This question was asked by a child at Our Lady of Fatima, La Fossette, Haiti and directed to members of my church who were part of a mission trip to our sister parish in March 2009. It echoes grimly today.
Last night, Haiti – the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of its people living below the poverty line– was hit by a 7.0 earthquake, the largest in the country’s 200-year history. The damage is unknown but the hardest hit area was Petionville, a hilly suburb of Port au Prince, where cement buildings pancaked, mountains crumbled, and streets collapsed. I heard the news from my brother-in-law who was calling to find out about the safety of my stepdaughter Lindsay, who lives in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic – which shares the Hispaniola Island with Haiti. After a panicky, anxiety-ridden hour tracking down Lindsay we learned that, blessedly, the Dominican Republic had been spared but Haiti, once again, is a disaster area.
In a sense, I feel deeply conflicted about Haiti. It seems so hopeless, so accursed, so destined for disaster – it’s difficult to feel as if anything could really help that poor, wretched country. Haiti is like the Job of the modern world, suffering through one catastrophe after another. And yet, the people are so beautiful, so hopeful and so resilient that it’s impossible to look away, or walk away.
Haiti has a proud past – it was the first independent nation in Latin America, and the only nation born of a successful slave revolution, with a vibrant and rich culture. Yet in the past fifty years, its people have suffered under some of the most corrupt and repressive regimes in the world – many of which were supported by America.
The country is about the size of Maryland with a population of 9 million people, 2 million living in Port au Prince in densely populated slums. 50% of its people are illiterate. The environmental degradation of the countryside is intense, as poverty-stricken residents have cut down almost every tree in efforts to forage for firewood. And in 2008, four tropical storms wreaked havoc on the roads and infrastructure and laid waste to communities.
And now this earthquake. Yet even last night, almost every story I heard spoke of people praying in the streets, singing hymns, and celebrating when another person was found. That’s why today I’m giving my $100 to Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti Foundation http://www.yele.org , a grassroots organization dedicated to promoting education, sports, arts and the environment in Haitian communities, while providing food distribution and emergency relief on the ground. Call it the triumph of hope over experience. Or just call it help.
For some beautiful young Haitian faces to inspire you, watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrTTtXblSLU&feature=player_embedded#
For a remarkable story of hope in Haiti, read Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer http://www.amazon.com/Mountains-Beyond-Quest-Farmer-Would/dp/0812973011 or Eldridge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. http://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=breath+eyes+and+memory&tag=yahhyd-20&index=aps&hvadid=18603573011&ref=pd_sl_75b8t04zb7_b
And to keep a Haitian song in your heart, listen to Wyclef Jean’s Welcome to Haiti: Creole 101. http://www.amazon.com/Welcome-Haiti-Creole-Wyclef-Jean/dp/B0002WZTB6/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1263398816&sr=8-8
(All photos in this piece are by my wonderful friend Herb Allison, who with his wife Beth, lived in the Dominican Republic and worked on clean water projects for several years. )