There’s a side to Haiti that no one talks about.
In mainstream news, reporters focus on the country’s civil unrest, messy politics, and Cité Soleil. They paint a picture of tent cities, rubble, and abject poverty; a melting pot of NGOs and aid workers. Any headline about Haiti is always followed by a tagline as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That’s the American mainstream view.
I don’t deny Haiti has its challenges – they’ve been dealt a tough hand. Coups, government instability, and (foreign) mismanagement of aid money from organizations like the Red Cross doesn’t help.
In Cité Soleil for example, the poorest and most dangerous neighbourhood in the Western Hemisphere, about 80% of people are indeed living below the poverty line. The government has abandoned the neighbourhood and the Haitian National Police have chosen not to patrol it. Willio at Haiti Communitere where I was volunteering with English in Mind gave us a walk through of the neighbourhood he grew up in – he has lived in Cité Soleil his whole life, born and raised by a single mom.
My first impression of matched what the media tells us – the photos came to life. I saw kids wearing minimal clothes, trash on the streets; and shelters made of tents, corrugated aluminum, or whatever material people can find. Electricity is often sporadic, an open canal exists in lieu of a sewage system, and the potential for gang violence is always feared.
But I don’t want to focus on this side of Haiti.
Instead, I learned there is a lot of good happening here, and positive things we don’t know about the Haitian people.
Haitians don’t feel sorry for themselves. And they don’t want our pity either. Despite the challenges, many of them hold their heads up high and work hard to create a better life with the resources they have. They are some of the most resilient people you will meet.
After the earthquake in 2010, Julina went from losing the house she rented to running an eco-business and buying her own land.
Girls like Sherri are learning to speak English so they can become more employable, get a higher education, and open new doors.
They want to be self-sufficient. In Cité Soleil, the community started a sustainable urban garden and tree-planting after the earthquake in an effort to ease malnutrition and food insecurity. Families can just come here and take what they need, like beans, bananas, carrots, cherries and moringo, one of the highest nutritional plants in the world.
This was inspiring to see because it sends the message the food security is possible.
Young people want to break the cycle. It’s easy to make assumptions from the media that poor youth are complacent, hopeless or unmotivated but sometimes their biggest barrier is the lack of resources and tools. For instance, education is free, even in Cité Soleil where there are two state-run schools. Yet, having to pay for costly books and uniforms can sometimes make it impossible. If given the opportunity, Haitian youth really do want to go to school, study and be educated so they can make a change. They have dreams and ambitions like other youth around the world and are hopeful they can one day realize them.
I remember hanging around with some of our students after class on the rooftop of Alex’s home (he now works on staff at the school!) It was a valuable moment for me because it allowed us to get to know the students as people. They like Jay-z and Backstreet Boys, and they download music just like us.
When I asked Marvens if he would ever run for office, he said no. “The only way to get into power is with broken promises and I don’t want to break promises.” These students would rather be part of the solution, like becoming teachers, helping to bring in tourism, and finding ways for more companies like Digicel to sponsor infrastructure, build homes and reopen schools.
We met these little kiddos of Cité Soleil when we visited Winter’s school, a community school that teaches environmental protection, civic responsibility, urban gardening, nutrition, and art. They were fun-loving; always laughing and playing silly games with us!
3D printers are helping the rebuild process. Can you believe it? 3D printers! I had never seen a 3D printer before – until I came to Haiti (of all places!) Haiti is an odd destination for 3D printers but they are playing an important role in Haiti’s progression. Willio and a group of locals are prototyping simple, but much needed medical supplies with Field Ready, an organization dedicated to in-field printing of supplies in post-disaster zones.
When I was there I got to see the umbilical cord clasps they were creating. Normally, a baby’s umbilical cord might be tied together at birth or cut away with scissors (increasing the risk of bacterial infection), but 3D clasps can significantly increase sanitation, decrease infant mortality, and prevent umbilical cord infection like sepsis. Imagine how many lives a plastic 3D clasp can save?
Young Haitians are hoping to use this new technology to rebuild their country in a more self-sufficient way (like making screws or pieces for machinery to reconstruct homes). It means they won’t have to wait for costly shipments, rely on highly taxed trade or corrupt import systems. People will be able to manufacture whatever they need, on the spot. And who knows, maybe even give their country an important connection to the global market.
Continue reading Part II: What No One Tells You About Haiti