Reporting on Haiti has been one of the Pulitzer Center’s most important initiatives during the two years since that country’s devastating earthquake, with multiple projects addressing issues that range from reconstruction and education to environment and the effects of the earthquake on Haitians already vulnerable because they live with HIV/AIDS.
This past week we had the opportunity to visit Port au Prince ourselves, along with poet Kwame Dawes, for a special performance of the multimedia production “Voices of Haiti” that we first presented last August at the National Black Theatre Festival. This time the audience was Haitians themselves, among them several of the individuals featured in the work’s poetry, music and photography.
In the days leading up to Saturday’s performance we got to visit these people we had come to know, through Kwame’s poems and the photographs of Andre Lambertson, and learn how they are faring now:
Joel Sainton, an itinerant minister who tends a community of some 400 individuals who, like him, are living with HIV/AIDS, was featured in Kwame’s poem “Job.” In the first year after the quake he was living in a dangerously cracked home, unsure of his own health, and challenged daily by the needs of his community. Today he is in a new home, just above the sea in the Port au Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, living with his two adopted sons and grateful that with the help of anti-retroviral drugs his health is strong. The needs of his community? As challenging as ever.
“Mrs M,” the indomitable woman featured in poems like “Boy in Blue” and “Mother of Mothers,” is also in a new house, a 12x12-foot wooden and tin “T-shelter” (“T” for transitional) perched on the side of a ravine high in the hills of Carrefour. Mrs. M works with Joel in his ministry. She and her two sons are HIV-positive; her two daughters and her husband are not. Her smile is dazzling, her step sure and strong as she walks these endless hills. In conversation she breaks into a gospel song—“Thank you Jesus, thank you, thank you”—but she also notes the pile of rocks outside the door. She and her family collected them by hand. Now they are breaking them stone by stone, making the gravel for concrete that she hopes someday soon will be the floors for a proper house.
Malia Jean, the adroit community organizer who created a training center to help women infected by or affected by HIV/AIDS, was featured in poems like “Ganthier” and “Storm.” She continues to live in her parents’ home in the rural community of Ganthier, an hour or so outside of Port au Prince, commuting to the city daily in a communal “TapTap” taxi truck in an effort to keep her program afloat. The classes she runs were suspended last April, pending further funds. Her fiance, the gentle man who like her is living with HIV/AIDS, remains the love of her life.
Two years on Haiti’s reconstruction is very much an unfinished work in progress. Upwards of 500,000 people remain in cramped tents, many of them filling the parks and schoolyards of downtown Port au Prince. Mortality rates are down significantly but Haitians continue to die from cholera, in an epidemic introduced to the island by UN peacekeeper troops. Major streets have been repaired but half of the estimated 10 million cubic feet of rubble left by the quake is still to be removed.
Yet like almost everyone who encounters Haiti we came away inspired, awed by so many lessons in resilience against great odds and by communities coming together to help themselves—even when local or national governments and international organizations betray their trust.
Managing director Nathalie Applewhite and new media strategist Maura Youngman led a workshop for Haitian journalists that was organized by the Fund for Investigative Journalism in Haiti and Haiti Grassroots Watch, two initiatives aimed at enhancing local accountability journalism that are partnering with the Pulitzer Center on several reporting projects.
Contributing editor Kem Sawyer and I visited the “Star of the Peasant” community radio station in Fondwa, high in the mountains between Leogane and the coastal town of Jacmel. This was near the earthquake’s epicenter and damage was severe. The radio station’s offices were flattened as was an adjacent clinic and school. Editorial director Enel Beauliere and his colleagues work without pay, in a two-room temporary shelter. Many days they are off the air for lack of fuel. Still they persevere, organizing not just programs for entertainment and education but tough investigative projects as well.
The performance of “Voices of Haiti” last Saturday night drew an overflow audience of 150, in the FOKAL cultural center in downtown Port au Prince. Performers included Kwame Dawes, composer/pianist Kevin Simmonds, soprano Valetta Brinson and Kreyol-speakers Andre Paultre and Pascale Verly. At the conclusion we asked Joel Sainton and Malia Jean to speak as well—on the work that they are doing and the support that they need.
The usual role of the Pulitzer Center is journalism and educational outreach. We are not an advocacy organization. In this case we made an exception, adding our own voice in support of donations to the grassroots organizations led by these two individuals. We have watched them closely for nearly two years now. We are confident that any dollars directed their way will be put to good use. Those wishing to contribute can contact us for further information, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Toward the end of “Voices of Haiti” Kwame and Valetta draw from the Psalm that captures Haiti’s tragedy—and the profound strength in character that makes it such an inspiration, too. “When my heart is overwhelmed,” they sing, “oh, lead me to the rock that is higher than I, that is higher than I.” (Listen to the audio clip above.)
Last Monday we had the opportunity to present “Voices of Haiti” yet again, this time at the University of Miami as part of our inaugural Campus Consortium collaboration with the School of Communication. An audience of 120 attended the performance; we discussed the work with another 100 students during class presentations Monday and Tuesday.
WLNR-Miami Herald News featured the performance in a report that aired Tuesday on WLRN Conversations. To learn more about the stories and reporting behind this project please visit Voices from Haiti and After the Quake: HIV/AIDS in Haiti.