budge an inch.

Part way through Mirebalais, we encounter an ominous series of road blocks and multiple signs indicating that there is insurmountable construction ahead. This is of little concern to brave Thomas, though, who jumps out of our 4 wheel-drive chariot, pushes the sign aside, and plows through onto the “roads” under construction. When we finally clear the worst of it, we hit the main part of town and encounter new challenging gauntlets. Goats and dogs and children and hawkers fill the streets. No problem! Thomas weaves in and out of them like he is dodging samurai throwing stars.

One of the better roads in Mirebalais

I quickly learn the language of the road on this trip. One honk means, “Heads up, because I am coming around this corner and my car is bigger than yours.” Three honks mean, “Get out of my way, you crazy pedestrians/dogs/goats/donkeys, because I am not slowing down!” Continuous urgent honking means, “I am going to kill you if you do not throw yourself from the road side this very instant!!!” After Thomas just barely misses a young girl carrying a load of bananas on her head, Alcee and Wesner start to protest. A short conversation in Creole ensues and I imagine Thomas saying something like this. “What are you talking about? I missed her by a mile! Would YOU like to drive instead?” I try to break the tension with another joke. “It’s war out here, Thomas. We’re lucky to have such a good tank and commander!” Alcee and Wesner chuckle a little, but stone-faced Thomas just nods again. And so, we rumble on.
Community Members in the fields of Lascahobas

After 2 ½ hours, we reach Lascahobas, a small, rural town that inhabits some 6,000. We pass through the modest town and head out into the even more rural periphery to meet the project members. Community leaders show us the natural barriers that they are creating, using strategically placed raised beds that are reinforced with sturdy sugar cane sticks.

'Cash for Work' project leaders explain water flooding barrier system.

We escape the sun and 100 degree heat by congregating under a big mango tree. Community members start joining us one by one, curious about the foreigner and city folk who have come to visit. Linda is a young, 24 year-old mother who has recently arrived from Port-au-Prince, along with hundreds of other displaced persons. Despite her age, she is the first to step up when I start off by asking what the greatest needs of the community are. She echoes a similar theme that I have already heard from every single Haitian with whom I have spoken: jobs.

Linda turns up her bravado and explains how difficult it is to be a displaced person in Lascahobas. “Before, we ran businesses. We sold items. We worked in shops. We worked in offices and schools. Now, there is nothing but farming. And so, we have become farmers. It is the very first time, though, that we displaced persons have even seen a field, much less used a hoe.”

Community leaders who grew up in Lascahobas explain to us that at first, it was difficult to integrate the Port-au-Prince natives into their project. However, the local participants quickly adapted and started training the new arrivals on the basics of farming. Linda explains to us that they are all united now, under this common ‘Cash for Work’ project, as they only have one another to survive.

Lascahobas 'Cash for Work' project members
Alcee, Wesner and I ask a series of questions over the next two hours, as our impromptu meeting grows to include almost two thirds of the project participants. Men and women take turns explaining to us the logistics of how they organize meetings, the rotation of responsibilities, their success in working with Action Aid and the local NGO partner, COHSAD, and the struggles that they are facing as a community. My colleagues are especially patient with me and help translate into Creole, as I try to frame and reframe my questions.

As for community identified challenges, health is on top of the list, with record cases of water-borne illnesses due to poor water sources. “Our babies and children have constant diarrhea,” explains Linda. “It is difficult sometimes for them to even keep down food and water.” And in this 100 degree heat, that makes diarrhea the number one killer of children.

Lodging is also of great concern. Houses are made out of crude palm branches and splintery wood. Strong storms can decimate the structures, requiring constant repairs and rebuilding. Fruit trees are plentiful, but the community does not have the capacity to dry and store fruit for when it is out of season. Despite some small scale husbandry efforts, protein and starches are scarce.
Home made out of palm trees by Lascahobas 'Cash for Work' participants

When we ask what the greatest concerns of women are, a dozen voices cry out at once, “Vaginal Infections!” Despite the fact that a community hospital does exist a few miles away, medicine and qualified personnel seem to be in constant shortage. I hear many stories of women who die within just a few days of their first symptoms. Several mothers tell me that they are worried about infections that they are potentially passing on to their babies through their breast milk as well. One woman explains that, “it is sometimes difficult to know what is worse…to continue nursing them or to switch them to the water and formula.”

Me and women participants of the Loscahobas 'Cash for Work' project, with Linda in orange.

Assets in the community include a school that all participants’ children can attend, a market place where participants can sell the small amount of surplus crops that they produce and a wealth of plant biodiversity. Crops include corn, beans, rice, potatoes, yams, melons, mangos, papayas and bananas. Linda chimes in again on her new form of employment. “I never knew that Haiti had such a wealth coming from the earth in just one place. If we had the proper water and way to transport everything, it could really be something.” Yet, the community has very little in the way of infrastructure, except for a few donkeys, hoes and shovels and the rich soil that is forever vulnerable to flooding. The ‘Cash for Work’ soil conservation program, however, hopes to change that liability into an asset.

Children at school in Lascahobas

After a long series of picture taking, laughing, more picture taking and shaking each community member’s hand, we say goodbye and head over to Linda’s family’s home down the road. At their displacement camp, we meet Linda’s 3 month-old son and her grandmother, Piorette. I like Piorette right away. She has sparkling eyes, a loving embrace and absolute termination that she is no older than 58. “Don’t believe her,” her grandchildren tease. “She is 72 years old!” Piorette chastises the collection of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who surround her. She insists over and over again that she was born in 1908 and is therefore not a day over 58. The family giggles and snickers, like they must have heard this same argument before. Despite the teasing, though, it is obvious how much they love her.

Piorette has 10 children, 53 granchildren and God only knows how many great grandchildren. In Port-au-Prince, she used to sell food, medicine, clothes and little trinkets in the market place. But here in Lascahobas, she and her family have nothing. “If I could pray for one thing, it is that my children and grandchildren can find jobs out here in the country. And, that the little ones go to school. I just have to pray that God does not forget us.”

Displaced Port-au-Princian, Piorette. Mother of 10, grandmother of 53.

World Vision helped move the family out here into makeshift tents after the earthquake. Piorette, Linda and their family lost everything: their home, their shop, their goods and some of their family members. Piorette tells me with sad eyes that she never thought she would leave Port-au-Prince, the place of her birth. Her eyes begin to sparkle, though, when Linda’s adorable baby starts cooing and giggling. A dozen family members look knowingly at one another for a moment, perhaps sharing sad memories of what their life once was, perhaps sharing a moment of joy that this new life survived the earthquake.

Linda and her 3-month old baby

At the end of our hour conversation, I present Linda with rehydration and vitamin C packets and encourage her to only use them if the children become very ill with diarrhea. Piorette holds me with her two strong hands and kisses me on each cheek. “Mesi, mesi,” she says in Creole. The love in her eyes is overwhelming and I find myself not wanting to let go of her.

We finally pull away from Linda, Piorette and their family and head back to our warrior driver, Thomas, who has been watching the family scene for the last hour. We head back to downtown Lascahobas and share a nice Haitian meal of chicken, plaintains, rice and beans. After visiting a new school and water pump outside of town and navigating past villagers on their way home from market, we start back towards Port-au-Prince. Thomas seems to be driving a little more slowly now. He also stops each time that I go to take a picture and finds us the best place to buy mangos on the way. Deciding to try my luck once more, I go for one last attempt at some intercultural humor. “Thomas, it’s a good thing that the roads of Lascahobas and Mirebalais are behind us. Otherwise, we’d have mango juice by the time we arrive!” Finally, finally, Thomas breaks into the biggest smile and gives a quiet, yet definitive chuckle.

While listening to the radio on our way home, we learn that Ghana has defeated the beloved U.S. soccer team in the finals. Alcee and Wesner tease me a bit about our American team and hypothesize on whether it will be Argentina or Brazil who will win the World cup. I just smile though and look out at the beautiful, lush Central valley. Ghana may have won the match, but score one smile for America;)

Thomas, our driver, finally smiling.