Over winter break I spent 10 days in Haiti for the first time since I left in late 2009, before the earthquake, Hurricane Tomas and the cholera epidemic ravaged the country. From 2007-2009, I worked in Jeremie, Haiti the capitol of the Grand Anse department in the Southwest of the country as a program coordinator for an adolescent girls wellness program within a larger MCH community-based program. While I desperately wanted to return to Haiti pretty much since the day I left, especially in the midst of all the turmoil that 2010 brought, it took to just this December for me to finally be able to go back and visit the friends, coworkers, and the country that I so missed. It was emotional to say the least arriving in Port-au-Prince, seeing the rubble, the instability, and feeling the general despair of the population.
I stayed for the first few days with my friend Jude-Marie who lives in one of the “tent cities” close to the National Palace, which is now split in two. Staying in Jude’s makeshift neighborhood was such a paradox in many ways. On the one hand, I saw how terrible the living conditions are and how frustrated and angry the people who live there are. There is no available clean water. There is a pump with a sign that said “clean water”, but Jude told me that although people from the ministry had come to take pictures of it to show the “great” conditions of the tents cities, it has never really had clean water, and now there is no water at all. There is no sanitary (or even unsanitary) place to defecate. While there are two port-o-potties outside of the encampment Jude told me they have been unusable for quite some time. Cholera is a huge fear for everyone and a main topic of conversation.
The day I left there was a huge commotion in the front of the camp. I found out that an NGO was distributing new tents, but only for the lucky individuals that lived in the front of the encampment – just in time for a press conference with members of the international community showing the high quality tents in which people are living in the encampment. Meanwhile, my friends in the back are living in tents with holes in the top that let in the rain at night and provides no safety or security for anyone’s possessions or for their own bodies. In late December a Human Rights Watch report (
) pointed to the high numbers of rapes and sexual assaults occurring in the tent cities- I’m sure the true numbers will never be known.
At the same time, despite the fact that many of the people living in such close quarters had not known each other before the earthquake, there is also such a strong sense of community. I only had the experience of spending time with one friend in one tent city so I certainly can’t generalize but at least where I was I can say that this sense of community had everything to do with the strong women who cooked for not just their families, but anyone who couldn’t find food that day; the women who made sure that their tents with holes in the roof, with no doors, with rats and roaches, was as clean and tidy as possible and resembled a real home for their families; the women who despite being hungry, tired, stressed and sad themselves sang, told jokes, told stories and welcomed an unknown American to sit and eat with them and become part of their family even just for a few days. My guess is that these women that I met are the norm and not the exception.
I left Port-au-Prince to go south to Jeremie with a heavy heart thinking of the hopelessness that many of the people I spoke with in Port expressed to me, and myself too feeling slightly hopeless. I took the bus from Port-au-Prince to Jeremie, which was overcrowded, terrifying at times (imagine speeding down one-lane rocky roads on cliffs with no guardrails- terrifying!), and took 14 hours. Fittingly the name painted on front of the colorful bus is Dieu décide- God decides. While I’m not a particularly religious person I did feel like my life was in God’s hands for most of those 14 hours! Although I had considered (and attempted) a few other modes of transportation to reach Jeremie, I feel like I was almost fated to ride the bus because it gave me the chance to meet Tamarie. Tamarie is 12 and was on her way to Jeremie with her cousin after spending the holiday in Port-au-Prince with family. Not only did Tamarie share her package of cookies with me, update me on the synopsis of every Haitian movie that I had not seen yet, and pretty much entertained me with stories the whole trip, in that one day she restored all my hope in future of the country that Port-au-Prince had taken away.
As we were driving through the majestic mountains, I looked out the window and remarked to Tamarie, “Your country is just so beautiful!” Tamarie looked out the window too and reflected for a moment before turning to me and saying, “It’s true. It is a beautiful country but it really lacks evolution”. She then went on to explain to me her plan to open a research library so that people can read and research what programs and policies have worked in other countries and apply it to Haiti so the country can progress. Needless to say, I was shocked to hear this coming from a little girl. She was so determined, so sure of herself and so committed to improving her country.
I then thought back on the women in the tent cities who I had spent time with and saw in them too that same determination in Tamarie. Maybe they didn’t have the same ideas and intricate plan as Tamarie to improve their country, but their strength each day to care for their families and the people around them is slowly improving their country by providing a future for their children, who like Tamarie, will go on to make a difference.
I didn’t see Tamarie again after I got off the bus, but I hope that one day in the future I will meet her again. She will be running her research center and advising her country on how to advance and progress. I will be proud to have said that I sat next to her for those 14 hours and was able to see the future of the country in her hands and in the hands of the many young women and girls like Tamarie who have the strength and determination to fight for their rights, the rights of their children and their families to create a better tomorrow.