A painting of two panthers in the jungle.

Lessons in survival and resilience, mountains beyond mountains. Haiti

by Toby Simon for ConvergenceRI

Haitians persevere, despite the dire circumstances

WELLFLEET, Mass. – Almost 30 years ago, my husband Peter and I traveled to Haiti to work for several weeks at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in the small rural village of Deschapelles. My work continued until 2019, when safety concerns in the country became too grave to allow me to travel.

Haiti has a long history of coup d’etats, political unrest, regime changes, horrendous natural disasters, dangerous interference by the U.S., food insecurity, unimaginable poverty, and abysmal health outcomes. One in five children dies before age 5.

Violence is escalating. Intentional homicides and kidnappings are on the rise. Haitian civil society groups claim that the insecurity is exacerbated by alleged complicity between politicians and gangs. The country has been in lockdown for over a month. Schools and businesses are closed.

People have taken to the streets in several cities across Haiti after the government announced a substantial increase in the price of fuel that will further hurt the population already struggling with soaring costs of living. Haitians are often facing a compounding set of crises, but the gas crisis is the latest one to cripple the economy.

Haiti had previously received it’s gasoline from Venezuela, which shut down several years ago. Many people in Haiti depend on fuel not only for transportation but also for electricity and cooking. Some are fleeing the country to find work in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Others are risking their lives to escape in flimsy, over-crowded boats headed towards the US, South America or other islands.

The current inflation rate is 30 percent, and the escalating gang violence exacerbates all the problems Haiti faces. Recently, two Haitian journalists were murdered and their bodies burned as they were reporting on rising violence in the capital.

No diesel, no water
Just this week the Culligan/Caribbean Bottling Company water operation in Port-au-Prince alerted the public that they are no longer able to produce nor distribute water because their diesel reserves are completely exhausted.

The gas shortage in Haiti has paralyzed Culligan’s production chain as well as their ability to deliver water throughout the country. More and more of the population will now have to rely on water from nearby riverbanks, which often is polluted, resulting in severe health problems. Cholera, which had disappeared in Haiti for the past 10 years, has once again resurfaced, due to the lack of potable water.

In the absence of a functioning government, local nonprofits have attempted to keep programs functioning.

• GOALS Haiti [Global Outreach and Love of Soccer] is a non-profit, established in 2010. GOALS advances youth leadership through soccer and education to create stronger, healthier communities in rural Leogane, a small city about two hours from Port-au-Prince. I’ve done numerous staff trainings there for years and seven years ago joined their board.

Miraculously, during these excruciatingly difficult times, GOALS has been able to continue the soccer programs, the literacy program for kids and their parents, the agronomy projects which involve community plantings, harvesting and food distribution – and providing meals to the 400 boys and girls in our programs. As one of our kids recently said, eloquently:

“The GOALS program does a lot of things in my life. It helps me to grow up and helps me to progress. Most importantly, it helps me to know myself – and my true capabilities”

The GOALS kid continued: “While I’m in the GOALS program, I can say the issues in my life improve. When I come to the program, I can find a meal every day. That allows my brother and sister to have more food because I am in the program.”

Further, the GOALS kid talked about the importance of how the program helped to reduce stress: “When I come to the program, I play a lot and then I feel less stress about things in my life in general.”

• Another non-profit group, Second Mile Haiti, is doing extraordinary work in northern Haiti. Their mission is to fight childhood malnutrition and improve outcomes for impoverished women and children through innovative, research-driven, residential malnutrition and maternity centers.

Going the second mile to invest in families through education, training and business, is what they do. But they, too, are severely impacted on a daily basis by the deteriorating conditions in the country.

A few days ago, I received an email from Jenn Shenk, one of the founders of SecondMileHaiti. The following is reprinted with Jenn’s permission from that email:

The gas shortage and subsequent protests had effectively shut down commerce, transportation, and even many health centers. Yet each morning we awake to check-in with our contacts at banks and supply depots. We call shop owners to ask them if they will be opening their stores. And if yes, we asked: “When?” Next, we call various contacts along the route. “Are the roads clear? Have you heard about any planned protests?”

Jenn’s email continued: Getting the “all clear” [equals] go time. All week we’d been waiting for the “all clear” for two different categories of supplies: Family Planning supplies and vaccines, the ones you give to babies in their first and second year of life.

Staying alive
Jenn’s email went on to comment on the struggles and difficulties they encountered while attempting to receive the birth control supplies and the vaccines. One of the employees suggested using back roads to get to a closed [due to no fuel] hospital where there were these supplies. The employee picked up the nurse at her home and drove her via motorcycle, on back roads, to the hospital.

Second Mile Haiti has also been reserving fuel for these exact emergencies and they were able to use it to send their vaccinator out to the clinic with the necessary vaccines. Within days, their maternity centers were full of women, despite ongoing protests as well as hospital and health centers closures.

As a result, pregnant women got the care they needed and the women who wanted to avoid or delay a pregnancy also received what they needed.

The vaccine clinic, which is held monthly, saw the greatest number of parents bringing their children, toddlers and newborns to the clinic. These parents, in the midst of utter turmoil, still assumed that Second Mile would have the vaccines, because it’s an agency that has yet to let them down.

Context, nuance, and perspective
I’m not sure about you, but what’s happening in our own country feels overwhelming at times. The sense of dread and fear I’m feeling is aided and abetted by ugly politics, threats to our democracy, an extreme right-wing group of politicians, the removal of reproductive rights, attacks on teaching the history of slavery in schools as well as attacks on gender and sexual education.

As dire as things feel in this country as well as abroad, it pales in comparison to what a Haitian mother goes through each day just to survive, find food for her kids, and get the health care her family needs. It’s exhausting, or as Haitians often say: “nou bouke” – we’re tired.

A message of hope
Jenn ended her email with this: “It’s been a tough few weeks. Still it’s a privilege to stand with Haitian parents and the health care workers that support them – as they risk the streets and walk long distances just so their children can have the best possible shot at this one, wild and precious life.”

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI, sharing her valuable insights and perspectives that enable us to view the world around us as one large, engaged community. It has been a great honor to have her strong voice be a regular feature of ConvergenceRI for the last 10 years.

Photo top: The painting by Haitian artist Gabriel Coutard captures some of the vibrancy and warmth of Haitian culture and its residents.