March 14, 2011
I sat distraught and exhausted in the American Airlines Admirals’ Club, staring dreamily at my laptop screen. I was applying the final touches to my enduring midterm—a take-home test for an MBA class at the George Washington University, the Foggy Bottom campus — a stone’s throw from downtown DC.
I had heard it several times over, almost in a trance. Every excruciating syllable as I read and re-read the key paragraphs of my take-home test for my Technology Entrepreneur class at the School of Business.
Sooner or later, I had to click the send button — regretting the hours spent procrastinating when I was actually planning my big trip. The moment was here, I was off on my first Spring Break in nearly 20 years. Grad school was tough, but it was even tougher at 42.
At the white sandstone building at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, hundreds of kids from all over the country rolled Easter eggs on the South Lawn, a beloved tradition since the Civil War.
Truly I had many pressing things I could be doing. But the final announcement had already echoed eerily from the Intercom that my AA flight from JFK was ready to board post haste. Once again, I was in a rush to go somewhere I wasn’t sure I should be going in the first place. And in this case, I was heading to earthquake-ravaged Port-au-Prince, a land urgently in need of relief.
To say that this trip was rushed and unprepared would be a gross understatement. Not only had I not properly done my research, I decided less than a week ago to make this journey. Before this tumultuous week of midterm preps, the plight of Haiti from the recent Jan 12, 2010, 7.0 magnitude earthquake wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. I had seen the gripping scenes on CNN, and the USNS Comfort Hospital ship was anchored in the Port-au-Prince harbor providing medical care. But still, the Haiti disaster seemed so distant and surreal.
It was only when I was sitting home studying for my midterm, wondering what I would be doing for spring break that I heard her distant call. I didn’t have any immediate plans and Haiti seemed like the right place to be. Admiral Robinson had shared stories of when he stood up a fleet hospital in Haiti during a six-month deployment in 1999.
“Medicine is a common language that all people understand, and it is a way to bridge differences,” said Robinson. “Our team worked in a very difficult environment with a massive logistics challenge and immense needs. We performed life-saving work and also made a huge difference in people’s lives.”
One of the first things I did was post a question on the Haiti Rewired website:
“I’m planning on going to Haiti for seven days. Will there be any food and water there that I can purchase?”
Within an hour came a reply from one of the site’s administrators: Rick Davis:
“Yes, there’s food and water that you can purchase. Why are you going?”
Then came my response:
“To cover the plight of the people and their struggle. To tell their side of the story.”
“There’s plenty of media that’s already down there. The place is a mess and you could put yourself in danger. IMO, you shouldn’t go.”
I boarded a flight from Reagan with a layover in JFK. Just packing for this trip and bringing everything that I needed was a daunting challenge in and of itself.
But what was even alarming was the fact that I didn’t have a place to stay. Not knowing anyone there, I was literally taking a step of faith by embarking on this frenzied trip. I had a sleeping bag and a mosquito net, but those two things could not protect me from the danger that lurked around the corner at nightfall.
Upon arriving at JFK, I checked the monitor and noticed a direct flight leaving NYC for Port-au-Prince. Terminal 2, 1:30 PM it flashed. My flight to Santo Domingo would be leaving an hour after that. So I rushed to that gate in hopes of meeting others and perhaps secure a place to stay before I arrived.
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Sister Eunice Tasson (Courtesy of Haiti Plunge)
Eunice Tasson, a sister from Massachusetts, is a spry woman whose strong features show both compassion and leadership. She has been visiting Haiti since 1984 as part of a program called Haiti Plunge, serving a nine-village agricultural cooperative located in the Matheu Matthew Range, 60 miles north of Port au Prince.
As the founding director of the Church Outreach to Youth Group (COTY), Eunice has been leading a group of young people up to the mountains several times a year. Their destination is Desab, six miles up a dirt path in the mountains — a village without electricity and running water, but plenty of clear, blue sky and orchard trees.
I was elated to meet Eunice, and she was astonished that I was going to a foreign land in a state of peril without reserving a place to stay.
“The people of Haiti desperately need help right now, but I wouldn’t advise you to go on your own without a support group,” Sister Tasson said. “There are man gang factions, kidnappings and very places have food and running water.”
Her words hit me hard but still didn’t seem to faze me.
“We’ve got 15 mins before we got to board. Let me see what I can do.”
Sister Tasson got on the phone and launched a Hail Mary.
Her call was to Veniel Jean, the manager of Wall’s International Guest House. Once a popular and comfortable place to stay, the guest house was almost completely destroyed while dozens of guests were inside resting for the day. Many made it out alive, but tragically five people (three guests and two staff) were buried under the rubble.
By the time I headed over to the Admiral’s Club to finish my midterm, I received this email:
Thank you for your interest to stay at Wall’s International Guest House. The guests do not sleep under the roof. They prefer to be outside under tents. If you would like to be under a tent in our secured parking lot, we can reserve a place for you.
We charge $US 35 per person including breakfast and dinner. If you would like we will come to pick you up at the airport.
Wall’s International Guest House
I was eternally grateful. Sister Eunice Tasson was my angel and answer to my prayers, and Wall’s Guest House would provide a roof over my head and the necessary amenities and protection.
The first stop on the flight was Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Santo is a busy, breezy metropolis where people are welcoming, and there are lots of surprises around every corner.
I managed to pop into downtown, through the Zona Colonial, and under the massive Asian arch with dragons, lions, and other Chinese allegorical sculptures and plants that evoke the culture, tradition, and philosophy of over 60,000 Chinese/Dominicans.
I met several Chinese ex-pats who have developed a Chinatown that stretches four blocks, boasting as the 8th largest Chinatown in the world. Along Avenida Duarte, there were several dozen Chinese-owned businesses: restaurants, laundries, supermarkets, and video rentals. I spoke to a handful of them and examined and tasted their food — it surpassed my expectations — wasn’t the egg foo young or kung pao chicken that I had expected, but authentic Chinese cuisine with sweet and sour recipes, General Tso’s Chicken and tofu balls doused in spinach soup. I was greatly satiated and I loaded down for my big trip the next day.
Cognizant of the high crime rate, I spent the night in my compact rental in the airport parking lot. I was way too drained to worry about potential hazards. If someone approached me at knifepoint, I would be too exhausted to defend myself anyway. Awake for nearly 48 hours, I would soon be facing another bout of sleepless nights, under a drooping, leaking tent, the sound of helter-skelter chaos lurking all around me.
First thing the next morning, I was sitting aboard an American Eagle shuttle, waiting on the tarmac because an announcement was made that the plane was over 600 pounds overweight, and we couldn’t take off unless we shed off some weight.
As the plane and ground crew worked out a solution (they simply removed a dozen bags off the plane), I prayed that my sleeping bag, inflatable pad, mosquito net, and portable water filter would make it to Port-au-Prince on the same flight.
I managed a quick power nap on the 50 min flight to PaP, which worked wonders because, in the days ahead, I would be seriously deprived of sleep.
When I arrived in the country, the views were dismal and bleak. As I looked around to assess the damage, a tear rolled down my cheek, and I was certainly not emotionally prepared for what lay ahead. True to form, Veniel was at the airport to welcome me.
“Welcome to Haiti. We’re thankful you’ve decided to come this far to help out.”
I boarded Veniel’s pickup truck and watched in horror as I witnessed thousands and thousands of families surviving, desolate and barren with nothing for comfort, except a piece of canvas and perhaps a filthy mattress they carried from the dump.
Tap-taps inched their way in heavy traffic. The brightly colored pickup trucks with a dozen passengers sitting on two facing benches on the truck bed. The name ‘tap tap’ is derived from passengers’ use of their coins to tap on the side of the truck to inform the driver that they need to be let off.
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a tent city in Port-au-Prince
Panhandlers were calling out as we passed, pleading for bread, water, flip flops, anything that we could possibly provide. I reached deep to grab all the Gourds I could find.
“Mèsi,” I said in my best French Creole.
In the distance, several men from the crowded encampments were burning trash. The raunchy stench of smoke and debris was so pungent, that my eyes began to well up. Trash was everywhere—on the streets, on the sidewalks, human waste—the smell of desolation and dirt mixed with misery.
Sadly, Haiti a nation of 10 million, doesn’t have a trash treatment plant. The residents just dispose of their litter and human waste on the streets, wherever they can. They build up in the camps causing a pressing health threat spreading diarrheal illnesses and the stench of decomposing bodies that just won’t disappear. With the coming of the rainy season, the wastes attracted pests that could easily spread malaria. Sometimes, you would see an unattended child standing in a pile of trash. No one turned an eye; no one seemed concerned. This is Haiti — the poorest country in the western hemisphere (before the earthquake). Even Haiti’s pigs live better than this.
And when it rained, the water ran through the concrete canals through the city and out to the sea. It’s then combined with the wastewater from sinks, showers, and toilets contaminating the drinking water and exacerbating the typhoid problem.
There were over 700,000 displaced people living in makeshift camps. Just emptying latrines was a big issue. Without a sewage treatment plant, trucks often take the waste to the Troutier trash dump near the slums of Cité Soleil on the city’s ragged edge.
Now, the earthquake had created a huge security vacuum. More than 4,000 prisoners escaped from the city’s penitentiary. They returned to the slums now loaded with guns and ammunition
“Word of advice – stay away from Cité Soleil,” Veniel said. “I wouldn’t go to the ’34 neighborhoods’, even if you offered me a million gourdes. Even the UN steers clear.”
“Sounds like my neck of the woods,” I joked. “How safe is the area around the Guest House?”
“When walking around Delmas, always keep an attentive eye on who is around you and anyone that looks suspiciously or is staring down at you. If you notice someone lingering around, then another may be watching you. They are likely armed and tapping away on their cell phones to their gang boss to see whether you are worth the trouble and to see how much they could get if you’re kidnapped.”
20 minutes later we arrived at Walls – a sanctuary in a sea of debris. Sister Eunice and her entourage had already settled in and were meeting with the owner, Betsy Wall, and a few aid workers.
“You can use our laptop, the WiFi is quite good. But most Haitians are using their mobile phones to communicate.”
I quickly went online to check my email. I was indeed surprised that the internet was quite robust, and I regretted not bringing my laptop.
“Most Haitian ISPs connect to the internet via satellite and we’re not dependent on the underground fiber optic link.”
“How about the millions who don’t have computers. How do they communicate with the government, the Red Cross, and the NGOs, if there are urgent needs?”
“The radio stations publicize a shortcode where people can text their messages with their dire demands. The work is then crowdsourced to volunteers throughout the world who translate Creole to English and also verify their location via geotagging. Now that the search-and-rescue phase is over, we’re working very diligently to provide food and supplies, medical care, and other desperate needs.”
“This is really mind-boggling Veniel. After such a deadly disaster, it’s amazing how people from all over the world are coming together and using information and innovation to assist the survivors.”
“Yes, and we’re also very thankful that aid workers are coming into the city to help us rebuild. That’s why we welcome them with open arms at Walls.”
“It’s really eye-opening what you’ve been able to accomplish at the guest house in just a matter of weeks and immediately accept aid workers who rely on your hospitality for food, comfort, and shelter.”
* * *
It took a moment for Veniel Jean to realize what had just transpired. It was Friday evening. Veniel had strolled down the road visiting the city’s pitted exhaust-chocked main thoroughfare Delmas 33, shopping for items for the house at the One Stop Market when the ground started to quiver.
What was that? No way. This was a big one. Didn’t know something this strong could happen this far south.
Veniel instinctively ran outside without thinking whether he was running to safety or danger. Was relieved to see his guests who just arrived from Canada running for dear life. He looked up at the sky and back at the building and it seemed like the world around him was starting to come to a head spin. After about 30 seconds, the main shock ended. But then a series of aftershocks followed.
There were people crying, then the screams laced with blood, immersed in pain. 10, 20, 30 seconds, the shaking got stronger, more consistent; earth felt like jello now, and buildings began to pancake over until they just crumbled like sand castles on Wahoo Bay.
At this point, every structure around had leveled to dirt so Veniel would now be able to see for miles from coastline to mountain front if it wasn’t for the fact the sky was thick with dust swallowed by a pillar of smoke. Why this, why us? The silent voices struck back.
So Veniel did what any caring person would do. He ran around the ruins, honing into screams, and started picking up rubble to get as many people out as he could. The Canadian guests stuck around giving Veniel a hand.
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Betsy Wall (right) in Wall’s Guest House before the earthquake
Betsy Wall and her daughter Alexis had just arrived from Canada two hours earlier with a bunch of aid workers, all excited about working in Haiti and all determined to make a difference during their two-week stay. Betsy, the Executive Director for the Foundation for International Development Assistance, was just in Haiti three weeks ago and had been coming back and forth for nearly 40 years. The humanitarian work started with Betsy’s parents, Jack and Anne Wall from Ontario, Canada who sold most of their possessions and moved to Port-au-Prince in 1984 to help the poor. It was indeed a bold sacrifice for the Walls who were both in their sixties at that time. Betsy has continued the family service by dedicating her life by introducing technology and resources so that communities all over Haiti can overcome adversity and create self-sufficiency. And after the quake, the country would need Betsy’s services in a more urgent way.
It was 4:30 PM. Being awake for over 12 hours, Betsy and Alexis were simply beat. Air Canada 950 had been delayed on the tarmac for about 15 minutes due to an electrical light glitch. Upon retrieving their bags from Toussaint Louverture International, Betsy and her large entourage of aid workers worked their way through the cacophony of cars and bikes on Delmas to the inviting sanctuary and secure gates at Walls. The hotel was only 10 minutes from the airport and $35 a night also provided two meals, unlimited Culligan water, WiFi, a hot shower, and close camaraderie amongst missionaries and aid workers from the US, Canada, and Europe. This was a great deal in comparison to the higher prices of the Montana Hotel up the hill towards Petionville.
After making her obligatory round of greetings with the hotel staff, Betsy decided to take a quick nap before dinner. The team had a lot on the plates the next day. Little did they know they would not sleep again for 48 hours.
Meanwhile, other members of the team decided to take a dip in the pool and cool down with some cold refreshments. The succulent aroma of lime chicken with rice and beans drifted up with the seaward breeze. A couple of Canadians enjoyed the pungent tang of the sea while relaxing on the rooftop balcony overlooking the pool.
In the kitchen, chefs Simerite and Marie Franse were cutting fresh papaya to serve to the guests. They labored hard ensuring everyone was well fed and keeping the lodge spotless and tidy.
Martine Garneau, a volunteer with Mission Corail-Haiti, who also flew in on the Air Canada flight that afternoon was in the pool relaxing with her fellow volunteers.
A fly was buzzing around and wouldn’t leave Martine alone. Mysteriously, it just fell and landed on her beer. Camil Perron, 60, being the gentleman that he was offered to go into the kitchen to fetch another cold one. It was at that precise moment that the earthquake rocked the city bringing down the entire guesthouse.
Betsy was sound asleep when the walls came tumbling down. She was fortunate to get up the moment she heard the walls shake. Her instant thought was that a large truck had slammed into the pool wall. But then when walls and ceilings began crashing down, she dashed out with Alexis by her side.
She had made it just in the nick of time. Another fraction of a second and the entire main guest house would have completely collapsed. Meanwhile, the earthquake struck with such force that it completely emptied all the water from the pool. And when the main guest house came down, it collapsed on top of the kitchen. Those in the pool survived. Those in the kitchen, including Perron, died.
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Wall’s Guest House after the earthquake (Courtesy of Veniel Jean)
Betsy quickly gathered the team to ascertain who was alive and who was trapped. Shortly after, Veniel and the group who had gone into town arrived. Betsy was thankful that Veniel was safe and wanted to know where she could evacuate her guests to.
“The whole city has been destroyed,” Veniel added. “We could take them to the Montana, but I’m not sure she’s still standing.”
Meanwhile, Veniel and staff continued to work endlessly, chipping away at the rubble to rescue and recover the five that were missing.
But unfortunately, several hospitals had been seriously damaged and others were swamped with casualties. Haiti would need assistance and within 76 hours, the USNS Comfort, the 1000-bed floating hospital with 550 medical personnel would set sail from Baltimore.
“You will see the tragedy of unimaginable proportions and our humanitarian mission there will be a life-defining assignment for you in many ways,” said Vice Admiral Robinson as he spoke to the medical staff and crew.
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Vice Admiral Robinson speaking to the USNS Comfort medical staff
“What an incredible story of courage,” I said to Veniel and Betsy. “It’s miraculous that so many survived.”
The next day, I met two missionaries: Marvin and Mickey. Marvin was older, subdued, and experienced. Mickey was more outspoken, stocky, 6′ 3″ a former Marine who still looked it, if it wasn’t for his long locks that rolled down to his shoulders.
They were brought in by Pastor Luc who had picked up the missionaries at the airport. For someone who had just experienced such a catastrophic loss, Pastor Luc carried a magnetic aura of serenity that surprised even his biggest doubters.
“Nice to meet you, Pastor Luc. It’s a tremendous honor. Veniel has told me so much about you.” Pastor Luc St Felix is a gentle, kind-hearted minister whose complete destruction of his three-story church not only affected his intermediate family but his entire church family.
Those who were fortunate to survive the earthquake, and those who lived to bury their dead would be faced with another calamity of epic proportion later in the spring. The torrid rainy season will bring days, nights, and weeks of rain along with diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, and malaria.
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Pastor Luc receiving supplies for his church
Later that day, I visited Pastor Luc’s St. Felix’s church to see first-hand the destruction and to hear from him what we can do to help the cause.
As we stood next to the mountain rubble that used to be the 3-story Port-au-Prince Pentecostal church, we were forever touched by the tremendous fortitude of his congregation.
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Mickey at the church site
One feisty jackhammer cranked away, smashing full-sized walls into a clump of bricks and large, jagged balls of concrete and rebar. But the main tool of the undertaking was not machine or automation but one rusted-out wheelbarrow and a dozen shovels loading pile after pile of dirt and debris only to be dumped just 20 feet away. And the guy in charge of the clean-up effort was afforded the honor of been the boss mason. It’s important to properly train the masons. So many were killed because of shoddy workmanship and no regulation.
Here at the church, everyone helped out. There was one lady wearing a nightgown, a wide-brimmed hat, and flip-flops that had seen their last days, sometime last year. Initially, there appeared that there was little for her to do. Yet, she methodically bent over and grabbed whatever pieces of rubble she could carry.
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Marvin praying for a church member
People of all ages clawed away with their own hands the debris — anything they could do to make a small difference. In the back, several ladies helped out, concocting a nice pot of bean soup and stew. They cooked on a large stainless pot over charcoal and wood.
Down the road a group of about a hundred local workers, dressed in yellow T-Shirts and aptly called “yellow ants” worked seven hours a day, breaking only once for lunch. Their compensation – $5 a day, enough to buy two meals, if they’re lucky.
By now, the church was on the second round of debris removal — which was positive news, considering that the debris had already piled over rooftops, jagged pieces of rebar, so flexible that you could easily bend it 90 degrees with a quick flip of the wrist.
“Pastor Luc, what do you need the most? Would you like a team from the US to come down and assist with debris removal?”
“Yes, that would be great. I have a team of 20 plus coming from Alabama tomorrow. Some will also be doing medical work.”
“But I also need money to rebuild and my people need tents and flip-flops. Pastor Luc had lost several of his congregation to the earthquake — a few were still buried in buildings. But he would not lose hope. He would keep his faith that his church will be able to clean up and rebuild.
“After all, “The church was too small anyway. We don’t need to just rebuild. We need to grow!”
On Mackendall Road, a hapless throng of kids were guzzling water from the ground, splashing grimy waste emanating from the sewer. A lack of clean water is causing rampant dysentery and typhoid problem in Haiti.
“Thank God cholera has not surfaced yet,” said Pastor Luc. “My plan is to dig dozens of wells throughout Haiti to provide thousands of people clean water.”
On Sunday morning, we returned to Pastor Luc’s church. Over 100 worshippers showed up at the dirt lot behind the crumbled buildings, dressed on Sunday’s best. Gone were the solid oak alter and maple pews. Pastor Luc paced back and forth showing compassion to members of his congregation while they sat on whatever they could find from the wreckage: folding chairs and chunks of rubble.
We were deeply touched by the spirit and compassion that the congregation exuded.
“This building has been destroyed,” said Pastor Luc. “But the church, our people. The church is not destroyed. We will become stronger.”
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Pasto Luc’s Congregation Singing
The day after tomorrow, Pastor Luc would be heading up the mountains with Pastor Marvin and Mickey to visit three different villages. Some are very remote, they are a stone’s throw from the Dominican Republic. In the villages, Pastor Luc conducts a feeding program that caters to 43 village churches, and 13 village schools, where 500 children are fed twice a week. Food is never taken for granted in this desolate country.
“We’re desperately in need of supplies. We welcome the big trucks that come in from the Dominican Republic, but instead of delivering big loads, they bring in several small loads, to prevent looting.”
“I hope and pray that the trucks continue to roll in. Do you have enough outside assistance?”
“We have hundreds of NGOs coming to assist us and we’re thankful for the generosity,” Pastor Luc stated. “But in order to be effective, they truly need to do their research and understand Haiti’s true, internal needs. Whatever the solution, it requires a true discussion with locals to properly engage in long-term development projects.”
“Really, can NGOs actually prevent progress?”
“Yes, and that would be a disastrous outcome. So remember first learn and understand. Then develop and plan.”
I wanted to come along and continue to learn from my newfound mentor, but I would miss my flight home. My particular calling during my disproportionately short trip to Haiti had yet to be determined, but I slept all right because I knew that I would eventually find my calling.
The next day, the anticipated downpour at dawn rocked my frail tent like hailstones on a rusty tin roof.
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The parking lot at Walls’ Guest House
I tossed and turned and rolled, then realized that my tent had sprung a leak.
Back home, the weather was warming drastically, around the DC tidal basin, the first buds of cherry blossoms were popping, their petals gleaming — a welcome harbinger of spring. Baseball and half smokes were roasting. Here in Haiti, the welcomed rains brought clean water for washing and drinking, to cool off after a long day of scorching heat and humidity. But in conjunction with the rains come the deluge, the dreaded diseases of dysentery, typhoid, and malaria — the dawn of a new season of bitter challenges.
Suddenly, the skies stopped pouring overtaken by the freshness of a rich dew drop on a fresh spring petal. Even the tattered sun took an occasional peek through a musky cloud cover offering hope and a new attitude.
Around the campground, a bold rooster cranked its rich, deep horn, signaling to the rest of the world that the night had drawn and it was now time to start a new day and earn a day’s wages, even in a city where work was almost nonexistent, survival was day-to-day
Then I rose up, greeted by wetness that made me feel freshly renewed, the aroma of spring, soaked wood chips, like a tropical waterfall amidst a rich, thriving rain forest in the middle of some Caribbean isle.
From village to village, block to block, tent city to blunted corners, people are spread out in all shapes and directions wherever existence will allow them to thrive. They are utterly surviving on the streets, not even a blanket to cover their souls from the torrential downpours, but perhaps a tattered piece of canvas strewn together by some duct tape or jagged pieces of wood or anything that closely resembles a possible solution or a cure. Here in Port-au-Prince, anything goes. A tarp tied together with rigid pieces of PVC molded in the shape of a shelter becomes suddenly a marvel of 21st-century engineering. Here in this country of dread and destruction, improvisation takes a new name, resources clawed out of dumpsters and trash from supposedly middle-class denizens, suddenly become something to sit on, something to put on, something to make life better to see yet another hopeful sunrise, another bitter sun fall.
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Making new friends in Delmas
In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, like an earthquake in Haiti, the need to communicate is immense. From the search for loved ones to the coordination of humanitarian relief, to simple messages of “I’m alive,” between family members.
When walking around the village, I had an opportunity to sample a Haitian mud cake. No, this is not the fudgy chocolate cakes that originated from the southern states of the Mississippi River. These cakes are made by mixing a special type of mud, rich with calcium, with salt, margarine, and water. It is stirred with a batter, spread on large sheets then dried in the hot sun. This delicacy called Galette is a source of nutrition for the poor, and in Cité Soleil, selling mud cakes is quite profitable especially since any expenses incurred are close to zero. Sadly, many Haitians thrive on only $2 per day. Eating dirt cannot be good for you. Soil is contaminated with viruses and bacteria, not to mention toxins. At worst, you could get poisoned. At best, it could lead to gastrointestinal problems or diarrhea. Luckily, I survived my trip without once getting sick. And I did not feel that this country’s problems would be in my rearview mirror.
“So what long-term needs are there for the people of Haiti?” I asked Veniel.
“After rebuilding, and a steady supply of clean water and sanitation, a way for Haitians to communicate with each other and the rest of the world so we can continue to innovate and improve ourselves.”
Just like my flight to Haiti included an overnight stop in the Dominican Republic, I had a 36-hour layover in Miami on the way home. The timing was perfect since I arrived in time for the Haiti Sustainability Conference in Miami Beach on March 18th. There I got to hear from NGOs, project managers, and subject matter experts who have worked extensively in the country.
Who’s to blame for the crisis in Haiti? A city that was originally designed for several thousand people now is home to a million. Over 230,000 have been killed by the earthquake. Where did we go wrong?
Geopolitical decisions cannot be made in a vacuum. In many ways, the US was partly to blame for exporting poorly thought-out agricultural policy that only hurt the Haitian economy while protecting the US rice and hog farmers. A city that was originally designed for several thousand people is now home to a million.
“The devastation in Haiti cannot be solely attributed to an act of nature,” said Michael Forst, the UN’s Independent Expert on human rights in Haiti. “The hand of a man played a major role in this disaster, most obviously in the policies and poor governance that had led to so many Haitians living for so long in a state of poverty.”
In the 1980’s Haiti was self-sufficient in food. The staple food of Haiti – West African rice, had been cultivated there for over 200 years. But then two things occurred that changed the path for Haiti’s local economy: the environmental degradation, and the unilateral trade liberalization policies signed by President Clinton. The subsidies provided to American rice farmers in the 90’s resulted in the rice they export to Haiti being cheaper than locally produced rice. This resulted in greater poverty and food insecurity. Additionally, the Iowa pigs sent to Haiti frequently got ill and couldn’t flourish under tougher Haitian conditions. Today, Haiti, imports 80% of its rice and 60% of its food supply.
Haiti would require assistance from the UN and the US in order to recover from this earthquake. But to succeed long term, the country would require a significant lifeline from the diasporas — Haitians who have left their country and are living successfully in North America and abroad. This population, who is not tainted by the corruption that is so rampant in Haiti, continues to send remittances, create new jobs back home, and provide a road map for bilateral relationships that will result in huge improvements to the Pearl of the Antilles.
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Mike Singh CEO of Telkom Caribe
“I’m convinced that 20 years after Haiti rebuilds, she’s gonna be better than the Trinidads and Barbados of the Caribbean,” said Mike Singh CEO of Telkom Caribe. “I like to stay with the underdog. In fact I might have been a Haitian in my last birth.”
“Is there a way we can get access to laptops for every school child and Haitians who can benefit from learning?” I asked Mike.
“Absolutely, we need to continue to build bridges so the rest of the world can understand their true needs and use innovation to pave the road ahead.”
* * *