Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Military Intelligence

For my friends who started checking because of HNGR 101 and just never stopped, you might have seen this article.  The headline: Haiti’s president launches plans to restore army.  6 months ago I would have read this and groaned.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I complained to my mom after reading Martelly’s campaign promise on the same subject saying, “the last thing Haiti needs is an army.”  After being here for five months, my perspective has changed. 

I was very disappointed with the BBC in this article.  It plays off developing nation tyrant stereotypes, leading the reader to believe that President Martelly is a megalomaniac trying to match the power of Haiti’s Duvalier dictators.  “The Haitian army was long associated with rights abuses and coups,” the article says.  While this may be true, for most Haitians that I’ve talked to, a Haitian military is more closely associated with relative stability and security.  I am not defending the atrocities of Duvalier’s makoutes, but the message I’m getting from most Haitians who were alive during that era is that the rights abuses were less oppressive than Haiti’s current state of insecurity. 

“Canada fears that creating a second security force will significantly reduce the resources available for Haiti's other important priorities," a Canadian official is quoted as saying in the article.  I don’t doubt this official’s good intentions, but from what I have heard from my friends is that security is the most pressing priority because without it, all other priorities (food, clean water, adequate housing, consistent work) are constantly in jeopardy of being wrenched away. 

This official’s comment about a second security force might be confusing for those not familiar with Haiti’s situation.  This other military he is referring to is MINUSTAH, the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti.  In 2004, nine years after Aristide disbanded Haiti’s army in vengeance for it deposing him, the international community decided that Haiti did in fact need an army.  And so they gave them one.  Only, not a Haitian army, but a foreign one.  MINUSTAH has been occupying Haiti for the past seven years and both Haitians and foreign soldiers are getting tired of each other.  Most Haitians I’ve talked to about this said that everyone was initially very happy that the UN was providing security for a country that in 2004 was undergoing some major upheaval.  Time passes and cultures collide, however, and it appears that MINUSTAH has overstayed its welcome.  MINUSTAH has been at the center of several scandals ranging from stealing livestock to sexual abuse to causing an epidemic that has proved fatal to thousands.  These issues in combination with the fact that MINUSTAH is not accountable in any way to the Haitian government add up to the fact that the UN forces are simply not capable of effectively responding to Haiti’s security needs. 

It is clear to me that in opposing Haiti’s attempts to reestablish its own military, the US and other international powers are attempting to maintain control in Haiti.  While MINUSTAH is the security force in Haiti, the UN decides what counts as a security threat and what warrants the military’s time and attention.  Nearly everyone is in agreement that Haiti needs an army (for domestic security, not to attack the Dominican Republic as one commenter ignorantly postulated), only the international community is reluctant to allow Haitians one of their own.  Instead, they prefer to hold onto this source of power rather than relinquish it to its rightful protectors, perpetuating the cycle of Haitian dependence.  The creation of an army that is truly Haitian – lead by Haitians and answerable to the Haitian people – is a vital step in the country’s movement away from perpetual externally driven relief efforts and towards true sovereignty and independence.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011


More than four months ago, after staying up most of the night due to steady diarrhea, I asked for some oral rehydration solution.  Last night it was revealed to me how ignorant and selfish of a request that was. 

Last Friday night I spent around five hours helping change IV bags and translating for some Canadian nurses in the cholera clinic next to my house.  The number of patients had been decreasing until a new wave came in the night before last, mostly children.  The theory is that a powdered sports drink had been mixed with contaminated water and distributed widely at a nearby school.  The clinic was overflowing with two or three to a bed and the nurses were scrambling to make sure that no one’s IV bag was empty for too long.  My experience last night made me realize I never had cholera.  My single night of discomfort was not cholera; this was cholera. 

In Haiti, cholera means more than fluid leaving your body at an alarming rate.  Cholera is a crowded clinic with half of the patients outside.  Cholera is lying naked from the waist down so you can move quickly to sit on the bucket beside your cot when the diarrhea comes in front of 20-30 strangers. 

Cholera is pain.  Cholera is the burn of stomach acid coming up through your throat, the cramping of your muscles when the serum starts to work on a wasted body, the small stabs of the nurse missing the vein with her IV needle several times because your arm is just too small. 

Cholera is confusion.  Cholera is having one advocate, the person who loves you enough to stay by your side for days, always ready with a bucket.  Cholera is watching your advocate’s pleas on your behalf get ignored by white and Haitian medical staff members alike that are continually forced to decide where their expertise should be for the next five minutes, where their attention is most needed and where their last bag of IV fluid should go.  Cholera means finally getting the attention of a nurse who does brief tests to check your condition that only confuse and frighten you further since you don’t know what they mean.  Cholera is seeing that nurse turn to a foreigner with a grave look, hear her speak some words that you don’t understand and watch her slowly shake her head. 

Cholera is fear.  Cholera is having your eyes widen in terror, searching wildly for anyone in authority who can understand the words you’re saying.  Cholera is desperately asking the translator, “Am I okay?  Will I be okay?”  Cholera is being kept awake when your body is drained of energy because an eight year-old boy keeps screaming, “I’m dying; I’m going to die.”  Cholera is weeping in utter despair in a culture that has no tolerance for tears. 

Those are the truths of cholera that I saw last night.  These are the lies that I hear far too often.

Cholera is judgment.  Cholera is a righteous and holy God who cannot tolerate you in your sinful condition.  Cholera is condemnation that you in your helpless desperation sought the advice of a voodoo priest after praying to Jesus didn’t do anything for you.  Cholera, like the earthquake, is God’s wrath enacted against a nation that sold its soul to the devil. 

Cholera is your fault.  Cholera is ravaging your body because you didn’t wash your hands enough, because you drank untreated water, because you are ignorant. 

Let me clear something up right now: Haitians contracting cholera now are not ignorant.  It has been more than a year since cholera was reintroduced to Haiti and in that time, Haitians have painfully learned what cholera is.  They know that it’s a bacterium.  They know what bacteria are.  Though Haitians may attribute spiritual reasons for contracting cholera, they know that it is caused and prevent through physical measures.  Some Haitians may fit the stereotype of being superstitious and poorly educated, but at this point, there are very few Haitians who are uneducated about cholera.  I am rejecting the theory that education is the solution to Haiti’s problems.  The seriousness of the cholera epidemic is not a matter of information dissemination; it’s a matter of resource distribution.  The reason that cholera is still a problem after relief agencies have spent the past year informing the people on good public health practices is because educating people means nothing if they are physically and financially incapable of putting their knowledge into practice.  For most of us, a world without adequate resources is literally incomprehensible; I ended up dumping out half of the oral rehydration solution I found four months ago, a waste for which I have cause to repent.  That’s how we tend to think about resources though: always available, you just have to know what you’re looking for.  But you can tell Haitians to drink clean water all you want, but if they don’t actually have access to clean water, it doesn’t mean a thing.  Why is it then that we offer education rather than resources?  Because posters, radio public service announcements and week long educational seminars cost less than adequate housing, comprehensive public sanitation and clean, running water.  Education without wealth redistribution is inadequate and it is time for us in the West to change.

Because for thousands of Haitians

cholera is death.  

Friday, November 11, 2011

5 Weeks and Counting...

I thought about making this blog post a list, either of things that I will and will not miss, things I learned, things that I’m looking forward to, etc.  There are really good things about lists: (let me list some) easy readability, succinct summary of important information, the possibility to rank certain items as more important.  But I realized that my HNGR internship is not conducive to a list format.  The good and the bad are not easily categorized, I don’t have the perspective to rank what I’ve learned in order of importance and as most of you have probably figured out through this blog, when I talk about HNGR I am anything but succinct.  So I think this will be semi-list paragraph format of things that are not simply good or bad.

A time is coming, and soon will be, when I will no longer be a professor at UCNH, when I will no longer have to tell students that their homework is late and I will no longer have to close the classroom door in the face of latecomers.  Though I may find myself repeating the same words over and over, they won’t be the words from New Interchange English, Book 1.  After December 16, I won’t play volleyball with the sun in my eyes for at least another four months, I won’t have all my collared shirts on two hangers above my bed and I won’t be able to wear my Chacos everywhere I go.  It will no longer be socially comfortable for me to pee on the side of the road or to dance with the kids in church.  I will drive my car; I won’t take motorcycle taxis.  I won’t have to share a single bathroom with my host parents and 2-6 20-something year-old girls.  The bathroom that I’ll use will have a sink.  When I get back to the United States, I’ll see my reflection more than three times a week.  I’ll have internet whenever I want it.  I won’t have to worry about getting my pants dirty and making the laundry load bigger for Rose Lourdes when I sit on the rocks outside her house to talk and hang out.  I will have access to a lot more English books than are on Laurie’s shelves.  Saga desserts will take the place of Clif bars as special treats, and I won’t have to ration Saga desserts to once a week.  I won’t worry that people only want to be my friend because of the color of my skin or the size of my wallet.  The closest mountain for me to climb will be miles away instead of in my backyard.  I won’t see nearly as many black people and a whole lot more white people.  I will use considerably more water, gas and electricity.  Doubtless, my conversations may still occasionally be full of awkward pauses or miscommunication, but it’s a lot more likely that I will understand why.  I’ll be able to give a friend a few dollars for food or whatever and not worry about contributing to a cycle of dependency.  No one will accuse me of using the voodoo magic I have stored in my beard to make Brazil miss all of their penalty kicks.  I won’t have to worry about becoming numb to poverty due to overexposure.  I won’t think about the future of Peterson, my three-week-old godson, as I try to rock him back to sleep in his mother’s mud hut.