In Septemeber 2008, I traveled 6000 miles to Haiti's Kenscoff mountains. My mission: to care for some of the orphaned and abandoned, the sick, malnourished and premature infants of this beautiful but beleagured Caribbean nation.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Hunger and Unrest in Haiti

Visualizing finer strokes

I was reluctant to post about the riots in Haiti last week, partly because I was aware that we only ever hear bad things about the country and I did not want to emphasise this negative. For the most part, I wanted to understand the situation and especially the people in it.

I am glad I took the time to research different perspectives. I read that Haitians were eating mud cakes, rocks, tree bark and even goat feces to stave off the hunger pains. Knowing this, I comprehended their desperation.

Then, an incisive simile, coined in the slums of Port-au-Prince gave me as much empathy as as anyone who has never experienced starvation can feel. The people talk about Chlorax Hunger. Chlorax is a brand of bleach. Hunger burns our stomach like chlorax or battery acid cuts our intestines, the people say. For them, hunger is agonising and torturous. It burns. It is Chlorax Hunger

We heard about flaming barricades and gunfire. Angry mobs who rammed the gates of the presidential palace and even looted a UN warehouse. It seems these apparently reckless and impulsive acts, were a desperate, and yes, angry cry to be seen and heard.

'If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave,' said protester Renand Alexandre. 'If the police and U.N. troops want to shoot at us, that's OK, because in the end if we are not killed by bullets we'll die of hunger.'

The rioting public felt they had nothing to lose. An American missionary, serving in Haiti for almost 30 years, observed that the most impoverished people of Haiti have been suffering the effects of rising food prices for a number of months.

This global phenomenon is a result of higher oil prices and a growing demand for bio-fuels. The crisis is particularly acute in Haiti, where food prices have increased by up to 40% and floods and hurricanes have caused extensive damage to crops. This has lead the UN declared a state of emergency in the country.

The tiny nation's agricultural sector has been undermined by decades of environmental degradation and cheap foreign imports. Haiti has a limited capacity to feed it's people.

Haitians refrained from violent action as the crisis deepened. They patiently awaited change. Unrest, though, had been in the air for some time, and because their president was silent as the cost of living soared and hunger worsened, people became increasingly dispossessed.

'We don't hear him say anything'
'Life is too expensive, nous fini ak grangou' (we have had enough of this hunger.)

The result: violence flared. The protests intensified when the president broke his vow to stand in solidarity with the protesters. The riots were just quick to subside when he eventually responded to their call to speak some meaningful words.

As the people requested, the Prime Minister, Jacquet Edouard Alexis, was ousted. Ministers were asked to accept a 10% pay cut and to steward government funds wisely. It can only be hoped that this will appease the protesters, and that they will then listen to the president's suggestions for stabilising the nation. While I can't condone the violence and destruction we saw last week, I can see where it came from, and why. The people have suffered long enough.

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