Sunday, March 2, 2008

Haiti is speaking

These friends speak my mind:

- are you listening?

Helaina Stein and Sabina Carlson

Issue date: 2/26/08 Section: Op-Ed Tufts Daily

Haiti. What was the first thing that came to mind when you read that word? When we posed this question to students around campus, they had responses like: "Poverty," "Crime," "Dangerous," "Poorest," "Aristide," "Hunger," "Cruises" and "Mothers making food out of dirt." In the international vernacular, Haiti is the only country with a last name: the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Headlines like "Haiti Among Top Ten Dangerous Destinations" and "Charity Group Sounds Alarm for Haiti" continue to unrelentingly support this stigma. It is not surprising, then, that Tufts students, who pride themselves in global awareness and active international dialogue, reflect this one-dimensional portrayal of Haiti.

Few people are aware that the majority of the Haitian populace exists in its rural countryside, far from the flares of violence that are overwhelmingly reported from the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Last month, the RESPE: Ayiti team traveled to Balan, a rural town in northern Haiti. Accompanied by two Haitian mentors, we arrived with the object of assessing a rural community, understanding its strengths and challenges, observing local community initiatives and determining how we could harness the academic resources of our university to support those existing initiatives.

The voices of rural Haitians are often tossed aside in favor of "reality" as told by the Haitian elite and government. Our framework was simple: We wanted to treat the members of the community not as research subjects, but as our teachers, and to learn from them what life is truly like in "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." Far from a charity project, our goal was to support this community in its path for self-empowerment.

When we arrived in Balan, we were welcomed into a community that had infinitely more depth and color than the black and white headlines of the newspapers. Instead of being greeted by gangs wielding guns, we were welcomed by gwoupman - community groups in the village - eager to meet us and teach us about their community.

But though our seven days in Balan were spent in tranquility, without any threat to our physical safety, we encountered and interacted with many elements of structural violence - a subtle repression of human agency. Balan is not only physically isolated by miles of unpaved roads, but it is also socially and politically isolated.

Amid the vibrant voices of the community, we noticed an unsettling silence of an absent government. The government's void is reflected in the rutted roads, dark homes without electricity, schools without lights or books, empty clinics and the arable but unfulfilled fields. Haiti itself has been condemned to failure by the Western world from the time it earned its title as the world's first black republic in 1804. This has manifested itself externally through unfair trade agreements and the outright subversion of Haiti's democratic process, and internally through the exploitation and neglect of the Haitian peasantry by the Haitian elite.

The daily challenges of the rural population can thus find their roots in this ever-deepening history of isolation.From afar, all of these problems blend together into a concept that we acknowledge as poverty. However, on the ground, it translates into not only individual challenges, but individual triumphs in one community's struggle for a decent life. The community's determination to succeed reflects itself from the women supporting each other through informal micro-loans, to the youth who take the time to clean a crumbling road, to the farmers who pool their physical strength to help each other reach harvest. While these stories do not make international headlines, they are the headlines of each new day in Balan. Because of this, we feel it is our responsibility to present the Haiti we saw, with neither romance nor stigmatization.

If we consider ourselves members of this global community, it is our responsibility to look beyond the World Bank reports and the U.S. State Department travel advisories. So let's not let the conversation end here. The next time you think of Haiti, don't simply think of coup d'├ętats and gangs; think of the violence inherent in empty stomachs. Think of the injustice when a child peers eagerly into the window of an elementary school he will never afford. Think of the brutality a farmer experiences as he watches his crop destroyed by the sun after working himself to exhaustion. Think of the neglect of a community's needs going unfulfilled by an absent government.

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