valuable lessons

For some reason, I thought this would feel different. I wasn’t completely sure what it would be like to come to a country like Haiti, but I didn’t imagine it would feel like this. I thought I would be filled with emotions, with sympathy and sadness. I thought my heart would be heavy every day, every time I saw a crumbling home or an underweight child. But it’s nothing like that. It feels normal. When I play soccer with kids on the field across from my home, I’m not constantly thinking about the fact that I’m in Haiti and that the kids I’m playing against are probably a lot poorer than I am. It’s no different from playing with a bunch of kids back home in the US, except that we use sticks for goal posts and there are cows and goats dotting the field and I can’t communicate with the kids. But still, it feels the same.

When it comes down to it, a life in a third world country is still a life. And it was my mistake to ever think otherwise. On our very first day in Haiti, when we left the airport and drove through Port-au-Prince and the rural villages on the coast, I felt all sorts of emotions, like sympathy and sadness. I felt sorry for the people I saw sitting along the side of the road. I thought about how sad their lives must be, how miserable they probably are, how they probably sit there all day and struggle to find food or something to do. I thought I would feel like I was doing a wonderful thing by coming to Haiti, like I was helping to improve the world. Never in my life have I been so wrong. These people are not miserable. They may not have the resources and luxury that many of us have been raised with, but they are not poor. They are happy, grateful, loving people. They have hobbies, they have favorite foods, they like to gossip and dance and spend time with their friends. I was wrong to assume that they suffer on a daily basis. In fact, you could even argue that many people in Haiti are happier than people in the United States. We should not feel bad for them and we should not feel as though they need to be “saved.” In reality, there is so much that we can learn from them.

The grandeur that we are accustomed to is by no means necessary for a fulfilling life. The largest grocery store in Leogane is the size of one aisle in the Ralph’s near my house. Most houses we visit have one or two rooms, and a solid roof if they can afford it. But in our survey, one of our questions asks the subject to classify how poor they are on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “extremely poor,” and not one person has given a number higher than 2. What we may consider a poor, underprivileged, or unfortunate circumstance may be a very happy or fulfilling life for a Haitian. I think there’s a lot we can take away from that.

DSCN9981The research has been going well. I had assumed that doing the same 32-question survey multiple times per day would become extremely repetitive, but every interview is so different and so interesting. Yesterday we met a huge family at their home about a 15 minute walk from our house. There were at least 12 people in the yard, and they even brought us chairs and made sure we were comfortable. After we finished conducting the survey on three of the men, they thanked us profusely and asked us to come back and visit them. It’s moments like those that make all of our work so rewarding.

DSC01364We’re making new friends every day, with every new person we interview. And it’s even more fun when there are young children present, as there often are. Today, we spoke with a woman whose daughter sat in her lap, and shortly into the survey we learned that her child lost the toes on her left foot when a building collapsed on her during the earthquake. The woman had also lost three children in her lifetime. Her story was so difficult to hear, but her kind eyes and unfaltering smile was yet another reminder of how resilient and optimistic the Haitian people are.

We’re finally starting to feel like we’re becoming a part of the Leogane community. We’re learning how to get around the village without the help of Ric or our translator, and we’ve begun walking longer distances by ourselves. We’re also starting to see the same people. Last week, we surveyed a 20 year-old boy on a main road in the village. He had been with a group of friends when we approached, but he was extremely friendly and eager to talk to us. Today, we went to a home just a short walk from our guest house, fairly removed from the main part of the village. Halfway into our survey with the middle-aged woman who lived there, the same boy that we interviewed last week arrived. It turns out that we were at his house, and the woman we were interviewing was his mother. It was exciting to recognize someone and to realize that Leogane is just like any one of our hometowns back in America – people live, work, go to school, hang out with their friends, and spend every day here.

102_0243There are plenty of other things to do in the village when we’re not doing research. This past weekend, we went to to “English club” at a school in Leogane. It was a classroom filled with around 20 students from 12 to 16 years old. Their lesson of the day was learning the lyrics to “Someone Like you” by Adele, which also happens to be one of my favorite songs. Their instructor asked them to copy the lyrics from the board, then asked us, the DukeEngage students, to sing the song and then to read the words aloud so the students could hear the pronunciation. Then he went over the definitions of the words, and used the more difficult ones in a sentence to help them understand concepts. It was extremely interesting to see what classes are like in Haiti. The kids were taking notes in composition books, and they were practicing their speaking with each other. Some of the students were talking, some were texting or listening to music. It very much reminded me of my classes in high school.

Later that day, we went to a food showcase at the Nursing School that we had previously visited. It was like an open house, where you can pay some money and try different Haitian dishes. Caroline and I took a tiny sip of a sample of a “cocktail” that a man was selling, that we later found out was made of Clairin, the sugarcane-based alcohol produced in Haiti that we’ve been warned not to ever drink. It’s a good thing we didn’t buy a whole container!

IMG_0219When we’re not exploring the village and meeting new people, we’re finding things to do around the house. Yesterday I went into town with Samuel, our groundskeeper, and bought a rope for 200 goudes, which is a little less than 5 dollars. Samuel helped me make a tire swing (or “balançoire” in French) outside, so that has provided some entertainment. Sometimes we have visitors – today, a group of 18 people on a mission trip up to Fondwa came to the guest house for a few minutes. And, of course, we have our occasional soccer match with kids in the neighborhood. Yesterday I tripped while playing and cut my knee, but Samuel and Richard, one of our security guards, were quick to clean me up and put Neosporin on it.

Besides the heat and humidity, the cuts and mosquito bites covering my legs, and the occasional wifi hiccup, I really have no complaints. I’m loving our research, our group, our house and its staff, and our adventures in Haiti. Even though it already feels like I’ve been here for months, I’m so glad we still have 7 weeks left.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

when in haiti

You always hear about this concept of “assimilation,” or the process of adapting to a new culture or society; but you never really know what it means until you’re thrust into a completely foreign country and expected to adjust. And let me tell you, it requires a lot of adjusting. It’s taken us over a week, but we’re finally starting to get a hang of the “Haitian ways.”  For one, it seems like everything in Haiti moves slowly (with the exception of the motos that zoom past us at 70+ miles per hour, of course). But we’ve learned that, when it comes to doing work in this country, we just need to be patient. Our walk to town that would normally take around 15 minutes ends up taking as long as half an hour because our translator, Eunide, walks a lot slower than what we’re accustomed to. We call it the “Haitian pace.” Our surveys end up taking longer than we expect because the subjects usually take time to tell stories about their experiences. I’m glad that they do though – hearing some background definitely gives more context to our data collection, and makes our days a lot more interesting.

We’re learning more and more phrases in Creole, thanks to our lessons from Watson and our conversations with the house staff: Yvette, Jocelyn, Samuel, Jonathas, and Richard. I’ve also found time to practice my French, which is really exciting. This is the first time I’ve relied on my French to converse (most people here don’t speak English but do speak French), and it’s fun when I can successfully communicate with people. It’s especially interesting to work on my language skills when I’m working in the kitchen with Yvette. Every day, we rotate who helps her prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I’ve learned a few Haitian dishes, like how to fry plantains and make “piklies” (a spicy mix of veggies that resembles cole slaw). I even made handmade passionfruit juice all by myself the other day! The meals here are absolutely delicious, and there’s a lot more variety than I had expected! There’s the occasional dish of beans and rice but we also have eaten a lot of chicken, vegetables, fruits, and even lasagna and pizza!

Our research is going well so far. We’ve interviewed nine people in three days; we even had to ask Kathy to send down more surveys because we’re afraid we’re going to run out! Every time we conduct a new survey, we explain the purpose of our research and the nature of the survey questions to our subject and to the people around us. By the end of each survey, we’ve usually attracted a group of about 15 people. But our translator is wonderful. She has worked with DukeEngage and this research project for multiple years now, so she knows a lot about the study and she’s very passionate about our cause. She’s great at explaining the importance of mental health to Haitians who may not understand the purpose of our survey. She’s also great at getting people to leave the area in order to minimize distractions for our subjects!

Sometimes, hearing responses to our survey is very difficult. Every single person we’ve talked to has had extremely traumatic experiences in their lives; everything from losing a close friend or family member to witnessing or suffering domestic abuse to seeing their house get destroyed in the earthquake. We’re also seeing varying levels of education among the people of Leogane. One woman we met had never gone to school at all. One boy had made it to 9th grade but dropped out because he never showed up at school. Two people we spoke to had actually finished high school. It becomes even more difficult when the people we interview think that we have something to give them. Many people ask us for something, like money or a job. It’s so painful for us to tell them that, unfortunately, we don’t have anything to offer them.

We only spend about 3-4 hours out in the village, but we’re always exhausted when we get back to the house. Our walk is usually about 4 miles, in the humid 90 degree weather. We always bring water with us, though. The second half of our day is spent hanging out at the house, playing card games, reading, talking with our kitchen staff and security guards. We also spend some time typing our data up into a spreadsheet. Once we conduct some more surveys, we’ll be able to draw conclusions about our research. In the evenings, we all eat dinner together and sing “Manje Sa,” a Haitian prayer song, before we start eating.

Lately, we’ve found some interesting ways to pass the time. Ric and Kevin installed a pull-up bar by putting a big metal pole between two small shacks in front of the house, so that has provided some entertainment. We found a soccer ball in the house, so we’ve been playing with it a lot. Yesterday, Caroline, Martha and I played some soccer on a field across the street from the house. Within 10 minutes, around 15 little kids had surrounded us and were playing keep away. Unfortunately, it started getting dark so we had to take the ball and leave, but we agreed to meet them again at 5pm tonight. I had never played soccer while trying to avoid stepping on cow pies or having to jump out of the way of a charging cow.

Caroline, Martha and I went on an ox cart ride yesterday. When you’re standing on an unstable wood cart, holding on to the thin wooden poles for dear life, moving slowly on a busy road while cars are whizzing past, smelling burning garbage on your right and sugar cane on your left, seeing the mountains out in the distance – now that’s when you really feel like you’re in Haiti. Ric paid 50 gourdes (a little less than $1.20) for our 10-minute ride on the cart. Like I said, there’s never a dull moment in this country!

This morning, we went on a walk through the village. Stopped at a store to buy some Haitian snacks, and watched some boys playing soccer on an indoor court. Just another fun thing that we’re doing to help us learn the ways of Haiti. The last week and a half has definitely been an adventure!


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

getting acclimated

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this country so far, it’s that there is never a dull moment. Whether we’re walking around the village to conduct surveys or to explore, or even if we’re just hanging around in the guest house, it is bound to be an adventure.

IMG_0103Yesterday we went on a walking tour of Leogane. It was exciting to finally start to become familiar with the village and the people. It’s definitely an interesting experience walking with a group of 8 white people (we’re actually a very diverse group – by “white” I simply mean non-Haitian) along the streets of Haiti. Most of them are very friendly, smiling and responding happily when we say “bonjou.” Many are surprised to hear us greet them in their language. But everyone stares at us. Even though they seem to be content with our presence, I can’t help but wonder how they feel when they see a group of young “blans” walking around, looking completely out of place with our Nike shorts, sunglasses, reusable water bottles, and cameras. I wonder if they assume we’re just there to see what it’s like to live in a “third world country,” or if they assume that we’re here to do research or service work. I’m curious if they are glad to see us, or if they have gotten tired of all these Americans coming to “help” them. I can’t help but feel like they have some type of resentment towards us, and I certainly don’t blame them. I wonder if they realize how great of a service they are doing for us, simply by allowing us to come to their country and learn from them. I wonder if they know how grateful all 8 of us are to be here.

IMG_0072During our tour, we visited some shops and homes of friends. We saw Hôpital St. Croix, the main hospital of the city. It was a nice building, with air conditioning and running water and a pharmacy. The hospital was bustling with what appeared to be people who worked there, which was comforting. After our tour, we also met with the research director of Family Health Ministries to discuss our surveys and plan out the next two months.

Today we started the actual fieldwork. We left the guest house at 8:30am and spent around 4 hours walking around Leogane. Before we could start conducting our surveys, we had to find out where we can refer our subjects in case we observe serious trauma or thoughts of suicide. First we walked to MSF, or Médécines sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), who came to Haiti shortly after the earthquake and will be leaving in December of 2015. There was a long line outside the clinic, and we watched as a young girl no older than 16 hurried in the front entrance, holding her extremely pregnant belly. Later our translator told us that she was going through labor at that very moment.

The MSF clinic was impressive, with tents all around for different purposes – maternity ward, emergencies, etc – and around 27 doctors. They see hundreds of patients per day, and they provide services for free, which can be a major advantage for those who can’t afford to pay fees but extremely detrimental for other doctors in the area. We spoke with an administrator about psychological services, and he said that mental health treatment or counseling is only provided to hospitalized patients. They referred us to another clinic in Leogane, which treats hypertension and diabetes and once worked with a group that provided treatment for mental health. After a 40 minute walk to the clinic in the extreme heat, we found out the mental health group is no longer in Leogane. The woman there suggested we go to the Red Cross, which was another 45-minute walk. When we got to the Red Cross, they said that there were no mental health services there or anywhere in Leogane.

IMG_0156After my long, exhausting adventure around the village with my 3 other group members and our translator, we discovered that there are no psychologists or psychiatrists in all of Leogane. That was absolutely shocking to me. A region that has experienced so much chaos, so much trauma and misfortune and probably has hundreds of thousands of people suffering from mental distress, does not have a single place that its citizens can go for mental health treatment or counseling. We decided that if we think it’s necessary to refer someone after interviewing them, we will tell them to speak with a general physician or with their church pastor or priest.

When we left the Red Cross, we found some men around a nearby construction site that were willing to talk to us. We conducted our first surveys on two of the men, and gained an idea of what our summer will be like. The first survey was certainly a challenge, with loud construction going on all around us and dozens of coworkers gathering around to see what the “blans” were doing there. There were about four men who asked our translator if they could marry us (don’t worry, she told them that they can’t). But the surveys went well and we recorded all the answers. As we had expected, both men we interviewed experienced extreme trauma even before the earthquake – they witnessed battles or violence, they lost family members or spouses, or they failed out of school. The first man we interviewed said that his house completely collapsed in the earthquake. It was surprising to hear how casually they responded to the questions, as if traumatic events have become the norm for them. But it was nice to see that they were interested in talking about their experiences.

IMG_0047Walking through the streets of Leogane is nothing like being in any other city that I’ve experienced. The roads are paved, with dirt, rocks, or garbage along the sidewalk. There are motorcycles (called “motos”) and big trucks everywhere – the air pollution and the cacophony of horns and engines are literally impossible to escape. I’ll be honest, it’s pretty terrifying; especially when a moto is zooming straight towards you, or two huge trucks are passing each other at 80 mph as you walk by. It’s also not very consoling to hear that the number one cause of death in foreign countries is due to automobile accidents. But soon we’ll become accustomed to crossing the street and being safe while we walk. I’m sure we’ll be fine.

As important as our research is, I can’t help but feel like we’d have a greater impact if we were doing something else, like picking up trash along the side of the road or building a  potable water system. I guess I have to keep reminding myself that our work is long-term. Although a clean city may be an immediate benefit, reducing PTSD or trauma is a benefit that will last much longer. I just wish I could be doing this research with the knowledge that the people of Leogane have a place to go if they are in serious need of help.

Now we’re hanging out at the guest house, hot and exhausted from our approximately 8-mile walk all over Leogane today in 85+ degree weather. The CEO of Family Health Ministries and DukeEngage program director, Kathy Walmer, is here, as well as her husband David who founded the organization. There are also some people from Duke Global Health Institute here for a few days to check up on our work and document our experience in Haiti. I’ll update again and post photos soon!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

m vle aprann kreyol

Creole, or kreyol as it’s spelled, is a fascinating language. It’s extremely simple and easy to learn, because it doesn’t have the complicated tenses and verb conjugations of French. We have plenty of opportunities to practice – with our kitchen staff, security guards, or with people we pass along the side of the road. Many of the people we meet speak French as well, and some even speak English. I really want to get better at speaking and understanding Creole so I can communicate with the people we interview for our research project. Maybe by the end of the summer, we won’t need to use our translators to conduct our surveys.


Kavitha with some of the girls at the orphanage we visited yesterday.

Last night, Caroline and I sat outside with our security guard, Jonathas, and had a quadrilingual conversation. I was talking to him in French, he was talking to Caroline in Spanish, Caroline and I were speaking in English, and sometimes he’d teach us phrases in Creole. We talked about his life, about health and social life in Haiti, and about Haitian politics. All in four languages! It was the first full casual conversation I’ve had in French, which was really exciting. I never thought I was that great at French, but now that I’m struggling with a new language I’ve realized how much easier it is for me to communicate in French. It’s also fun to learn more Creole, and to hear about Haiti from someone who has lived here all his life.

It only took a few days in Leogane for us to realize why Haiti has acquired the nickname “the Republic of NGOs.” We’ve already met almost a dozen Americans in the area around us, working with a variety of organizations. The Haitian people refer to the people who come here to do service as “blans” – white people – so we’ve been hearing that a lot. What I found interesting is that when we meet groups of people working with NGOs in Haiti, we really only meet a few of Americans; two or three at most. That’s because they try to only have as many Americans as necessary, so they can employ Haitians to do the rest of the work. Many of the groups try to train local people to do the work of the organization, so they can be completely self-sufficient once the Americans leave. That’s always good to see.


We met two men who run an orphanage in the middle of Leogane, about a 10 minute walk from our house. Last night, we had five people from “Building Goodness Foundation” join us for dinner. They’re a group of builders, engineers, and architects that work with Haitian crews to build structures for communities or organizations that request them – churches, schools, depots. They’ve been in Haiti for about 10 years, and they have an “exit strategy” planned in which their Haitian crew will take over when they leave sometime in the next few years. We also went to Fondwa, a village up in the mountains, to see the new clinic that BGF is building for Family

IMG_9960Health Ministries there. They’re also building a school there, to replace the one that was destroyed in the earthquake. We met some of the kids at an orphanage in the area, and they were absolutely adorable. The drive up to Fondwa was pretty crazy – some scary terrain with many twists and turns, but also an incredible view into the valley. It reminded me a little bit of the drive up Topanga Canyon Road, except with no guard rails and tons of Haitians in the streets. Quite an adventure.

Adjusting to life in Haiti is challenging but definitely not impossible. Our living accommodations are beyond what I had expected, with a full kitchen, flushable toilets, hot water for showers, clean water for drinking, and even some air conditioning every once in a while. I’m afraid we’re going to become spoiled! But it’s definitely not like being at home or at Duke. When the AC isn’t on (which is 95% of the time), it’s extremely hot and humid. We’ve become accustomed to just being sweaty, dirty, and covered in mosquito bites literally all the time – good thing one of our group rules is to maintain a “no judgement zone.” We also have to avoid using the sink water to brush our teeth, which has proven to be a challenge for me. We’re encouraged to wash our hands as often as possible, we have to constantly reapply sunscreen and bug spray, and the wifi doesn’t work most of the time (I’ve almost given up trying to upload more photos). Also, it’s definitely a challenge to share a bathroom with 6 other girls. But we’re making the most of it. We’ve developed a fairly efficient system for shower and bathroom rotation. Yesterday, Caroline and I gave the house dog, Luluz, a bath using the hose and some shampoo. We’re taking turns helping Yvette cook meals. And soon we’re going to start building a picnic table for the patio outside.

It’s hard to believe it hasn’t even been a week yet. Our days are long and exhausting, making the weeks last even longer. But later today, the research director of FHM is coming to the guest house and she’ll teach us how to conduct the PTSD surveys, where to go, etc. Hopefully we’ll be able to start work on Wednesday on Thursday, and then the days will go by faster. I’m really looking forward to starting our research.

Ok, orevwa! M pran ekri pli vit. (Goodbye! I will write soon).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

sunrise in léogâne

The days in Haiti seem to last forever. We wake up at 6:30 for a 7am breakfast, which means lunch time is around 11:30am and dinner is at 6pm, if we can last that long. Everyone is in bed by 10:30pm. There’s something about this schedule that I love, something rewarding about being halfway done with our day by noon. We’re on our computers for a maximum of an hour per day if at all, spending most of our free time either reading, practicing Creole, or learning about Haiti and about each other. It’s really refreshing to take a break from the repetition and the stress of life in the U.S.

This morning we woke up at 6am and went on a 2-mile jog around the village. Running through the mud roads and sugar cane fields, with the guest house dog, Luluz, running alongside us, and watching the sun rise over the mountains was truly beautiful. It’s hard not to fall in love with this country.

Yesterday we toured the village of Leogane. It’s an extremely vibrant, bustling area, with tons of people at the town center and the marketplace. Men, women, and children walking around, selling items, exchanging money. Almost all of them stare into the van as we drive past, and break out a bright, friendly smile as soon as we wave hello. We visited a Nursing school called FISIL, toured the classrooms and met some of the students. The school has a computer lab, a cafeteria, and even a room with dummies and fake IVs, where the students can simulate their nursing procedures. The school was built in 2005 and it survived the earthquake. The students at the school must complete high school and pass all their exams before they can enroll. It is a year-round school, with dormitories in the back for the students to live. This institution was one of the most prestigious in the area, which didn’t surprise me. I was really impressed by it. I was also impressed when I heard that the students who graduate are required to stay in Haiti to work for a minimum of two years. Most graduates, the administrator said, choose to stay in Haiti for even longer.

We also visited the clinic of an OB-GYN in Leogane, Dr. Mercier. In addition to touring his consultation and examination rooms, we also saw his back yard where he raises over 200 chickens! Dr. Mercier was in his clinic during the earthquake and he survived in the sturdy building, but his family lost five houses. Dr. Mercier has worked closely with Family Health Ministries on their cervical cancer prevention program.

It really surprised me to see the number of schools and health clinics in Leogane. In a country so poor, I would think that going to school is a rare occurrence, but it seems like a majority of children do in fact receive an education. Ric told us that there’s a really strong cultural emphasis on going to school in Haiti, and pointed out the wide variety of schools in Leogane. That was really inspiring to see.

One of my favorite things about this country so far is the spirit of the Haitian people. They are always so excited to see us, waving and flashing their beautiful smiles, giving us a thumbs up. Sometimes they even ask to take a photo with us – “m ka fè foto?”. They are humble, gracious, and friendly. It’s exciting to talk to them in Creole, and try out the phrases we’ve learned so far – “bonjou! sak pase!” or “koman ou y e?” One boy that I met along the beach asked me what I will tell the American people about Haiti when I get back to the United States. I told him that I will say great things about Haiti, that it is an incredible country with happy, friendly, and hard-working people. He was delighted to hear that we are enjoying it so far.

In the night time, Leogane is pitch black. There are very few lights, only one or two per neighborhood. So when we decided to drive through the town at 10pm Friday night and walk through a part of the village to see a Vodou ceremony, we had quite an interesting experience. We struggled to walk through the mud and the garbage, stepping over ditches and trees until we found the area of the Vodou celebration, which was essentially an open auditorium, with bright colors and paintings on the walls and lines of chairs. Then we went to an outdoor area where dozens of people were sitting and getting ready for the dance ceremony. For the next 45 minutes, we watched in awe as the Haitian people played loud drums, danced, sang chants in Creole and Swahili, burned candles, and took swigs of a liquid that we later learned was Barbancourt, a Haitian rum. The ceremony was fascinating, mostly because everything was so loud and we had no idea what was going to happen next. But it was definitely a night of excitement and high spirits, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

IMG_9896Yesterday, we had a beach day. Ric drove all eight of us, plus our two translators, Watson and Josue, about an hour to the beach. It was absolutely beautiful, the water was a clear blue, the weather was perfect. We made some friends on the beach and I practiced Creole and French. When we got back to the house, we had a delicious dinner of lasagna, cooked vegetables, and fried plantains prepared by our cook, Yvette. I can definitely get used to the food here.

Our internet is running slow so that’s it for now. I’ll post photos once I get a better connection. I have a lot more to update on, so I’ll write again soon!

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

a journey begun

Hello! Sorry for the delay, I was hoping to post as soon as I arrived but we had orientation for the first two days and we had no wifi. Now I’m at the guest house in Leogane, where we’ll be staying for the rest of the summer, and we finally have some wifi!


We arrived in Haiti on Tuesday. Flying in to Port au Price, you’d think you were arriving at a tropical vacation island. Rolling green mountains extending across the horizon until they meet the bright blue ocean. Beautiful tan beaches, colorful cargo at the port, houses curving up the sides of the hills. It’s only when you get closer to the city that you start to see the traces of poverty. The rolling green is dotted with dirt roads and brown swamps; the houses lining the hills are not really houses but tents. The city begins to resemble a slum.

I woke up Monday morning and left my house in suburban Los Angeles to fly 5 hours to Miami. My parents helped me check in, making sure my 50.5 pound checked bag would make it through. I choked back a few tears as I walked to security and watched my proud and supportive parents wave goodbye, unable to conceal the tears streaming down their faces. I stayed overnight in a hotel in Miami with two other girls from my program. I was planning on posting on my blog from the hotel, but it turns out the Wifi there was not free. Seems a bit ironic that I had to wait until I arrived in Leogane before I could access the Internet from my computer.

All eight of us in the DukeEngage group flew in to Port au Prince on an American Airlines flight from Miami. The day before we arrived, a plane from a Brazilian airline had an engine malfunction and went off the only runway at the P-au-P airport. It was still there, badly damaged and sitting idly along the edge of the runway, when we arrived. Our plane had to land right past it, causing what the captain cheerfully referred to as a “firm touchdown.” We weren’t able to reach our gate, so after sitting on the runway for 20 minutes we deplaned via the stairs and took a shuttle to the airport.

The airport was more developed than I had expected. There were escalators and a carousel at the baggage claim. There was a band playing music when we arrived, welcoming us to the country. Getting through customs was a breeze – we didn’t even need to give them an address for our stay in Haiti – and security getting out of the airport was fairly tight. Hearing Creole all around me, in the plane and in the airport, was really exciting. I tried to use my French knowledge to understand some of it, but it’s still pretty tough to understand. I can only understand certain words or phrases, like “Bonswa” or “Mesi.” Our in-county program coordinator, Ric, is fluent in Creole and has been teaching us some phrases. M vle aprann pale kreyol! (That means I want to learn Creole.) I’m really looking forward to starting our lessons next week.

The heat doesn’t hit you immediately. Stepping off the plane, it was humid but breezy, almost even cooler than in Miami. It’s not until you’re standing in the airport waiting for your suitcase, with your heavy backpack weighing on your shoulders and with hundreds of hot, sweaty bodies moving quickly around you, when you start to realize how hot it really is. Luckily after the airport, we had an hour and a half car ride in an air conditioned van.

Coming in to Haiti, I had no idea what to expect. I tried not to form any images in my mind of what the country would look like because I knew it would almost certainly be worse than what I predicted. I had heard that Port au Prince, the capital, was not was poor as the rural villages. Driving through the city in our 12-person van, I started to realize what “not as poor” really means.

Port au Prince is called a city but does not even remotely resemble what I would describe as a city. There are no tall buildings, no highways. The roads are paved, filled with vehicles zig-zagging back and forth, trucks painted with bright colors that have dozens of people riding on the back – called “tap taps,” they’re the local form of public transportation. It wasn’t until two days later, when we drove through the city proper, when I started to see aspects of civilization. Street lights, bigger buildings, nicer cars; with banks, barber shops, and little stores along the side of the road.

There are tons of people all around you, walking on the street amongst the cars and the grazing animals. Children are walking to school, women are carrying loads on their head, men are selling bottles of water and fruit and cell phones, and many people are idling around, hiding in the shade of a dilapidated roof. Small shops and empty buildings line the road. And by “buildings” I mean anything from the stone foundation of a house to a line of sticks with tarp or a sheet of metal on top. Later we learned that the foundations are not remnants of the earthquake, but instead the results of a long process of building a home, as people will add stones as they can afford it. The construction of one house may take years, even generations, to complete.


In fact, there is little evidence that an earthquake wiped out nearly the entire country just over three years ago. A pile of rubble here and there, a few flattened buildings. Some signs of reconstruction are visible; men hard at work assembling structures, lines of new colorful homes being built. Kathy, our program director, told us that both Port au Prince and Leogane are nearly back to how they looked before the earthquake.

After driving through the crazy traffic and nearly escaping some collisions, we reached a village called Mouris on the coast, and saw some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. We turned into a gate along the side of the road and arrived at the beach house that we were staying in for our orientation during the first few days. It was the home of Jean Marc, a Haitian constructor who made a living through his cement company that he sold shortly after the earthquake, and then built the FHM guest house in Leogane.


The house was beautiful, with white stucco walls and blue doors. It was right on the ocean, so we had a nice cool breeze and air conditioned rooms for our first two nights. The first night, we met Ric Hutchinson, the guest house director who we’ll be living with for the next two months. We spent our first full day on Jean Marc’s boat, and for a moment I thought I was on a spring break beach vacation! We laid out in the sun, went swimming in the beautiful clear water, and enjoyed the boat ride. We had an incredible first few days, knowing that the vacation would be ending as soon as we left the beach house.

Yesterday we drove back to Port au Prince and saw more of the city, then went to the Blanchard Family Health Center, another FHM health clinic. We met the staff at the clinic, which is completely Haitian run, and saw the cervical cancer center and the examination rooms. Afterwards, we drove through the windy paths of the Port au Prince neighborhoods until we reached Leogane.


We arrived at the Family Health Ministries guest house yesterday afternoon, a beautiful building on the outskirts of the village. We met the guest house staff, like Jonathas, the security guard (we call him Titas), Yvette, the cook, and Samuel, the groundskeeper. There’s one room in the back with four bunk beds, where all seven girls are staying, and another room for guests that may come. There’s a kitchen with a sink, stove, and refrigerator; a clean water dispenser; and air conditioning units that will be on for around 2 hours per day.

Last night we met Watson, a 21 year-old Haitian who will be teaching our Creole lessons. He’s from Leogane, but he’s studying civil engineering at a university in Port au Prince. He also wrote a book with English-Creole translations that is really helpful for learning the language. Watson seems extremely intelligent and interesting, and I’m really excited to work with him. We also met Kenyo, a man who runs a radio station in the area. We’ll be going on the radio once a week and translating popular English songs into Creole for its listeners! Kenyo speaks French as well as Creole, so I was able to practice speaking with him. Our security guard, Titas, speaks French as well.

960226_167208560120883_1900839801_nSo far, everything is really great. Everyone in the group is getting along really well, and I think it’ll be really easy to live with these girls. Ric is also really great and I’m excited to live and work with him this summer. The food is also amazing – we’ve eaten a lot of fruit like mango and watermelon, lots of rice and beans, and some meat like chicken and pork. Also lots of plantains and vegetables! Kathy told us we won’t have to worry about losing any weight this summer, and she was definitely right about that.

Sorry that this post is so long! Now that I have internet access I’ll be posting more regularly to describe what we’ve been doing and how I’m feeling about everything. We start work on Monday, and I can’t wait to go into the village and begin our surveys and research!

Aurevoir!! Mési pou ban m atensyon! (Goodbye, thanks for reading/your attention!)

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments


Haiti is a country that has been plagued by many horrible problems throughout history – political turmoil and fierce oppression after the rise of a militant dictator in 1957 named François Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc”; the rapid spread of emerging diseases such as HIV/AIDS and, most recently, cholera; and the 2010 earthquake which completely wiped out all existing infrastructure and any semblance of security that the country may have had.


As a result, foreign aid has flooded the country, to such an extent that Haiti has grown to become known as the “republic of NGOs,” with Léogâne as its epicenter (literally). And, unfortunately, many of these NGOs and relief organizations do more harm than good. The work of these groups have failed to help Haiti get back on its feet, which is why there are still almost as many destroyed buildings and piles of debris today as there were in the weeks after the earthquake. And the country is far from reaching political or economic security.

The primary reason why these organizations failed to benefit the people of Haiti was because they operated on their own plans, hoping to accomplish their own pre-established goals. There was little communication or collaboration with the Haitian people, few attempts to work with the community leaders to discover what exactly the local population needed and to target the work or research or aid to the priorities of the people. As a result, the “republic of NGOs” has yet to recover, and must now work to mend the damage done by organizations that came in for a short period of time, harmed Haiti’s infrastructure, and left after they decided the job was done.

So here’s my question. By traveling to Haiti and working with an NGO there, aren’t I just contributing to the problem? In my Global Health ethics class last semester, we learned about the ethical dilemmas of students in developed countries doing service work in developing countries. How we may regard it as a learning opportunity for ourselves, and the chance for us to bring our ample resources and knowledge to a community that needs it. But we must also consider how the local people may regard our actions. Who’s to say I’m not just an ignorant, privileged American coming from an elite university to a developing country so I can eat exotic foods, take lots of pictures, and give myself the warm feeling you get when you “do good”? What can I, as an individual, do to ensure that the work I will be doing is actually beneficial to the community, and not just an attempt for me to feel good about myself?

These are questions that I am asking myself every day as I prepare to leave for Haiti. And to be honest, I don’t have the answers yet. The fact that Family Health Ministries, the NGO I am working with, has been in Haiti for 20 years and has developed its programs and services in collaboration with the people of Leogane, is certainly a comfort. I don’t have to worry about contributing to an NGO that is doing more harm than good, because FHM wouldn’t still be conducting surveys and providing health services to these people if doing so was damaging their society or infrastructure. But I’ll only be there for 2 months – can I really make that big of a difference in such a short period of time?

There are many ethical dilemmas associated with DukeEngage and other “service learning” programs. It is widely accepted, for example, that the students traveling to work in developing countries will get more out of their experience than the local population will get from them. That’s just the honest truth – we are experiencing a new culture, often a new language; we are being exposed to environments completely different from our own; we are learning how to collaborate with people that are not at all like us. While the local people may be excited to meet us and thankful for the work that we are doing, they will not receive nearly as much of a benefit than all of the DukeEngage students will. For some reason, something about that just doesn’t sit right with me.

I guess I just have to keep all of this in mind during my time in Haiti. How to be a part of the solution, and not a part of the problem.

HuffPost article about Haiti’s recovery: 2013_n_2451267.html

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment