Impressions of Haiti from my tèt kale

Scott Fifer’s reflections from his recent trip to Haiti:

If I had to sum up my impression of Haiti in one word, I would say opportunity.  There is so much opportunity to make a difference in the lives of people who need it so much.

Not only is there the opportunity to help, but I also left Haiti thinking there is a moral obligation to help.  After centuries of interference from the Spanish, French, and the USA, all looking out for their own interests above those of the Haitian people, it’s no wonder this island so close to our shores of Miami is plagued with incredible poverty.

So the question is not whether to help, but how to help.  An obscene majority of the post-Earthquake donation dollars went to international companies, with relatively little of it going to Haitian businesses.  (Of course it can be argued that Haitian businesses were not prepared to do the needed work, but surely there was a way to involve them in the conversation, and to find a way for the aid to trickle down and help the Haitian economy.)

When GO Campaign reached out to a potential new grantee that we toured on the visit, they were surprised when I asked to hear their priorities:

“First of all, I want to thank you for this really open approach that you are putting forward – it really shows an understanding and deep respect of community actors, and because that’s a bit rare to find down here, I wanted to say thanks.”

If I could add other words to describe my impressions of Haiti, I would add words like “entrepreneurial spirit” which is evident in much of the population, “stunning” to describe the mountains and beaches, and “chaotic and poorly organized” to describe the general atmosphere of road traffic, the airport, and certain functions of government.  Surprisingly, “earthquake” is not a word that comes to mind.  If you didn’t know about the earthquake, you might not know there was one.  With some exceptions (most notably the ruins of the Port au Prince Cathedral), you might just think there was a lot of construction going on, and you would not know there was such a devastating quake 4 years ago.

I was invited to go with the Haiti Fund of the Boston Foundation, led by the indomitable Karen Ansara, along with major international funders including the Flora Family Foundation, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and others.  GO Campaign Advisory Council member April Freitag also joined me on the trip, which had us up early every morning, making 3 or 4 site visits per day (including one via motorized rowboat on choppy waters along the southwest shore, and another via small prop plane through some turbulence over the mountains to the north – I’m not sure which was scarier – I think the boat.)

We saw some impressive grassroots organizations tackling a wide range of issues including child slavery, rape, teen pregnancy, computer literacy, peace building, organic gardening, job training, social income-generating projects, sanitation in the slums, and much more.  Places where a little bit of money can have great impact.  Places where the voices of the Haitian people are leading the way.  Places filled with opportunity.

The president of Haiti was elected on the campaign slogan “tèt kale“, which means “head hairless” in Creole.  (The president shaves his head and he wanted uneducated voters to remember to vote for the bald man.)  At the start of the trip, random men on the street were yelling tèt kale at me and I had no idea what they were saying.  By the end of the trip, I was forgoing my name and introducing myself as tèt kale to young kids in the mountains, on the beaches, and in the slums – and it never failed to get a laugh.  Not only is it important to listen to the needs of the local communities around the world, it’s important to remember that even amidst dire poverty, there is always time for a laugh, especially when it’s at the expense of my very kale tèt.

I made a point to take some time away from the site visits and stop by a local market, taste local cuisine, check out the crafts and art scene, and pick up a voodoo doll or two (Don’t worry – I didn’t buy any needles to go with them – so if you haven’t donated recently, you are safe).

I’ll be headed back to Haiti in late November to further dialogue with some of these grassroots organizations and their remarkable local heroes… Stay tuned for ways you will be able to help our Haitian neighbors so their children can thrive…