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.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Am I Not Human? Sugar-Coated Slavery

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 exploitation of Haitians by the Dominican sugar industry.

Behind a thick leafy curtain of sugar cane, a group of lean, raggedy children with tired eyes and bloated bellies gather the crop cut buy their parents. Working alongside elderly men and pregnant women, they are toiling under armed guard, for the paltry sum of 25c (US) per day. They live in squalid settlements, known as bateyes, without access to a fresh water or electricity. The bateye's are reinforced by barbed wire fences.

Earning just 90c per day, their parents cannot feed them even one decent meal per day. The workers are not permitted to leave the bateyes, and therefore have no option but to spend their wages on overpriced goods in the company store. Adults and children subsist mainly on the nutritionally inadequate sugar cane which they harvest in the fields.

The Children have been trafficked here, with their parents, who were lured by promises of a better life. In reality, they are undertaking forced labour in paradise. The year is 2008, the setting: a matter of miles from the Dominican's sparkling beaches.

Tourists frolicking nearby might have no idea of this carefully hidden travesty, but it is happening with the complicity of Dominican politicians, their military and international businessmen.

Haitian workers are rounded up on trucks and brought into the Dominican illegally, but ready to pay the border fees (sometimes their entire savings). Their Haitian identity papers are confiscated and they do not receive an official work permit in return. Children born in the new country will be denied Dominican citizenship according to international Human Rights group Amnesty International.

As a result, the bateye inhabitants are socially immobile. They are trapped, unable to leave in search a fair wage, or to access health care or education. Although rates of TB and malaria on these plantations are amongst the highest in the world and injury is an occupational hazard, the United Nations Development programme reports that only 7% of the 400 bateyes in the Dominican republic provide a rural clinic for their workers.

US ambassador John Miller, formerly from the Office of Human Trafficking at the US State Department is unequivocal in his condemnation of this system as modern-day “slavery.”

In a 2007 report, the US State Department placed the Dominican Republic on its Tier 2 Watch List for “failure to show evidence of increasing efforts to combat human trafficking, particularly in terms of providing increased assistance to victims and undertaking vigorous actions to counter official complicity with trafficking activity.”

The heartbreaking plight and not so sweet existence of the bateye inhabitants was exposed in a recent documentary about the work of a charismatic priest named Christopher Hartley, ironically, an heir to the company which produces Hartley's Jams in the UK.

The Price of Sugar outlines the human cost of the sugar industry. The revolutionary priest's activism on behalf of dispossessed Haitians has borne some fruit: a marginal pay rise, a few cinder block homes, and some piped water. Father Hartley motivated American doctors to travel to the Dominican republic to care for the bateye inhabitants and established a feeding programme for the children on plantations in his parish. All this came at great personal cost, but despite receiving death threats from the sugar barons, the priest remained adamant: "I would be a fraud if I took one step back.” Then, one day in 2006, the Catholic hierarchy ordered him to leave. Father Hartley obeyed.

Need that be the end of the fight? Not so. The price of sugar's website calls people to action:

* Support the work of Infante Sano, a nonprofit dedicated to providing health care to Dominican and Haitian mothers and infants.
*UK residents can support Christan Aid, in its work with bateye inhabitants and oppressed Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent.
*Americans are urged to lobby their local politicians to ensure that the full civil and labour rights of the cane workers are respected and guaranteed, in exchange for the opportunity to export Dominican sugar to the U.S. market (note: The United States pays up to twice the world price to monopolise exports of Dominican sugar).
*Cane workers in the Caribbean are not the only exploited party. Consider people working on plantations and in factories across the globe, which, produce goods exported to Europe.
*Buy fair trade products (for example sugar, cocoa, fruit, cotton, and nuts.) Cane workers in the Caribbean are not the only exploited party. Consider people working on plantations and in factories across the globe, which, produce goods exported to Europe

Spare a thought and a prayer for the 30,000 Haitians (among them 2000) children who are trafficked to the Dominican Republic every year, and stripped of their human rights and dignity. Spare a thought for the malnourished, the hungry, and the sick who work grueling hours to feed our demand. Imagine them under the beating sun at day, and as evening falls, and rain clouds break, trudging muddied paths, with bare feet. The rain beating down on them.

Imagine them under see through-roofs and flimsy dwellings that hold back neither wind nor rain. This is their sugar-coated, bitter reality.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Staying Healthy in Haiti

There are many health risks in Haiti; water and food borne infections such as hepatitis A, typhoid, cholera, and diarrhoeal diseases; infections that are spread between animals and humans (brucella and rabies for example) and diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, which, are transmitted by mosquitoes.

Then there are illnesses spread by ticks and fleas, and blood born infections such as HIV and Hepatitis B. There are epidemics of vaccine preventable diseases, and lets not forget some of the nasties that infect skin and bones such as impetigo, scabies, ring-worm and yaws disease. Added to these are a whole range of parasites that may affect the gut, blood stream, or any organ of the body.

This is a daunting, and far from comprehensive account of illnesses I may be exposed to, but I think it's important to see it in perspective. Some illnesses, such as malaria are likely to hit me harder than they would hit Haitian adults, simply because I have never been exposed to them, whereas Haitians have built up some resistance.

However, I have the benefit of being well-nourished, with a strong immune system, and knowledge of the basic things I can do to protect my health.

  • I am taking a comprehensive multi-vitamin and mineral supplement and will continue to do so while I am gone. This is "insurance", to help build up my stores for times when I might be unwell, especially with infections that break down red blood cells (there are many of those in Haiti).
  • I will take a probiotic for two weeks before I leave, and for the first few weeks I am in Haiti. I will also have a stronger probiotic to use if I develop gut problems.

  • I have been vaccinated against most of the illnesses I can be vaccinated for.
  • I'll be taking simple precautions such as drinking treated water (even for brushing my teeth) and I will avoid iced-drinks, undercooked meats or unpasteurized dairy products. These steps will protect me from many diseases.
  • Water for hand washing is sometimes in short supply, so I will pack latex gloves and plenty of hand-gel.
  • The charity I will be working with advise that many parasites are picked up through the soles of the feet, so I'll be packing crocs and sandals.

  • I will be sleeping under a treated mosquito net, and, for added protection against insect borne diseases, I will be dressing in long sleeves and trousers at night and I will use an oil spray which is famed for it's (incidental) properties as a mosquito repellent.

  • I believe that God has given us many natural remedies, and so I wont be without my essential oils (lavender, chamomile, and tea-tree, for example).
  • While I emphasise preventative measures, I am am mindful of the fact that antibiotics have their place. Thankfully, many antibiotics are readily available in Haiti and will treat a range of bacterial and protozoal infections. I will take a good broad spectrum antibiotic with me, for emergencies.
  • I will also take painkillers, allergy medications and ointments to treat minor infections (these things are not widely available in Haiti.
  • I will also have a comprehensive First Aid kit, with sterile needles for any injections or IV's I might need.
  • I will be taking out comprehensive medical insurance, and as my manager (a christian lady) had pointed out, I need to make sure people are praying for me.

I think I'm covered.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Travel vaccines

I am blessed with a strong immune system, and I am very proud of the fact that I haven't needed to consult with a health care professional about a personal health matter since 1999.

Many of you will know that I am a believer in natural remedies: essential oils, colloidal silver, pre and probiotics.

I am "into" superfoods and wholegrains. I don't drink alcohol and because I can't tolerate caffeine, I avoid it at all costs and drink anti-oxidant-rich herbal teas instead.

I would rather have avoided travel vaccines, but there is no avoiding the fact that I really need to have sme of them, not just for me, but to protect the fragile little ones I will be caring for in Haiti. I got the first set of injections today.

A few hours later I became shivery and broke out in a cold sweat. Now, my temperature is up slightly above normal. I know this is a sign that my immune system is doing what it is supposed to do, and for that I am thankful....

.....and I can still be proud because it was a nurse I saw today, so I still haven't needed a Doctor since 1999!