When the Authorities Fail: Reports of Rape by the United Nations Forces in Haiti

This week I spent a lot of time surfing the BBC news channel and website for news. I generally stay away from major news outlets in the States due to the overwhelming polarization, regardless of the station. This week was heavily dominated by the cholera outbreak in Haiti, collective resistance against aid and security operations. Violence in Haiti since the January 12th earthquake is a result of a number of realities, frustrations and conditions. Like many acts of violence the element of power is present. Gaining power, building power, relinquishing power; the struggle for power is not new in this context. Using the female body as a medium to exercise and gain power is also not new.

As noted in a previous post, the United Nations Mission in Haiti has been present for 20 years. During this tenure, its relationship with the Haitian people has been rocky (that’s putting it lightly). Recently, Haitians have collectively cried out for removal of UN forces given the cholera outbreak and sheer lack of action to confront basic infrastructure issues. The video below shows a Haitian aid volunteer, Charlotte Charles, giving a passionate and igniting  account of rapes in the tent camps by United Nations soldiers.

The world needs to hear the truth.

Who is telling this truth? After being arrested several times, being attacked in a tent camp while distributing aid and reporting other atrocities to the police; Ms. Charles refuses to quiet her voice. She is willing to die telling the truth.

The world needs to hear the truth.

What happens when the institutions and individuals meant to protect fail and actually harm those they are charged with protecting? The rape of women, girls, children and men robs individuals of their power. When a woman or girl has to choose between eating and rape, the decision is can not possibly be easy. When a woman or girl has to choose between shelter and rape, the decision can not possibly be easy. Power is the ability to act. When your actions are controlled by someone else your power is diminished. Stripping individuals of their dignity and power also strips the community of its dignity and power.

What would you do if you had to make this choice?


Unrest and Fear in the Time of Cholera…and Elections

I chatted with Gabrielle Vincent, Director of Sonje Ayiti, this morning on facebook after what sounds like a traumatic experience in North Haiti. A survivor of the January 12th earthquake, mother and community developer, Gabie always provides in depth insight. Below is what she shared.
I am in Cap-Haitien now.
I was on my way to Port-au-Prince at 8:30 to take care of the customs
clearance for the trucks and container.  I couldn’t make it to the
airport this morning due to instant riots all over the street in
Cap-Haitien. Election’s Frenzy. I was in the car then there were
rocks and bottles filled with I don’t know what throwing from everywhere.
The road was packed with students going to school and everyone else.
Some got hurt. I returned home and got behind Dadou’s motorcycle, boom
there were shootings when we were about to turn to the main road
(Shada) that would take us to the airport. There were shootings
everywhere, we returned home safe and sound. I am now waiting to see
what tomorrow might bring.
The CHOLERA issues are taking a toll on the population who is now
furious, frustrated by the inactions of the authorities and fearful for
their life. On top of it, the candidates are wasting a lot of money
for elections instead of addressing the real issues. People are

Please keep praying for Haiti

You heard it here first. You won’t see this on prime time news.

Excuses are Tools of the Incompetent

It seems as though the people of Haiti can not catch a break.  Since January 12, 2010 images of the first republic led by people of African descent have been plastered across newspapers, websites, blogs and television. Interest in popular media seems to come in waves and lulls. When an imminent crisis crops up, the media is there. When people rise up against discontent, whether it be prisoners or displaced communities demanding to know WHERE THE MONEY WENT; reports reaching Western ears are skewed. False and biased reported isn’t new, in fact most Americans expect it. But get this, its even worse than any of us can imagine. Since my return from Haiti in August my ears have stayed open to those I know on the ground. I first got wind of the cholera outbreak in the Artibonite region on twitter. I didn’t pay too much attention to the first couple of tweets. Then I began the see more and hear more about what was going on. I immediately thought about my good friend who is from Saint Marc and his father who is currently living there. Most of the first confirmed cases of cholera and the first known deaths were all in Saint Marc. I then thought about my other friends in different parts of Haiti. Then I thought about the endless stream of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and the sheer incompetence and lack of compassion many of them have shown not only in the past 10 months, but also prior to the earthquake. The recent cholera outbreak is no surprise to anyone who has laid eyes on the reality of Haiti. No toilets, no plumbing and no regular access to clean water is a recipe for disaster. The video below gives a glimpse at how the outbreak may have started.

Crazy right?

The United Nations mission in Haiti has been on the ground for 20 years. In that time various missions focused on restructuring and developing the national police and governing structures. International aid organizations such as Partners in Health have been in Haiti for over 20 years. Many leaders in the Diaspora are asking the questions funders and governments supporting the UN and NGO’s should ask. What tangible results have they achieved? Has the focus on security instead of sustainable economic development actually improved the lives of Haitians? Are you actually working yourselves out of jobs by working to help Haiti empower itself? The UN and other aid organizations tend to cite government corruption, lack of infrastructure and other uncontrollable circumstances when asked where the money ACTUALLY goes.

WHY so many excuses?

In the spring of 2007 while joining my sorority I learned a number of lessons. One enduring lesson I learned was that excuses are indeed the tools of the incompetent. They truly build monuments of nothingness. In the Haitian case those who use the most excuses deserve to be barred from ever touching Haitian soil again. The nothingness built by many aid organizations keep Haitian in the “hands out” position. It keeps a country at the mercy of those who act only in their own interests. It creates a situation where the only thing between over 1 million people and a tropical storm is a plastic tarpaulin and prayer.

The January 12th earthquake killed an estimated 250,000 people, injured 300,000 and left about 1.4 million Haitian citizens (not refugees) homeless and internally displaced. The earthquake killed at least 250,000; but poor infrastructure, poor  international led relief efforts and a government functioning without firm legs will kill more in the long run. Physical death by natural disaster is often unavoidable. I spoke with Gabrielle Vincent of Sonje Ayiti today over facebook chat and she shared shocking information with me. Tropical storm Tomas has already flooded a number of areas in the South including Port-Salus, Les Anglais, Cayes, and Leogane.  She even knows of one man how died in his car during the flooding while others where able to make it out in time.

Who will pay for the deaths caused by aid organizations claiming to build infrastructure and feed people? Anyone who uses excuses in the face of human suffering deserves to be banished from the space in which their incompetence thrives. Haiti is not the only space this incompetence lives, but that’s for another post and another day.

25 years an American, 7 months an Observer and 1 week in Haiti

Neg Marron (Iconic Symbol of Freedom for the Haitian People)

This post will reflect my 25 years as an American citizen, 7 months observing the situation from a far,  4 days in Cap-Haitien and 2 1/2 in Port-au-Prince. I was only in Haiti for a week, the 1.3 million people left homeless as a result of the January 12th earthquake will likely live there for life.

What I saw in one week taught me more than I learned in any one sitting as a undergraduate or graduate student. I spent the bulk of my time with an inspirational group of people from Sonje Ayiti working towards developing one city. They showed me the side of Haiti that most Americans never see on TV. I saw Haitians helping themselves and helping each other. I saw Haitians making great things out of meager resources. I ate with them, prayed with them and slept under same heat as them. I walked the streets of Limonade, visited the local hospital, saw what a typical Haitian classroom looks like, took showers using a bucket, swatted mosquitoes, rode over unpaved roads and smelled mounds of trash. I talked with them, learned more about their stories and of their dreams for the country. I walked through the tent city outside of the Haitian Presidential Palace. I saw statues of the  nations heroes surrounded by the very people they were fighting to secure a better future for since the 1700’s.  I saw the direct result of too many people, too little public administration and too many NGO’s in a small area.

Presidential Palace of Haiti

I saw a lot. To be honest, I’m having a hard time digesting it. I’ve visited townships in South Africa, poor communities in Guatemala and seen shantytowns in mainland China.  I’ve lived without hot water and heat in Chicago. But I have never seen the things I saw while in Haiti. The experience left a deep impression on me to not only grieve but to act.

Since my visit I’m more angry at; 1) People who are against taxes and 2) People who think Wyclef Jean was a viable option to be President of Haiti.

Taxation functions as a means to pay for public goods and services. They are meant to serve the common good. Imagine this…no trash pick-up, no one to call when the electricity goes out, no running water, no one to report landlord abuse to and no public schooling for your children. Taxes pay for all of those things in the U.S. American’s STILL mismanage and take them for granted. Live in Haiti for a week and your mind will change quickly. Today a friend pointed out how taxation and tax appropriation are two different things.  We could do better on both fronts in the States. I’m not arguing for big government, just arguing for the presence of a basic element. In Haiti, the basic infrastructure isn’t nearly non-existent. Be grateful and work for the future you want.

On Wycelf Jean. I have very simple remarks. Would you want him or another musician with the same history and experience as President of the United States? We have more infrastructure and resources. I’ll take this to a smaller scale. Who you want the same candidate to be Governor of YOUR State? Probably not. His nomination has been romanticized by Americans who have likely never lived in a tent city, never had to choose between paying for school uniforms or selling water on the streets. Do the Haitian people deserve any less than what we expect for ourselves? No. Low expectations are like a festering sore in Haiti, human beings deserve better.

United States Agency for International Development
(These Tarps were all over Port-au-Prince)

Whether you donated to a Haiti Relief Fund or not, your tax dollars are being spent abroad (or are supposed to be). We have got to do better. We know better and can do better. Yes, the Haitian people are resilient; but no one should have to be so resilient all of the time.

As an organizer I follow the concept of organizing around the injustice we hold the most anger towards. I hate to see people living without basic necessities, dignity and the opportunity to be happy. God willing, I’ll head back to Haiti in January. I have a lot of ideas for working with the women and youth of Limonade. They are pretty much organized and just need more technical and financial support. I’m interested in working with them, not over or just for them. The road to achieving those things is just as rocky as any side street in Port-au-Prince, but it is possible. Change is always possible.

The Five Senses, plus one

The Heroes of Independence, where the Haitian Revolution was won.

The city of Cap-Haitien is Haiti’s second largest city and is home to over 800,000 people. Since the January 12th earthquake over 40,000 survivors have relocated here. Driving through Cap-Haitien for the first time was slightly jarring. Everyone seemed to be moving in some direction, where I’m not sure. The unemployment rate is at 95%. The only place I can compare it to is East St. Louis, Illinois. There African Americans face a similar plight with 90% + unemployment rates, poor housing, along with high poverty and disease rates. East St. Louis does not however have the same historical significance as Cap-Haitien, the Haitian Revolution started here. This is King Henri Christophes town. I am surrounded with great Haitian history. But I am also surrounded with the legacy of colonialism, political corruption and deep poverty.

Tuesday morning we went to visit a brother and sister Gaby knew in the largest hospital in North Haiti. The claim to “largest” is not what you would typically think. Words can not express the despair and sickness I saw there. When we entered the compound there were people milling around. Walking up to the surgery ward I saw a small dog laying in the middle of the steps surrounded by people who paid it no attention. The dog looked half dead. The structure is unlike what most Americans think of when they think of hospitals. There was an emergency ward, a surgery ward and separate wards for women and men. However, you will find no receptionist to tell you where to go. You will find no halls and no separate patient rooms. The room held about 25-30 beds all with patients who looked like they were at deaths door. Any patient who stays here must bring their own linens, their own food and basically fend for themselves. I still cannot remove the stench of sickness from my mind. I will never forget the smell of pending death. Now you may ask why I am designating these people to death, I’m not. I did not see one person in the recovery phase. There we flies open air bed pans and an extreme lack of sanitation. The emaciated look of these human beings was stark and it would take nothing short of a proper medical facility to improve their quality of life.

Imagine receiving a blood transfusion in a gas station bathroom. Think of that and you might be close to the reality these patients face on a daily basis.

With most things there is a silver lining. While walking through the different wards we did see several groups of young women being trained to be community health aides. They are being trained to go out into their communities and promote positive health. Basic things we take for granted in the States are not common knowledge or practice for many living in absolute poverty. Just as many of us learned to wash our hands, not to cross contaminate and how to care for cuts, the people in this city must learn too. These things are not just organically learned!

Once we left the hospital we headed to visit with the members the of local womens group, The Association of Valiant Women of Limonade (RAFAVAL). These women are a stark contrast of those we saw in the hospital. They are working to build power for themselves. I had the opportunity to talk to the women and learn more about the issues they face in Limonade. Domestic violence, family planning and assertion of women’s rights were among the greatest. I took some video footage of them singing a song about strength and power, the internet connection isn’t fast enough for me to load. I WILL load it once I get back to the states.

This is my work, to fight for our women- Ernise, RAFAVAL Coordinator (Pictured Right)

These were not women who sit idly by waiting for someone to save them. RAFAVAL boasts a membership of over 500 women from the 3 sections of Limonade. The women meet once a month. They organized THEMSELVES. Sonje Ayiti partners with them to produce and sell Cocoa d’Haiti. I’ve tasted hot chocolate made from this cocoa and it is WONDERFUL. The proceeds go back into the Koud-a-Koud project to help fund more micro-loans. I purchased some of the cocoa today and plan to share once I get back.

We are who we are because of what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. What we become is because of our vision.

My next post will focus on the concept of vision. I’ve seen the fruit of Sonje Ayiti’s vision and will share more examples. I’m headed to Port-au-Prince tomorrow. I’m not sure what I’ll see there, but I’m sure that it will leave one of the many everlasting impressions I have of Haiti. I am staying at the Haiti Response Coalition house and hope to shadow some of their organizers working with communities living in tent cities. Until next time…Peace

Sonje Ayiti…As if I ever could forget

(Me and Gabrielle Vincent, Director of Sonje Ayiti)

I touched down in Cap-Haitien yesterday morning. I was met by Gabrielle Vincent, Director and Founder of Sonje Ayiti, in a small yellow school bus.  I could tell a lot about her spirit when we first met. She was born here and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She and her husband built a good life for their family, but she decided to start Sonje Aytiti due to the need and a personal responsibility to her people.

I had no idea what that day would look like. I was pretty much open to anything. Gaby took us straight to work! We drove about 25 minutes outside of Cap-Haitien to the town of Limonade. Limonade is a town of about 45,000 people and is where the core of Sonje Ayiti’s work takes place.

There I saw one of the organizations many community development projects.  A group of young men built 4 of the 30 planned incinerators for the municipality. Trash is a HUGE problem in Limonade, it’s lined up along the side of the streets, in the middle of the streets and scattered throughout the fields.

The local government provides little or no support for sanitation and many people simply throw trash on the streets. So instead of complaining and doing nothing, Sonje Ayiti and its volunteers are using meager resources to build incinerators to burn the trash and reduce volume.

Sonje Ayiti also runs a micro-lending program called “Koud-a-Koud.” Koud-a-Koud literally means “shoulder to shoulder,” but Sonje Ayiti takes the meaning to another level. With a 99% success rate, Koud-a-Koud lends sums of money (up to $500) to individuals or groups looking to start or support a small business. Since its inception 108 loans have been granted and only 1 has defaulted. 80% of the lenders are women and the types of businesses range from taxi to food services.  The Koud-a-Koud office space is a two room building. Its primary administrative staff is a young woman who is about my age. She was shy at first, but I think she has a great potential for leadership. The program is very popular and could use more funding.

(Pictured: Mayoral Candidate, Left. Student, Right)

In almost any developing country you will find someone, somewhere teaching an English class. The class I attended was unlike ANY I’ve ever been in! Haiti is currently undergoing political change. Limonade is not exempt. For the past couple of days the class has hosted local mayoral candidates. The candidate comes to speak and answer questions. I have participated in many of these and this one was DEEP! There were about 6 students, the instructor, myself and Gaby in the room along with the candidate. The students and Gaby asked concrete questions about his plan to clean up Limonade. He had none. As a pastor of a 300 member church, it seems as if this man was doing little for the community. I could see I look of anxiety and divestment in his face. I think the class agitated him a bit, hopefully to at least think about acting.

This post is getting long, my bandwidth shorter and there is still so much to share. I think the next post will include my experience while visiting the local hospital. I still can not get the stench of sickness out of my mind. It will also cover my visit with a local womens group, The Association of Valiant Women of Limonade (RAFAVAL), working to build power for themselves. My mind is beginning to churn and ideas are forming.  I think the women of RAFAVAL would do that to anyone who sits and talks with them. Visiting with them lifted my spirits and showed me once again just how complex Haiti is…as if I could ever forget.

Slow Down Baby You’re Going Too Fast

The past couple of weeks have gone by so quickly. Planning my trip to Haiti has consumed my thoughts and time since the idea first entered my my mind. Consumed in a good way. I had to book tickets, figure out where I was going to stay and who I was going to visit with. Fortunately the good folks over at Sonje Ayiti, the Cap-Haitien Health Network, TransAfrica Forum and Haiti 2015 have been SO helpful.

So how has this affected my personal life? Well that’s been interesting. My friends and family have been amazing. The outpouring of financial, spiritual and moral support has been invaluable. I talked their ears off, pestered them with details and shared my fears about this whole journey. They helped me raise over $1,600 and counting….

Without the support of so many people, this entire trip would not be possible.

The day I left for Miami was not so hot. My day at work was mentally intense. I was stressed out and ready to go. I even went a bit dramatic on a special someone. Luckily he confirmed that, no, he doesn’t think I’m crazy. He said that I just need to SLOW down. By the time I walked out of the office at 4:30pm…I felt a release. I felt the weight of the stress caused by my job slowly lift off of my shoulders. This trip is apart of a larger need for freedom.

While in Miami, I’m staying with two friends who are daring and hopeful beyond belief. In fact their 1,500 mile walk from Miami to Washington, DC inspired me to dare to DREAM. Juan Rodriguez and Felipe Matos are two of the four Trail of Dreams Walkers. I first met Felipe and Juan in 2009 during a Youth Organizing Training for Immigration Reform. The two young activists/organizers left an impression on my life and how I viewed my role in the social justice movement. Last night we talked about the broader immigrant rights movement with them and other members of Students Working for Equal Rights (SWEAR). The conversation re-energized my mind and spirit.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the day. I’ve never seen Miami this way, through the eyes of two DREAMers in the neighborhood of Little Havana. Miami is so much more than clubs and beaches. It’s helping to slow down and get my mind right for what will be one of the most significant trips in my life.

Freedom Matters

free•dom [free-duhm] noun-

1.  the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination.

2. the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without.

3. civil liberty, as opposed to subjection to an arbitrary or despotic government.

I don’t feel free.

As an African-American woman living in the United States of America, I don’t feel free.

As an African-American woman who identifies as a traveler, intellectual and food enthusiast; I don’t feel free.

As an African-American woman who is socially radical, spiritually developing and financially burdened; I don’t feel free.

As a human being living in 2010 where low-income folks, people of color, women and queer folk are unfree; I don’t feel free.

But I want my freedom…and like some say, “Freedom isn’t Free.” Like the roots in the image above, I want to be able to grow without physical or mental barriers. I want to feel free to make choices, I want power and I want self-determination.

So how will I get my freedom? Good question…right? I’ve been thinking A LOT about my freedom and how to get more of it. Until recently I didn’t think about my freedom very much. Why would I? My thinking was: Black folks are no longer enslaved, women can vote and hey I have a couple of fancy degrees.

Makes sense at first glance. Upon further reflection I realized that I felt powerless, I was not exercising self-determination and was just plain miserable. I was finding very little joy in my paid gig and constantly finding other ways to stay engaged in “the movement.” I would go to every protest, rally, meeting that I could. I taught at a local University. Worked with local youth fighting for the DREAM ACT. I maintained relationships with my former colleagues at one of the largest non-profits focusing on grassroots organizing in the country. I found family amongst those fighting for the most basic human rights across the country. I had amazing opportunities to sit in meetings and soak up MAD knowledge with some of the most prolific leaders in the larger social justice movement. My mentors in D.C. were mentored by Dr. Dorothy Height. I’ve been blessed.

But I still didn’t feel free.

So I made a decision.

Don’t talk about BE about it.

Next month I am headed to Haiti to connect with local people and organizations engaged in the long-term re-building of Haiti. I’m a social worker/organizer educator, why not go where my skills can be used? Why not go somewhere where my ancestors were once left in bondage? Why not go somewhere where there is much resiliency but also vulnerability? WHY NOT? I will spend a week traveling to Cap-Haitien and Port-Au-Prince, Haiti meeting with local organizations working toward re-building a stronger and freer Haiti. After that, I’ll come back and plan for a 6-9 month stay. What good is freedom when others are not free?

Where did I get this idea?

Like many folks I watched the images of the January 12th earthquake in Haiti. I weeped at my desk looking at pictures of dead children. I was angry that such a thing could happen in a country already facing a number of political, economical and physical challenges. I texted YELE! I think I even texted the Red Cross. I tweeted, gchatted and facebooked until my fingers were tired and my heart was too heavy. In the process I forgot about the lack of coordination amongst NGO’s. (Non-Governmental Organizations). I forgot that the Red Cross left Hurricane Katrina survivors dry. I forgot that money can’t and has never solved all problems.

What does THIS have to do with freedom?

This journey is pretty much 50/50 for me. 50% of my decision to relocate to Haiti has to do with my own freedom. I need a work environment where I can use my skills, learn new things, develop as an organizer/educator and just do what I’m most passionate about. What am I most passionate about? Well that’s the other 50%, I am most passionate about helping others empower themselves through education and positive self-development. I can’t give the Haitian people their freedom, no one can. Only they can attain that for themselves. My journey to and through Haiti will not be glamorous, cute or easy. I will most likely set high expectations and not meet them all, but that’s OK.

I turned 25 years “old” today. I am a QUARTER of a CENTURY! This just feels right. It feels right on time. I prayed about it and received confirmation. MOST of my friends weren’t even surprised that I would cook up something crazy like this. I refuse to spend my 25th year not actually using what I’ve learned and also learning things I’ve never even fathomed. I refuse to find myself crying out of frustration because I know I can do more and should do more. Beliefs should be turned into actions. I believe in human dignity and I believe that I have a role in achieving it for us all.

I believe in Freedom…Love and Justice. In fact, I might die still seeking all three.

I’ve been avoiding the whole blog thing because of the commitment and self-exposure. I guess it was finally time. I started the Freedom Pages to express my thoughts about the world as it is and the world as it should be. The Freedom Pages will expose my views on politics, culture, food, activism, organizing and traveling. I am in the pursuit of freedom, love and justice, I welcome you to come with me as I evolve. I hope you enjoy what you read, and promise only to be as honest as possible. Hopefully I’ll even agitate you to find your own freedom.

At the end of the day…I just want to serve and be free.

Want to help me get to Haiti?

Please visit my donation page at http://nvrcomfortable.chipin.com/1st-trip-to-haiti. All donations will support flights, housing, food and supplies for this trip. No amount is too small!