Haitians Helping Haitians

Haitian volunteers in in Abricots, 2016. Photo: K. Jessica Hsu.

January 9, 2010, the day before the massive earthquake hit Haiti, Dahline was washing clothes by the river at the far end of the island in a town called Abricots. Her face bore the scars of various epileptic seizures she had suffered. On her right forearm was a deep bluish scar from when she fell into an open fire while cooking. Another on her forehead, when she had fallen during a bout in the latrine. That day, Dahline suffered another seizure. She fell in the river and without a sound, she drowned.

It is commonly known that epileptic incidences have a high correlation to chronic malnutrition. She was not the only one who suffered from these bouts in Abricots. Dahline’s life and death, like so many others andeyò, literally “outside,” in the provinces, was never acknowledged. What was considered “normal” never should have been; it was a crisis that preceded the current disaster. Dahline was another casualty of the norm in Haiti machinated by a postcolonial State in service to foreign powers still trying to accumulate wealth and maintain resources through exploitation and neglect of the majority of its population, especially those in or once living in the countryside.

In the days that followed the 2010 earthquake, Abricots’ population increased by 8,314 people (about a 25% increase) seeking safe havens with their family and friends from the earthquake. Family members opened their homes and whatever resources they had to support each other. One lakou (traditional family compound) grew from 5 to 41 people. Although the growth of many lakou was not quite as dramatic, resources were stretched thin as those fleeing Port-au-Prince were welcomed, affectionately called names like dekonm (rubble), reskape (rescue), and even depòte (deported). Nationwide, 630,000 people left Port-au-Prince to the different areas of the countryside.

As we write this, it has been just over two weeks since the two earthquakes devastated the southern peninsula of Haiti. The damage is still being assessed, and the death toll is still rising. Foreign aid is trickling in, and both international institutions/groups and Haitian groups coming from Port-au-Prince and the diaspora are distributing humanitarian aid. The distributions have been focused in more visible areas such as main cities, and tent cities are beginning to cluster main roads. Although there is an effort to reach remote areas, many still have yet to see external aid. Photographers and videographers are being hired to take photos so organizations can raise funds contributing to disaster porn and poverty pimping, while the subjects of the photos frequently feel increasingly vulnerable and exploited.

In addition to the devastation, the diminishing coverage is dominated by images of foreign agencies distributing aid. These images continue to negate what Haitians do for Haitians collectively everyday maneuvering a system that continues to marginalize them; in a country which lives by proverbs such as vwazin se fanmiw (neighbors are family), yon sel dwèt pa manje kalalou a (literally translated as you cannot eat okra/gumbo with one finger, meaning collectively things are possible).

The media attention notwithstanding, similar to previous disasters, the first responders are not foreign NGOs. They are neighbors, family, friends, fellow churchgoers, and grassroots organizations. Haitian writers and analysts like Michèle Montas, Evelyne Trouillot, and Yanick Lahens documented the outpouring of local solidarity following the 2010 earthquake. Chenet Jean-Baptiste, director of Haitian development NGO ITECA, argued that rural families provided enormous material aid to their Port-au-Prince members, housing and feeding them from reserves that could have otherwise gone to next year’s planting season. Neither international NGOs that received billions in aid nor the Haitian government compensated or supported rural communities for this life-saving assistance. This would have improved the economies of these rural communities, rather than depleting them and increasing their vulnerabilities when Hurricane Matthew hit in 2016, and now these earthquakes. Only one percent of federal funds make it outside the West department housing the capital metropolitan area.

Other forms of solidarity Hsu witnessed in 2016 as part of a rights delegation that travelled to Les Irois were family and friends returning from big cities, providing for the exact needs of their families and friends, and even building temporary shelters frequently with shaved pieces of wood interwoven and a pay (thatched) roof, known as kay klis, which took generally 3-4 solid days to assemble.

Building temporary shelters in Les Irois. Photo: K. Jessica Hsu.

People shared machetes that were not lost in the wind and rain to clean the centers of town, the roads, and each other’s homes. Family members in the bouk (center of town) checked on family members who were further inland, or vice-versa, to see how the other fared and how they could mutually support each other in the difficult days, weeks, and months to come.

In the town of Abricots, the Association of Youth Volunteers of Abricots (AJVPA) collaborated with the mayor’s office and Fondation Paradis des Indiens (FPDI) on an assessment that included needs and resources of the entire commune [see photo2]. The representatives of each local institution were trained and went door to door as the rain continued flooding and swelling the rivers in the weeks that followed the Category 4 Hurricane. Two dedicated volunteer researchers nearly lost their lives when trying to cross the swollen rivers, only to be saved by grabbing a felled coconut tree that straddled the river.

As we write, trained local doctors are forming their own mobile clinics to reach remote areas that have been affected by the earthquakes treating both earthquake injuries and preexisting maladies, like Dahline’s epilepsy. Friends are bringing refilled gallons of potable water to areas that have difficulty with resources and access to purchase. For the first few days, the water sources were contaminated. Family and friends who were more affected in Jeremie are returning for safer shelter to their less affected hometowns, such as Abricots. Households are increasing again without any external support or aid. Family and friends from Port-au-Prince are bringing in needed items such as tarps, tents and food to their families in affected areas and then returning to Port-au-Prince to work, so that the money they earn can help their families rebuild.

This story of local communities taking the lead is not unique to Abricots, as Les Cayes-based journalist Jean Claudy Aristil covered for Radyo Ayiti Egalite, and the Haitian Times reported for the Nippes province.

Friends with lam veritab (breadfruit) send some to family and friends with less access to food to make the local favorite tonmtonm (reminiscent of West African foufou). It is also avocado season and therefore, they are plentiful and nutritious. These are among the local resources that already exist in addition to ideas, skills, experience, and the relationships and desire for self-determination in rebuilding their lives and communities.

Absolutely, the situation remains quite urgent with homes destroyed and people badly injured. Individuals and communities do require external support, but this support should take inspiration from the leadership of people from their respective communities. Although the damage is extensive, many gardens and trees still have food and have been unaffected, water sources have cleared, but limited access to potable water pre-existed the earthquake. These are all factors that should be taken into consideration and aid should support the horizontal ways of mutual aid given in solidarity like Haitians provide for one another.

Haiti’s countryside is a collective culture. Each time we isolate individuals from their societal structures, we play a role in creating competition within these communities. Also, it must be understood that Haitians are not solely victims of the earthquake, but first responders not just after a natural catastrophe, but everyday.

Understanding – and supporting – Haitian people as first responders helps Haitian solutions materialize, moving beyond charity and toward solidarity.

Centering Haitian people as the true heroes in their own recovery is a first step in rewriting the disaster narrative, and an act of solidarity that makes the future of Haiti look different and brighter.

 K. Jessica Hsu is anthropologist and solidarity activist who is currently living in Haiti. She is based in Port-au-Prince now, but has spent most of her almost 20 years in Haiti in the commune of Abricots in the Grand Anse department. She is co-founder for Effective Aid for Haiti. Mark Schuller is Professor of anthropology and nonprofit and NGO studies at Northern Illinois University and affiliate at the Faculté d’Ethnologie, l’Université d’État d’Haïti. Schuller wrote or co-edited eight books—including Tectonic Shifts: Haiti since the Earthquake and Humanitarian Aftershocks in Haiti—and co-director/co-producer of the documentary Poto Mitan: Haitian Women, Pillars of the Global Economy. Recipient of the Margaret Mead Award, Schuller is President of the Haitian Studies Association and active in several solidarity efforts.  

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