By Mallory Black – Assistant News Editor
The cool night air saunters through the wooden slat windows and fans rotate a breeze in the front room of the Healing Hands guesthouse. Artwork from local Haitian vendors cover the walls: paintings of musical instruments, the Haitian hillside and coastline.
It’s the second Saturday night of our study abroad in Haiti and our group is settling in for the night: some type away on laptops, others are playing a game called “Renaissance” in the next room, and a few are already asleep.
This morning, we drove out to a meeting in Pignon, about four and a half hours north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince. The beauty of the rolling, green country hills and rows of banana trees pale in comparison to the life expressed in every man, woman, and child’s face. Looks of suspicion were evident in the adults standing in the doorways of their home; curiosity piqued in children edging closer and closer to the road as we drove by in our big white bus.
“Driving in a bus, looking out at people as you’re passing through, it’s hard to come to any definite understanding as to what they think of us,” said Denise Windley, 41, behavioral studies major and peace and justice studies minor. “The drive to and from Pignon brought a lot of questions to my mind. I think that it is too hard to really know what the Haitians may think of us without speaking with them. It would be helpful to be able to sit down and talk with the Haitians and do it in their language, in order to better understand how they feel about us.”
When we arrived, we pulled up to Haiti Outreach to meet with Neil Van Dine, one of the founders of the nongovernmental organization and current director of new program development. He graciously showed us his office, but because it was a Saturday, the building was quiet. He showed us the grounds and clearly stated the mission of Haiti Outreach: for Haiti to become a developed country.
Through many rural and a few urban communities, water project requests, usually a well, are initiated by a group of people from the community after writing a letter of request to Haiti Outreach for initial assistance. After checking the legitimacy of the letter and receiving approval from the local mayor’s office, the project goes into accountability mode. This means that Haiti Outreach works with the community to develop an expense budget for maintenance of the well, obtain supplies for accounting, and adapts the concept within a management framework.
Initially, the request for assistance comes from the people, but it all goes back to who will be held accountable for it’s maintenance – the Haitian community. The organization is about community participation and engagement, not about giving things away, which is the all-too-often held belief of many nongovernmental and nonprofit agencies, both by the agencies themselves and the people who donate to them.
“While we were driving back [from Pignon], I saw someone had spray painted ‘Haiti’ and the ‘i’ in Haiti was crying and right next to it said ‘we need help,’” said Chad Thomas, 27, behavioral science major and peace and justice studies minor. “I was thinking about it and its like you’ve [Haiti] had help, you’re getting help and yet, things aren’t changing. That tag should be changed to ‘we need to do something, we need to step up as Haitians.’ I think what it really boils down to is that its going to have to be Haitians that have to change things.”
Going back to the whole dynamic of our study abroad group, most of whom are having trouble processing what we are witnessing, including myself, wrestle with concepts of the continued oppression and exploitation of Haiti’s people. What we’re starting to understand, after meeting with these different organizations is the deeply layered complexity of these issues that continuously grip the small Caribbean country.