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.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Port-au-Prince 101

Paula Drumond, Elise Young and Philipou community members with Action Aid at the 'Cash for Work' project in the Philipou Neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.

I arrived in the Port-au-Prince airport this morning under a hazy, sleep-deprived mental cloud. As we came in for a landing, though, I perked up considerably. Beautiful, mountainous Haiti was quickly approaching.

It has been a long day of meeting people, visiting Action Aid sites, taking pictures of the earthquake’s destructive aftermath and trying to stay awake for my first Haitian dinner. My very first impression of Port-au-Prince is that of a crumbling post-war zone. Every other building has experienced significant damage. Several buildings have collapsed onto themselves. Rubble and trash strew the streets. Makeshift camps populate each intersection, park and open space.

My second impression of Haiti is that people seem to be miraculously coping and moving on with their lives, at least on a surface level. Girls balancing heavy loads on top of their heads navigate over rubble piles with expert grace. Sellers enthusiastically peddle their goods at every corner. Colorful tap-taps whiz around piles of broken mortar with ease. Children are playing. Music is blaring. People are laughing.

Yet, we hear a different story when we take a closer look at one of the camps at Marini, on the outskirts of town. Here, we inspect a new Action Aid model shelter, a small, yet sturdy 2-room home, coordinated with the help of a local organization called COZPAM. This solid building has a stable foundation, a good tin roof and windows to let in the light. We meet Daniella, a laconic forty-something women’s leader who will soon move into the new home with her two young girls and four additional family members. Daniella explains that her community, although starting to get organized, is still in desperate need of help.

In her neighborhood, 1 toilet is available for every 130 people. Food is scarce and presents a daily challenge for survival. Dead bodies on top of the mountain range have contaminated the water source, which is making people sick. Jobs are non-existent and constitute a major barrier against sustainable recovery. And yet, Daniella and her neighborhood are some of the lucky ones. They have occasional food aid and shelter support from Action Aid and UNICEF. They have a sturdy meeting hall for children, youth and community meetings. They are identifying internal leaders, are meeting 3 times per week and are starting to utilize their voice.

 When we ask Daniella and the community members what they would ask for if they had an opportunity to meet with their reclusive mayor, she doesn't hesitate. "We need jobs," shes says firmly. People want to work. People need to work. Although they are thankful for what they have received, donor fatigue is setting in and it has been 22 days since they've
 seen any food aid. But, they don't really want food aid. That want to buy and produce the food for themselves. Plans for a community garden are already underway, if enough rubble can be removed and water ways unclogged. Daniella herself hopes to run her own business one day. That way, she can have a sustainable source of income for her family and bring much needed clothes and goods into the community.

Despite these hopeful dreams, life remains extremely difficult for people in Marini. A certain quiet sadness seems to fall over everyone that we meet. Action Aid’s Director of the Americas has the perfect cure, though. He asks the hovering group of curious men, women and children if they support Argentina or Brazil for the World cup. “Brazil, Brazil!,” they collectively cry out. Giggles and laughter and whoops ensue and smiles finally radiate each face.

Despite the fact that this community doesn't have an elementary school, hospital or even a place to bathe, Brazilian flags proudly decorate each corner. Perhaps Team Brazil presents an opportunity for Port-au-Prince Haitians to band together around a regional symbol of pride. So, as we wave goodbye and head back to our nice, air-conditioned 4 wheel drive Toyota, I say the following short prayer. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the game of soccer. And please, please, please, let Brazil win.”

Monday, June 21, 2010

Haiti or Bust

Tomorrow I  start off on a week-long work trip to Haiti. I am going so that I can learn, listen and see. Although I have been advocating on Haiti's behalf for a month now, consulting and volunteering around Haiti relief efforts for 4 months and praying on Haiti for 5 months, I have never visited the country. It has been a long-distance relationship across the great gulf of our cultural differences and misconceptions. Finally, I have the opportunity to resolve this disconnect.

I am both excited to go and a little nervous. I have all of my vaccinations, started my anti-malarial medication last week, and have assembled a nice little pile of food bars, anti-bacterial gel, a good pocket knife, immodium and my best intentions. 100 degree heat, malaria mosquitoes and travelers indigestion don't really worry me, though. Nor does the hurricane season, political instability or the scary idea of losing my checked bag. (For all the SIT Cameroon alum out there, anyone remember our checked bag debacle on Cameroon Airlines? Oh, I mean, Air Peut-etre;) What worries me is being face to face with the enormous amount of suffering which must be gripping this country, and not knowing what to do with it.

When September 11th gripped our own country in its hold, the results were overwhelming. It felt like the entire region was collectively suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndome and that the entire country was in deep mourning. Everyone was affected. Everyone now remembers where they were when September 11th struck. We lost thousands of dear souls and had our financial and cultural infrastructure shaken to its core.

As I reflect on our own National tragedies at ground zero or with Hurricane Katrina, I try to envision what the comparison must be like on the ground in Haiti. The  only word that comes to mind is overwhelm. 200,000 people and counting. Maybe a quarter of a million. That's more people than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. How can one country contain so much pain and suffering? I imagine tears running out into the streets, mixing up with dirty flood water and spilling into the ocean...the only container big enough, perhaps, to hold such an event.

My Haitian friends tell me that despite this pain, Haitians still have hope. They have experienced their unfair share of political upheaval, hunger, poverty and national crisis in the past. Yet, a strength, wisdom and unity seems to still persevere in Haiti. And so, I hope to go and listen to Haitian voices and Haitian stories. I plan to maintain this blog as often as I can for the journey. I hope to document my own personal experiences over the next week and see where the Spirit may take us. It may be a bit of a wild ride, but I still invite you to join me through this blog. Just don't forget to bring some dramamine, in case it ever gets a little bumpy:)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My Big Fairytale Dragon

Three weeks into my new contract position as the Haiti Advocacy Officer at Action Aid USA, I realize something important. I really like this work. I really get this work. I’m really thankful to be doing this work right now and to be getting paid for it. (I got my first paycheck today, btw, which made me giggle with delight… somewhat unprofessionally, I’m afraid.) In short, I feel like it is a fairytale treasure at the end of a long 9 month quest. 

For the last three weeks, I have been using as much moxie as I can muster to try and help rally Congress to pass supplemental funding for Haiti. Ok, actually, that’s not really what I’ve been doing. Other people already worked on getting the supplemental funding into this proposed bill. I’ve actually been working on trying to convert some of the food aid in the bill (as in the commodity rice that we’re planning to dump yet again on Haiti, even though Bill Clinton admitted recently that this was a disastrous choice back in the 90’s) to cash so that Haitians can buy food from their own markets.

I have been doing my homework, working closely with great organizations like CARE, American Jewish World Service and CRS, and narrowing in on our congressional targets. It helps that I use to fight this same fight over at Bread for the World when we were working on Farm Bill reform back in 2007 and 2008. For goodness sake, even President Bush wanted to convert 25% of food aid to cash for local markets back then. Yet, the big bad farm lobby beat us that time. I remember taking the loss pretty hard, as did so many of the faithful partners who lobbied side by side. So, this time around, when I hear from different congressional offices that it’s just going to be too hard to change the way that we send food aid to Haiti, I just smile and nod and start calculating my plan of attack. These Staffers have no idea who they’re messin with.

You see, Haitians want to work. They want to sell in their own markets. They want steady income. It’s what they want more than anything else, actually. A recent Oxfam survey confirmed that the biggest thing on Haitians’ minds right now isn’t food or clean water or even shelters (though those things are indeed crucially important for survival.) It’s jobs. And herein lies the big disconnect. We, as a country, keep trying to deliver aid like we are a gallant white knight riding in to the rescue. Meanwhile, Haiti is the Fairy Princess who keeps saying, “Uh, thanks and all. But, I’d rather just rescue myself, if you didn’t mind lowering the drawbridge.”

Even though you don’t HAVE to have an official job to be a valuable asset to your community, it does seem to make a difference. This is something that we job seekers in the U.S. share in common with our neighbors in Haiti. Everyone wants to contribute their gifts. Everyone wants to receive some recognition and fair wages for their contribution. A vocation, like a good education, holds a special place of honor within our literal and metaphoric villages. To use one of my favorite quotes on vocational calling, true joy comes, “when our greatest skills and desires meet the world’s greatest needs.”

And so, tomorrow afternoon, I am going to march over to the House of Representatives, proudly carrying my part-time, short-term badge of Advocacy Officer on my sleeve, and I am going to join my new colleagues in the fight for Haitian farmers and Haitian jobs. Watch out, food aid dragon, we’re bringing the big guns.