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.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Am I not Human? Human Rights Abuses in Haiti

On the 27th day of every month, a group of bloggers unite in an online campaign to share information about human rights abuses across the globe. This month, Cry Haiti focuses on the influence of global capitalism on food security in the Haiti.

There are many reasons for the current food crisis in Haiti. Arguably, the tiny Caribbean nation depends on subsistence farming and foreign imports because crop production is limited by severe environmental degradation, which has lead to soil erosion and seasonal flooding.

Haitians themselves are blamed for allowing large scale deforestation. Look a little deeper, and see the extent to which the trade policies of developed nations have continued to this problem: how our appetite for hard woods has lead to the deforestation of Haiti's land mass, and how imports of subsidised rice, notably from the United States have removed reason or motivation for Haitians to pursue sustainable agricultural development.

Now, international food production for human consumption has reduced due to the profitability of bio fuels and this, together with increased demand from India and China and the rising costs of fuel and fertiliser has driven up global food prices. Haiti has few resources to cope.

The United Nations ranks Haiti as one of the least developed countries in the world, and the poorest in the western hemisphere. More than half of the population lives on less than $1 per day and chronic malnutrition is widespread among children.

Since January, rice prices have risen by 114 percent. Henrite Joseph, a mother from the La Saline Slum spoke to journalist Nick Whalen, about the effects of rising food costs on her family.

"Before, if you had a dollar twenty-five [cents], you could buy vegetables, some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil," she said. "Right now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and it's not good rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With a dollar twenty-five, you can't even make a plate of rice for one child." (IPS, April 16th 2008.)

The United Nations and various economists have called for urgent food aid in the short-term, and long-term investment in Haiti's agricultural sector. This would increase crop yields, enabling Haitians to produce food for their own consumption, and raise revenue by exporting the surplus. I would suggest that trade justice is also critical to empowering the poor.

Politicians will side-step the question, but lets seek a straight answer anyway. When, hungry Haitians ask, Am I not Human? do policy makers and consumers in developed countries consider their dignity? Let's say yes, and let us take whatever steps we can to address the injustice of hunger in Haiti.

*Anyone can assert compassion by contributing to feeding programmes in Haiti.
*Anyone can stand for justice by joining the fair trade movement.
*Anyone who wants action, not words from our politicians can call for the agricultural policies of developed countries to be reformed, to help combat world hunger
*Anyone who believes in dignity can support projects that foster long-term, sustainable agricultural development in Haiti.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Haiti: Not at war, yet a conflict zone

Haiti is not at war, yet it is widely recognised as one of the world’s conflict zones. This is the only non-warring state on earth which requires UN peacekeepers, 8000 of them in fact, to provide a measure of stability. In a country suffocated by poverty and decimated by violence, some places are no go zones for the Haitian police force and aid agencies. UN soldiers patrol these areas in armoured vehicles, and in tanks, with machine guns trained on the inhabitants.

Consider Cité Soleil, the worst slum in the western hemisphere. Built on the salty marsh lands adjacent to Port-au Prince's international airport, it is home to 1 million people, living in squalid conditions amidst a drifts of sewage and rotting rubbish.

There were 100 kidnappings a month here in the earlier months of 2007, more in the later months of the year and according to the United Nations, almost half of all the girls in some of the areas worst affected by gang violence have been raped. According to the UN, similar levels of kidnapping and sexual violence occur in war ravaged parts of the world, including Sudan and the Congo.

From 2004, when democratically elected president John Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a coup d’Etat, gangs have ruled Cité Soleil and other Haitian shanty towns. Initially, these militia were formed to fight the new regime and they used kidnapping and threats of rape to extort money, which they used to buy weapons. The Chimères also known as the ghosts of Cité Soleil are a notable example.

Criminal gangs have also risen up In Haiti, using similar tactics. Against a background of poverty and unemployment, some gangs have neither political nor criminal motives. For them, gang membership is status. They perpetrate violence simply because they are bored, or because rape and violence, to them, are power.

Whatever the motive, Haitian gangs use violence to intimidate, to spread fear and unrest, and to control the population. It works. Between 2004 and 2007, they were the authority in many parts of the capital.

I am not unduly concerned about my safety in Haiti, because foreign nationals are rarely targets of gang violence. I saw worse epidemics of sexual assault when I worked in South Africa and in South Africa, I lived with the threat of armed violence every day.

There are also some signs of improvement: the UN stabilisation mission has been hailed a success with the arrest of several gangs members and the disarmament of many armed groups. This has made the area safe enough for aid agencies to begin work. Médecins Sans Frontières, Compassion International and Oxfam, to name a few, now have programmes in Port-au-Prince. They are housed behind high walls, topped with barbed wire, certainly, but they operate none-the less.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Travel Plans

I will be leaving Scotland on August the 26th, arriving in Haiti the next day at 11:25am local time. This will follow an overnight stay in Miami, where I will arrive in the afternoon, with enough time to catch some rays and to rest, relax and unwind.

Sounds good to me!

A Lesson Learnt... and now to Haiti

I developed a problem with procrastination over the past few years. Over the past few months, I vowed to deal with it. After all, I have enough in-built character flaws all ready, thank you very much!

In recent weeks I.... "forgot" about this vow, the promise I made to me. The issue was booking flights to Haiti. I had picked the dates, but then, wasn't quite sure, so tweaked them a bit (not just once, but several times, over a period of weeks).

I was entitled to a discount (a small one) with one of the airlines. I was determined to use it, even if it would mean an extra night in London: this would still be a financial saving overall, a small one, for a pretty big inconvenience. I slept on it.

The next day, the airline's prices shot up. There was no way of making a financial saving with them anymore, but their flight times out of London's Heathrow Airport and into Miami were good, so I wasn't quite ready to discount them.

This set off more hours of obsessive searching on Expedia, Opodo, the Airline Network, American Airlines, British Airways, Continental Airlines, Air France.... While I was surfing, I found Fly for Good, an agency that seeks discounts for humanitarian workers. I qualified. Yes!

Now my focus was finding the cheapest fare at all costs. After all, the less money I spent on me, the more I could donate to the charity I will be working with in Haiti. This thought was satisfying. Deeply satisfying. Surely it made me right.

But the timings of the cheapest flights would not have suited the NGO I will be working with in terms of the airport pick-up in Port-au-Prince. Never-the-less, I could make a few adjustments, and still save money, not much, but it would be a saving, none-the-less.

It would take me almost two days to get from Scotland to Haiti. The route would be convoluted. There would be loooong layovers in all the wrong places, connecting flights that I would have to check in for at unholy hours of the morning.

I had minimised 9 sites on my computer screen for comparison, and cross comparison. The rows of text were dancing. I rubbed my eyes, and something became clear; I would be going to a foreign country, a place I'd never been. I would arrive in Haiti, tired, and hungry, and jet-lagged to boot. I would have to get through the chaotic capital, and it would probably be a pot-holed ride, alongside smoggy, smelly slums, teeming with poverty.
I would (potentially) pass by bullet riddled buildings and flaming tires of discontent.

I would be buzzing with it all, long before I reached my destination, to meet people I d never met. Lots of them. I would be unshowered when we greeted one another, in the sticky heat, and they might be up close and personal enough to notice! Many of them would be speaking in a foreign language and my poor brain, busy with too much novelty would not be cope.

No, I know well enough that culture shock is difficult enough to deal with, without adding any more stress, brought on by single-minded martyrdom. I selected flights that suit me better, and a nice Miami Airport hotel for the overnight stay. It would cost only a fraction more than the crazy schedule I'd been planning. I decided to sleep on it before I booked: I woke yesterday to find the flight prices had increased by £150. Ouch!

I learnt my lesson (second time around) and was determined to reserve my flights if not right there then, at least that day. I took one last trip to Expedia, and was able to book my flights and hotel for less than it would have cost to book the flights alone. I am not out of pocket!

While everything has worked out in the end, I pity God in Heaven, because sometimes I Just Don't Take the Hint!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

My heart broke for Haiti's children.

I think I first started reading about the plight of Haitian children in 2003, in a report by a human rights organisation. I cant find it now, but it made grim reading.

Later, I learnt about child slaves: children between the ages of 3 and 15 who work as domestic labourers. Usually they are given up by poor rural families who have no means of providing for them and hope that their child will have better opportunities in the city. Others are former street children, kidnapped by organised gangs and sold to families to fund the gang's activities in Port-a-Prince.

They are know as restaveks, a Kreyol euphemism which literally means someone who "stays with" others. In bonded labour, children find hardship, which is often worse than they have ever known. They work long hours fetching water, cooking and cleaning, washing and ironing clothes, running errands and caring for younger children. They have no status in the families who buy them, often sleeping on concrete floors, under kitchen tables. They endure severe beatings and sexual abuse.

These children are invisible to government agencies and in practice, few of their rights are respected. Unpaid, many will not receive enough food to support their growth and most do not attend school. The nature of their work predisposes them to ill-health and injury but the families who "take them in" rarely obtain medical care for them. Most child labourers will never again see their birth families.

15 year old Evans' wont look directly into the camera and seems to avoid the interviewer's gaze. Every day, this teenage boy, who was taken in by relatives after his parents died, dusts himself off, puts on a pair of toe-less shoes and gets to work. The journalist who interviewed him noticed that Evans didn't smile, even once, in all the time they spent together. In return for food and a roof over his head, he does all the house work and labours in his uncle's fields.

Evan's says that that his best efforts are often not enough.. The family tell him he is useless. Once, they tied his hands behind his back, put a bag over his head and beat him. They keep reminding him about all they do for him. Evans is one of the "lucky" retavek children who attended school for a while, but when he passed on the school's request for payment of tuition fees to his family, they called him a liar. He got beaten for that too. That was the end of his school days.

Evans is 1 of 300,000 child slaves living in Haiti, a country with a child population of 3 million. 300, 000 is too big a number to comprehend, but my heart broke, and still breaks to think that while luxurious passenger ships sail the Caribbean blue, 1 in 10 of Haiti's children are living like Evans. Yet for a long time, I said no to Haiti.

You can watch part of Evans' interview in this news documentary about Haiti's indentured child labourers;

Monday, 5 May 2008


My application to join God's Littlest Angel's Medical Ministry was accepted over 5 months ago. My colleagues just learnt about this over the past 5 days!

It was difficult to know when to tell them. I wondered how they would take it. After all, we work on a paediatric ward that, by Western standards, experiences periodic and frequent staffing crises. It was possible that they would picture me on a palm-lined, sun-kissed beach sipping cocktails, and resent it.

On the contrary, everyone I have spoken to so far is behind me. It is my dream to hold, heal and comfort forgotten children and it is my blessing to be able to go, but others are keen to get in on it. My manager has told be she will support my request for a leave of absence (how wonderful it would be to have a job to come back to!) and some of my colleagues have suggested that we collect medical supplies for me to take with me to Haiti.

I hardly dared hope it would happen this way, that I might have more than my own outstretched hands to offer in Haiti!