They call it the Goudou Goudou, or le tremblement de terre. Both translate to the day the earth shook. Two years ago, on January 12, 200,000 people were killed and 1.3 million became homeless in less than a minute when a magnitude 7 earthquake rocked Haiti.
Once named the “Pearl of the Antilles” for its wealth in natural resources and value as a French colony, Haiti has been oppressed and neglected by many in recent decades. It now faces crippling levels of overpopulation, political corruption, illiteracy, and disease, as well as the lowest per capita income of any country in the Western Hemisphere. Overcrowding and demand for wood charcoal have led to severe deforestation and soil erosion throughout the country, presenting a problem for farmers struggling to grow enough food for their families, let alone earn a sufficient additional income. Food security—particularly micronutrient consumption—is a serious concern when analyzing childhood malnutrition. According to a 2009 UNICEF report, 87 out of every 1,000 children under the age of five died. Malnutrition is responsible for about 60 percent of all childhood deaths in Haiti, and 42 percent of surviving children experience permanently stunted growth and varying degrees of physical and mental impairment due to protein and vitamin deficiencies. All of these issues were present before the earthquake brought Haiti under the global spotlight.
Two years have passed, but the devastation still lingers. In September 2011, I took my first drive through Port-au-Prince to the city of Léôgane, where I would work as the Maternal and Child Health Intern for the Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti. As we bumped along National Highway #2, dodging lakes in the broken road, I gazed at the tent cities and slums with assorted NGO labels scattered across them that litter almost every corner of the city. The trash was ankle deep in some areas and political graffiti covered every building: “Trente-Six Mwa!”—or 36 months, the length of time the government was unable to pay its employees after the disaster. Broken glass glistened along the tops of walls. Despite these conditions, regular people went about their regular business. Vendors lined the lengths of the flooded street while dogs, goats, pigs, chickens, TapTaps, motos, and kids filled the road. There was so much life in a city that looked like it just narrowly escaped death.
Léôgane was the epicenter of the earthquake, and is now referred to as a “Republic of NGOs” because of the rush of aid that flooded in immediately after the disaster. The road to recovery is daunting. Trying to create sustainable solutions to the seemingly endless list of problems is like playing a game of pick-up sticks—you can’t eradicate childhood malnutrition without also addressing women’s empowerment and education, and you can’t build a community center without first paying the mayor. Relief efforts, though valiant, risk creating a dependency cycle. Some have asked, “What’s the point? Shouldn’t we just pull out and let them (Haitians) sort it out themselves?”
My response, after three months of working on the ground in Haiti, wrestling with my own (sometimes jaded) opinion, is this: There is hope. There are wonderfully passionate people working towards “building back a better,” stronger, and more stable Haiti, as medical anthropologist and Deputy UN Special Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer says.
The Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti has been working in Léôgane for fourteen years, empowering communities to raise a healthy generation of Haitian children, who in turn, it is hoped, will raise Haiti from poverty. CNP employs community nutrition workers who work within their own communities to educate mothers and their families on fundamental hygiene practices and dynamic nutritional information. In this way, communities are provided with the knowledge needed to feed their children balanced meals, which is crucial for cognitive development. The rate of severe malnutrition in Léôgane since the integration of CNP and its programs has dropped dramatically. They now focus on prevention, and are currently mapping every house in the rural villages of Léôgane commune with the aim of monitoring the growth of every child under five. CNP also operates a therapeutic feeding program in urban areas where they distribute the high-caloric food supplement, Plumpy Nut, to underweight children. Community involvement and collaboration has been key to the success of CNP, a model for sustainable development.
My three months in Haiti taught me how to bargain in Kréyòl, to dance salsa, and to work hard and laugh easily. As we enter the third post-quake year, it is important that while we remember disaster, we also remember the beauty and potential that Haiti holds.
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