Saturday, November 20, 2010

Turn on the radio

Photo above by Ron Holt

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In Haiti, news spreads quickly.The primary news feed is the “tele-dyol,” the grapevine. It works like this: the shop keeper shares a juicy tidbit with to the moto-taxi driver, who mentions it to his rider, who talks to the fruit vendor, who discusses it with her mother, who passes it on to a neighbor, who brings it up to a fellow passenger on a tap-tap, who tells the man collecting Coke bottles for recycling, and on and on. This game of telephone is remarkably efficient at spreading news, but often creates some confusion and inaccuracy along the way, as you can imagine.

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For example, various rumors spread like wildfire during the cholera outbreak. According to Jonathan Katz of the Associated Press, “Some said helicopters had dropped a black powder in the river, or that they heard poison was poured into a dam in the Dominican Republic. Others said the epidemic was linked to the Nepalese base.” As we are coming to see, the last of these rumors may in fact be true.

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Radio is a close second after teledyol, as far as communication goes. Almost every household, no matter how poor, has a crackling battery-powered radio which streams in upbeat Caribbean music, booming televangelist sermons, and news and commentary. Radio’s popularity makes sense in this country, where half of the population can’t read a newspaper, most people don’t have access to computers, and the power is unreliable for televisions. The content of the stations varies quite widely—most of the stations (if not all) are privately owned, and strongly reflect the respective ideologies of the owners.

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So, in reflecting on Haiti, it seems appropriate to include some radio stories. A few days ago, the Kojo Nnamdi Show (of WAMU, a DC-based public radio station) did a week-long special on the country. As one can expect for Kojo, there were lots of interesting perspectives and issues presented. You can listen by following the links below. Enjoy!

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Aired November 8, 2010

The Haitian Diaspora

Understanding Haiti's History

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Aired November 9, 2010

Wireless Technology and the Haitian Recovery

Green Solutions to Haiti's Energy Challenges

Health and Haiti's Cholera Outbreak

The U.S. in Haiti

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Aired November 10, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti

Recovering Art after an Earthquake

Food and Haiti’s Path to Recovery

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Aired November 11, 2010

The Challenges Facing Haiti’s Children

Haiti’s Future

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Coconut trees

I am delighted to feature another guest post by my husband, Robbie Pruitt.

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt

"Pye kokoye"—What climbing coconut trees can teach us about leadership and discipleship.

In Haiti, coconut trees
are abundant. These tall trees present a challenge if you want to enjoy the delicious coconuts that they produce. Coconut trees can grow up to 30 meters tall, or about 98 feet. This makes getting to the coconuts at the top of the tree a very difficult and arduous task. In order for the Haitian people, or anyone else, to enjoy coconuts, someone has to climb the coconut tree. This can be a dangerous and daunting task.

Haitians are skilled climbers and can shimmy up a coconut tree barefooted, with machete in tow, with ease, skill, and precision. This is not a skill that an ordinary or average American possesses. How does someone learn a skill like this? There is hardly room for error forty to ninety feet up in a tree slinging a two foot blade at a cluster of coconuts.

If you visit Haiti an answer to how one learns to climb coconut trees comes into focus, and clarity can be gained. The Haitian people take great pride in learning and teaching and you can often observe a young Haitian boy or girl watching their parents or neighbors as they work. There is as much education going on in the normal day to day activities as there is during regular school hours. Young Haitian boys study their fathers as they climb the coconut tree; they watch and observe, they stand closely and study every move, they imitate their fathers.

Photo above by Robbie Pruitt
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Leadership and discipleship have everything to do with imitation. As leaders we are to be what we want to see in others, so that in imitating us, people look like what we want them to become. As leaders, we reproduce in others who we are. If we want to see in others what we would have them become, then we must exhibit these same traits ourselves. We must "climb the coconut tree of leadership” to develop leaders who can “climb the coconut tree of leadership.”
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Jesus models this imitation for us in John 5:19-20 when he said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner. For the Father loves the Son, and shows Him all things that He Himself does; and He will show Him greater works than these, that you may marvel.” Jesus imitates the Father. He does what he sees the Father doing. If we are to make disciples, develop leaders, and help lead others to Jesus, we must be doing what we see Jesus doing, through His power, work, and grace in us.
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The Apostle Paul modeled this imitation as well, and imitated Jesus’ imitation in the above verses, in his ministry with the church in Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 11:1-3, Paul asked the Corinthians to “Imitate him, just as he also imitates Christ.” He goes on to say, “Now I praise you, brethren, that you remember me in all things and keep the traditions just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ.”
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Paul is exhorting the Corinthian church to do what he does as he imitates Jesus. This is effective only as long as Paul is imitating Jesus. His desire for the Corinthian Church and for us is that we remember the entirety of all he has taught us and that we recognize Jesus as the “head” or the leader that we should all be ultimately following and imitating.
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May we "climb the coconut tree of leadership,” imitating Jesus, recognizing that others are watching us follow Jesus as we lead, and that they are eager to learn to follow Jesus and to lead as well.
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Finally, may we rest in this blessing from Hebrews 6:9-12 as we imitate our Lord: “Beloved, we are confident of better things concerning you. . . For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

© Robbie Pruitt, 2010

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Free and fair?

Driving around many US cities, it is not uncommon to see graffiti. I’m used to passing cement barriers or overpasses “decorated” with bubble-letter tags or the occasional expletive. Graffiti is also ubiquitous in Haitian cities, especially the capital, Port-au-Prince.


But Haitian graffiti is different. There are no expletives. There are no incomprehensible tags. Instead, the rough spray-painted letters spell out bold political messages and campaign slogans from various perspectives, seemingly on every open slab of concrete wall or fence.


So what do these say? I think this one says something like, "Where the people are, the people speak up." (I welcome corrections to my Creole translations via comments!)

“Young people support young people," and then the ballot number 29, associated with one of the candidates or parties.

“Goudougoudou” is the creative phonetic nickname that has been developed for the earthquake of January 2010, because of the overwhelming rumbling sound that it made while it was happening. Preval is the current president of Haiti. “Graze peyi” means destroyed country. Quite the equation.


Photo above by Ron Holt

In addition to the informal expressions of political views, the city was plastered with official campaign posters. As you may have heard on the news, Haiti is preparing for elections at the end of November, and, as you may expect, signs of the campaign are everywhere.

At first, I found the signs to be encouraging. The population is clearly ready for a change—many people we spoke with expressed their dissatisfaction with how President Preval has handled the country’s affairs since the earthquake. Even artists were creating paintings and papier-mâché masks expressing their disapproval. So, an election (though unimaginably expensive) seems like an important part of the solution for this democratic country to move forward. Right?

Photo above by Ron Holt


Well, maybe. As it turns out, there are some questions about whether this election is actually going to be free, fair, or remotely representative of the wishes of the people. For starters, several political parties, including the party that is thought to have the support of the wide majority of Haitians, are being barred from the election altogether. In the US, that would be like saying, “We’re going to have a presidential election, but Democrats (or Republicans) may not run or be involved in any way.” Whether or not a person supports the views of a particular party, I think we can all agree that this kind of practice is not really democratic, to say the least. Nor is it supported by Haiti’s own constitution.


There are also some other problems with the upcoming election. There are questions about the legitimacy of the electoral counsel, which has been plagued with corruption and questionable practices. And, it looks like many of the 1.5 million internally displaced people, who were forced to move from their destroyed homes following the earthquake, risk not being able to cast a vote because of procedural roadblocks.


Argh. Yet again, I am reminded that nothing is simple in Haiti.


The petition that follows is directed at our representatives in the House, and it urges them to "ensure free, fair and inclusive elections in Haiti as a condition for funding them." It is supported by Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and more than 20 other organizations, and provides more of an overview of this complex situation. (If you want to sign the petition or read more about it, click here.)


Dear Rep­re­sen­ta­tive,


As your con­stituent, I strongly encour­age you to add your name in sup­port of a let­ter recently signed by 45 of your col­leagues, urg­ing Sec­re­tary Clin­ton to sup­port free, fair and inclu­sive elec­tions in Haiti this November.


Your col­leagues are con­cerned that the exclu­sion of over a dozen polit­i­cal par­ties – includ­ing the country’s largest party, Fanmi Lavalas – from the Novem­ber bal­lot is unde­mo­c­ra­tic and uncon­sti­tu­tional. They also raise con­cerns about Hait­ian vot­ers hav­ing access to vot­ing cards and polling sta­tions, par­tic­u­larly those vot­ers dis­placed by the dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake ear­lier this year. The sign­ers of the let­ter believe that if the Hait­ian gov­ern­ment does not imple­ment basic demo­c­ra­tic reforms, the elec­tion will not be viewed as legit­i­mate by the Hait­ian peo­ple or the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity, the next gov­ern­ment will lack the abil­ity to gov­ern, and the ongo­ing recov­ery process could be impeded.


On Octo­ber 8, 120 Returned Peace Corps Vol­un­teers (RPCVs) who have recently served in Haiti’s neigh­bor­ing coun­try, the Domini­can Repub­lic, sent Sec­re­tary Clin­ton a peti­tion ask­ing that the U.S. stip­u­late fund­ing for the Hait­ian elec­tions on the full par­tic­i­pa­tion of all polit­i­cal par­ties and an active engage­ment to ensure that vot­ers among the 1.5 mil­lion inter­nally dis­placed Haitians are not dis­en­fran­chised. This pro­posal was also signed by the National Peace Corps Asso­ci­a­tion Pres­i­dent Kevin Quigley and the found­ing pres­i­dent of RPCV-comprised NGO “Friends of the Domini­can Repub­lic” Neil Ross.


In addi­tion, over 20 orga­ni­za­tions in the U.S. and Haiti signed this peti­tion in Sep­tem­ber. These include Action Aid USA, Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Rights, the Evan­gel­i­cal Lutheran Church in Amer­ica, the Insti­tute for Jus­tice & Democ­racy in Haiti, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Gen­eral Board of Church and Soci­ety of the United Methodist Church.


Haiti’s Pro­vi­sional Elec­toral Coun­cil (CEP) has sched­uled par­lia­men­tary and pres­i­den­tial elec­tions for Novem­ber 28th of this year, elec­tions post­poned due to the dev­as­tat­ing Jan­u­ary 12 earth­quake. I am deeply con­cerned that the CEP has barred more than a dozen polit­i­cal par­ties from pre­sent­ing can­di­dates in the elec­tions with­out seri­ous jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. I am also dis­mayed to note that, as yet, no seri­ous mea­sures appear to have been taken to guar­an­tee that the over one mil­lion Haitians that have been dis­placed by the earth­quake will be able to vote. The United States gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted impor­tant fund­ing to these elec­tions and is play­ing a key role within the OAS Group of Friends of Haiti to assist with the elec­toral process; it there­fore has a real respon­si­bil­ity to make cer­tain that these elec­tions serve to strengthen Haiti’s frag­ile democ­racy rather than fur­ther under­mine it.


Cur­rent Chal­lenges to the Elec­toral Process


Haiti cur­rently faces three major chal­lenges relat­ing to the upcom­ing elec­tions: a legit­i­macy cri­sis for the Pro­vi­sional Elec­toral Coun­cil (CEP); the exclu­sion of a num­ber of polit­i­cal par­ties from the elec­toral process; and the abil­ity to pro­vide voter iden­tity cards and access to the polls for all eli­gi­ble vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly those dis­placed by the earthquake.


The CEP – the state author­ity in charge of orga­niz­ing and con­trol­ling elec­toral processes – cur­rently has lim­ited con­sti­tu­tional legit­i­macy or cred­i­bil­ity in Haiti because: a) the CEP was estab­lished through a process not rec­og­nized by the Hait­ian Con­sti­tu­tion; b) it has announced the unjus­ti­fied exclu­sion of more than a dozen par­ties from the Novem­ber 28, 2010 elec­tions; c) the cur­rent CEP is rocked by scan­dals, with one mem­ber resign­ing this month in the face of cor­rup­tion charges.


The Inter­na­tional Foun­da­tion for Elec­toral Sys­tems (IFES) reported in April 2010 that, ‘‘giv­ing the man­date of orga­niz­ing the upcom­ing elec­tions to the cur­rent CEP would mean that the elec­toral process will be con­sid­ered flawed and ques­tion­able from the begin­ning.’’ Hait­ian vot­ers and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum as well as impor­tant actors in the inter­na­tional com­mu­nity, includ­ing Sen­a­tor Richard Lugar of the Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions Com­mit­tee and IFES, con­sider that a new CEP should be estab­lished as they con­sider that the Council’s actions and cur­rent con­tro­ver­sies demon­strate an inabil­ity to con­duct fair, inclu­sive elec­tions. Nev­er­the­less, Pres­i­dent Pré­val con­tin­ues to insist that the cur­rent CEP run the sched­uled elections.


A sec­ond major con­cern is the exclu­sion of more than a dozen par­ties from the elec­toral process, includ­ing Haiti’s most pop­u­lar party Fanmi Lavalas (FL). As was the case in April of 2009, in which fewer than 10% of the elec­torate turned out to vote, the con­tin­ued exclu­sion of elec­toral can­di­dates will under­mine the legit­i­macy of the upcom­ing Novem­ber elec­tions and could lead to polit­i­cal and social unrest that could greatly hin­der Haiti’s recon­struc­tion and devel­op­ment plans, and imperil U.S. invest­ments in Haiti.


Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the United Nations and the Orga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States objected to the CEP’s exclu­sions of polit­i­cal par­ties from the elec­tions in April 2009 and the U.S. Embassy in Haiti stated that “under the law, elec­tions should involve all major par­ties… An elec­tion based on the exclu­sion… will inevitably ques­tion the cred­i­bil­ity of elec­tions in Haiti among donors and friends of Haiti.” How­ever, despite this strong crit­i­cism, the US gov­ern­ment pro­vided sig­nif­i­cant fund­ing for the elec­toral process and chose to rec­og­nize the elec­tion outcome.


I am also con­cerned by the lack of effec­tive mea­sures under­way to guar­an­tee that the hun­dreds of thou­sands of eli­gi­ble vot­ers among the over 1.5 mil­lion peo­ple dis­placed by the earth­quake are assured the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion cards (Cartes d’identité nationale – CINs) required for vot­ing as well as reli­able and uncom­pli­cated access to the polls on elec­tion day. I am encour­aged to learn that the OAS com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing 850,000 CINs to new vot­ers and the many Haitians who lost their cards in the earthquake.


How­ever, I note with dis­may that no plan has yet been imple­mented for the enor­mous and com­plex task of pro­vid­ing CINs to the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Haitians who need them. It is imper­a­tive that in the com­ing weeks mobile teams be dis­patched to IDP camps and remote rural areas so as to dis­trib­ute these cards effec­tively in time for the Novem­ber elections.


Fur­ther­more, there is no indi­ca­tion that plans are under­way to make vot­ing cen­ters gen­uinely acces­si­ble to those in IDP camps. As the IFES has stated, polling cen­ters need to located near IDP camps and trans­porta­tion must be pro­vided for those who can­not eas­ily access the cen­ters. Notwith­stand­ing these mea­sures, many of those most affected by the earth­quake will suf­fer the addi­tional injus­tice of being dis­en­fran­chised in one of the most impor­tant elec­toral processes of their lives.


Rec­om­men­da­tions


The inter­na­tional com­mu­nity has an inter­est in pro­mot­ing Hait­ian vot­ers’ rights to fair elec­tions guar­an­teed by Hait­ian and inter­na­tional law, and pro­tect­ing its $11 bil­lion pledged invest­ment in Haiti’s recon­struc­tion. In order to pro­tect these inter­ests, I urge the United States to imme­di­ately take the fol­low­ing actions immediately:


1. With­hold finan­cial sup­port for elec­tions until the CEP is replaced by a new Coun­cil cho­sen through a process that ensures neu­tral­ity, com­pe­tence and cred­i­bil­ity with Haiti’s voters.

2. Adopt a clear, firm posi­tion on the need for the upcom­ing elec­tions to be free, fair and open to all of Haiti’s polit­i­cal parties.

3. Promise ade­quate fund­ing and tech­ni­cal assis­tance for a fairly-chosen CEP to pre­pare elections.


This sup­port should cover the following:

a. Pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion of the National Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion Cards (CINs) lost or destroyed in the earth­quake that are a legal require­ment for voting.

b. Updat­ing of the elec­toral list. Pho­tographs on the CIN and indeli­ble ink can also be used to com­bat mul­ti­ple voting.

c. Plac­ing of polling sta­tions in areas allow­ing inter­nally dis­placed, poor, and dis­abled Haitians to participate.

d. Pro­vi­sion of exten­sive voter edu­ca­tion through media cam­paigns and com­mu­nity meetings.


I urge you to join your col­leagues in ensur­ing that the U.S. Admin­is­tra­tion car­ries out the afore­men­tioned actions in the most expe­di­ent man­ner pos­si­ble. The upcom­ing elec­tions will set the stage for long-term recon­struc­tion efforts and if they are to unfold suc­cess­fully urgent action is required.


Thank you in advance for your prompt atten­tion to the con­cerns raised in this let­ter. I hope to see you add your endorse­ment to the let­ter urg­ing Sec­re­tary Clin­ton to pro­mote free, fair and inclu­sive elec­tions in Haiti, signed by the fol­low­ing Representatives:


Max­ine Waters; Don­ald Payne; William Delahunt; Bar­bara Lee; Deb­bie Wasser­man Schultz; Alcee L. Hast­ings; Charles B. Rangel; Jan Schakowsky; Den­nis Kucinich; Hank John­son; Jim McDer­mott; Yvette D. Clarke; John W. Olver; Keith Elli­son; Sam Farr; Donna M. Chris­tensen; Raúl Gri­jalva; Michael Honda; Betty McCol­lum; Laura Richard­son; Alan Grayson; Chel­lie Pin­gree; Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton; Danny K. Davis; Sheila Jack­son Lee; Eli­jah Cum­mings; Car­olyn Cheeks Kil­patrick; Lynn Woolsey; Chaka Fat­tah; Fort­ney “Pete” Stark; Al Green; Stephen Lynch; Donna F. Edwards; John Lewis; Bob Fil­ner; Diane Wat­son; Ben­nie G. Thomp­son; Tammy Bald­win; John Gara­mendi; Bobby L. Rush; Jesse L. Jack­son Jr.; Bart Gor­don; Melvin L. Watt; Cor­rine Brown; Lucille Roybal-Allard.


Sin­cere regards,

[Your Name]

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Feed Just One

You are probably familiar with the Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic order of sisters established by Mother Teresa, with a special calling to the "poorest of the poor." Of course, Calcutta was the first mission field for these women, who seek to serve those who have no one and nothing else, with the firm conviction that "Each one of them is Jesus in disguise," as Mother Teresa was known to say. While in Haiti, we were blessed to visit one of their homes for children, just across the street from St. Michel Church and Hospital.

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We had been visiting the hospital for several days before I was even aware that the Missionaries of Charity had a home just across the street. There was no sign that I noticed, and the buildings were obscured by a heavy yellow gate and trees on the hillside, ascending up to the house. It seemed fitting that the sisters' children's home was a bit hidden--just like the face of Jesus was present, but just beneath the surface within it.

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Our initial experience of walking into this children's home was very similar to the one earlier in the morning, visiting the one run by one of the Protestant churches in the area. There were children everywhere! Just like the other kids, the toddlers and young children ran up to us, and leaped up into our arms. I watched as a little boy scaled up the back of one of our fellow visitors, making his way to his shoulders. Once he was perched on top, he belted out a song in Creole, roughly translated, "I am a monkey on a coconut tree."

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Though the behavior of the kids was quite similar to the first orphanage, there were a few notable differences between the two places. The first was that the Sisters did not allow us to bring any stuff in--no toys, no supplies, no money, no cameras. They just wanted for us to bring love, and to share that lavishly with these kids. This request also reminded me of Mother Teresa's words and philosophy, "Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat."

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The layout of the children's home was also quite different. In the first orphanage, it was set up much like a house, with kitchen/living space downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. In this one, there was a door leading into a central hallway with several classroom-style rooms on either side. We made our way down the hallway to the last room on the left, where the babies were. The concrete walls had a few photos or devotional images of Jesus, Mother Teresa, Pope Benedict, and Pope John Paul II. Within those walls were straight rows of cribs. There were no toys or blankets. Just cribs and babies. The room and the infants were clearly well physically taken care of--a Haitian woman smiled to us as she swept the already clean floor and wiped the face of one of the children.

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Many of the cribs were emptied within a few minutes, as members of our large group picked up the babies who were old enough to stand up and demand attention. But not all of the babies did that. There were some, clearly old enough to stand, who merely laid in their cribs, motionless, staring at the wall with a blank stare. I reached out to one of these little ones, rubbing her back and speaking to her. Still, no movement. Her belly was large and protruding, and her little arms seemed so thin compared to the plump babies I'm used to seeing. Her hair was copper colored in the front, instead of the usual healthy black. Clearly, there was something wrong.

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I found out later the name for these symptoms. Kwashiorkor (pronounced /kwɑːʃiˈɔrkər/). The word comes from the Ga language of Ghana, where it means, "the sickness the baby gets when the new baby comes" (thank you, Wikipedia). Most newborns rely on their mother's breast-milk for all their nutritional needs. In Haiti, women have little power to say "no" to sex or to use contraception, and often, they quickly become pregnant again. When the next baby is on the way or born the older one is weaned, even if there is little other food for him or her to transition to. Over time, without the nutrition he or she needs, the sickness starts. If there is no treatment, it can result in death.

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This home for children is here specifically to help these infants and toddlers--not because they are orphaned and have no family, but because the family is unable to provide enough food for them to survive. Desperate mothers and fathers bring their babies to the Sisters to keep for a few years, to feed and to care for. They know that it is their baby's only chance to survive. And so, the Sisters give these babies a place to live. They give them clothing and a clean crib to sleep in. They care for them when they are sick. They give them as much attention as they can. They give them food. They give them a chance to survive.

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Thinking about the Sisters' work and the way they love these children, Jesus in disguise, the words of Matthew 25 are echoing in my mind again: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. . .Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

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Being there, seeing these kids, even thinking about it now--I am moved. Someone told me once that, when the Holy Spirit moves you, it is always for a reason. It is always for some kind of action. Thinking about how to respond, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. There are so many problems. There are so many children. But then, I think once again of some words Mother Teresa said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, then feed just one."

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It costs about $100 to save a child from malnutrition, using something called "Medika Mamba"--"medical peanut butter" in Creole, which works quickly and effectively to treat Kwashiorkor. It doesn't solve all the problems that contribute to malnutrition. It doesn't save the whole country. But it does save one child. Would you prayerfully consider feeding just one?

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A couple organizations saving lives using Medika Mamba:

World Wide Village

Canaan Orphanage (where Caroline Gast is serving)

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Check out this video from the Canaan Orphanage Medika Mamba project:



Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Words of wisdom

One of the delights of Haitian culture is the rich library of proverbs. These sayings are commonly known and are woven into everyday conversation for wisdom in shorthand. There must be hundreds and hundreds of these sayings, each of them like a haiku—just a few words, artfully crafted with beauty, meaning and economy. They reflect so much about the spirit of Haitian culture, history, and experience. Here are a few.

Photo above by Ron Holt

Bondye bon.

God is good.

This one means, “Whatever is, is good,” or “Whatever God does is for the best.” This attitude this proverb reflects has been called “optimistic fatalism.” On the one hand, this seems to be great for mental health. On the other hand, it doesn’t do much at all for national development! It’s nothing like that protestant work ethic that inspired so many generations of Americans to work hard and strive in order to demonstrate their assured position among the predestined “chosen.”

But, from a mental wellness perspective, how else could people cope with so much suffering? While we were in Haiti, I heard it for the first time from a woman who did the laundry at the hospital. Each day we were there I saw her, working for hours, hunched over a wash basin, her hands toughened and chaffed by decades of this kind of work. Whenever I would walk by, she would call out a greeting and “Kijan ou ye?” How are you? I would answer with an upbeat word or two, and toss the question back to her. She always answered with a cascading response, starting with, “Pa pi mal, gras a dye.” No worse than before, thanks to God. She continued with other matter-of-fact thanksgivings, punctuated by the phrase, “Bondye bon.” Was she trying to convince herself, or convince me? Was this a profession of faith, or a defeated acceptance of a difficult reality? Not sure, I repeated it back to her in affirmation, “Wi, se sa, Bondye bon!” She lit up with delight that I understood her words and, perhaps in some way, her sentiment. “Wi, wi, Bondye bon!

Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.

Behind the mountains, there are mountains.

This proverb is also the basis of the title of a wonderful book about Paul Farmer, a doctor/anthropologist/founder of Partners in Health, by Tracy Kidder (“Mountains Beyond Mountains”). “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” This one reminds me of the more, ahem, colorful, Polish proverb, Jak nie urok to sraczka, which means, “If it’s not a curse, it’s diarrhea!” That one kind of applies to life in Haiti, too, now that I think of it. Plenty of curses and diarrhea to go around!

But, in this land of mountains and more mountains, the Creole version is really much more appropriate. I can just imagine a man walking through the countryside from his small village to the city, many days walk away. Perhaps he is going to market, to seek work, or to try to get some medical attention. Even with great endurance and sinewy muscles hewn by years of labor, at a certain point, it must feel like a long way to go. Maybe he thinks to himself, “It must be just over this next ridge.” He takes each next step up the impossibly steep slope. He finally reaches to top. He looks down. He sighs. No, he hasn’t reached the city yet. Just more mountains. Dèyè mòn, gen mòn.

Photo above by Ron Holt

Wòch nan dlo pa konnen doulè wòch nan solèy.

The rock in the water doesn’t know the pain of the rock in the sun.

This one basically means, “You can’t fully understand someone else’s pain.” Like so many of these proverbs, this one communicates a very fundamental truth of Haitian life and society. It speaks to the deep divisions between the haves and the have-nots; between the rich and the poor; between the few elite and the masses in misery.

There’s a part of me that aches when I realize how difficult it is to truly understand the suffering and the experiences of others in any circumstance, especially across cultures and languages and socio-economic categories. And there are moments when it just doesn’t seem worth it, or even possible. But then I’m reminded, isn’t that what the whole idea of the incarnation is all about? Isn’t that the central, earth-shattering beginning of the “Jesus event” (as my theology friends would call it)? Isn’t there something important about knowing what it is like to be “a rock in the sun” even if one started out in the water? Isn’t that at the core of what we are to be about as Christians? Isn’t that what scripture says here, in Philippians 2:5-8?

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death—

even death on a cross!

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