HAITI: Change Post Quake

A little over one year ago, the first Black Republic that is Haiti was hit with a 7.0 earthquake that not only brought an already staggering country to its knees, but also continues to affect the millions of Haitians who could not escape its aftermath.

Words: Jessica Bennett
Images: Jean Marcelin and Rachelle Salnave

As where Haiti was already plagued with poverty, government corruption, an inadequate education system and a host of other problems in some areas, this natural disaster multiplied the nations’ troubles tenfold. Initially when disaster struck, many hoped that within a year’s time, some progress would have been made to at least get the country back to its original predicament, and that perhaps those issues could begin to be addressed as well. Unfortunately, with the crooked state of affairs, a shortage of medical professionals, and the rampant spread of cholera, parts of Haiti are in as dire need of aid today, as the day buildings crumbled on January 12th, 2010, as the earthquake struck.

The destruction of hundreds of homes, left over 1.2 million people homeless and forced citizens to live in tents throughout the nation’s capital, Port Au Prince. Deirdre Maloney, owner of BPMW Agency and representative for Project Medishare, which provides much needed medical supplies to the country, says that the housing situation has not been shown adequate attention.

“There has been zero government organized rebuilding, and the private rebuilding has been miniscule,” said Maloney. She continued, “In Port Au Prince alone there are 300,000 in need of housing, and in the last 13 months only 7,000 temporary homes have been built. This means that the vast majority of the 1.2 displaced are still living literally, on the ground…”

Just as disturbing is the possibility of these makeshift homes being destroyed come hurricane season. Haiti is especially susceptible to flash floods and major mudslides because it does not have the vegetation of the Dominican Republic, the building codes of the US, nor the government assistance Cuba provides its citizens, who have evacuation plans already in place. Not only will a major storm physically wreak havoc throughout the country, it will contribute to the spread of several water-borne illnesses, like cholera that has already killed many citizens since its breakout began in October of 2010. Many have expressed their frustration with the spread of this easily treatable disease including TV personality and Haiti advocate Terrence Jenkins.

“Cholera isn’t being spread as quickly as we first thought it would be, but still thousands and thousands are dying from it, which is so unbelievable because it is so easily treatable. Many diseases that are spread throughout Haiti could be taken care of with clean water, with Neosporin, with the simplest things that we take for granted here in the US.”

World renowned Haitian photographer Marc Baptiste recognizes the need for medical aid, and also addresses the need for more trained volunteers who can teach Haitians how to maintain their health once they get it under control.

“We need major professional help in doctors, nurses and educators. We need to teach Haitians how to take care of themselves. They need training in order to sustain.”

Maloney agrees, and suggests major change in Haitian infrastructure to address the problem.

“To really provide clean water to all Haitians long term, and prevent cholera from ever being a problem there again, there would have to be a water system overhaul, not to mention a huge education campaign.”

That kind of change would require a government that not only has leaders that are genuinely concerned with the well being of its people, but the money to put behind such projects. Frankly, at the one-year anniversary mark this past January, Haiti had neither, but it needs both, more than any nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Accusations of foul play on every level from stuffed ballot boxes to former dictators using their muscle to gain privilege are daily news for those who care to know. In fact, Jenkins feels the coverage of the crooked in many ways has begun to outweigh the press of the poor and displaced.

“The inconsistencies within the Haitian government should definitely be exposed; I just don’t want that to take away from the message and the coverage of the people needing serious help every day.”

Coverage of natural disasters and its victims always decline as time passes. One could understandably take the stance that those of privilege are so detached from the pain of those that suffer, that they mentally move on to the next cause before the work is done. While this is certainly the case for some, it should be rejected as a generalization of American citizens. Jenkins reminds us of President Obama’s pledge to the country of Haiti, even though he has yet to follow through.

“The US has pledged to financially assist Haiti in rebuilding, yet that promise has not been fulfilled a year later. We can appreciate the sentiment and the words, but without action, it is an empty promise,” Jenkins said.

Baptiste agrees, noting that it isn’t just America that failed to keep its word.

“The global community failed miserably. All the money promised while CNN put Haiti in the spotlight, and now Haiti is in the dark. Three nations, Brazil, Australia, and Norway came through.”

Maloney brings up the point that many are hesitant to send monies because of the coverage of the aforementioned corrupt Haitian government.

“Without faith in the government or the political system it’s very difficult for foreign countries to deliver on their promised aid. There is no faith that it will be appropriately allocated. And the current government, which is on its way out [at the time of interview], seems more focused on the elections and politics than on working on rebuilding the country. The timing of this election could not be any worse.”

In addition to the international governments being slow to react with their aid, many every day citizens are reluctant to donate money because of several non-profits being accused of money laundering and the like. Maloney suggests that donors look into organizations more closely beforehand to ease their minds.

“Donating money responsibly requires some research and work on the part of the donor and I think this is probably the #1 deterrent. Understanding where your money is going gives you comfort that it is being well spent,” she continued.

Terrence J agrees, stating “Americans work hard for our money, so it’s definitely a legitimate concern to know where it’s going. If you’re not comfortable donating cash, you could always send supplies, bandages, bedpans, anything. Every little bit helps.”

Unfortunately, even donating supplies can become a chore for certain individuals. Jenkins tells of a woman in California who donated over $100,000 in supplies to the shaken country, only for them to be held up at customs by machine-gun wielding thugs demanding ransom money for the items. Events such as these are easy deterrents, not only for those who would like to support, but especially for those who would like to physically visit Haiti to help. While Jenkins has made two trips since the earthquake, he understands those who haven’t.

“We can’t really judge people for not wanting to physically go down there because it is a very frustrating process and difficult to experience up close. It can be depressing to see the devastation, and know how many people have died from preventable causes, how much still needs to be done, all of that.”

While so much of the news is negative, one thing all agree on is that the spirit of the people is as high as ever. Yes, they are experiencing the effects of one of the biggest natural disasters of the last 100 years, yet they are determined to not only live, but thrive. Many Haitian-Americans are greatly impacting & rebuilding the nation, and actively working to change its perception in the global community. Filmmaker Rachelle Salnave’s upcoming documentary, La Belle Vie: The
Good Life explores the bourgeois of Haiti, and how perception can change outcome, even when it comes to helping the nation that is now in dire need. She speaks as a Haitian-American who sees others like her lending a hand to their native country.

“Never before have I seen Haitian-Americans in my generation so mobilized to go back to Haiti to help or start a drive to donate funds. People who hid their identity now began to be proud of being Haitian. I have friends who were born in Haiti and left at an early age never to return, and now in their 30’s, want to go back. This is what the symbol of earthquake means to me. . . Hope! Crushing down barriers to build a new and stronger Haiti. No one has died in vain.”

For some, that last statement may be hard to except, but with continued dialogue and dedication, Haiti can rise once again. Terrence J, who interacts with today’s youth on a daily basis, has a message for those not sure of their place in the discussion:

“I believe in the power of God, so if you have nothing to give, prayers and well wishes from sincere hearts are always welcome, and don’t forget to look in your own backyard. There are homeless families in New York, in Detroit, in Washington D.C. Do whatever you can to contribute positively to society. It all comes back.”

A year later we see that it will be a slow process, but anything is possible when a movement is sparked. Let’s keep marching.

Update since this interview: Haiti has elected a new president, Sweet Mickey’s frontman Martin Martelly. He was inaugurated on May 14, 2011. We hope that under his watch, the citizens of Haiti are afforded the opportunity to explore their greatest potential and that the country can redeem itself and revive it’s prowess from earlier years.

Images by Jean Marcelin and Rachelle Salnave for the film La Belle Vie: The Good Life

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