Editor’s note: Tiffany Gilmore is a graduate student at UC Davis who wrote into The Aggie to raise awareness of the plight faced by Haitian citizens after the recent hurricane.
Haiti, the focus of this year’s Campus Community Book Project book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, is a country that never fully mourns its current tragedy before moving on to another. When we think of Haiti, most think of extreme poverty, chronic political unrest or the masses of boat people struggling to reach the United States. If we think of Haiti, it may be sporadically when it pops up in the news as it has recently for being hit with a barrage of hurricanes and tropical storms. Most don’t realize the full scope of storm damage in Haiti.
This August, Haiti was hit with four severe storms in quick succession and the repercussions are almost unimaginable. The destruction from hurricanes in a country already faced with minimal infrastructure is staggering: flooded streets, mudslides and death counts numbering in the thousands from flood-related illness.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, many Haitians went three to four days (or longer) with no access to food or clean water. The storms have washed out six major bridges and many mountainous roads are underwater or impassable. The United Nations and various relief organizations have been unable to access several of the cities hardest hit by the storms and have had to air or boat transport much needed supplies into remote areas. Because of the difficulty in accessing these remote areas, an accurate tally of the destruction is not yet known.
During the 2008 hurricane season, CNN coverage has shown UN troops in full riot gear pushing against a frantic mob and a young woman screaming as she lay tangled in the razor wire that separated UN troops from the hungry Haitians. It is the overwhelming need and devastation in Haiti that has traditionally characterized Haiti’s international image. One CNN reporter covering the destruction in the coastal city of Gonaives characterized the Haitians as “the damned.” Yet, despite being less than 800 miles off the coast of Florida, Haiti and her problems often seem very distant to her northern neighbors.
This is somewhat surprising given the long and entwined histories between the U.S. and Haiti. Few Americans know that Haiti had the first successful slave revolution and was the second independent republic in the Western hemisphere. Even fewer know how U.S. policy has created many of Haiti’s historic and current problems. The U.S.‘s irresponsible policy in Haiti has spanned from trade embargos, refusal to recognize the independent nation, military occupation in the early 20th century, which included rewriting the Haitian constitution to reflect the interests of U.S. businesses, and supporting brutal and violent dictators like the Duvaliers. These, among other problematic policies, have thwarted Haiti’s struggle for democracy and self-sufficiency.
As a graduate student working on Haiti, I have visited Haiti and seen cities like Gonaives and the effects of irresponsible foreign policies. I first traveled to Haiti in August 2007 on a human rights investigation delegation touring much of the country. Gonaives is a significant city in Haitian history; several protests were staged there against the U.S. supported dictator, Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in the 1980s. In 2007, many of Gonaives‘ city roads were impassable due to craters, construction debris or broken rebar jutting from aborted rebuilding efforts. Bare-bottomed children watched us from shells of buildings; Gonaives looked more like a city at war than one lost to the elements. Children competed with pigs and stray dogs for food from the large piles of garbage. Filthy canals ran along the doorways of the buildings; this city of 300,000 people has never had a single, integrated sewer system. When heavy rains hit this coastal city, these canals overflow directly into homes. Torrential amounts of rain with no drainage system have turned the cities into muddy rivers washing away homes, livestock and access to potable water.
Much of Haiti’s rural population attempts to survive on subsistence farming. This year’s hurricanes have devastated crop production in Haiti, meaning an increased reliance on food imports when even the U.S. is struggling with the rising cost of food. Earlier this year, Haiti made the international news with its food riots: too many hungry mouths, too little affordable food. Deforestation and a quintupling cost of agricultural supplies like fertilizer have made even subsistence farming difficult if not impossible for many of Haiti’s poor.
By the time of my visit to Gonaives in 2007, the city looked much as it did in 2004: Rebuilding is too costly for residents living on less than $2 U.S. a day. Since the devastating hurricanes of the last decade, Gonaives has seen an exodus of its citizens heading to marginally more functional cities like the capital, Port au Prince, which is already straining to accommodate twice as many people as it was designed to hold. Many peasants leave rural homes in search of employment in the capital. Unfortunately, there are not enough jobs or food. These migrants are forced to live on the streets or in terrible slums like Cite Soleil, the most notorious and dangerous slum in the Western hemisphere.
Anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000 people try to survive in this urban wasteland with no electricity, potable water, sanitation system, trash collection or stores. Here you’ll see the “mud biscuits“-mud and clay mixed with a few spices and left to harden in the hot Haitian sun-they are all many mothers have to feed their hungry children. Violence is common in Cite Soleil. The few remaining skeletons of buildings are riddled with bullet holes and the air is noxious with the smell of burning trash and human waste. Tiny homes made of cardboard often house 10 or more people who must sleep in shifts on the dirt floor.
When hurricanes and heavy rains hit Haiti, they turn communities like Cite Soleil into cesspools. It is no surprise then, that the life expectancy in places like these urban slums is less than 50 years. Living conditions such as this exacerbate the spread of diseases all but eradicated in the developed world. Malnutrition, Tuberculosis, Typhoid, intestinal worms, skin parasites and the highest HIV/AIDS rate in the Western hemisphere are common, and often untreated, in Haiti.
Hospitals are critically understaffed and undersupplied. Patients need to buy all materials for their diagnosis and treatment, including examination rubber gloves. One woman reported having to turn the keys to her house to the doctor as guarantee of payment before he would treat her feverish child.
Now, with nothing to drink except filthy flood water contaminated with human and animal waste, the need for healthcare in Haiti is more dire than ever. With standing floodwater, there is a surge of mosquito transmitted illnesses: Malaria and Dengue Fever among the most serious. Many Haitians have no way to reach clinics. Many clinics do not have the supplies needed to treat the swell in flood-related illnesses.
The desperation in Haiti has even caught the attention of a few celebrities. Wyclef Jean, a Haitian-born musician, and Matt Damon (from the Bourne movie series and Good Will Hunting) recently went to Haiti to distribute food and water. When interviewed by CNN, both Mr. Jean and Mr. Damon called for increased efforts from the international community to help Haiti.
Though international aid was sent to repair Gonaives in 2004 after Hurricane Jeanne, much of it never reached the intended recipients. Haiti’s political history is a complicated map of corruption, coup d’etats and foreign-supported dictators. Many have channeled international aid earmarked for relief efforts into their own coffers, making well-meaning foreigners understandably reluctant to donate to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profits when there is little to no accountability for funds. Therefore, it is critical to be certain that the organization is credible and accountable for funds.
Despite all this bad news, there are several highly accountable NGOs making remarkable change in Haiti in the immediate scale of hurricane relief and in long terms goals such as public health, education and financial literacy. Partners in Health (or Zanmi Lasante in Creole) is working hard to meet the increased need for healthcare in Haiti in the wake of the storms. PIH works in the Central Plateau of Haiti, one of the poorest rural areas in the country. Started by Dr. Paul Farmer, an American with degrees in medicine and anthropology, Partners in Health has revolutionized public health in the developing world. Dr. Farmer practices “pragmatic solidarity,” meaning that the clinic approaches healing holistically: they treat not only the symptoms of disease but the conditions of extreme poverty including inadequate food, housing and education. Since the hurricanes in Haiti, Partners in Health has increased their efforts. According to their website, PIH Medical Director Joia Mukherjee estimates that about 1 million people, or 12 percent of the total population, have been displaced throughout the country. Zanmi Lasante is housing and feeding over 7,000 of these displaced people in makeshift shelters.
The life work of Dr. Farmer and PIH is chronicled in this year’s Campus Community Book Project book, Mountains Beyond Mountains (2004). Sponsored by the Office of Campus Community Relations, various programs in fall quarter will explore the themes of the book, including efforts of several entrepreneurs who work with Paul Farmer to make a difference in Haiti. Several Davis organizations have already gotten involved in Hurricane relief efforts to Haiti. The Davis Religious Community for Sanctuary has already sent over $600 dollars to Haiti through the organization Rights Action. You can learn more about how to help PIH’s hurricane relief efforts from their website, www.pih.org or link there from the Campus Community Book Project’s website: http://occr.ucdavis.edu/ccbp2008/index.html under “resources.“