"Most people don't like talking about the earthquake, but someone always asks. It's just so painful to remember."
Overlooking the crowded streets of Port-au-Prince, I sit with Elsa Hilaire, the national coordinator for Christian Horizons in Haiti, in a tiny sandwich shop as we wait for our lunch. I've just asked her about the earthquake. Open mouth, insert foot.
Elsa is very gracious. When I apologize for bringing up something so sensitive, she says it's OK. She goes on to lament the lack of information that her people had about earthquakes. "When the earthquake hit, people were afraid, so they went inside to hide in their homes. And then the homes collapsed on them. They didn't know what was happening, or what they should do. That is why we lost so many people. It was so very sad."
It's my first time visiting Haiti, and while it's as hot as I expected (maybe hotter), I wasn't prepared for the beauty of the country. Everyone writes about the poverty, the devastation, and the tragedy that continues to keep Haiti as the poorest nation in the world. Most of what I know about Haiti comes from what I've read in the papers or from the news. When I started working at Christian Horizons, I learned more about Haiti because we have many projects there. But while I may have been more prepared for the poverty, I wasn't ready for the breathtaking beauty of Haiti:
The crystal clear waters of the Caribbean sea, the lush vegetation, the smooth, round mountains that rise out of the island. In my first day I saw coconut trees, bunches of bananas hanging from branches, mangos, watermelons, emerald green rice fields, and tall stalks of corn. I also saw children drinking pop and juice in the streets, hand-painted Coca-cola advertisements on the concrete walls behind them. Processed food in cellophane packaging, the wrappers joining the mounds of garbage lining the streets. Why, in a country so rich in natural resources and fresh food, are people subsiding on sugary drinks and snack foods?
I share my thoughts with Elsa and she nods her head in agreement. "Haitian people have everything we need, we just need to know how to use it!" One of the reasons that I've travelled to Haiti at this particular time is that, as a result of a grant from a group called Stronger Together, CH Global is facilitating an entrepreneurial training program with a group of 70 Haitian people. Elsa helped to coordinate the training, which took place in a Salvation Army camp about an hour north of Port-au-Prince. The person training the Haitians is not another well-meaning white man from North America, but Eric Masee, a Kenyan man. Eric developed this program to teach communities about saving, investing, and managing their money, and has delivered the training in his own country, as well as in Uganda and South Sudan.
The Haitians attending the training are eager to learn from Eric, and Elsa says that they have much respect for him. "He looks like a Haitian, but does not speak Creole. Everyone laughs and calls him 'Haititian Brother from Africa.'" Person after person commented on the colour of Eric's skin. We think that in an ideal world, colour shouldn't matter, but in this case, it obviously did.
It is this type of training that will turn Haiti around. It won't be another shipment of T-shirts and used shoes. It is by respecting, empowering and equipping the Haitian people so that they learn how to leverage the resources they already have.
I am wary of North Americans coming up with "solutions" to the problems that other people in the world face. After one day here, I am thankful to be able to fade into the background and observe a man from Africa and Haitian leaders teach concepts to a group of Haitians in a way that makes sense to them. Maybe one day, the first thing that people will write about is the rich beauty of this country. I am moved from hopelessness to hopefulness when I talk to people like Elsa and hear of her vision for her people, and to Eric, who has lived in and risen out of poverty in Kenya. And I look at the mountains, the sea, the vegetation, and smile, knowing that Haitians have the potential to rise out of poverty and profit from their land.