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A Journalist Remembers Haiti

A Journalist Remembers Haiti

By Alice Nascimento, former Correspondent with MediaGlobal News Service at the United Nations

UNITED NATIONS, 16 January 2010 [MEDIAGLOBAL]: It was exactly two years and one month from today that I first stepped foot in Haiti.

There I was - a young journalist assigned by the United Nations-based development media news service, MediaGlobal, on my first foreign mission visiting one of Port au Prince's most notorious bidonvilles in Haiti, Carrefour Feuilles. Despite the seemingly dangerous nature of my trip, my assignment was innocuous enough: to cover the launch of a successful United Nations development project funded by three emerging international partners, India, Brazil and South Africa, widely known through their acronym, IBSA - and coordinated by the UNDP Special Unit for South-South Cooperation.

When I first began my research, Haiti seemed to be a country like many others. It emblematizes a story easily found throughout the developing world - nearly 80 percent of its population lives on less than $2 a day, half live on $1 a day, and about 80 percent are unemployed. For all of its culture and energy, the tiny island nation was and continues to primarily be known for one thing - "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." Yet another failed state, cynics proclaim. Tired of waiting for the West to bring it hope, yet so deeply dependent on it.

"Haiti is a place that every time I go back to, I feel no hope - I see no improvements," a UN official warned me before I left. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel."

The story is far too familiar, but is quickly forgotten. Until calamity strikes as it did this past Tuesday night on 12 January.

The reports are heart wrenching. Over 50,000 dead, corpses piled up on the streets, lost children looking for mothers, the screams for "water" percolating through the mountainous hills that are now filled with heaps upon heaps of rubble.

Yet despite the graphic images and widespread devastation, I cannot help but remember the Haiti that I came to know.

Two years ago, I expected to be met by a tired and desolate people grown weary of suffering. To be wholly confronted with abject poverty, desperation and hopelessness.

Surprisingly, that never happened.

Yes, Haiti is an impoverished country, and yes, people struggle and suffer on a daily basis. But what I found in Haiti was something different.

I met a community that until a few years ago had been on the brink of collapse. Having been labeled a "red zone," Carrefour Feuilles was one of the most violent bidonvilles in Port au Prince. Violent gangs roamed the streets, and the provision of public services had virtually collapsed, leaving behind piles of garbage throughout the country's ill-maintained roads.

With funding from IBSA and assistance from the United Nations Development Programme, the community of Carrefour Feuilles had built a waste collection center that served as the area's primary garbage collecting and recycling system. Out of recycled waste, they made brooms and cooking bricks, making the project sustainable both financially and environmentally. In a country where less than 2 percent of its land is forested, the cooking bricks have become a fundamental instrument in combating deforestation, a problem often associated with Haiti's widespread poverty and devastating storms.

Strikingly, what I recall the most was the pride that Haitians felt. They had full ownership of the project, as the operation was fully in the hands of Carrefour Feuilles' democratically elected committee, led by Haitian Patrick Massenat.

I fondly remember the assurance and conviction in Patrick's voice as he described the daily efforts that it took to clean Haiti's streets and the challenges the community had faced - from funding to logistics to elections to making "gold" out of trash.

"We have done this ourselves," he asserted. "This is our project, our success, our accomplishment. We have shown the world that we can help ourselves."

He was frail, but his eyes were one of the strongest I had seen.

He then delved into territory I had little familiarity with - Haiti's often tumultuous and complicated history.

Like the current reality of its people, Haiti's history tells a tale of struggle and ultimately, survival. From initial French occupation in the 1700s, to ultimate independence in 1804, to US control in the early 1900s, to the brutality of the Papa Doc and Baby doc regimes throughout the 1960's until the 1980's, Haiti's only hope seemed to lay in Jean Bertrand Aristide - the country's first democratically elected president, who took office in 1990. Haiti soon engulfed into chaos as Aristide was deposed eight months later, only to be returned to power in 2001 and later forced into exile in 2004 UN control followed, leaving Haiti, as its eponymous name signifies, with its "hundreds of mountains" of struggles.

And now, there is Haiti today - merely another failed, forgotten state trapped under the rubble, cynics proclaim.

Yet in spite of the obstacles, Patrick and many others in Carrefour Feuilles had not forgotten the symbolic meaning of Haiti and its global significance. It should not be solely known as "the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere," but more importantly, as the second country after the US to become independent in the entire Western hemisphere. As the inspiration to millions of those colonized in Latin America to rise up and claim independence against the oppression of colonizing powers. As a revolutionary movement led by the determination and spirit of slaves determined to regain their own history and dignity, and reclaim the power, as Frantz Fanon would say, to "lighten their [own] darkness."

The community of Carrefour Feuilles had done just that. Until this past Tuesday, they continued on being the foot-soldiers of the global warming movement, cleaning the streets, while still producing 700-1,000 cooking bricks a day.

It is heartening that the project was one of 12 finalists in the BBC's World Challenge 2009, a global competition hosted by the BBC World News and Newsweek. From violence and agony to BBC worldwide finalist, to later making it as one of the top three challengers, is indeed commendable. Praise from former President Bill Clinton, singer Wyclef Jean and countless other celebrities poured in as the The New York Times and other international publications, began to take heed, discovering that maybe, just maybe, the people of Haiti may be able to do it themselves. Maybe there was some light at the end of the tunnel.

What continues to surprise me about Haiti is that despite the widespread poverty and the ostensible hopelessness of their reality, I met a people who were still hopeful and full of life. Yes, the problems were dire. Economic stagnancy, widespread hunger, deforestation and now, a deadly earthquake - the list is endless.

But transcending all the agony was an immeasurable level of resilience. A resilience that can often be found in the poorest places all over the world, but that in Haiti, for me, obfuscated its "hundred mountains." These were a people that were used to struggle, yet continued on fighting. Their hope had incrementally diminished as the years slowly passed, but it was by no means gone. There was definitely a light at the end of the tunnel, however dim some may claim it to be.

It was an irrational optimism that regardless of devastation ensured that they rose every morning with a vestige of hope that somehow, today may be a little bit better. It was optimism that even now, in the rubbles of Port au Prince, a latent feeling among its people reveals that like its past history of devastation, this too is another one of its many obstacles - however catastrophic it may be, that this too will be overcome.

While the level of international response has been tremendous, with President Obama sending in 10,000 troops and donating US$100 million, and countless other nations sending emergency relief support, the international community has long suffered from a terminal disease of historical amnesia. After the immediate crisis is palliated, we tend to look away. We forget as the next big news captures the headlines.

Famed Algerian revolutionary Franz Fanon perhaps captured the reality of many Haitians when he said, "He who is reluctant to recognize me opposes me." For the past three hundred years, that has been precisely the fate of the tiny island nation, relegated as a non-priority, forgotten by many - until calamity strikes.

I can still vividly remember returning from Haiti that winter and running into an old friend, who immediately asked where I had been. "I just got back from Haiti," I told him, only to be met by a confused stare.

"Where's that?" he questioned.

With the scarce international news reporting from the Caribbean nation, I shouldn't have been surprised.

I know he knows where it is now and that many other people in America just discovered the "mountainous" country on Tuesday.

Let's hope that we won't forget Haiti - even after the calls for aid cease, the news stop reporting and Haiti becomes another distant memory. Let's hope we remember Haiti, even after calamity strikes.


MEDIAGLOBAL is the global news organization, based in the United Nations Secretariat, creating awareness in the media for the countries of the global South, with a strong focus on South-South Cooperation. The media organization is one of the leading providers of information on global development issues facing vulnerable countries. MediaGlobal's news stories are read by leaders of developed countries, the global media, policymakers in donor countries, non-governmental organizations and key personnel in the United Nations Secretariat, its agencies and managers in the field worldwide.



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