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;)