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Commentary: Haiti: Waiting is hard, but time and cooperation will be needed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 18, 2010 - Menn anpil, chay pa lou. There is much wisdom to gain from old Haitian proverbs. In this case: Many hands lighten the load.

By now, most have seen the images of chaos and destruction from the Haitian capital city following the disastrous earthquake and frequent aftershocks beginning last Tuesday. Fewer are aware of the almost incomprehensible poverty that has long existed 600 short miles from the U.S. Even though they are near, the harsh realities of Haiti are buffered by geography, and thus insulated from many Americans.

I was quite fortunate to live there. I was lucky to have the opportunity to explore the cities and countryside, experience the culture and customs, drink in the religion, dive into the language and focus on a world that was at the outset frightening, bizarre and far removed from my hometown of Columbia, Mo. It exposed me to the dichotomy of Haiti — a desperately poor populace that maintains a resilient attitude, spiritual nature, hopeful outlook and generally positive demeanor, despite plenty of obstacles and dismal prospects for the future.

Most visitors can exit, but few are able to emotionally depart altogether. This is certainly the case for me. Haiti bites you and doesn’t let go (another proverb). Maybe it’s the vigor for life, enduring painful, desolate periods. Maybe it’s the ambition of youth, anxious to learn anything to better themselves and their families’ conditions. Half of the people in Haiti are less than 18 years old. Maybe it’s playfulness, camaraderie, serious political discourse, and the lack of driving materialism.

Maybe it was living with these people that gave me perspective on the true scarcity of their resources.

The urban landscape of Haiti, especially around Port-Au-Prince, has sprawled without appropriate planning and direction. Port-Au-Prince was designed for about 50,000 people and now is home to roughly 3 million. I did not spend a great deal of time there, as I lived in a tiny village much closer to the northern population center of Cap-Haitien. However, when I visited the central Peace Corps Haiti office in Port-Au-Prince, I couldn’t help but notice that the mansions built out of the sides of the mountaintops by the rich 4 percent were in no better shape to handle a real earthquake than the 80 percent that lived in shanties. It turns out that nothing was ready for that kind of seismic event.

The earthquake destroyed the Presidential Palace, the Parliament, the National Cathedral, the headquarters for MINUSTAH (the U.N. stabilization mission to Haiti), the taxation building, the Ministry of Justice, St. Gerard and Sacred Heart (two of the largest schools), the Montana (the nicest hotel), the port of Port-Au-Prince, the control tower at the airport, orphanages, hospitals, prisons ... you name it. Also, it destroyed the picturesque old city of Jacmel, as well as major cities like Les Cayes, Carrefour, Leoganne, Ti Gouave, and more. There are 9 million Haitians in Haiti, and this could affect as many as half of the population.

Not since the Incas met the conquistadors has there been this much death and displacement in the Western Hemisphere.

For me, this past week has been utterly miserable. I desperately want to return and contribute to the clean-up. But I know from experience that anything planned hastily in Haiti will not work, and I understand that my contribution may come later, when my skills are focused on a specific task. Personally, I feel obligated to return; the U.S. government trained me to provide technical assistance to Haiti, and that country needs me now more than ever. I yearn to assist.

It’s horrifying to know that the misery will continue to deepen as each day passes. But Haiti will not give up. Haitians will die trying to pull one another from the rubble. They have tremendous fortitude to overcome tragedy. Right now, many Haitians live and sleep in the street, with no job to look forward to, no family to find comfort in, no available medical treatment, nor basic resources like food, water, or shelter.

The clean-up will take an extraordinary, unprecedented effort in Haiti. It must rely on non-governmental and governmental cohesion. It will rely on pickaxes and shovels as well as cranes and bulldozers. Even though healing the sick, removing debris and dead bodies, and sorting through the rubble are enormous task, even greater work is ahead: the rebuilding of Haiti.

The rebuilding will require dedicated intergovernmental cooperation and decisive action. Unfortunately, precious few resources are present for the reconstruction to come. It will take a sustained commitment from many countries including the United States. Haiti’s new infrastructure must be built from the ground-up. It needs many partners.

Right now it has them, and that is a wonderful thing. I hope the commitment never wanes.

Menn anpil, chay pa lou.

About the author

Nathan Beckett was a rural health education volunteer with the Peace Corps in Haiti from 2002 though 2004. He now lives in St. Louis.

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