In most of the photos, Chaskielberg used his trademark technique of shooting by moonlight, illuminating these scenes of herders and their families with a dramatic, unearthly glow. The results are memorable (and newsworthy) because they’re so distinctive.
However, when we saw how the photos came out, some of my Oxfam colleagues loved them, but others gave them mixed reviews.
A friend once asked me what makes Haiti so different from other Caribbean countries. I paused to think about what answer I would give. My response was “the struggle.”
Sophia Lafontant is Oxfam America’s lead Haiti organizer, working on policy and advocacy issues with the Haitian diaspora. In her first post about Haiti—hours after the earthquake—she recounted her profound worry as she tried desperately to learn the fate of family members still living in the country.
Before my 25th birthday, I hadn’t been to Haiti since I was a girl in the 1980s. My parents were among the second wave of Haitians that left the country in the decade prior and once the Duvalier regime fell there was enough uncertainty that Haiti became an all but distant memory for them. But I held on to my fond and vivid memories of growing up in my grandmother’s house on Avenue Christophe, in the heart of Port-au-Prince, a few blocks away from the famous Olfoson Hotel which counted Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Mick Jagger as some of its famed international guests during its heyday.
While I lived in Boston, MA, I always had a foot in Haiti. Like most children of the diaspora, I felt the need to embrace both places. In the summer of 2007, I embarked on my first trip back to Haiti: it had been on my mind and it was time to return to the place I now scarcely remembered. I will never forget the blast of heat that rushed over me when we touched down; it was like someone was holding a blow dryer to my face.
It’s difficult to explain why, but Haiti instantly felt like home. The familiar foods, music, language filled with allusions and metaphors, the stream of relatives and family friends that trickle in throughout the day to greet and welcome me; the constant color everywhere—on tap taps, sides of buildings, street art and of course the brightly painted houses. It all beckoned me–with so much beauty it’s hard not to smile still.
A friend once asked me what makes Haiti so different from other Caribbean countries. I paused to think about what answer I would give. My response was “the struggle.” The long struggle. Haiti has had more than its share of pain and tragedy. Whether it’s the subjugation and indignation of slavery, 32 coups in its history, harsh and crippling international sanctions and policies, and tense relations with its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, and seemingly endless battles with mother nature, Haitians miraculously dig deep to find an inner strength that escapes most of us. And it is that spirit and determination to make a way out of no way that I find beautiful and admire so much.
It’s been two years since the devastating earthquake. Despite the inactions or action of those in power, Haitians will continue to pull money together to pay their children’s school fees, continue to ensure that their uniforms are pressed and clean, and continue to hope that tomorrow is better than today. It is that seemingly bottomless well of hope that keeps me at my computer late into the evening some nights. It’s what keeps me on conference calls with allies and cranking out organizing plans. All minuscule in the grand scheme of things, and none of which can be credited with saving lives or adding to the meager incomes of the millions of Haitians that live on two bucks a day.
Still, it’s the very least I can do for a nation that has given me so much—so much laughter, color, and so much love.
Along with millions of other Americans, I’ll be watching Anquan Boldin and the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL playoffs this weekend—but my mind will be in Ethiopia.
I traveled to southern Ethiopia not long ago to visit Oxfam America’s programs in the area. As we drove, my colleague Tewodros Negash explained why Oxfam uses its cash-for-work program to pay communities to clear brush from the fields by hand, something they’ve done for generations by setting controlled fires. As it turns out, the winds, which for as long as anyone can remember have been predictable, are now wholly unreliable. It used to be that people could set fire to the brush, rely on the wind to control the flames, and have a field that was clear in time for the rains. The grass would grow and their animals would have a place to graze. But with wind that’s unpredictable, and rain that’s even more so, communities must now take steps to survive the effects of climate change.
Just weeks later I told that story to Boldin and his friend and former teammate Larry Fitzgerald, NFL wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, during a meeting to discuss Oxfam America’s work. Boldin and Fitzgerald learned this summer of the devastating drought in East Africa and were looking for ways to help, which is why they reached out to Oxfam.
“I’ve been to the Horn of Africa before,” Fitzgerald, who will be appearing in the Pro Bowl for the seventh time later this month, told Yahoo! Sports Radio in a recent interview. “And I’ve seen some of the effects of the drought myself. … When you see [people affected by drought] you definitely want to do something because they are in dire need.”
Since then, in between catching footballs and evading linebackers and safeties, Boldin and Fitzgerald have raised money for Oxfam America on Twitter and Facebook, filmed a public service announcement (below) and used their high profiles to bring attention to the crisis.
Here’s the key paragraph from the story: “When the earthquake leveled Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010, planners and visionaries here and abroad looked past the rubble and saw an opportunity to fix the structural problems that have kept Haiti stuck in poverty and instability. An idea that won early support was to shrink the overcrowded, underemployed, violence-ridden capital and revive the desiccated, disused farmland that had long been unable to feed the country.”
So I spent part of Christmas morning studying the piece, as I had just spent part of the previous month in Haiti, and was trying to finish a story for Oxfam’s Exchange magazine on the very same topic. (Exchange readers will see it in their mailboxes in about a week.)
(The Times followed this up with an Op-Ed on 9 January by the co-directors of the Haiti Humanities Laboratory at Duke University entitled Haiti Can Be Rich Again encouraging support for small-scale farming. Conclusion: “The return on the investment in the rural economy would be self-reliance, the alleviation of dangerous overcrowding in cities and, most important, a path toward ending Haiti’s now chronic problems of malnutrition and food insecurity.”)
A quick review: lack of investment in agriculture and Haiti’s rural infrastructure, combined with macroeconomic policies that brought in cheap foreign competition in rice and pork and other food, has made farming a difficult way to make a living. Agriculture used to comprise nearly half of Haiti’s GDP; now it amounts to less than a quarter. Haiti now imports much of its food, and farmers have streamed into the city to seek work, part of the reason the January 2010 earthquake was such a disaster: a city designed for roughly a quarter million had about 3 million people there, many living in poorly constructed housing. Continue reading →
Oxfam’s Caroline Gluck retraces her steps and finds that the challenges many people faced in the wake of the disaster continue to persist—as does their hope for change.
I wasn’t looking forward to returning to Haiti. Two years ago, I was one of the first of Oxfam’s emergency team to fly to the island, arriving three days after it was hit by a devastating earthquake, which killed more than 220,000 people and left more than a million others homeless.
First impressions weren’t good. Rubble still lay in the streets. Though much of it was carefully piled up, many collapsed buildings still remained balanced precariously in between other spaces where rebuilding had taken place.
And then there were the camps of tents. Not the flimsy shelters made of clothing scraps and plastic sheets I’d become so familiar with on my first visit. These camps appeared depressingly permanent. It seemed people were settling down for good; that what had been a temporary option was now the only long-term solution available.
But many tens of thousands of families camped on private land, not in public spaces, now face the threat of forced evictions, often through the use of violence, by the owners who haven’t received any rent for the past two years.
I spent the first few days retracing my steps. The old Oxfam office – part of which had been seriously damaged in the quake – had been remodelled and repainted and was now the office of a private company. The damaged annex had been fenced off and the collapsed top two stories had been removed.
The enormous camp for displaced families occupying what had been a golf course in the leafy and well-to-do suburb of Petionville was still bursting at the seams. Although the number of residents had decreased, people were still living cheek-by-jowl. The daily struggles for the basics–clean water, some privacy, and work–were still as pressing as ever.