In February Jody and I and our two children Roxanne and Oliver, along with an old friend and great travelling companion, Bette Ann Harris, spent five days in Haiti. Jody, who visited last year, wanted to check out Partners in Health’s new hospital at Mirebalais as well as explore a bit of Haiti beyond the medical facilities. BA, professor emerita of physical therapy at Massachusetts General Hospitals’s Institute of Health Professions, wanted to see firsthand the physical therapy program she designed with Dr. Andree LeRoy, PIH’s director of physical rehabilitation in Haiti. Oliver, Roxanne and I went along to have our eyes opened.
For almost a decade Jody has been involved with helping to raise money for Partners in Health, an organization headed by the charismatic Dr. Paul Farmer. At various times Paul has encouraged us to witness PIH’s work firsthand–in Rwanda in 2007, and now in Haiti. During our trip we were shepharded by Daniel Eisensen, PIH’s visitor coordinator for Haiti, and Wilkin Dorzin, our Haitian driver, theology student, pastor in training, and font of wisdom for all things Krèyol.
Eighty percent of the Haitian population lives below the poverty line; 54% live in abject poverty, that is, without certain means of procuring the daily essentials of food, clothing and shelter necessary to survival. The per capita annual income is around $700, but to quote Jonathan Katz, “most Haitians live on less than $1 a day, which barely covers a small can of rice and a round trip in group taxi.”* My own unscientific impression based only on what I saw walking and driving about is that a few people have a lot; a larger portion has a little bit; and a lot of people have next to nothing.
In 5 days I took almost 2000 photographs, most of them bad. I boiled those down to around the current 250. A year from now, I’ll probably cull them down to 100. My biggest challenge with pictures in Haiti was the ubiquitous presence of dust, what the Haitians call “poussiere,” a fine powder born of unpaved, hardbed rural roads (many of these photographs were taken through the windows of our van), of earthquake rubble, of open-pit limestone mines, and of construction material left in open air.
While Haitian children often love having their photographs taken (many have never seen photos of themselves) Haitian adults are just as often fatigued with having the rest of the world see them as icons of misery. A widespread belief obtains that anyone with a large DSLR must be a photojournalist out to profit from pictures of locals, who derive little or any benefit from the experience, an attitude explained to me by the woman whose photo is the last in this post.
We saw several PIH facilities, including the original one in the Central Plateau town of Cange; St. Nicholas Hospital in St. Marc, particularly hard hit during the cholera epidemic, and the stunning new PIH facility, the Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais (HUM), not far from where most investigators now locate the cholera epidemic’s birthplace, as a result of contamination of the Artibonite River by Nepalese UN forces.
We stayed in the PIH facility in Cange our first night, and in hotels thereafter. Most of the time we ate simple food, organized around the Haitian combination of rice with Creole sauce and fried plaintains. I’m still struggling to come to terms with the complexity of my impressions: the culture shock of crushing poverty, the quotidien joys of uniformed kids released from school, people’s willingness to smile in the face of hardship, the dedication of health care workers and their unsentimental approach to the enormous local need, the measurable progress in some areas, and the seemingly intractable obstacles in others.
I can’t claim to have done anything more than skimmed the surface of a tiny portion of Haiti, but that the surface would have undoubtedly been much thinner without the assistance of our able guide and driver, Daniel and Wilkin. To them, and to the other PIH workers who expended much valuable time to give us an insider’s look I owe a deep debt of gratitude. Mesi.
More information about the extraordinary work of Partners in Health in Haiti is available here. An extensive pictorial view of our trip is available via the HAITI set on my Flickr account. Ken
*From The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz, Palgrave MacMillan. 2013.
For a few more pictures, click on the collage below.
Great post. Much to think about, especially your reflection (or the woman you met’s reflections, really) on the fatigue of being photographed. By the way, have you ever read Edwige Danticat? I read “Brother I’m Dying” when it came out, which was very good.
Hi, Sara–I haven’t read ED, except in small bits and pieces (The New Yorker, maybe?). Right now I’ve got MOUNTAINS BEYOND MOUNTAINS, THE BIG TRUCK THAT WENT BY, and GOODBYE, FRED VOODOO sitting on my desk. One more to add to the pile. Thanks. Ken
A very great & interesting post! Lovely pics too! Bright & colourful, just like the people!
Thank you, Sophie. I’m happy with what I did manage to get. Ken
These are wonderful! I love the depth of the old woman’s expression.
The remarkable thing, according to one of the doctors I spoke with in Cange, is that she’s probably in her 50s. Ken
Have you seen that ad for “the Lifestyle Lift?” Debbi Boone croons in the background, “youuuuuuu light up myyyyyyy life. . .”
Poor but still very colorful. Love their beautiful smiling faces. I will probably never get to visit Haiti and that part of the world so thanks for sharing your trip and stunning photos!
Tal!–How are you? Every time I eat a piece of focaccia at Rialto I think of you. Ordinary Haitians are a VERY long-suffering group of people. Ken
Thank you for this sobering post and its evocative photography. For an article I am writing on student entrepreneurs, this week I had the privilege of interviewing a young woman who started Haiti Babi, an organization that provides employment for Haitian mothers. The women knit beautiful baby blankets, which are for sale in the U.S. I encourage you and your readers to check out their website http://www.haitibabi.org and consider a Haiti Babi blanket for your next baby shower gift.
Hi Alison–What a great idea! Haiti needs all the jobs it can get (At one point PIH was the third largest employer in the country, although they’ve since dropped to fifth, which gives you some idea of how few jobs there are.). This young woman sounds like a determined generous spirit. I checked out their website and the baby blankets look great. Thanks for the link. Ken
:-))) Izhar is coming for a visit late in April to Berklee. Would love to see you guys.
Let’s talk via email. Ken
Beautiful smiling faces along with a stark reminder of the challenges they face and the work that needs to be done. Thanks to both of you for your contributions to the people of Haiti and PIH.
Hi, Marcy–Thank you. But I’m just the guy holding down the fort. My wife is the one who deserves the pat on the back. Let’s have dinner soon. Ken
Outstanding post, Ken. Eye opening indeed.
Thanks, Steve. I felt pretty fortunate just to be there. Ken
What a great post and powerful pictures! School children in Cange is priceless.
I’m undecided on my favorite–that one, or the girls in Jacmel. Candid children in action are always inspiring. Thanks for the praise. Ken
Mesi to you. Wonderful photos. Wonderful post. A great reminder of how silly our first world issues can be. Food blogs? Really? And I join Sara in recommending Danticat’s books. (You’re probably right about having read her stuff in The New Yorker.)
Thank you, Michelle. We had an amazing experience, in the old-fashioned way that travel is supposed to be broadening. Viewed in a Haitian light, so much stuff can seem trivial. Guess I’ll have to read Edwige. Kenbe fem, Ken
Thank you, Ken, for writing this post. Lately, there have been a few reports about Haiti and I hope there will be more to come. Our “news” organizations focus on a problem for a hot minute before moving on. Haiti’s problems were massive before the earthquake and now they are in such desperate need of help. Your wife is to be applauded and Organizations like PIH are heaven-sent, worthy of our support.
Thanks for your support of a non-food post, John. It was certainly remarkable. If you’re interested in Haiti I can’t recommend Jonathan Katz’s book enough. It reads like a page turner and I reluctantly put it down when I have to get some work done. Katz had been living in Haiti for several years as a reporter and three weeks before his scheduled departure the earthquake hit. He stayed on the report about the aftermath, and then to write the definitive account, thus far, of why so much has gone so wrong for this poor country. Ken
I would be happy with 100 of these photos. They’re incredible! Interesting about the dust. Great experience. Third world countries are good to show your kids – we’ve done it ourselves in rural Mexico. Our personal out-of-our-comfort-zone experience was sitting in a Masai “home.” Truly wonderful and awful at the same time.
Thanks, Mimi. My brother, recently retired as EIC of the San Antonio newspaper, used to regularly take his family to rural Mexico. Sadly, no longer. Masai, wow! Maybe someday. I think in future years we’ll look back and think the experience was beneficial to our kids most of all. Ken
THANK YOU…BRAVO – overwhelming. Currently auditing “Discovering Haiti”, outstanding course at the Harvard Extension School, Prof Carole Bergin, so appreciate all your references. Hoping to hear/see some kompas, live, here in Boston…
Hi, Anne–I’m glad the post dovetails with your course. Our last night in Haiti, we attended the famous Thursday night performance of RAM at the Olaffson Hotel. Vodou rock! Great music, wild dancing, guard-your-wallet atmosphere. Super way to leave the country. Ken
This blog blew me out of the water…of course, I love the pictures and the commentary captures my thoughts when I was there with you all. I,too, am struggling to put it all together in my mind but one thing that was clear to me is that I am in awe of what PIH does (and not just in Haiti). I keep focusing in on what has been done (and what will be done with the dedication of so many) and it does make a difference…I do not think it’s hopeless…just a very long journey. After a trip like this, I am so grateful for what we have and more than ever, I want to do my small part in making lives better for those less fortunate. There is no question, that I will go back….THANK YOU for telling this wonderful story and I am so glad I was there with you, Jody, Roxanne and Oliver. BA
BA, you are a sweet spirit! (And we’ll travel with you anytime.) Ken
What a great experience!
It really was something special for us. Ken
Ken — Your photos are stunning and BA filled me in on your trip! What an incredible experience! She and I are planning a fundraiser in Boston in the Fall for the Center for Rehabilitation and Excellence in St. Marc that is under construction. Sounds like what you saw on this trip certainly demonstrated the need for all kinds of therapy in Haiti. Will look forward to talking to you more about your experiences. Thanks for sharing your impressions and beautiful photos. Best, Meredith
Thanks, Meredith. St. Marc is a remarkable hospital and I’m sure the rehabilitation center will be a great addition to an already inspiring facility (I’m not exaggerating – how they responded to the cholera outbreak was heroic). I’m sure we’ll cross paths at the fundraiser. Glad you liked the pictures. Ken
These are wonderful and interesting photos. I very much enjoyed reading your post. There is so much poverty in the world. My daughter recently returned from spending 6 months in Mozambique working in a street boys day home. Their parents can’t afford these boys, so the boys are put out in the street to live. Some of these boys are as young as 8 or 10. The day home gives them some place to go during the day, educates and feeds them. Unfortunately, they are on their own at night. It is truly life changing and humbling to see how other people live in countries that are not as prosperous as ours.
My sentiments exactly. Good on to your daughter. Thanks. Ken
Thanks for sharing some of your insights from your time in Haiti, Ken.
Since I’ve been back I’ve had a weather eye turned toward news of Haiti. I started out the day pissed off–the NYT has an editorial in today’s paper referencing a recent statement from Medicins Sans Frontières that the cholera crisis is actually getting worse, mainly for lack of money to pay for medical supplies and treatment. Industrialized nations are reneging on pledges they made following the earthquake and the UN has declared itself immune from any legal liability for causing the cholera outbreak (most experts agree that UN troops contaminated a river with cholera bearing sewage) and at least thus far, has declined to shoulder any moral responsibility for compensation. It makes me both sad and angry. Ken
I hadn’t realized about the ongoing health issues in Haiti, particularly with the cholera outbreak and the original site for contamination. From the small amount of Haitian history I do know, it feels as if so many folks there can’t seem to get a break–from geographic location with weather to government issues to its colonial history.
All sadly true. Investigators have found a DNA match between the strain of DNA carried by some Nepalese troops (and present in Nepal) and the strain in Haiti. Not unexpectedly, several Haitians told me UN troops are loathed. Ken
Wow, Ken and Jody, what a life-changing experience – and amazing opportunity for your children to learn about a country very different from our own. Even after reading and viewing the photos, I really cannot imagine the culture shock you experienced. It must have been life changing. My husband and I are great fans of Paul Farmer’s career; we have read many of his books. He really is a star in the global public health arena. Thank you for sharing your journey.
Thank you, Shanna. It was a rare opportunity for us, and recollection of daily Haitian hardship has a way of putting one’s first-world trials (i.e. wiring) into perspective. Paul is great guy, and we are fortunate to count him–and Ophelia Dahl, also critical to PIH–as friends. Ken