By Terry Parkinson, April 2013. Haiti has often been described as an impoverished third world country whose people can never get a break and are perhaps “cursed”. Labels like “corrupt, uneducated, untrained and even dangerous “ abound. The exotic allure of voodism adds to the picture of a country mired in something almost pagan. Haitians are perceived as victims who have no control of their destiny and must rely on outsiders to help them solve their problems. I knew nothing of Haiti except what I read in the works of the Haitian writer Edwidge Danticatt and learned in the news of the country under the regimes of Papa Doc and his son Baby Doc as well as the “hapless” Aristide. It was not a country that I particularly wanted to visit. After the earthquake, my perceptions did not improve, but in fact worsened, as I looked at photographs of the devastation and its aftermath, particularly the endless blue tarped tent cities one of which was spear-headed by the Hollywood actor Sean Penn. Haunting images of people suffering from loss and despair were everywhere as were stories of hardship and crime. I was astounded by the amount of aid that seemed to pour in and the number of people who went to help. Now some would argue that the photographs exaggerated the reality, and that aid often complicated the situation by taking valuable resources such as housing and food away from the Haitians, Recently, in fact, the current President of Haiti requested that Haiti needed a break from all the good intentions. And that Haitians were pretty good at taking care of themselves.. Still, there were and are many problems. Why then in January of this year was I on my sixth visit to Haiti in less than 2 ½ years?
It all started in the spring of 2010. I was vaguely cognizant that St. John’s Church in Essex had an active relationship with Hôpital Albert Schweitzer and that a woman named Jenifer Grant was active in encouraging interest in rural Deschapelles where the hospital is located but I knew little more. My neighbor and friend Kathleen Maher asked me to go on a walk so that we might discuss a potential project in which I might be interested. She was part of a newly formed group called Sister Cities Essex Haiti which had been organized in response to the earthquake by a group of concerned citizens including the town’s selectmen. Kathleen knew that I had been very involved in the renovation of the Essex Library serving at one point as the Association President and have a life-long commitment to books and libraries. I believe strongly that libraries play an integral role in the health and well-being of a community and provide a place for life-long learning. She also knew that my life had recently included a few bumps in the road and I was looking to divert my energy into something new.
Her proposal was simple. Join the group to help with their first project – the conversion of a cattle barn into a library in rural Deschapelles, Haiti. The building was structurally sound and only needed a new roof. I would help with the renovation and what I thought was needed based on my experience. We would be working with a group in Deschapelles ODES (Organization pour Development Economique et Social) whose Haitian members had gathered together to work on ways to improve the lives of those who live in and around the community. The library was something they thought would really help the community. The reality of the project quickly became complicated but by that time I was committed.
My first trip to Deschapelles was less than six months after the earthquake. Arriving at the airport, I was amore than a little anxious heightened by concerns from my family and even the cautionary advice provided by my fellow travelers. I knew Port au Prince would still be suffering the aftershocks of the earthquake but I had no idea that I would be greeted by what I can only describe as overwhelming chaos. At the airport, luggage was piled randomly and people seemed to come from everywhere to “help”. I was grateful that I was with others who knew what they were doing. In the van transporting us, I viewed buildings with no outside walls and floors tipping precariously, streets overcrowded with cars and debris and above all people everywhere. To see the Presidential Palace essentially flattened heightened the sense of unreality. At dinner that night, it was like a molten mass of people had emerged onto the streets, the only light coming from outdoor cook tops. The next day on our journey out to Deschapelles, the van seemed to narrowly miss pedestrians who hawked their wares and walked with all sorts of merchandise in metal baskets on their heads. I soon became attuned to the constant blare of horns warning an on-coming truck or a person to move out of the way.
We arrived in Deschapelles in about three hours. Kay Mellon, (Kay is a Kreyol word for house) where I was privileged to stay on my first visit, is the former home of Jenifer’s mother and step father, Gwen and Larry Mellon, who had founded the hospital in 1957, I had imagined an exotic Caribbean mansion overlooking the sea but in reality the house was an understated but elegant home and was surrounded by mountains rather than the sea. I soon learned that I was the exotic “blanc” in a country where many people especially children were unaccustomed to seeing a white person. It was startling the first time a child started to cry at the sight of me. But I also soon learned that a “Kouman ou ye?“ or “how are you” was greeted by a beautiful smile and that a few words of Kreyol changed everything. I also learned that in Jenifer’s 50 years of visiting Haiti she had made many friends who recognized her real love for them and their country. Kathleen, who had already visited Deschapelles many times as part of a micro financing project in which she Jenifer were involved, was also greeted warmly and embraced with true affection. Still, everything took time for me to absorb. There was no central town but numerous stalls lining the main corridor or road to the hospital. The roads were dirt and most definitely not smooth. Cement blockhouses were built behind the main road and the streets leading off it. Some houses were in progress as people earned the money to pay for construction, others were behind high walls and difficult to see, and some were what only can be described as simple shacks. Deschapelles is not a town created by city planners but the evolving needs of its residents. Garbage was a problem at least to me and I was amazed at how indifferently people seemed to regard tossing refuse into the streets. I learned also that my “diet cokes” were not readily available and the food while delicious was not something I always recognized. But as the days went by, I felt increasingly enthralled by the people and a world so different than my world back in the States. Unfortunately, while I also saw that the cattle barn was not quite as bad as I had expected; we learned a few months later that it was not going to work. Thus began the real work on the library project.
The need for a library in Deschapelles is immediately apparent. Deschapelles is a town of about 14,000 people. It is located in the heart of the Artibonite River Valley bordered by mountains to the north and south. From the perspective of an outsider, the majority of the people in Deschapelles live marginal lives relying primarily on subsistence farming. A few are employed by the hospital. Some have successful businesses and are the leaders of the community who are fully aware of where improvements are needed.
Only about 40% of the children in Deschapelles attend school and the schools that they attend are often ill equipped to provide students with a meaningful education. A classroom may have only one book. Lessons are in French based on the traditional French rote system of learning and do not take into account that Kreyol is the language spoken by most Haitians. Furthermore, there is no library in or near Deschapelles and no location where children are able to study in a quiet, protected environment. Because few homes in Deschapelles have electricity, students congregate under streetlights around the Hospital to study at night, sitting or standing on the ground, vulnerable to malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Haitians value education and are eager to increase their knowledge. Access to books and the ability to study can provide a path to a better life and a way out of poverty.
A library would provide a place where residents would be able to borrow books in French and Kreyol as well s English both for educational purposes and for pleasure. It would provide a place for students to study in a well-lit screened-in space. There would be a children’s section where children could sit with a family member and have stories read to them. Computers would be available to both adults and children for education and research. The building would provide a much-needed place for workshops on educational, environmental, cultural and technical topics. It would have demonstration gardens, a well with access provided to the community and composting toilets. Most of all, it would provide opportunities for obtaining life-long skills that are not even a dream for many Haitians.
On every subsequent trip to Haiti I would arrive eager with anticipation, but aware that progress needed to be defined with different measurements than those an American might expect. The construction of a library might be deeply desired by the community but in a country where the majority of people simply struggled to survive, it was not always a priority. Furthermore, the Haitian culture and people are different than mine, and I had to learn to be respectful of our differences as well as our commonalities. I felt privileged to be working with people who understand that working with our Haitian friends and neighbors on what they wanted and how they wanted to do it, albeit with our input and support, was a far better path to success than working high in the treetops with some grandiose plan formulated by outsiders.
Finding a new location for the library took many months and more than a few disappointments as land for sale is not readily available and existing buildings were problematic. We were fortunate that a Haitian-American with a deep commitment to his birthplace was willing to lease a well-situated piece of land to us. We were also fortunate that Hope Proctor, a local Essex resident and architect, came forward with a commitment to design the building. Travelling to Haiti, working with ODES members particularly the ODES Library Committee and speaking frequently with Haitian architects and builders, as well as researching alternative building structures including container buildings, Hope designed a building to reflect Haitian architectural styles and incorporate traditional Haitian construction methods. The building has been engineered to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes. It is designed to maximize the use of locally available materials using concrete blocks and design elements, which include “fer forger”, a form of traditional wrought iron. It is a simple but elegant, building, which meets the needs of the community and only minimally impacts the environment. It will incorporate solar power and other green technology. It is also being built by local residents and thus contributing to the financial well-being of the community.
We selected an experienced local Haitian builder, Luquece Belizaire, with whom we have a long-term relationship to build the library. We also hired John Chew, an American, who had helped manage the construction of the Partners in Health Hospital in Mirbalais and who has access to wholesale materials to oversee the project and act as our engineering link. And we had his wife Anny Frederique, a Haitian American .who bridged the gap between our group in the United States and ODES . She coordinates our efforts in Haiti and understands the nuances necessary to get the project done. She is also working with grant organizations in Haiti along side ODES. Finally, we have Besly Belizaire, who makes sure that we receive all the information we need including financial reports and photographs of the library under construction.
As of today, the foundation for a security wall has been built, a well has been dug, a pump house and guardhouse are under construction and work has begun on the library building. We have raised over $75,000 for the project but are aware that at a cost of $150,000, we need to raise additional funds. We are looking into grants and were recently blessed to learn that our partner organization in Haiti has been awarded a grant from the DIGICEL Foundation (the largest cell phone provider in Haiti) in the amount of $36,000. This is the largest grant available and is normally awarded for the construction of schools. This grant not only substantiates the validity of our project, but also reaffirms that our Haitian partners understand the importance of local sustainability. We are in the process of seeking additional support and welcome any suggestions. We are grateful to our local Tri-town International Rotary, which provided us with a grant for a 1000 books, and our local schools, which also raised funds for the project. Local resident Brenda Floyd and her son Logan have produced a wonderful film “Welcome to Deschapelles, Our Sister City” to introduce people to the community. We are working with Haitian organizations such as FOKAL (Fondayson konesans ak Libète or Foundation for Knowledge and Liberty) whose library division is the equivalent of our American Library Association, to ensure that our staff is well trained and the library has a good set of administrative and organizational guidelines.
Arriving in Port au Prince in January I was impressed about how much progress had been made in the city although much more needs to be done. And while I arrived in Haiti with my usual tempered hope, I was amazed at how everything came together and how much we have accomplished. In contrast to many of the recent articles criticizing foreigners efforts in Haiti especially those of large government entities and NGOs (non-government organizations), we are and will be successful. While waiting for construction of the library to begin, we developed a music program, a tennis program and an early teacher education program all of which show our commitment to the community. As a result of the commitment of the people in our organization and the collaboration between SCEH and ODES , we are well on our way to building what may be a model library.
We have work to do but the community will soon have a library. And in my journey down the road, I have met many wonderful, sophisticated and educated Haitians who desire nothing more than the best for their country and whose friendship and insight I truly value. I have travelled with an exceptional group of people who have become like family. And I have gained confidence that sometimes taking small steps down the road allows one to accomplish more than one could have imagined. I am grateful that I am part of the effort to make this world a better place.
Terry is a Director of SCEH and Chair of the Library Committee. She works closely with the ODES Library Committee, the architects and construction managers involved in the project, and has made several trips to Deschapelles.
April 23, 2013