Thursday, April 10, 2014

Haiti 2.0

My "year in Haiti" blog just kind of... stopped.

Though my focus on Haiti has done anything but. So here's a quick update:

I'm currently in a Master's degree program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, focusing on development and gender equality. That just means I'm taking classes on economics, political theory, democracy development, brief writing, United Nations policies, why "gender" doesn't just mean "women" ... lots of really cool things! And whenever there is a "choose your own topic" assignment - well, you guessed it. I choose Haiti.

All of my classes are at night. During the day a few times a week, I intern at the Quixote Center. It's a great non-profit that supports reforestation work in Gros-Morne. I write blog posts on Food Aid Reform and try to keep regular communication with our partners in Haiti. In January we went to Haiti to check-in on the projects.
Marcel leading my boss, his wife, and the crew, showing us their ravine work.
It's the type of development work that is actually a give and take - a true partnership. Sometimes that's hard to find in the big "development industry" that USAID generates.

For summer, I had an internship offer from a non-profit in Udaipur, India, but of course... Haiti pulled me back. I'm off to Mirebalais to intern with Fonkoze. Fonkoze is Haiti's largest microfinance institute, and I'll be living and working with 12 Haitian case managers on the "Pathway to a Better Life" program, hiking through mountains to document the progress of women in, what Fonkoze calls, "ultra poverty."

Some people think I'm a little out of it for not choosing a new (and seriously gorgeous and chai-tea-filled) experience in India. My wanderlust is definitely aching. But for now, I'm excited to be heading back to Haiti, for ten weeks of what I'm terming "Haiti 2.0."

What did you miss last summer?

Only 300 crazy kids at summer camp! Here are some pictures of how I finished up my year in Haiti:
Camp theme: "Annou Ekstraodine" or "Let's Be Extraordinary"
Olympics Day
Meet Rosener
Haitian and American counselors
Talent Show

Arts and Crafts
Cooking for 300+ every day

Friday, June 14, 2013

Water Wars

Most people have been asking me how the computer classes are going, and I say "Oh yeah... I handed that off to a real Haitian teacher in. Uhm. February."

So what I been doing, then?

Working in a water office. I work in an office with two women who make and sell a water purification solution. You just dump in some salt,
Anne Rose filtering out the mixture

            chopped-up indigenous cactus-y looking plants,
It's called "racket"
a few other ingredients, and then run chlorine through it for 4 hours.

Saint Anise turning on the "chlorine stick"

Take a cap-full of this for every 5 gallons of water, wait 30 minutes, and bam! People have clean water. We have posts in dozens of other communities and the program, called Gadyen Dlo or Guardian Water, serves thousands of families.
We sell the solution by the bottle or by the gallon, along with buckets and faucets.
An outside post picking up their solutions and buckets to resell in their community
Anne Rose at another Gadyen Dlo office
Sounds peachy, right?

It is. Especially when I get to travel out to the communities and meet those who use the solution for their families. I've been trying to incorporate other programs like health trainings, courtyard gardens, and women's rights discussions into the existing community structures.
Directing a formation
Meeting with the heads of each community post
And then it isn't because our office is not sustainable. We lose a significant amount of money each month and make up the difference with donations.

Why? Because when cholera hit Haiti (you can thank the UN for that, too) lots of NGOs started handing out free purification aquatabs (little chlorine-packed nuggets) and the first reaction is, "Yay, people have free clean water and won't die of cholera!"
You don't need to know Kreyol to understand how to prevent cholera!
But then the people who had been buying our solution (for 10gds a bottle. That's about 25 cents) from the office now had piles of the free aquatabs and our demand went down. Way down. What's happening now? Our office is on the verge of closing and everyone's supply of free aquatabs are quickly dwindling. So in the end it leaves nobody with clean water.
"We sell 'Guardian Water' - Clean Water for Haitian Familieis - here!"
Doing the monthly report
Right, so that's what I do! I go to the office most days (and learn sign language from Anne Rose who is hearing-impaired), help with the end-of-the-month reports, fill up people's bottles with our solution, and most importantly: try to find ways to keep our office open and increase our demand.

More recently we've had some interesting office politics, which are larger than you would think possible for an office of 2 women and 1 blan volunteer. Water politics are happening on a much larger scale -  I was just reading this article about the crazy situation between Ethiopia and Egypt that is All about water.

Our plan of action is to see if a larger water NGO with many more resources would like to absorb our office. So let's hope that despite the challenges of record-keeping, broken equipment, hurtful competition, and the water cooler gossip (see what I did there?) we can make sure people continue to have access to clean water.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013


The capital of Haiti merits its own blog post, especially because we are often in the city to run errands like bringing a four year-old boy for a heart scan, buying imported swiss cheese, finding visitors at the airport, buying pillows for the guest house, picking up a car part, and getting insulin at the Propholab (we have one of the only refrigerators in Gros-Morne, so we keep insulin for the diabetic in town).

Port-au-Prince is where you will see groups of blan missionaries in matching shirts about to spend a "transformative" experience at a (probably) fake orphanage. If you have seen the travel warnings for Haiti about gang violence, kidnappings, and shootings - that is all in Port-au-Prince. The city is crowded, dirty, noisy, and unfortunately where most government and health services are - a centralization that completely debilitated the entire country after the 2010 earthquake struck.

So here is what a normal trip to Port-au-Prince looks like:

First, we pack our truck with people who need medical tests, to develop photos, visit family, buy merchandise in bulk to sell at our local market, get surgery, or catch a plane. It is a 4-hour car ride.
Gros-Morne is located in the Artibonite Valley - the agricultural breadbasket of the country. So we drive through rice fields and pass through towns - this one has a market on a bridge that always slows down traffic.

One time we got stuck behind a log (yes. A log - read more about it here.)- a symbol of unity that a group was carrying from the south to the north of Haiti. Our normal 4 hour trip turned into 8 hours as we crawled along with the partying crowds.

We often pass by UN trucks as they are heading back to Port-au-Prince, where their headquarters are. The UN has a long presence in Haiti and has renewed their contract for one more year, sparking protests in Port-au-Prince that carry the general message of most Haitians: They do not want the UN in their country. The nickname for the UN peacekeepers is "Drivers Without Borders" as that seems to be the main activity they engage in.

When we hit the city, these are the sites:

Public transportation: Tap Taps

Main street scene
                                                                  The Iron Market

Most people live in houses on the mountainsides, seemingly stacked ontop of one another

My favorite statue: Neg Mawon. The "mawons" or "marroons" were the escaped colonial slaves living in the mountains. When the slaves won their revolution against the French, these marroons blew a conch shell to sound their freedom.

My entire family has been to the Neg Mawon!
Haiti's "White House" was damaged during the Earthquake - this year, almost 3 years after the disaster, they demolished it.
There are still remnants of the large tent cities from the earthquake

And then we try to pack as many errands into the day as possible

Aileen organized hearing-impaired people from Gros-Morne to get fitted for hearing aid

Every 2 months we go to Food for the Poor, a donation organization based in Miami where we organize truckloads of rice, beans, shoes, cereal, and any misc. things they have for our local schools and groups

We recently spent a day at the Saint Joseph Prosthesis Clinic where Sr. Isa, another RJM, works:

"Together we walk better"

Sr. Isa and Leide, who run the clinic
Aileen helping the staff

The clinic is staffed by Haitians and El Salvadorians, talented and dedicated workers who custom-make prosthetic legs (they recently did their first arm!) for people, many of whom lost their limbs in the earthquake.

And after we navigate the city, finish our errands, avoid a roadblock or finally make it around a log of mahogany, and are headed back to Gros-Morne, we usually look like this:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

How I Lost a Haitian

Marcel Garcon is a local man who has committed his life to advancing his community. He is the director of the Parish Karitas program and he coordinates the Peasant Movement of Gros-Morne. Among this work he organizes farmers into groups, provides training on organic and sustainable methods, helps to plant 60,000 trees a year, directs goat-breeding and courtyard garden projects - all things that the Quixote Center has helped fund for years.

And so the Quixote Center invited Marcel to speak on these projects at a conference in Washington, D.C. The sisters chose me to accompany him.

My one job was to make sure he survived his first international travel. After that I would be his guide, translate for him, and I could take some time to visit grad schools and see relatives. I was to help him find his seat on the plane, explain the cultural significance of salted pretzels, hold his arm as he stumbled up the first few escalators, warn him about taking off shoes at security, and get through immigration.

Well, I failed at that last step. To come into the U.S. there is one line for foreign visitors and one line for U.S. citizens. So Marcel and I had to split up. And when I found him again it was 7 hours later, we had missed our connecting flight, I was in tears trying to page him in French, and there was a distinct possibility that he was:
a) Being sent back to Haiti (if something was wrong with his papers) and I wouldn't know until he landed there and was able to call the sisters.
b) On his way from Miami to D.C. (if someone had helped him go through customs, security, navigate the Air Tram, and find the correct gate) where there would be no one waiting to pick him up.
c) In Miami either: 1. Not through security. 2. Through security. 3. Kidnapped.

The problem was no one could tell me if he was still in immigration, had made the next flight - nothing. Apparently it's against the law. Luckily my about-to-freak-out-"I literally just lost this Haitian man"-pooling eyes helped a few merciful airport workers to break the rules and do those things for me.

At the end of it all,  he was in a parking garage, thinking I had left him and continued on to D.C. He called an old friend from Gros-Morne who now lives in Miami, who came down to the airport and picked him up. This friend called the sisters in Haiti, who called the sisters in D.C., who called me, who then called the friend.

Besides this minor hiccup in the trip, Marcel gave a great presentation, became a master of escalators, was in awe of the metro, loved the cherry blossoms, appreciated the monuments and national sites, and bought 6 Obama t-shirts for him and his family. Here are some pictures of his first time in the U.S.:

Saying "Hi" to Obama

Cherry Blossoms!

Introduction to French Fries.
And then, to thank me for making the trip with him, Marcel ordered a hand-made, baby pink outfit made for me. Across the front is embroidered the date we left: April 4, 2013.

The day I lost a Haitian.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pa Lwen

"Pa lwen" is Creole for "not far."

"Not far" in English means "10-20 minutes," perhaps "down the road," "Only a few blocks," generally a distance short enough that you won't think it's far.

In Creole "Pa lwen" is a straight-up lie.
It should mean, "You're about to climb up a mountain, back down, go through a few rivers, then back up another mountain. And I literally mean 'mountain,' not that one Centennial Hill you have back in your town - we'll be traveling on donkey paths that provide a 5-inch margin between your foot and the edge of the cliff. I hope you have enough water - oh, you shared it all with the group already? -because it will be two hours with no shade (remember how Haiti has lost over 80% of its tree cover). We're in a very rural part, so don't get your hopes up when you finally see signs of life, for we will still have to travel one mountain over.
And as a general rule of thumb, when there is a fork in the road, we are taking the road that looks the scariest and is the most vertical."

That's what "pa lwen" meant Saturday as I traveled with Darline, the coordinator of Mercy Beyond Borders, to visit the families of 4 scholars.

Some highlights:
1. Having to push our moto up a river bank
Obviously I was doing a lot of pushing.
2. We tried to take the moto as far as we could before walking, but we eventually ran into a problem when a donkey was coming towards us. There wasn't enough room for us to pass each other.
Turning the donkey around
3. Hiking up a mountain.
Can you spot the people?
4. Hiking up another mountain
pretty views
5. Yams
6. The hospitality of the families
A very joyful mother of 12
7. Hiking up another mountain
No really, I don't see a single house.
8. Following a great guide
                       To the left,                                                                 to the right,                                              or just...over... that way... generally...

9. Riding back with a chicken
The chicken got shotgun in the basket.
At one point the only house I could see was at the top of our mountain, so I asked our guide if that was where we were going. He said, "No, it's on the mountain behind that house, but don't worry, its 'pa lwen'."
Silly Jen, why would you think we're going to that house?

I got frustrated, for if I couldn't even see where we were going then it IS far. And it was hot, and we were out of water, and my knees were shaking, and my feet were covered in mud, and I just wanted to have been more prepared to walk ten hours in one day, for someone to say "yes, it is far!"

At that moment Darline said, "You have to understand that for them, it isn't far." They walk the two hours to the water source, or to school, or to the market to set up their stall, or to the clinic in town. She said, "you can't ask them how far it is, because they do it every day and forget about the time it takes."

And so even after 9 months living here I have these striking moments that make me embarrassed of my privilege, in awe of these people, and grateful for the days that I can peak into their lives and, quite literally, walk with them.