In the aftermath of one the biggest tragedies in Haiti—a country already known for persistent political unrest and economic depravity—the country still lacks the ability to meet basic human needs. Long after the media coverage of the January 12th earthquake has ceased and Haiti’s fifteen minutes of fame appears to have faded, one thing remains the same: the resilient and perpetually thriving spirit of the Haitian people.
I interviewed my cousin Betty, who recently came to America for a month of respite and reflection after the catastrophe in Haiti. She seemed surprisingly well-adjusted, and at times was even jovial and comical. Her spirit reflects that of the people in Haiti as they strive to return back to a normal life. I am painfully aware that the term “normal” in this context may take different meanings given the dire conditions the people have to endure in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. A large number of people in this country live beyond their means just to keep up appearances and convey a façade of financial security when often the true reality denotes a much more humble economic situation.
“The people’s spirits remains high,” Cousin Betty said, “women are still getting their hair and nails done and going on with life as usual.” She also mentioned that people are still having “Rarras.” A Rarra is when a group of people take to the streets dancing with drums, and other Haitian musical instruments, and as they go through the neighborhoods other people join them. This is something I experienced myself having grown up in Haiti for the first thirteen years of my life before I came to America. Although the Haitian people have always maintained an attitude of “Joix De Vivre” which is French for “Joy of Life”, the world and particularly the American people and the news media has just begun to recognize the undying fire that is the Haitian spirit. In the darkness of times, it’s a guarantee that you will see a Haitian dancing on a cloud. I recently saw journalists and celebrities, who after coming back from visiting Haiti; speak emphatically of the Haitian people’s positive and mirthful dispositions.
“While it looked like life resumed on the streets, the trip was sobering for me,” said Bill Lin, Director of Corporate Contributions for Johnson & Johnson who recently went to Leogane, Haiti, which is a city west of Port-au-Prince and at the epicenter of the Jan. 12th earthquake. Lin was interviewed by Melissa Waggenspack in an article on the internet where she emphasizes the pressing needs of the Haitian people. Lin goes on to say that “So many people are displaced and are still living in tent cities. The need for housing is so tremendous.” When asked about the health concerns of the Haitian people, Lin responded “Hurricane season began on June 1st, presenting a new threat to those who are still living in tent cities…there is a great concern over the spread of waterborne disease…that is why, in Haiti, Johnson & Johnson is providing more assistance for housing than we have during previous disaster relief efforts.”
When I asked Cousin Betty about how she experienced the earthquake and the ensuing aftermath. She had this to say, “I was at home when the quake hit. Our house shook but did not fall. However because of the anticipation of aftermaths, we were forced to sleep on a football field for 4 to 5 days. Then we returned back to our own yard to sleep in tents. Today, we still sleep in tents just to be on the cautious side. However, during the day, we stay in the house. Although now, we keep the doors open incase we need to exit the house in case of aftershocks.”
Regarding American aid to post-quake Haiti cousin Betty said, “American aid helped provide first-aid to those under debris, there were a lot of amputees, there were 2,000 amputees in a two month period.” And regarding donations, she said that the people are very frustrated because even though they are getting all this money in earthquake relief aid, as usual there is no account of where the money is going. She also said that “most of the money goes to non-profits like Habitat for Humanity, but actual help is slow in progression.”
In an article by Maria Sacchetti of the Boston Globe, she writes about how in Petionville, Haiti, a once prosperous suburb of Port-au-Prince, people are sleeping in rat infested tents with “reeking latrines” and also how basic human needs like food and water is still scarce. She describes a situation when the water ran out: “In scorching heat, a group of angry parents…marched to the winding road above the camp armed with empty containers, a sawed-off garden hose and pans. They busted open an exposed pipe and collected the water that gushed from it.”
“There is not much help,” Sacchetti writes quoting Benice George, a 50-year-old construction worker, cradling his 1-year-old son. He ended up using the water he collected earlier to cook spaghetti on a campfire, his family’s only meal for the day, “We’re not living like human beings,” Benice said. In terms of the donated monies and what has been done so far in Haiti, she wrote: “Across the Caribbean nation, less than 4 percent of the debris has been cleared since the powerful… earthquake and some 1.6 million people are living in tent camps in the middle of hurricane season, despite 1.8 billion in earthquake aid according to U.S. government and United Nations figures.”
The current crisis in Haiti is finally catapulting its glaring political maladies into view for the whole world to see. For years not much has been done to intercept the corruption that has plagued the Haitian government and its people. At times, America has either looked the other way, except when intervening has been mostly in their best interest.
“Paul Farmer, founder of Boston-based Partners in Health (PIH) and a deputy special envoy for the United Nations, recently told a congressional panel that less than 3 percent of aid has gone directly to the Haitian government, and urged lawmakers to increase such disbursement,” writes Sacchetti. And when it comes to America’s complex and often problematic relationship with Haiti, Sacchetti writes, “ In the past [Paul Farmer] said, US and other policies have sometimes bypassed Haiti’s leadership, weakening it and contributing in part to the crisis today.”
Another problem that plagues Haiti’s recovery efforts is that most countries have failed to deliver on Haiti aid pledges as reported by CNN.com. International donors promised $5.billion after the earthquake; only four countries have distributed any money, less than 2 percent of the money that’s been promised has been delivered, the U.S. pledged more than $1 billion and distributed nothing with the money tied up in the congressional appropriations process.
Although much hasn’t been done in terms of helping earthquake victims meet basic human needs like permanent housing, food and water, there is a glimmer of hope for the children of Haiti is the form of the Life is Good Kids Foundation (LIGKF).
“The Life is Good Kids Foundation is working with Haitian childcare providers to make sure that nothing destroys the joy, playfulness and optimism of the children,” says head playmaker and chief executive officer Steven Gross. “Sadly, the children of Haiti will need to overcome many opticals and when you face those opticals with optimism, you’re more likely going to be able to figure out creative solutions.” He also spoke of a group of people called “Guerye Jwa” which is Creole for “Joy Worriers.”
“The Guerye Jwa are going to tent cities in Port-au-Prince and they are playing with the children in a very intentional way and the children come to life when the Guerye Jwa come to town.” When I asked him how LIGKF is funded, he said, “All of the work in Haiti is funded by the Life is Good Kids Foundation through the sales of a special Haiti T-Shirt with the Haitian flag and Life is Good character holding the flag.” You can help by purchasing a T-Shirt on their website at www.lifeisgood.com.
Haiti is a country that has been victimized for years, however its people refuse to become victims. Haitians have contributed greatly to America and at one time even provided the U.S. monetary assistance during America’s revolutionary war. The Haitian people that live here in America are mostly hard-working, law abiding people. Most of the men and women work as health care paraprofessionals and even doctors, nurses and nurse’s aids taking care of America’s elderly population and a plethora work as cab drivers getting the people of America from point A to point B. Now, Haiti and its people need help more than ever before. One way you can help is by joining the Annual Urban Walk for Haiti which happens in late March or early April. I happen to be the Official Poet and Publicity Agent for the walk which was intended to raise money and awareness for PIH, a ubiquitous organization spearheaded by Harvard University Professor Dr. Paul Farmer, as mentioned earlier, designed to help third world countries like Haiti meet basic human needs but particularly it helps build schools and hospitals in poverty stricken nations like Lima, Peru and Haiti.
So help keep the spirit of the Haitian people strong. One way to do this is by participating in the upcoming Urban Walk for Haiti in the Spring of 2011. For more information or to make donations visit www.Partnersinhealth.org and www.walkforhaiti.org.
Jacques Fleury is a Poet, Author and Columnist; his book “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Sample or buy the book at: www.lulu.com. 20% of proceeds will go to Haiti charity Partners in Health. For personal appearances or comments contact Jacques at: firstname.lastname@example.org.