Unclean water, food shortages, unemployment, and lack of medical care are a way of life for many Haitians.
A malfunctioning traffic light near the congested center of Port-au-Prince is glowing red, yellow, and green at the same time. “Which one!” cries out a Haitian driver for a group of visiting American journalists. She then looks both ways and drives on as her perplexed passengers shake their heads in disbelief.
The problems, opportunities, and obstacles in a country as troubled as Haiti are also sending out confusing signals all at once. Haiti is a country of extremes. Sharing the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, Haiti has the unwelcome distinction of being the poorest country in the Americas. About 80 percent of its 6.5 million people live below “absolute poverty,” a technical term meaning they do not have sufficient resources to house and feed themselves at subsistence levels. Yet, researchers have estimated that 1 percent of the populace controls 40 percent of the country’s wealth. Many of the Haitian elite live in large, walled compounds in the rolling hills above Port-au-Prince.
Haitians are proud of their heritage as the world’s first black republic, formed in 1804 after they revolted against French rule. The Haitian connection to the United States has been longstanding, including a period from 1915 to 1934 when the U.S. government ran the country. Today there are an estimated one million Haitians living in the United States.
American Christians active in the country commonly quip, “Haiti is 95 percent Christian and 100 percent voodoo.” The Catholic church has existed in Haiti since the sixteenth century. Protestant churches began mission work here in the nineteenth century and currently count 17 percent of the population as members.
Most Protestant activity is structured around small church communities, either in the countryside or the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. Ian T. Douglas, a professor at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked in Haiti in the early 1980s and believes grassroots church communities in rural areas are a powerful catalyst for change in the country. He says the rural poor have “a spirituality and personal integrity, knowing themselves as a people … in relation to God.”
In 1991, a military coup ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had been in power only seven months after being elected with the widespread support of the rural poor and their churches. In response, the United States and the Organization of American States imposed an embargo, which has caused shortages of food and medicine and increased unemployment, while the prices of basic necessities have skyrocketed. One hospital administrator says, for example, that the cost of medical gauze has increased 80 percent since the embargo.
The effects of poverty
To walk the broken-down streets of Port-au-Prince is to see extreme poverty as a way of life. The infant mortality rate of 105 per 1,000 live births is among the highest in the world. At the Isaie Jeanty Maternity Hospital, one of the few places where a Haitian woman can receive free medical care, new mothers are crowded into large, dimly lit wards. At times, two or three mothers and their newborns share the same small bed.
Isaac Desir, the hospital’s medical director, says, “The mortality rate is 10 to 20 percent. We have 20 to 30 deliveries a day. The medical supplies, drugs, and food are free from the embargo, but there isn’t enough.” He says the hospital is currently raising funds to rebuild after a recent fire destroyed a large section of the hospital.
Although the Isaie Jeanty wards are generally clean, modern medical equipment is nowhere to be seen. Most wards, including the delivery room, are exposed to the open air. Behind the delivery room, a large, swampy area is filled with brackish water and garbage, swarming with flies.
Poverty cuts about 30 percent off the life of a typical Haitian. Life expectancy at birth in Haiti is 54. By comparison, in the United States it is 75. At the Missionaries of Charity Home for the Dying and Destitute, located in a slum area of Port-au-Prince, death is a common occurrence.
Sister Ronald, a young woman from southern India, says the majority of the 155 patients at the home have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. As American visitors walk through one ward, an emaciated black man suddenly begins to vomit convulsively. A doctor and aide rush to his side. A priest is called to administer last rites. But it is a false alarm. Meanwhile, in all the commotion with that patient, another patient at the far end of the ward dies quietly with his wife and sister at his side. A sheet is pulled over his head as the two sobbing women are led from the ward.
The facility is forced to turn away many patients because of space limitations. Sister Ronald says, “I think this is worse than Calcutta.”
American volunteers have found they become different people after working among the poor of Haiti. Yvonne, a Michigan volunteer, who did not want her full name used, has been working with malnourished infants since 1987. She comes to Haiti each September and leaves in May.
“Volunteering in Haiti is not just for professionals. There are thousands of little jobs anybody could do,” Yvonne says, while administering antibiotics orally to infants who are stunted by disease and malnourishment.
The 20 babies in one ward cry out to the Americans walking through the home, run by the Missionaries of Charity. The nuns are able to provide a clean home and medical care, but the children also crave love and affection. With their bony arms and limp skin, they climb into the arms of visitors at the slightest invitation.
Street life in Haiti has the appearance of an expansive American flea market. Countless Haitians set up stalls to sell food, clothing, and charcoal, while thousands of people on foot make their way down the narrow streets with dirt sidewalks. In some urban areas, goats and pigs feed on smoldering garbage piled at street corners.
There is a widespread shortage of food in Haiti. Bread for the World’s Hunger 1993 report says 750,000 people were served in emergency food programs before the 1991 coup. That has been reduced to 40,000. Two-thirds of the country’s children are malnourished. Only 12 percent of the population had access to potable water before the coup.
Food for the Poor, Inc. operates two feeding programs in Port-au-Prince. Because of program limitations, the organization is using identification cards to make sure those families and individuals truly in need get food.
One of the feeding centers is in Little Haiti, one of the country’s largest slums. Each day at noon, 700 meals are served. The center is surrounded by hundreds of slum dwellings, built along the edge of a large, open sewer. The smoke from burning charcoal, mixed with the odor of rotting food and human waste, is heavy in the humid air as midday temperatures soar to 90 degrees.
At the state School for Street Boys, 400 youths live in four large, run-down buildings. Many of them sleep on the floor because there are not enough beds. Dieuseuh Pierre, the director, says he receives little help from the government, and he has not been paid in three months.
While he gives a tour of his school, the only visible organized activity is about 100 boys in front of a color television set. Pierre says his students are eager to learn how to build cabinets or make clothes, but tools and equipment for training are in short supply.
Pierre points out the dining hall to his visitors to show the inadequacy of the school’s facilities. To cook their food, the students place burning charcoal on the floor between old engine blocks and then place 20-gallon pots on the hot engine blocks. The boys are supposed to be fed at 8 A.M. and 4 P.M. Yet, the kitchen is empty as visitors walk through around 4 P.M. A student is asked: Where is the 4 o’clock meal? The student shrugs his shoulders and replies, “No food.”
Not all schools have the same problems, though. Outside the city, the Saint Croix Episcopal School in Leogane has enough support to educate its 150 students. But priest Jean Joel Racine says, “The problem is that once the pupils graduate, the kids have no jobs.” The Hunger 1993 report notes that 140,000 jobs have been lost because of the embargo. Haiti’s gross domestic output per person has decreased 22 percent during the past decade.
Racine hopes to work toward starting small-scale employment projects for the school’s graduates. “It would take more than a month,” he says, “to tell you about all the problems.” Racine also serves as a priest for nine rural Episcopal parishes.
Dozens of Protestant and Catholic churches and relief agencies are active in Haiti. They range from the state-of-the-art Cardinal Leger Leprosarium in Leogane, supported by Canadian Catholics, to smaller-scale efforts such as the Foundation for Self-Help, a church-building ministry, based in North Palm Beach, Florida. Other groups, based in America, work toward resettling the 28,000 Haitians who have applied for political refugee status in America. About 100 Haitians daily are applying for asylum in the U.S. So far, U.S. Immigration has granted political refugee status to only 773 Haitians.
Still other groups are pressing the Clinton administration in Washington to resolve the political situation by returning President Aristide. Recently there has been a stalemate in the negotiations to return legitimate civilian control to the country.
As those negotiations slowly move forward, millions of Haitians live day to day drinking unsafe water, without enough food to eat, and sleeping at night in dwellings made of sticks, boards, and metal roofing. The country’s population is growing at a rate at which it would double in 25 years. The poverty-stricken Haitians have been cutting their country’s trees for fuel so rapidly that their forests may be gone in three years.
Racine remains confident in spite of the difficulties, remarking to his visitors, “When you go back home, tell the American [Christians] to remember we are of the one indivisible church of God. We are not of the same race, but we have the same Christian heart.
“This nation has been destroyed by an ill spirit between people. These problems cannot be taken care of in an instant, and we cannot do it by ourselves.”
By Timothy C. Morgan in Port-au-Prince.
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