The statue of Neg Mawon sits in the center of Port-au-Prince. It is a symbol of the Haitian people's independence—a sculpture of a black man, his ankles and wrists shackled, though the chains are broken. He is a slave, fighting for his freedom; in his left hand, he holds a conch shell to his lips, blowing to call others to join the revolt.
When Dr. Joia Mukherjee, medical director of Partners in Health, got to Port-au-Prince 36 hours after the earthquake, the first place she wanted to go was to the statue of Neg Mawon. When she got there, she found that, though everything around it had crumbled, Neg Mawon was still standing. As she stood before the statue weeping, an old woman hugged her and assured her, "Neg Mawon pap jamn kraze." The free man can never be destroyed.
That phrase has become the dictum for the people of PIH (Zanmi Lasante in Kreyol). The words are printed on the vests they wear as they treat thousands at mobile clinics for the newly displaced.
For over 20 years, PIH's doctors and nurses have been providing free health care for the poor in Haiti, combating HIV/AIDS, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and other diseases that disproportionately affect the impoverished. The organization helped set up operating rooms immediately after the earthquake, when there were none, and are now not treating just earthquake survivors, but all people in need of medical care.
What sets PIH apart from many other organizations is the sense of solidarity with the community, which was evident when Joia and Dr. Paul Farmer spoke at a church in Cange, a village two hours outside of Port-au-Prince, where Paul and Ophelia Dahl founded Zanmi Lasante in 1985. The service was held in a clinic waiting room, because the church itself was being used as a ward for those with shattered bones and unsalvageable limbs.
It seems odd to be so impressed by the fact that these doctors, and all the PIH staff we met, care so deeply for the people they serve because, after all, isn't that what doctors are supposed to do? But watching the PIH medical staff at the mobile clinics, at the general hospital, I was struck by their level of concern, by the fact that seeing patients was not simply about dispensing advice and medication. The doctors were engaged; they hugged, and laughed, and, most importantly, they listened. As Joia said to me one day, "This is not work, this is my life. It is not about us imparting our wisdom to the masses. If I am listening to you, and you are telling me something, you are teaching me something, there is an exchange. And that's where you have solidarity rather than charity."
There is often a distinction between doctor and patient, and that separation can only become more apparent when the doctor is American and privileged, and the patient is Haitian and poor. But for these doctors, there is no us and them. There is only we.
Video/photographs shot by Andre Lambertson and edited by Carla Ruff. Translation by Shu-Fy Pongnon.