In Haiti, two years out from the massive 7.0 earthquake that affected more than 3 million people, the focus has shifted from rescue mode to rebuilding.
ABILITY’s Pamela K. Johnson spoke with Elizabeth MacNairn of Handicap International, a non-governmental organization based in Europe; Keren Odeah Johnson, her sister who works for the United States Agency for International Development; and Rachelle Salnave, a Miami-based filmmaker whose documentary, La Belle Vie (The Beautiful Life), seeks to capture the rich history and fertile culture of this storied Caribbean island.
MacNairn, Johnson and Salnave all visited Haiti between December 2011 and January 2012, and took time out to share their different experiences.
At a rooftop rehabilitation center in Haiti’s Petit-Goâve neighborhood, people who’ve been fitted with a prosthetic device after a limb amputation learn how to get back into the swing of life. It’s estimated that between 2000 and 4000 Haitians lost a limb during the quake, adding to the roughly 800,000 to 900,000 who were already estimated to have a disability.
By air, Haiti is only a 90-minute flight from Miami, and situated between Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Along with beautiful beaches, it has rich arts and music communities, and the distinction of being the first independent black republic, dating back to 1804. But it continues to wrestle with poverty, political corruption and natural disaster.
Before the quake, many of the nearly 1 million Haitians who were living with a disability, such as an amputation, nerve damage or cerebral palsy, had never received physical therapy, said MacNairn, who is executive director of Handicap International’s United States office in Takoma, MD.
In the days following the quake, her organization set up the Functional Rehabilitation Center in the Champs de Mars area, Port-au-Prince’s main park and the site of political power, where many buildings were destroyed.
As the team began to treat the injured, they discovered that people with a disability were not only dealing with their physical injuries, but also with a loss of esteem, said MacNairn, who noted that the Haitian Creole word for disability is cocobai, which means “worthless” or “a disgrace.” But with training and low-tech assistive devices, “people can feel they have value, and contribute to their families,” she said.
The rehab center staff is charged with creating assistive devices that help patients with daily tasks. One such invention was a stick with a scrub brush attached, so a patient could strap it to the leg of a chair, and then set the chair leg in soapy water and scrub clothes clean using one arm. Another device—a small wooden board with three nails—can hold a vegetable in place, while a person cuts it, again using one arm.
Patients and staff at the center sometimes cook a meal together in the rooftop’s enclosed kitchen area, breaking bread and forming an impromptu support group, where “they talk about what they’re experiencing,” said MacNairn. They also share nutrition and hygiene tips.
MacNairn first traveled to Haiti a decade ago, when her husband was the assistant country director of Catholic Relief Services. Five years later, she visited quarterly while working on an employment project there. More recently she returned in February 2010, a month after the quake, in her role with Handicap International (HI). The NGO is one of the six founding members of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. HI had a presence in the Haiti before the quake with their food-distribution program, but after the disaster it quickly repurposed its trucks to deliver a range of needed items, along with treated water, to devastated communities.
“We were struck by how some neighborhoods were hardly touched, while others were totally destroyed, such as the Champs de Mars area,” MacNairn recalled. “There was so much destruction, and so much homelessness. I was particularly struck both by the level of injury, but also the resilience. People were quickly back to selling things, trying to survive.”
In Haiti, and around the world, HI, works to alleviate the effects of poverty, exclusion, conflict and disaster. To address the widespread homelessness created by the Haitian quake, the organization built more than 1,000 transitional, hurricane- and earthquake-resistant homes, which are accessible to people with reduced mobility. The shelters are designed to serve the most vulnerable, and can accommodate more than 5,000 people in both Petit-Goâve and Grand-Goâve, coastal towns about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince.
The shelters are designed to last three years, but are weather resistant and can potentially last longer, if maintained properly. They have a wooden framework and walls of woven wooden slats, with a roof designed to withstand strong winds. The floor is made from a raised concrete slab, which will protect occupants from humidity during rainy seasons. The homes are also adaptable, and can include access ramps, wider doors, special door handles and other accommodations.
Available in modules with a range of surface areas, the shelters are adaptable to different size families. These prefabricated transitional shelters were prepared in kits by HI teams, and then transported to the field and assembled with families not only to foster “ownership,” but also to teach some basic repair skills.
When MacNairn first walked up to the rehab center in 2010, she recalled that it was an empty shell. But upon her recent return visit, it had blossomed into “an incredibly welcoming place,” where she interacted with some individuals whose experiences touched her. Among them was Katia Eloi, who manages HI’s rooftop training program. “She is also an upper-limp amputee and is pregnant with her first child. We talked about having a baby. It was one of those universal moments that women share,” MacNairn said.
From a previous visit, she remembered a young man named Beriton Merzil, a 46-year-old amputee below the knee “who found his way to us after the quake,” she said. “He was traumatized—although his amputation was from a long ago car accident—and initially he just stayed and talked with others who had just lost a limb in the quake; he created a very calming presence.”
A third individual that MacNairn recognized when she was there recently, was a young man named Marvens Point du Jour, who had lost his mother in the quake, and now lives with an adoptive family. Amid the disaster, he had to have his leg amputated below the knee, which made him“fragile” for a time. But now, with his permanent prosthetic, Marvens is up and running. MacNairn saw him kicking a soccer ball at the rehab center, and with his mobility restored, he can attend school, which many children with disabilities cannot.
“People with disabilities and the elderly may have delicate support systems that can be destroyed if someone who cares for them dies or is injured,” MacNairn observed. “We try to identify which communities are most vulnerable in advance, and work with local residents, area shelters and different organizations, so no one is left behind.”
HI is collaborating with Haitian service agencies to place medical equipment, anti-pressure sore mattresses, and hygiene-care tents at key points in populated areas, so that in an emergency, the items are nearby and easily accessed. They’re also working with Haitian nonprofits and the government to prepare for an anticipated cholera epidemic during the upcoming summer rainy season.
Like many Caribbean islands, Haiti often bears the brunt of nature’s whims: hurricanes, floods, mud slides… “It is a beautiful place with lots of culture, but it’s also in a constant crisis context,” said MacNairn.
To offer added support to children with cerebral palsy, HI has several pilot programs at the rehab center. They also visit a child’s home environment to determine what devices might be helpful there, and teach parents exercises to stimulate a child’s development.
“There is a great need for seating,” said MacNairn, who explained that many children with cerebral palsy spend all day lying down, when they need to sit up to eat without choking, or engage with others around them.
In its rebuilding efforts, HI helps those with disabilities create income-generating opportunities, while working side by side with Haitians to ensure the nation is better prepared for future emergencies.
by Pamela K. Johnson
A Month in Haiti
When I visited the country in May 2011, I only stayed for a few days. At that time, the rubble was still being cleared, but the devastation was evident. In the Port-au- Prince area, I saw tent cities and displaced person camps in several communities.
The nice thing about my December 2011 visit, when I got to stay for a month, is that I had the chance to travel throughout the country, and connect with more people. Along the way, I noticed quite a few areas that are fully cleared or clearing since the quake, and the rubble was organized into things that could be used, such as broken glass that could be repurposed as jewelry, and recyclable building materials. Reconstruction efforts were well underway, and there was great forward motion.
I stood for a time in front of the Hotel Montana, where many Haitians and expatriates were killed in the earthquake. It has reopened, and there’s now a lot of activity going on, such as local fairs and salsa dancing. It still looks over the entire city, but sadly the portion that overlooked the mountain collapsed and slid away.
There are health challenges, but there are many more committed individuals and organizations working to thwart the spread of preventable diseases. Governments and the international donor community have partnered in hand-washing campaigns and water-treatment efforts to prevent cholera. A number of people are getting business training, and those who had a trade, but acquired a disability during the quake, must now be retrained.
I met a man who was in a camp and had been uncomfortable recuperating in a tent. He found it too cold at night and too warm during the day. He also had difficulty caring for his wound properly. But now that his family has relocated to an apartment building, he is ecstatic to have a place to recuperate and is adjusting well.
Many folks have the impression that only those from outside are working on the health-services piece: Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, Partners in Health and Mercy Corps come to mind. But there are also many locally based organizations, and Haitians lead the charge. And in the camps, volunteer vigilance committees make sure there is no violence, especially towards women.
At Grace Children’s Hospital, which was started 50-plus years ago, I got to visit its tuberculosis children’s wing. The facility was well managed and the staff was incredibly caring. However, there are more steps to take to prevent this communicable disease.
The highlight of my trip was a road trip to Cap Haitien and Ounaminthe in the north. Along the way I got to see oceanfront, countryside and mountains. The landscapes are incredible. I look forward to returning to help my sorority charter a school.
by Keren Odeah Johnson
A Snap Shot of my Homeland
It’s Dec. 31, 2011, and I just landed in Ft Lauderdale a few hours ago after my 10-day stay in Haiti. I feel bittersweet, because my spirit is still in Port-au-Prince! It’s in the hills and valleys of an amazingly warm province called Petit-Goâve. It’s walking through the tent camps of Champs de Mars, it’s chilling on the porch steps of the Park Hotel drinking a Prestige beer, and dancing in Petionville rocking out to a mix of Rihanna and Haitian beats.
It’s discovering a group called Boukman Eksperyans, and grooving to the new Hip Hop sounds coming out of the music studio of Blow Up Records. My spirit is waking up to the counsel of my wise Aunt, who schools me about my beloved country, but listens with an open heart to my discoveries.
In my first few days in Haiti, I was convinced that La Belle Vie (The Good Life)—the name of the documentary that I’m shooting about my homeland—no longer existed. The poverty and tremendous sea of people who live on the streets was an eye opener. Talking to folks who are in dire need of just the basics. Seeing small children with no parents, pleading for food. And for those who have the means, like my family and friends, there are huge gates with locks enclosed around their houses. Some have security guards and some don’t. That made it hard to see past the dichotomy of the haves and have nots.
I was also discouraged when we drove up to La Boule in the mountains, and there were no green trees. It looked more like a mountainous desert. I thought to myself: How can one really enjoy a good life under these conditions? But then a good friend of mine took us out of the big city and into the province of Petit-Goâve nestled on the south coast. As we drove along a hilltop, the view was spectacular!
When we made our way back to town, I could see some of the devastation caused by the quake, but it was very well kept for the most part. I waved at people and they waved back. Many of them smiled and posed for my camera. We had lunch at an oasis called the Hawaiian Restaurant with the best-tasting mackerel ever. The sand was black, but the sea was gorgeous and clear. It was so refreshing to get out of the city, though I knew that we only had a few hours before sunset and the return to town.
The dose of nature put me back on track, and my partner and I set out to capture as much as we could. We started with a performance by singer Ne-Yo at the Kinam Hotel, and then a fashion show produced by Brothers Dread Productions. We went to my favorite tent restaurant, and then hung out at my cousin’s company Christmas party, sponsored by the minister of education. It was nice connecting with family that I’d never met, comparing our physical features, and talking to people who had left their comfort zones in the US to move back and be a part of the change.
On our last day, we drove through a food-distribution port, where guys begging for money mobbed my cousin’s pickup. They jumped on the back and banged my window. It was scary and sad to see this on my last few hours in the country, but right after that I saw Shala, “the king of Champs de Mars” on his brand new mo-ped waving at us with a smile. Now 22, he has been living on the streets since he was 7. He is a leader in his community, and when I saw his smile and his baseball hat blowing in the wind as he enjoyed his new wheels, I thought, now that’s La Belle Vie!
by Rachelle Salnave