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Let's Talk About Haiti

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

By Jane Elizabeth Drichta:

At this point, most people have given up on Haiti. I don’t at all mean that they won’t contribute to earthquake relief, or Covid relief, or any of the other "reliefs." In fact, most people will, because most people, especially the ones who will read this, are kindhearted and want the best for their fellow Earth travelers.

But let’s face facts: Haiti has a public relations problem.

Most people have never been there, and most only know that this tiny island nation seems to bear the brunt of disasters, both natural and human-made. And so it has happened again. August 14, 2021, at 8:29:09 a.m., a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the southern part of Haiti, with the epicenter located in Nippes. As I write, over 2,300 people have lost their lives, with over 5,000 injured. These numbers will undoubtedly go up, as much of this area is sparsely populated, and it is almost impossible to get info (and relief supplies) in or out.

I’m used to working in places with PR issues. As a global maternal health specialist, I’ve lived and worked in Iraq, East Africa, the Philippines . . . many places where, when confronted with the harsh realities of life, western folks tend to roll their eyes. "Oh, it’s (fill in the blank). Well, what do you expect?” What do I expect indeed?

I am the Executive Director of Midwives for Haiti. This community-led organization has been working on the ground in Haiti since 2006. Our 18-month school trains Haitian nurses to become midwives, and we support maternal health services at Hospital St. Therese in Hinche and all over the central plateau through our 8 community clinics. Over 30% of the folks out there catching babies and caring for pregnant women in Haiti are our graduates.

We work farther north in Hinche, and while our facilities were spared, our hearts were not. Haiti is small; what affects one of us here affects us all, and we have close ties to several organizations in the quake zone, whom we are supporting. One of them, Maison de Naissance, a birth center in a small town called Torbeck, employs three of our graduate midwives.

One of them, Imene Riguer, sent these words the morning after the earthquake:

"During the earthquake, I was on the patio of my house. I went inside to get my baby, and I fell as I brought him out (due to the movement of the earth). I thought the baby was dead, but I got up and continued to run with him. When it was over, I checked him over, and he was not dead but injured in his foot. I myself am injured in my arm, my feet, and my waist. My house was destroyed, but nobody in my family died. All glory is to God.”

All 11 of the midwives working at Maison de Naissance lost their homes. Midwives for Haiti is sending relief staff to work at the center, as well as medical supplies and financial assistance.

I also spoke with a friend in Les Cayes, one of the largest towns affected.

“This was the most terrifying thing I have ever been through. We couldn’t run, we couldn’t walk. We could only hold on and pray it ended soon. All around me buildings were collapsing. I hoped I was far enough away not to be hit by falling and rolling debris. I was terrified, thinking I would never see my family again. I was sure it was my last moments on Earth. I just wanted my mother.”

The words are terrifying, the words are petrifying, and the words are familiar. They speak to the common humanity in all of us, and they force us to put ourselves in our brothers' and sisters' shoes. It is these types of stories that we can expect after a disaster, after an event so horrible that most of us cannot comprehend the losses. Accounts such as this often cause us to open our hearts and our wallets, and this is correct and honorable. We should help, after each and every disaster, after each and every epidemic, after each and every disruptive political event. Never think you should not help, if your circumstances allow.

But how to help, in an ethical and moral manner? Stories are now out about mismanaged monies during the last earthquake response in 2010, stories which have taken their place on a long “Lessons Learnt” list. Stories are out about increased rates of domestic violence, of distrust between the people and aid workers, stories which we on the ground have known for years to be absolutely true, but nobody believed us.

Perhaps, though, this is the moment. Maybe now is the time for a new aid paradigm, where grassroots donors shift away the narrative pushed forward by the large, bureaucratic organizations, those bloated with past transgressions and historically rooted in post-colonialism racism. With the internet and social media ablaze with information (and disinformation, so be careful!), it is now possible to seek out new ways of giving, of bypassing outside organizations, and donating to those small and mid-sized groups who have been working in Haiti long before the earthquake struck.

The Haitian government is also responding differently to this quake. They have designated a central department to collect all offers of material aid and then work out how to distribute these offers evenly. Hopefully this will mitigate some of the chaos common in 2010, where every agency was working on its own and efforts to centralize were lost in dust and translation. It's difficult, hectic, and won’t work perfectly. It may even break down entirely. But it is a new, different way to respond.

This earthquake is a tragedy. Things in the quake zone are dire. Thousands are dead, thousands more gravely injured. Our orthopedic and primary-care colleagues are overworked, and supplies are low. For our part, we are struggling to bring babies into this world in a bubble of peace, as our midwives live out of pop-up tents. But you know all this. You’ve also seen it before.

So what do I expect? It’s Haiti, it’s an earthquake, so what indeed do I expect?

I expect good-hearted people to have broken hearts.

I expect them to step up, as we are meant to do. I expect direct donations this time, to Haitian-operated, entrenched organizations who truly know the communities in which they work. Here’s my list, and I’m happy to vet any others you may wish to investigate:

I expect us to care about Haiti and other low-resource areas outside of disasters. I expect us to read the history of these places, to know why things are the way they are. In Haiti’s case, I expect us to learn that it is the site of the only successful slave revolution in history. I expect us to recognize the burden of being a former colony. Did you know Haiti was forced to pay France a 90 million–franc indemnity for lost property after the Haitian revolution, property which included former enslaved people and their future earning power? Haiti had to pay its former colonial masters the equivalent of $21 billion in order for the new nation to be recognized as a sovereign country; the last interest payment was made to the National Bank of New York (now Citibank) in 1947. I expect my U.S. friends and colleagues to realize that the United States funded the takeover of Haiti’s treasury so that our nation could receive those interest payments.

I expect us to internalize that Haiti does not have "bad luck." Haiti is not "cursed."

Haiti is a small country with a history of intentional isolation and destabilization by colonial powers, which sits on two fault lines and lies in the path of several hurricanes a year. It is also a place a great beauty, of families who love one another, of a deep cultural heritage.

It’s Haiti. What do I expect? I expect everything. Want to join me?

Jane Elizabeth Drichta is a writer who works through her organization, Global Motherhood Initiative, to help the Yezidi women in Iraq recover and thrive.

Read our interview with Jane E. Drichta here!

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