Monday, December 25, 2006
"Oh the weather outside is delightful. . ." Everything's upside down in Haiti, including the words to this song, though they are true today: sunny skies and temps in the 80's for Christmas in Haiti.
It hasn't been the best Christmas weekend in Haiti, as UN troops stormed Cite Soleil, killing at least nine people. Elsewhere the usual grind of poverty went on, punctuated by loud fireworks at night and music coursing through the streets.
Being the middle class Americans that we are, we escape the misery, even as it surrounds us. Our only real hardship is being away from our families for the holidays, though the addition of our new family member here in Haiti makes it all worthwhile.
Wherever you are and however you are celebrating Christmas, we send you the following greetings:
Happy Holidays to you from Haiti, where we have spent the last five months waiting to complete the adoption of our son, Luke Innocent. We are grateful to be able to spend this time with Luke, a joyful little boy, who is changing his parents for the better.
Haiti is a humbling place to be. People suffer terribly from poverty and disease. We believe that where people are suffering, God is especially present. We see this presence in the faith of our Haitian brothers and sisters, who are so grateful to God for the little they have. We ask your prayers for them and for all of us that we might work to bring justice to the world and bear witness to the Child born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem.
We wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy 2007!
John, Maria, & Luke
In the photo above, President Rene Preval gives a Christmas address to children gathered on the lawn of the National Palace.
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Please make sure you read to the end of this post to discover what the photograph to the right is of.
I haven't written much about Haiti's disastrous environmental situation. Most of Haiti's once lushly forested mountains are now barren. There are many reasons for this, including the sugar plantations that the colonizing French cleared the land for. Currently, Haitians cut down the trees and turn the wood into charcoal for cooking. Although it is mainly poor people who do this, the rich in Haiti help provide a market for the charcoal as some like the way their food tests better when it's cooked over charcoal than when it's prepared by other means.
Besides being an eyesore, the unprotected, deforested land is vulnerable to the tropical storms that regularly lash Haiti during the rainy season. As the water rolls down the mountains, it takes the topsoil with it. This hurts the fertility of the land and also causes horrendous flooding which kills and displaces thousands of people each year.
The picture accompanying this post is a famous one from National Geographic. It was taken over the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. More clearly and starkly than any line on a map, the difference between the mountains of Haiti--the name means high country--and the mountains of the DR indicate the border.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
One of our Haitian Hearts patients called his host family in the United States and asked them to encouraged us to go home, as he was worried about our safety. Our little commitment asleep on the mattress prevents us from doing this. We stay in a safe place, so that's good.
The kidnappings get a lot more media coverage than the kids dying quietly in the slums. Unless the hospital morgue workers put out their bodies in a courtyard to protest their low wages, which happened this week at the General Hospital in Port-au-Prince.
The kidnappings hurt Haiti beyond the immediate victims. People don't want to come here or invest here when they learn about the crime. The kidnappings really hurt the economy.
There are all kinds of theories about why there are kidnappings. One is that the powerful people who control the drugs that move easily through Haiti want to keep the country unstable and the law enforcement corrupt and disorganized so they are allowed to conduct business as usual.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
But then we heard the violent, chop chop chop of the white UN helicopter flying overhead. As we watched its pattern in the sky, I said to John, “It looks like it’s circling.” He nodded. “The slums are right down there,” he pointed to a location about two miles away. Irony isn’t dead in Haiti as the worst slums are on the ocean. “Wharf Jeremie is right there, LaSaline is there and Soleil is there.” The helicopter continued circling for about 15 minutes. “I wonder what’s happening down there,” I murmured.
Whatever it is, it probably isn’t good. “People are trapped down there,” said John and he doesn’t mean this figuratively. The slums are a trap within a trap.
“People can’t get out of the way of the bullets. They can’t go anywhere. They can’t hide.” All too often, the bullets find them.
“The gang members aren’t good guys and the UN soldiers aren’t good guys.” If you’re killed by one of their bullets, it doesn’t much matter whose gun it came from.
“If the poor people sniffle, they get shot.”
“Working in Cité Soleil is voyeuristic,” continues John. “The acuity of the illnesses is severe. I wanted to do so much, but I could do so little.”
Sunday, December 10, 2006
Friday, December 08, 2006
Maxime has been to the States once before, a few years ago to have his valve surgically repaired. He now needs an artificial valve put in--they are appropriately called-St. Jude's valves--one that will last him the rest of his life.
Maxime lives near LesCayes, a bumpy, six hour ride away. His brother brought him to Port-au-Prince several weeks ago and John examined him. Maxime ended up staying with us for a night and it was quite memorable. During the rainy season, the water pours from the sky, and in the case of this night, it poured in our room too--right onto my pillow. A leaky roof was nothing new to Maxime, though. His leaky heart is much more concerning.
Hopefully, it will not be leaking for much longer. We are in the process of gathering all of the paperwork and plan to have Maxime on a plane for the States before Christmas.
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
Most fascinating to me was Lincoln's progression from a poor young man to an influential Illinois pol. He had to overcome disadvantage that his more privileged rivals--William Seward, Edwin Stanton, Edward Bates, and Salmon Chase--never dreamed of. Lincoln had the magnamity to appoint Stanton as the Secretary of War, even though six years earlier, Stanton had cruelly snubbed Lincoln, even referring to him as a gorilla. Stanton worked like a dog as the Secretary, though, and came to love Lincoln.
As in Haiti, children of the 19th century die frequently and early. The Lincolns didn't escape this scourge. Abraham and Mary Lincoln lost three of their four boys: Edward, 2, to tuberculosis in Springfield, Willie, the favorite child,11, to typhoid fever during some of the darkest days of the war, and Tad at 18, from "compression of the heart," likely caused from TB. Thousands in Haiti die of these diseases today; both are curable with antibiotics.
The book also describes Lincoln's connection with Peoria and other parts of central Illinois. In his great Peoria speech, in which the future president spoke opposite Stephen Douglas in support of keeping slavery out of Nebraska, "Lincoln implored his audience to re-adopt the Declaration of Independence (which stated famously that all men are created equal) and 'return slavery to the position our fathers gave it; and there let it rest in peace.'"
I wrote an op-ed about turning 40 that appeared in the Peoria Journal Star. In it, I quoted a stanza from one of Lincoln's favorite poems, "Mortality," by William Knox. Kearns includes the same stanza in Rivals. With death all around him, Lincoln became preoccupied with the subject as the content of the poem indicates:
Oh! Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
The older one gets, the truer those words become.
Kearns peppers her account with many of the amusing and illuminating stories that Lincoln told to emphasize his points. When Lincoln was making his historic journey to Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy that was now in Union hands, the president was forced to transfer from a ship to a barge to a row boat, due to torpedoes and other debris in the water. The military men were nervous and chagrined, but not the president. "The situation reminded him, he cheerfully noted, of a man who had approached him seeking a high position as a consulate minister: 'Finding he could not get that, he came down to some more modest position. Finally he asked to be made a tide-waiter. When he saw he could not get that, he asked me for an old pair of trousers. But it is well to be humble.'"
Finally, a piece of timeless wisdom from the timeless sage: While the disastrous battle of Bull Run was going on, Lincoln took the time to write a cadet who was miserable at West Point and was contemplating quitting. "'Allow me to assure you it is a perfect certainty that you will, very soon, feel better--quite happy--if you only stick to the resolution you have taken to procure a military education. I am older than you, have felt badly myself, and know, what I tell you is true. Adhere to your purpose and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life.'"
This little blog review can't do Lincoln or Ms. Kearns' book justice. My advice to you is to read the book.
Monday, December 04, 2006
It’s a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. Winston Churchill described Russia this way, but he just as easily could have been talking about Haiti. It is difficult for Haitians, much less visitors, to figure out what is going on. UN troops roll their tanks through Cité Soleil and fire their machine guns hoping to kill gang members but the bullets more often find innocent people. The young man above is on crutches because his leg was shot off. His look-a-like brother is also on crutches having nearly lost his leg to a bullet.
Some of the gangs run kidnapping rings. We’ve heard that they share a cut of the proceeds of the ransoms with UN soldiers who look the other way as the victims are brought into a holding house in the slum. Perhaps this would explain why UN soldiers in their tanks watched as an American was kidnapped in front of them last year. Or maybe the alleged anti-Americanism of some of the troops, who hail from places like Jordan and Sri Lanka, is the reason. But then occasionally, UN soldiers are killed by gunfire from Soleil. Some Haitians refer to the UN troops as tourists, whose main interest is in making connections with local girls.
Common wisdom is that hostages are released after a ransom is paid, as was the case with our Haitian friend Paul a few of weeks ago. But then a couple days later, the same gang killed a 21-year-old girl after a $4,000 was paid for her release.
And the gangs, what’s their deal? Some people say they are just common criminals with a criminal’s motive of profit. Others say that they are loyalists of Aristide who want to destabilize the government and are calling for his return. Then others say they are secretly supplied with guns and money by right wing enemies of Aristide. Some left wing publications refer to the gangs as community organizers. The UN troops are the real villains they say. The only reason John can go into Cité Soleil safely—if you don’t count the random UN bullets—is because he is accompanied by someone who has a good relationship with the gangs. Plus he is providing much needed medical care. Then there’s the view that the young men who make up the gangs have no other alternatives in Haiti. They are hungry and angry because they know the way the rest of the world lives.
It’s hard to figure and hard to predict too. Who would think that a well-regarded film festival held in Jacmel, this past weekend, a concert fronted by Wyclef Jean, would make a tour of Cité Soleil and some of the other slums? But that’s exactly what’s going to happen later this month. A truck carrying a 15-foot-tall screen will make its way to Port-au-Prince and beginning December 11, will show films dealing with issues that face the audiences—AIDS, crime, domestic violence, and child slavery—while entertaining people too. In the midst of hunger, disease, and violence, people will get to go to the movies. For lives that are unremittingly hard and painful, this may seem like frivolity. “Life is so fragile here,” said one young man. “You go to sleep not knowing if you will wake to see another day.” But as Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat said, “Sometimes it’s that one moment that flips things. It can be pretty incredible and could flip the way you look at the world.”