The real meaning of generosity of spirit: Haiti past and present

The horrific earthquake that hit Haiti three years ago killed more than 300,000 people. It’s so large a number that it’sdifficult to take in.

It takes a long time to recover from such devastation. Journalist Jonathan M. Katz recently noted that “The conditions in Haiti now–there’s Haiti and the quake zone, which are two separate issues — but in the capital, the population centre most affected by the earthquake, things haven’t improved. People were living in tarps and lean-to structures, and people are leaving the area, but it’s not clear where they’re going. It’s pretty obvious to me where they’re not moving to, because there have not been better homes constructed, bigger areas zoned out, no necessary steps taken to ensure building codes are implemented and structures held to a certain standard.

People leaving these refugee camps are at best moving to pay odious rent in houses that are as unstable as when the earthquake struck, and at worst paying to move somewhere else that’s sort of shoved out of sight of the media.

We observers From Away often throw up our arms, wondering why the much-needed aid doesn’t seem to get where it’s needed. Last month, the Canadian federal government announced a freeze on development aid to Haiti. Said Katz: “And the rationale for that was that Canada had given Haiti all this money and they’d squandered it, and through Haiti’s ineptitude or corruption, Canada had not gotten the results that Canadians had a right to expect, and, as a result, they weren’t going to be working in Haiti.

But we don’t need to give up. Some are responding by planning a trip with a carefully organized, practical objective. Because surely helping a handful of people is better than helping no one at all.

And so a group of Townshippers will be leaving for Haiti March 1, raising money from area individuals and churches for their own travel ($1,200 each) and $6,000 for the building supplies they need in order to build a school in Léogâne, which is near the capital, Port-au-Prince. The group of 25 are keeping costs down; they will sleep in a church and get to know the locals (including children at a nearby orphanage), and they’re following a group which spent time in January starting the construction work.

It’s a bit reminiscent of Canadian author Eric Walters’ Young Adult novel, Shaken (2010). Joshua is a teenager whose mother has died, leaving the family saddened and lost (Dad, a Christian pastor, and sister Sarah). Dad has moved to a new congregation on the other side of Toronto, hoping the change will help him forget. And for good measure, he’s volunteered the family on a trip to Haiti, where they will help construct a new building for an orphanage run by Pastor Dave. Instead, the earthquake of 2010 hits, leaving chaos, shock and death in its wake. This is a fascinating mix of development, poverty and racial politics, with a coming of age story for 16-year-old Josh. Shaken refers to the Richter scale, but also to Josh’s own crisis of faith: How can there be a God who allows such horrors to happen?

Walters’ book is from the perspective of a white North American. Edwidge Danticat was born in Haiti, arriving in the United States when she was 12. Her children’s book, Huit Jours: Un Enfant A Haiti, was written in 2010 (filed with a blue dot), and is the story of Junior, a little boy buried under the ruins of his home following the quake. He’s dug out on the eighth day, and this book tells of how he survived.

The book is illustrated by Alix Delinois, himself an immigrant to the United States at the age of seven. Danticat writes that her colleague’slovely pictures will help her own children recall what Haiti looked like before the devastation. The publishers, Scholastic, donated $10,000 to a relief group when the book was published.

Edwidge Danticat has an impressive reputation as a writer, and her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994, filed in adult fiction) was an Oprah Book Club choice. Sophie Caco is raised by her grandmother until she’s 12, when she’s finally sent to a mother she barely remembers, in New York. There’s pain, shame, discovery, redemption, all built on the lives of women in Haiti, and its exiles.

Another Haitian-born writer, Dany Laferriere, left for Canada as an adult. He was fleeing then-dictator Baby Doc Duvalier (who succeeded his father, Pap Doc; the Duvalier dynasty was finally overcome in 1986 following a successful popular uprising). Laferriere’s L’Odeur Du Cafe (1991) is a lyrical and autobiographically inflected book featuring a 10-year-old child sitting at the feet of his coffee-loving grandmother, and shows a great love for his homeland.

Another Quebecer, Marie-Celie Agnant (also an immigrant) has written Alexis D’Haiti (1999, filed with an orange dot). Alexis is 11, and his father has been arrested by the Leopards, a militia group loyal to the dictator who think terrorizing citizens is fun. His mother, fearing they will be targeted next, books passage on a leaky boat to North America. Agnant presents Alexis’ last three days in Haiti, along with the family’s trip and incarceration once they finally reach their goal. A sobering and realistic look at the realities of being a refugee.

The quest for safety is often met with anger and suspicion by those in better circumstances.

Back to reporter Jonathan Katz and his reaction to Canada’s decision to stop aid because of possible corruption: “The biggest thing that could happen [to Haiti in the next] three years is that — and this is an optimistic view — that attitude could change, that people can understand that the way this works is not that foreign aid is just given from a rich country to a poor country and if it doesn’t get down on the ground, then the poor country isn’t holding out its end of the bargain.

“More often than not, these programs are designed in a way that maximizes the public relations benefits for the governments of the poorcountries, who try to hold onto as much of it as they can. The money goes in circles, and it doesn’t always wind up on the ground. What can change in terms of foreign aid is wider recognition that this is actually how this works. And then a conversation can take place where we decide how this should change.

“You ask me what I want to see changed, and that would be that we take this generosity of spirit that we think we are showing, and we retain that, while adopting policies that actually allow that generosity to actually flow — so when we say that we’re going to give money to a foreign country, we actually give

money to that country, and work with those on the ground, and say, ‘What are the institutions and structures that are needed here?’ and we help to build them.

What I hope for Haiti three years from now — though three years is probably a short time frame, but you never know — is that those institutions and structures are starting to be built, that the local agencies [and] national agencies in Haiti are more able than they were to handle their own crises and help people with their daily lives.

But some people don’t want to wait, they want to do something to help Haitians help themselves, now. And so quite simply, they do. You can find more information on the group of Townshippers leaving March 1 on Facebook, at Sherbrooke/Haiti 2013. (The group includes Lennoxville Library board president Nancy Chretien, her husband Doug Blair, and their children!)

– Eleanor Brown, February 22, 2013

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About BiblioLennLibrary

The Lennoxville Library, in Quebec's Eastern Townships, offers free memberships to all residents of Sherbrooke. We have a great selection of books in French and English, plus books on tape and CD, too! Check out our large-print section, our graphic novels... La Biblio Lennoxville se situe dans les Cantons-de-l'Est du Quebec. Les residents de Sherbrooke peuvent devenir membre gratuitement. Nous avons une grande selection de livres en francais et en anglais. Venez donc nous voir! Hours/Heures d'ouverture: Mardi-Tuesday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Mercredi et Jeudi -Wednesday and Thursday, 10am to 6pm -- 10h a 18h Vendredi-Friday, 10am to 5pm -- 10h a 17h Samedi-Saturday, 11am to 4pm -- 11h a 16h Pour plus d'info, vous pouvez nous trouver au http://www.bibliolennoxvillelibrary.ca/ Click on the above to get to our website!
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