As you near Port-au-Prince these days, the first thing you notice is the tops of the tattered blue and white tents that now occupy the surrounding tracts and hillsides of the capital. After the earthquake, these sprung up overnight, housing over a million residents who had lost their homes and loved ones in the rubble. Poverty always seems to magnify the impact of a natural disaster, and Haiti is no doubt another example of the devastation that years of misrule, corruption, poor governance and on top of it all, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, can cause to a nation.
I have had the privilege to travel to a variety of places in the world, leading groups of young people on RLT trips, but I have to admit, I was a little nervous when our flight touched down in the capital city in August. As our plane rolled along the tarmac past a makeshift U.S. Army base that was being housed at the Aéroport International Toussaint Louverture, I noticed large cracks in the walls of the structure that were no doubt caused by the quake.
Fortunately for us, we quickly located our friend, Martial, and his cousin and headed away from the chaos of the airport. I was struck by the number of UN vehicles that were canvassing the area – Land Rovers, tanks, vans, all emblazoned with the UN logo and manned primarily by Nepalese soldiers. The roads were clogged with “Tap-Taps” – extremely colorful improvised busses that carried passengers, produce and anything else you can imagine to different areas of the country. And the temperature was hot – we’re talking instant sweat hot!
As our vehicle began to ascend the side of the plateau, I was finally relieved to look back on it all, and be glad that we were heading to a much calmer location, the town of Mirebalais. Jim and I were there to meet with a local NGO to assess the possibility of whether or not RLT could help. I had first heard about Mirebalais after reading Tracy Kidder’s book “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” which tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health fame. We quickly learned that the “small” town of Mirebalais had dramatically increased in size due to a flood of people fleeing the destroyed urban areas of the country. I could see why. It was well organized with a town square, an area to sell all sorts of goods, a large church, and even a nice football pitch! It was also the site of Partners in Health’s ambitious new hospital – a 320-bed training hospital that will be the flagship site for the work of PIH in Haiti.
Jim, Martial, Jacky, Marconi and I met with a small community of people to talk about their needs and expectations. It was disheartening to hear about their daily struggles, their desire for a decent education for their children, and their hopes that Haiti will be able to rebuild in the aftermath of this destruction. But it was also inspiring to meet and play with the little kids of the area, who wanted to kick around a football, practice their English and learn what life was like in the United States. Our time in Mirebalais went by too quickly and soon it was time to travel back to the never ending congestion of Port-au-Prince.
But as we were getting ready to leave, I realized that, despite all of the struggles and difficulties that face Haiti, they will continue to fight – fight for proper governance, education, infrastructure, equality, health care and respect. It was empowering to see this fight and encouraging knowing that we were welcome to fight with them.
RLT hopes to run a service learning program in Haiti, if not this coming summer, than just as soon as is safe and productive. Please visit our Zanmi Reyini program page for updates.
For more information about Partners in Health, visit www.pih.org.