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.
*From The Big Truck That Went By by Jonathan Katz, Palgrave MacMillan. 2013.
For a few more pictures, click on the collage below.