Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Impact of Poverty

One of the difficulties we experience with our students at the University of the Nouvelle Grand'Anse (UNOGA)
is their difficulty in dealing with "if" statements. This was pointed out o us by a professor who aught mathematics at the university. This could point toward a difficulty in looking in to the future and working with possible out comes and open-ended questions. Conditional statements such as "if" statements, are inherently future-orineted.
Th answer to a question about what a student wanted to do after graduation was usually: "Get a job."  According to the professor, when questioned further, most could not be more specific.
We can speculate that this is a phenomenon associated with poverty. When poverty has been the norm for an entire community for multiple generations and people are necessarily focused on obtaining their next meal, there maybe little time or incentive to dream about or plan for the future.
These observations can have serious implications for the future of the students as well as for the university itself. Graduates without dreams and a vision for the future may become employed by an NGO and make a good salary, but will never see the possibilities for future businesses and the impact  a solid, sustainable business can ultimately have on Haiti.
Students who cannot look into the future cannot create a viable business plan. It takes people with dreams and drive, fire in their belly, to inspire others and convince them that what looks impossible is possible.
Not all is lost. Problem-solving skills, planning and creativity can be taught. UNOGA is preparing for that.
Thanks to Bob Boeke for these very astute observations based on his teaching experience at UNOGA.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

This is a land
so vibrant and alive
that laughter will come bursting through
as imperious as the sun
and the spirit will survive
resilient as the soil.
- Dennis Brutus 1978 ”Love; the Struggle”

This poem so aptly describes Haiti. We are in a new year now, we have commemorated the 4th anniversary of the earthquake, and the strength and courage described in the lines above shines through at every turn There has been much improvement in 2013, but so much more remains to be done. Already in this the first month of the new year we have experienced a shortage of gasoline, almost 2 weeks without electricity, and because of the latter no water, and now no cooking gas. And yet, life goes on, and amazingly it is not lacking in laughter. The beauty of people visible at every step. While tragedy is always right around the corner, so is laughter, and an unfathomable faith that carries one though no matter what. 

This young man was under the rubble of his fallen down house in Port au Prince after the earthquake, now is in his last year of management study at the University of the Nouvelle Grand'Anse. A survivor in so many ways, who can despite it all laugh today.
Nou se wozo; menm si nou pliye, nou pa’p kase / We are like reeds, though we may bend, we will never break.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Before I came to Haiti, I only knew pointsettas growing in a pot. Here in Haiti they get over 6 feet tall and they always bloom in December. No wonder we adopted them as Christmas flowers. While I am enjoying myself in cold and wintry Chicago, I think about why I am in Haiti. And I come to appreciate this great gift contained in crossing over to other people's lives, communities and culture. Jwaye Nwel tout moun!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Mental Health in Haiti

The Haitian concept of life is essentially religious. Haitians tend to see the world as a vast spiritual arena. For them life is precious. They celebrate life and preserve it.

Here there is no room for a purely naturalistic or physical notion of illness. So doing psychology here is quite different than in the States. The challenge is to come to an integration that makes sense and takes into account the local belief systems.
It is important not to consider the traditional world view as pathological. As mental health practitioners we have to understand the Haitian belief system and be willing to explore individual thoughts, behaviors, and emotions concerning it.
In Haitian belief systems the religious or spiritual is always highlighted. However it is possible and essential to integrate our understanding of mental health with the original belief system in order that there is consonance between some aspect of the religious world view and the help being offered.

I am just beginning to understand this as we have opened our mental health clinic here in Jeremie. Lots of discernment as to how we can best serve the needs here, and not imposing an American view of psychology that feels very alien to people here.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Good things don't get lost." Barbara Kingsolver

For all the years I have been in Haiti, I have been wanting to visit the Citadel. I heard so much a bout it, and was finally able to make it up North to Cap Haitian and Milot to fulfill this dream of mine.
Haiti is such a small country and yet there are so many things to see and discover. I could not help but be impressed, especially by the sheer size of this endeavor. An enormous clever design by an incredibly talented architect who was subsequently killed once the Citadel was finished, so that he could not reveal the plans of this structure. 20,000 people died during the 14 years that the Citadel was under construction. And yet it was completed, overseeing all of the country from every side.
The fear of another invasion to break the road to independence and freedom we very real, but it never materialized which so often happens with our fears. If only the walls could talk.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Beautiful view from the Benedictine Monastery north of Port au Prince.

Whenever things get too chaotic, which they often will, I retreat to the Benedictine Monastery, the only monastic community in Haiti. The hospitality of the monks, the periods of silence, and the natural, stark beauty of the mountains calms me, and at the same time affirms the reason why I am in Haiti which is first and foremost because I am in love with the country and its people. And when you are in love, you see beauty where others do not see it.

Progress is not measured by huge leaps, but rather in infinitesimal small steps. We have built now over 45 houses, which when measured against the need that exists seems like a drop in the ocean. But for the woman who receives that house it is the ocean.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

In Haiti, rumors abound. Therefore it is near impossible to get a good handle on what is happening in the country, and especially in the government. There are a few hopeful signs, but others are not. Some programs that the government takes pride in appear good at first glance, but when analyzed more closely, one can see that they hinder development rather than promote it. For example, the current government has established a National Social assistance program that is called “Ede Pep” (Help the people). Basically hat this is, is a transfer of cash to people in need. In a country where 57% of its 10 million people exist on less than 1 US Dollar a day and 82% on less than 2 US Dollars a day, the transfer of cash that Ede Pep provides seems like a good thing. 25,000 handicapped people and 25,000 elderly have received cash. In addition 57,000 destitute mothers have also received cash. 22,000 university students will receive 2,000 Gourdes (=$US 47.62) a month to help with their educational expenses. 400,000 solidarity baskets have been delivered. These baskets contain items that can feed a family of five for 10 days. But do these one time or limited time gifts really constitute development? For example the 2,000 Gourdes that the students receive do they foster the development of the educational system in Haiti? First of all, the money goes directly to the students and not to the universities. Needs in Haiti are great, so it is almost certain that the money will not go solely to pay for school fees. In addition, the time this program will last, is limited. Would that money not be spent better by using it to improve elementary schools who suffer from lack of materials? Or increase the salary of teachers who are paid poorly and often not on time? The impact money thus spent could be greater than simply giving cash stipends. To a number of Haitians it seems that the government is buying the support of these sectors of the population, something they say happened under Duvalier.

Most recently the finance minister Marie-Carmelle Jean-Marie and the communications minister Regine Godfroy resigned. Both are very competent women who cited a lack of support as the reason for their resignation. The Minister of Finance had tried to establish transparency in her office and was apparently rebuffed in her effort. Richard Morse, leader of the band RAM and a cousin of President Martelly, resigned in January. He had been special counsel to the president and had accompanied Martelly during the elections and his first year in office. The reason he gave for his resignation, “I left because of corruption in the palace and infrastructure sabotage.” As an example he mentioned that workers filled drainage canals before the rainy season which caused flooding. They did this in order to attract aid money. Morse said he spoke to the minister, but nothing was done.

While no one can expect these practices to change from one day to the next, that they occur at the highest level of government is disturbing. What is clear is that there are people in Haiti who are not interested in development but rather profit from the lack of it. The poor road infrastructure allows the few people who control the movement of goods to set the prices for those goods. So they have little interest in a decent road infrastructure which would benefit more people but threaten their position as the ones in control.

In the beginning of thiwriting I also mentioned hopeful signs. 79% of the people living in camps have been relocated. While there are some problems with that process, in general this is quite an accomplishment. The airport has been rebuilt and is now a modern airport that meets international standards. In Port au Prince a number of large hotels have been constructed and are open for business. While these do not directly benefit the poor, they do encourage foreigners and others to visit Haiti and find a place to stay that provides a comfortable environment. Hopefully this would encourage greater business development and help address the problem of unemployment. In addition, solar powered streetlights are more and more in evidence, not only in Port au Prince, but also in the provinces. In Haiti where electricity is still rationed, this means a lot. They provide a sense of security and also allow students to study under the streetlights when they have no electricity at home. The most hopeful sign of course is the irrepressible spirit of the Haitian people who still produce vibrant art, sing songs that express their life experiences and above all stubbornly maintain their faith on God.