The paradox of Haiti.

To be honest, I was a little nervous about going to Haiti, Month #2 in my 12-trips-in-12-months visiting Heifer International sites.  Not because I was scared something bad might happen to me, but because I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything good to say about the country.

Well, like most worrying, that was a waste of brain space.

3 big things to like about Haiti... girls going to school!

Despite Haiti’s mind-boggling set of challenges and truly appalling lack of infrastructure–which was the case even before the earthquake of January 12, 2010– the country is beautiful (really!) the people are irresistibly gregarious, gorgeous and dignified, and there’s more life packed in one square mile of this country than in some entire states of the USA (you know who you are).

Art in the wind in Port au Prince

Plus, the projects Heifer is undertaking in Haiti are amazing and on a scale that the organization has never undertaken before…which I seriously can’t wait to tell you about.

But I’m not going to be too Pollyanna here. Some of the things I saw here made me ashamed to witness them.

Tent children

When I was taking a photo of a huge pile of trash randomly on fire by the side of a garbage-choked watery culvert running through one of PAP’s more notorious slums, a Haitian man sternly shook his head, as if to rebuke me for trying to capture the utter desolation of that scene. I didn’t take the photo – but the odd thing was, what I really wanted to show was that walking right beside the blazing garbage, beautiful women in clean, ironed dresses passed men in dress shirts and neat trousers– all going to work, going to market, carrying on.That refusal to bow to the indignity of living in conditions that should be crippling is incredibly inspiring. The tap-taps of Haiti alone stole my heart, with names like “Patience” “Eternal Capable” and the slightly unnerving “Blood of Jesus.”Tiny children toting big gallons of water up steep hillsides stop to smile and wave. In villages where people scarcely have enough to eat, you’ll hear songs of praise wafting up from an unseen church. And everywhere – everywhere! – people are working incessantly to improve themselves and their country—which makes you want to do anything you can to empower them to write a better script for their future.

Unfortunately, “doing anything you can” is not a prescriptive or particularly helpful instinct in Haiti. Or as Paul Farmer of Partners in Health put it succinctly, “Doing good is never simple.” While over 50% of American households –and the rest of the world–donated $1.2 billion to relief organizations after the earthquake, 2 years later debris still clogs the streets of PAP, tent cities of unimaginable squalor still house more than 250,000 homeless (but it was 1.5 million 12 months ago!), and the unemployment rate is well over 50%.What Haiti needs now are a decent infrastructure, functioning government, income-generating jobs, and the ability to feed itself (like it was starting to do 20 years ago, before a flood of cheap American imports crushed the life out of Haiti’s smallholder farmers).Heifer’s powerful new projects in Haiti are all about addressing the last two imperatives of jobs & agriculture with integrity and vision.  But… I have to write about that tomorrow.

Today, after 7 straight days of bone-crushing rides smushed in the back of a Land Cruiser, I’m taking the afternoon off– although that is a relative term, as we still have 5 hours to Cap Haitien and somehow the resolutely cheerful Ewaldy has convinced me we should take the bad back road so I can see more of the “bon paysage.”

Eternal Capable – that’s Haiti (and hopefully me)!

Categories: Agriculture, Haiti, Heifer International, Hunger, Photography, Poverty, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

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49 thoughts on “The paradox of Haiti.

  1. What a wonderful blog! Living in Singapore, the problems in the rest of the world can seem remote. I’m so glad I stumbled onto this blog.

    Great pictures too; I love the colours.

    • I’m glad you stumbled upon my blog, too, Vivbao — it’s wonderful to have people from all parts of the world on the journey, because I really believe we are all in this together! Thanks for the comment!

    • Anonymous

      I just came back from Haiti and found much the same there Oct 2013. Infrastructure, sanitation, food, water, jobs all still needed despite the vast amounts of money poured into the country. Wonderful people who are amazing in the face of such challenges. I went as a surgeon but found that was not the most pressing need. Currently I am most interested in solar composting toilets for neighborhoods in PAP.

  2. Susan

    you look terrific!

    • Well, since I took this photo and purposely was backlighted, I’m delighted by your comment … plus, I love Haiti and I hope it shows! xxoxoxo b

  3. I really enjoyed this post! Those three girls in uniform, so great! I loved the art in the wind picture and the beets being carried on the women’s heads!

    • Dear Emilia — How adorable were those schoolgirls?? That one on the right grinned for three straight minutes!! And the women with the astounding greens on their heads were heading for the brand new market built by the European Union — it’s the biggest in the country and really gorgeous!

  4. Larry

    Really, really beautiful. Your words made my cry tonight. My favorite of all your posts.

  5. I am such a coward Betty. There are things I don’t want to see first hand, and places I’m afraid to go because of how they might change me. But you go, and you tell me about it and I can read about it from the safety of my cocoon.


    • Darling Sybil — you are not a coward at ALL. You are obviously curious and alive and interested in the world .. so l am just totally happy to be your little conduit — we all have our purpose & I’m so happy to know you’re along for the ride!!

  6. Just stumbled across your blog and I really love it. Can’t wait to see all of the countries through your eyes. I’ve done a fair amount of travelling over the years, but never so many countries in just one year. It’s very exciting and I can’t wait to see more pictures! Safe travels!

  7. Betty – I also cried tonight while reading. I think for a combination of reasons. For the pride I see in their faces and the joy! I hope someone gives you a backrub or a drink…or both!

    • Had a delicious Prestige beer last night, a great hotel room,and was good to go this morning — and now I’m home … and ready to write more posts! Yay!!! THANKS, Sherry!! b

  8. Jean

    Love how you capture the vibrant colors and emotion Betty!

  9. Jo

    Eternal Capable…and then some!! Thank you always for carrying us along with you so we can learn, Betty.

  10. Jemile

    This was such a wonderful post, it was like a fully formed formula. You addressed the fears and the destruction, problems and the solutions, but with incredible truth and beauty. Your words transcend the page and without being there, I felt like I was. Thanks for taking us on this ride!

    • Dear Jemile … I am trying very hard to do justice in every sense of the word to Haiti, my experience there, and what I see … thanks so much for your comment !!

  11. Thank you, Betty.

  12. To think that the Dominican Republic is on the other side of the Island of Hispanola makes me wonder why Haiti is so poor while their neighbor is capitalizing on tourism and doing much better.


    • That is the million dollar (or maybe billion dollar question) — but I hope that in my blogs from Haiti, we can being to understand the incredible complexity behind the tortured history of Haiti. I’ve had the same exact questions, so hopefully we’ll be learning together!!

  13. Anonymous

    Hi Betty,

    We had book club last night and I was just telling the gang about your new endeavor and blog which thet are being forwarded today.

    How befitting that you should be in Haiti during part of the Lenten Season. I too wondered what you would find, but true to so many cultures except America, many people can be happy with so little despite their crippling current circumstances. Hope seems to be their tonic and your pictures and commentary are so inspiring. I can’t wait to hear about Heifer’s work there!


    P.s. Of course, Kathy Babin has been following you on Facebook. One of these days I have to spring for an account.

  14. Didi

    Betty: I don’t know how you do this. I am so impressed. Even more impressive is how wonderful you look in the photo…vibrant and eager to meet challenges. It takes me days to adjust to being anywhere strange and different…you seem to jump-start every day. I’m loving reading your posts.

    • Didi, I don’t know how YOU do all the beautiful, creative, HARD work you do in your huge garden so we’re all planting where we’re called, right?? Thanks so much for your comment – and for following the blog. I love that you’re reading along!!

  15. Deb

    wow….compelling. Thank you for this.

  16. I have so much to say in response to this post, but I don’t have time at this moment. Suffice it to say, I affirm what you you say here about Haiti–and I’m so happy to see you quoting Paul Farmer. I know this sounds like a over-generalization, but I will say it anyway. Nothing in Haiti is EVER simple. The complexities are enormous and often over-whelming. I commend you for you effort. So much aid that goes into Haiti is not effectively put to use, since so many don’t appreciate these complexities.

    I would love to refer you to some of the posts I did during my year in Haiti (during my partner’s direction of Habitat for Humanity’s efforts there), but I don’t know which one to direct you to first, actually.

    I will come back and comment further, but I want to thank you so much for this update. We miss Haiti. We love it enormously–the resillience of the people.


    • Oh, Kathryn — I would LOVE to see your posts from Haiti – that would be so informative and so touching! I am amazed to think you spent a year over there with Habitat (LOVE that organization) and I believe I may have seen some of your beautiful turquoise houses in the Central Plateau outside Hinche. Is that possible?? I SO agree that Haiti is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma .. and when people ask “Why is Haiti so broke?” it is so hard to explain what you intuitively feel where you are there on the ground, with the people and going through their history, the politics and the sad past …
      Can’t wait to hear more/write more/share more with you!!

  17. JRB

    I’m heading to Haiti in 10 days for a week long visit to PAP and Cap Haitien to visit a ‘sister-school’ of ours in order to deepen our two schools’ relationship. I was very excited about our trip in general, but after reading your entry, am even more excited!!! I’ve heard wonderful things about the Haitien people even though some live in very poor conditions – what a testament to their positive outlook on life 🙂 Can’t wait to experience it first hand…even the back-road travel around the country. Thanks for this first post and I look forward to more from you!

    • JRB — Oh, you are going to have SUCH a great visit! Cap Haitien is amazing and I was able to see the sister-school of our parish in La Fossette which is a really poor neighborhood in CH — but you will LOVE the people and even the roads are a small price to pay to experience the great spirit of the country. It can be daunting to see the poverty & incredibly difficult lives of the Haitians (and wow, it’s hot!) but I know you’ll fall in love with the people and be SO happy you went! Keep in touch and let me know how it all goes!!! B

  18. Betty I’ve never been to Haiti, but I feel as though I was there today. You are able to capture the essence of a place with a few words and your camera.

    My favorite photo? The bus, the women on the motorbike dressed in spotless whites, the three school girls, the happy kid in yellow, the women with beets on their heads, and smiling Ms B…

  19. Thanks! Maybe the best post I read this week!

  20. Charleston Bravo

    Why would heifer let you go on these trips and discuss the Haitian people like you are? Why are you wasting donor money when it could be spend somewhere else?

  21. Hey Charleston — I guess the Heifer people decided to let me go on these trips because they felt as if I could tell the stories of the people directly impacted by their programs in a way that would connect with donors and potential donors in a deeper, more meaningful way .. and hopefully that would result in a MORE donor money being contributed, MORE programs being supported, and MORE people loving Heifer (and Haiti). I’m sorry if you don’t think I’m discussing the Haitian people the right way — since I absolutely loved the Haitian people. (But how odd that you think somebody should be “allowed” to discuss the Haitian people.. or not.)

  22. Diane Walworth

    I made my third trip to Cap Haitien in January and I would say your comments and observations are spot on! I have been working with a school and its teachers. They have so little but are so dedicated and eager it is a joy to work with them. Haiti’s problems are incredibly complex and interconnected and it is difficult to address one area without bumping against a host of other problems, but from my perspective improvement of the educational system is critical. Until the majority of Haiti’s people receive a basic education that involves more than outdated rote memorization they will never be able to creatively solve their own problems and will be trapped in a black hole of deprivation and dependency.

  23. wonderful information and photos. An important organization.

  24. I really like the way you show the places you visit Betty, you are sending the message in best and positive way possible!!

  25. pat shropshire

    Betty, You do have the biggest heart in the world–big enough to believe in the good (or the possibility fo good) in situations and people that many avert their eyes to. You also take to heart the sadness and brutality in our world, recognizing and deploring it, personalizing the experience of it in the photos you send to us. I feel so much more connected to the larger world through your Heiffer travels, and projects. Pat Shrop

    • Thanks for your sweet words, Pat — I honestly think that my heart has been made bigger because of what I’ve seen, and I’m just trying to share it.. and I promise you, it’s totally contagious!! Thanks for being my blogging wing-woman! xoxoox b

  26. Amber

    Wow! I never knew i would get so much information about Haiti from one blog post. It seems rather amazing the time and effort you put into the posts and into the work you do there.

    • As a matter of fact, Amber — I do put a lot of time and effort (like really, really a lot) in my posts, so I am so happy that it moved you! Thanks so much for your comment!

  27. intrepidtraveller

    Wow, it is so good to to get first hand information and stories about Haiti, especially as we are currently doing a Comprehensive Security Analysis about the present situation there as an assignment for my Masters. It’s crazy to think that after 2 years, half the rubble has still not been cleared! “Doing good is never simple”, a phrase I am learning again and again on this 2 years long Humanitarian Action course!! Thanks for sharing! Janet 🙂

    • Dear Janet — You really have to go to Haiti and see it .. it’s the most fascinating, mesmerizing, disturbing and inspiring place I think I’ve ever been! But — and I can tell you for sure — you can never count out the beautiful, amazing people of Haiti. They will always astound and amaze you… and despite all the stuff you would expect to have been accomplished and are not; it’s still rather incredible that out of 1.5 million people in tents, they’ve moved 80% of them out to new homes, back to the country, etc. So .. that’s something! And if they can just accomplish the Heifer goal of making agriculture and farms more productive .. that would be so powerful!

  28. Pingback: Heifer 12 x 12 Haiti Round-Up | Heifer Blog

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