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And so our final road trip begins – a return excursion from Port-au-Prince to the town of Thomonde in Haiti’s vast and chronically poor Central Plateau.
To get there we need to take the long, two-and-a-half hour drive north east from the capital through spectacular mountain scenery and scores of tiny villages.
We’re going to visit Project Medishare’s operations in Thomonde. Having seen the Miami-based organisation’s inspirational work at the Port-au-Prince Airport field hospital, we know we’re in for something special.
We’re in two 4×4 vehicles but for the early part of the journey the road is excellent. As we head up into the deforested hills above Port-au-Prince the panoramas behind us are arid and expansive. Surrounded by such benign vistas, it’s hard to imagine that we are just a few miles away from one of the most catastrophic disaster zones the world has seen in two centuries.
There are also some surprises along the way. Suddenly ahead of us, from a dirt track to the side of the road, a giant truck turns in towards us. ‘Bloomingdales – like no other store in the world’ reads the giant signage on its side. Where was it coming from? What had it been delivering? We’ll never find out.
I’m in the vehicle being driven by Peter Frisch, a Haitian businessman who, together with his wife Fafie, has been an excellent host for the week. Peter is a walking, talking encyclopaedia on Haiti, its problems and its potential solutions.
Over the decades he’s seen it stumble from disaster to disaster but he loves his country with a passion that still burns deep. This worldly, assertive character has been moved to tears by some of the sights that he has seen this week in his native country and he’s embraced Hand in Hand for Haiti’s mission with a vengeance.
He’s the perfect guide along the way, redressing many of the clichés and misconceptions about Haiti, and putting many of its challenges in context. On deforestation, he says it’s all a matter of simple economics. “What a person does today will dictate what he eats tonight,” Peter explains.
“So the reason there is such demand for charcoal is because people need it to cook their food,” he says. “It’s not wrong to cut a tree down; it’s wrong to cut it down and not replace it.”
After the excellent highway that we started out on from Port-au-Prince, much of the subsequent journey is along a dirt road (due to be paved in coming months). The dry conditions mean that we kick up huge amounts of dust along the way as we pass through countless hamlets and villages, where the front doors of the houses open out right onto the road.
To our right we see spectacularly steep cliffs leading down to dramatic, winding river views.
As we pass through the denuded hills around the stunning Peligre Hydroelectric Dam, Peter notes: “All the mountains here were once completely forested. Duvalier [Francis ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, the country’s legendary dictator who ruled as President from 1957 to 1971] ordered them all cut down… he wanted no opposition to the dam and feared sabotage.”
The dam has been badly damaged by silt – a consequence of deforestation and resultant soil erosion – but it has created some astonishing views. Virtually every corner has me urging Peter to slow down so I can take some shots of the valleys and mountains.
It’s typical of the many surprises Haiti throws at us this week – here, an hour away from arguably the world’s worst slum at Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince, is a landscape so raw and so beautiful that it hurts.
The completion of the main road from Port-au-Prince will make a huge difference to the economy of the hinterland, slicing huge amounts off transportation times, especially during the rainy season. That change can’t come soon enough for the impoverished inhabitants of this once thriving farming area.
After arriving down on the vast, flat terrain of the Central Plateau, we reach Thomonde, a pretty little town lined with trees either side of its dusty main road. We’re here with Marie Chery (pictured below with Harvey Gedeon from The Estée Lauder Companies, a key member of our team), Program Manager for Project Medishare, which has established a thriving operation in Thomonde and surrounding districts.
The organization has two clinics, one hospital and one new maternity hospital in the region. Marie explains that Project Medishare, founded in 1995, aims to share medical knowledge with Haitian medical counterparts to create a legacy of local knowledge.
From being effectively a US ‘flying doctor’ operation until 2003, Project Medishare at that point opened medical and administrative facilities in Thomonde that became part of a wider Community Health Programme.
“Today we have a network of 60 Community Health Agents and we service a community of 85,000,” Marie says. Community Health Agents are members of local society trained in specific health areas and play a crucial role in areas such as health education and disease prevention.
Marie, a native of Jérémie, emphasises the links between health care (“access to health care is a basic human right, neither a gift nor a luxury”) and education, agricultural and industrial reform, improved sanitation and water provision and the radical overhaul of basic infrastructure.
“We are no longer a health organisation,” she insists. “We are a development organisation. We’re already talking to partners regarding the improvement of the quality of education.
“Get health and education right!” she says with an expression that brooks no argument. “That would make this a quality model for Haiti.”
None of it comes easily, of course, and so much of the social change that is necessary begins with education, Marie says. “To be out of extreme poverty you need to be educated.”
But even with an improved quality and number of schools, education is hardly straightforward, or necessarily affordable. How can it be when the average number of children per family here is a staggering 7.3 – and that’s despite the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere.
Over lunch (‘griot’– fried pork; fried plantain and Congo beans) Marie tells us that the population has swelled by about +20% since the earthquake, as the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince swarmed over the hills to safety. “A lot of people came here – many are living under trees – because the Central Plateau is the only part of Haiti not built on a fault line.”
The devastation in Haiti’s capital and nearby cities such as Léogâne (30km outside Port-au-Prince and 90% destroyed) has in turn placed major pressure on already insufficient and often sub-standard facilities in areas such as Thomonde.
After lunch she takes us across the road to an important agricultural experiment that Project Medishare is conducting. It’s a local solution intended to not only provide meals but also economic development.
The project is focused on Akamil, a highly nutritional product made from cereal and beans blended into powder and fortified with micronutrients and vitamins.
Project Medishare has built an Akamil processing plant which will allow the organization to fill the glaring nutritional gaps among local children, pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients.
Equally importantly, it has created around 30 permanent jobs as well as those temporary jobs during construction.
There are no easy solutions to Haiti’s ills. The country badly needs street fighters like Marie Chery and powerful organisations such as Project Medishare who will battle seemingly insuperable odds to create a better Haiti. Hand in Hand for Haiti must learn from them; exchange knowledge and even partner with them.
We head back to Port-au-Prince for our last evening together richer in the knowledge that if the vision, financing, management and execution are right, great strides can be taken towards creating the new Haiti that so many dream of.
[Tomorrow: Final reflections on a ‘new Haiti’]
[*Note: All costs of the fact-finding mission in Haiti are being met by the Steering Committee members, not from donations].
[Note 2: You can donate to Hand in Hand for Haiti, a travel retail industry initiative to build primary school facilities in Haiti, via www.HandinHandforHaiti.com].