In January 2018, a group of women connected to the WMS came together to witness the work that Presbyterian World Service & Development (PWS&D) is supporting in the wonderfully complex world of Haiti.
Bonjou se paspo ou or hello is your passport was the first lesson the group was taught upon arriving in Haiti. A welcoming hello and genuine hospitality was what the group experienced in Haiti.
When reading or hearing about Haiti, you are more likely to hear about corrupt politicians, an unstable economy, malnutritioned children, communities riddled with disease, and a fate of natural destruction. Haiti is often seen only as one of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. If we adopt this view point, we will never learn about the country’s long and complicated history. We will never take the time to explore it current culture and customs. Haiti is a fascinating and misunderstood country.
Here, Janet Brewer, trip participant, reflects:
I knew before travelling to Haiti that I might be baffled by the circumstances that have led to this beautiful country being one of the poorest in the world. I kept asking myself—why? I read the material that we were given in preparation for the trip and I must admit to ‘googling’ quite a bit!
Haiti was “discovered” in 1492 and that was when its current troubles seemed to begin. Country after country, for more than 500 years after its “discovery,” seemed to take advantage of one thing or another. Gold, crops, and slaves were plentiful in this tropical paradise but after years of oppression, gaining its freedom from France had a terrible cost.
Warring within the country continued after independence and France demanded reparations for losing its businesses in Haiti; land, slaves, businesses, and equipment. About 150 million gold francs (later reduced to 90 million) were demanded by France or crippling embargoes would continue. Haiti agreed and borrowed funds at high interest rates in 1825. This debt didn’t get paid off until 1947.
This terrible debt, hurricanes, earthquakes, and unstable governments have left Haiti to recover in current times. The group witnesses a people with independent spirits who asked the WMS to walk in solidarity with them but allow them to make decisions for themselves.
While in Haiti, the group visited two organizations that addressed food security; Partenariat pour le Developpement Local (PDL) and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). They executed their mission in similar ways but dealt with food security from slightly different directions.
PDL works with the philosophy that rural farmers want more than just being “given” help; they want the opportunity to lead their own community development processes. We visited a few plots of land where farmers explained in great detail and with pride their farming practices.
PDL is an organization of farmers teaching farmers. It works by building peasant cooperatives and associations. Each cooperative has local leaders that represent their community (sometimes thousands of people). PDL starts by teaching easy, affordable farming techniques like A-frames, soil conservation, compost, use of cheap available materials, and crop diversity.
When visiting a cooperative our group asked what the benefits to being part of the program and they said:
- more children in school
- easier conflict resolution between neighbours
- healthier communities (less spread of germs so fewer illnesses)
- working towards same goals
The leaders spoke with great pride in the lessons they’ve learned and the execution of these lessons in their plots of land.
The second partner the group visited that addressed food security was MCC of Haiti. MCC sees environmental protection, food security, and sustainable livelihoods as being deeply intertwined and thus need to be addressed together.
Food security to them is organized in four areas:
- Agro forests (plants and trees working in harmony)
- Community clubs (youth groups)
Before the group visited communities, they also learned more about deforestation and what it means in Haiti. Before Europeans invaded Haiti it was almost entirely forested. It is now less than 3% forested.
MCC is building peasant cooperatives and associations to address the challenge of a rapidly changing climate, worsening international trade, severely limited infrastructure, and few opportunities in rural areas.
MCC has nurseries working in 23 communities which produce over 500,000 trees per year. We were welcomed into a tree nursery where we saw flats of tree seedlings under a cover of shade. The seedlings were for fruit trees. The nursery was going to begin work on other types of trees to be used primarily for building products and homes.
The group visited, Partners in Health (PIH), at the Mirebalais University Hospital to hear about two PWS&D projects: malnutrition in children under five years old and gender-based violence. PIH is a not-for-profit health-based organization that has been working in Haiti for nearly three decades. The two programs are run out of 12 health sites across Haiti’s central plateau.
It was estimated that in 2017, 48,000 children under 5 would suffer from acute malnutrition. This year, more that 1.3 million people (about 18% of population) will face severe food insecurity for various reasons, including drought. Children and infants are a very vulnerable group.
The success of the project is crucial. The major product PIH uses to fight the malnutrition is a peanut-based supplement, called Nourimanba. It is produced in Haiti, using primarily Haitian products.
The Malnutrition project has four main objectives:
- Increase the number of children cured of acute malnutrition
- Reduce the drop-out rate among children with acute malnutrition who are monitored in the program
- Reduce the number of children suffering from acute malnutrition requiring hospital care
- Increase breastfeeding in children from 0-6 months.
It generally takes a continuous 12-16 weeks to cure malnutrition. One of the challenges the project faces is getting a family to visit a clinic to get their peanut supplement continually for that time period. The main cause for families leaving the program is geographic. Families are poor so they cannot afford transportation and thus have no other choice but to abandon treatment. Mobile clinics are the next step to address this challenge.
The treatment and prevention of gender-based violence in Haiti is the second project that PWS&D supports through Partners in Health (PIH).
Gender-based violence against girls and women in Haiti is a serious health and human rights issue. Haitian women are known as the “poto mitan” or the pillars of the family and yet they are the most underserved and at-risk members of society.
Gender based Violence victims are further victimized on a multitude of levels. The justice system is often indifferent, unaware, or ill equipped to address crimes. Community members mock or shun victims, sometimes so badly that the woman is driven out of her community and abandons whatever support system that may exist for her. The health system is often unable to prevent post-assault pregnancy or sickness due to poor training or weak coordination. PIH is working to address all these issues.
The overall objectives of the project are:
- To ensure access to integrated, quality, and dignified care to women and girls who are at risk or victims of GBV.
- To reinforce links between health and legal authorities and women’s associations in the fight against GBV.
- To increase resilience of women and girls and communities by way of awareness campaigns, advocacy, and community level education.
PIH have created a GBV Surveillance Committee model where school directors, police officers, community members, and others are appointed to address education and concerns. They’ve been trained to help with reporting and supporting victims.
The project is seeing results. More instances are being reported, more women are getting the immediate medical attention they need, more women are getting post-assault support, and more women are being connected to women’s organizations which can guide them through the various social and legal systems.
Education is also being addressed. Women, health care providers, police, school staff, and community-based workers are connecting and educating women and men about the issues that surround GBV.
Here, Alexis McKeown, trip participant and WMS staff, reflects:
After researching Haiti and visiting for just 7 days, I realized there is still so much to learn. While there I was able to listen and learn from Haitian women and men, farmers and medical staff. I witnessed on long road trips, in gardens, in hospitals and at tree nurseries. Haiti is complicated, rich in culture, beautiful, proud, community-based and diligent.