Leaving Haiti, Feeling Hopeful
UUSC partnered with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) on a joint volunteer trip to Haiti, January 21-28. Trip participant Casey Aspin reflects on the end of the journey in the post below. The UUA-UUSC Haiti Volunteer Program is made possible through the contributions of UUA and UUSC donors and a generous grant from the Veatch Program of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, in Manhasset, N.Y. Day Seven All good things must come to an end, right? Today was a four-hour drive back to Port-au-Prince, followed by lunch at a Western-oriented hotel (next to the sparkling swimming pool). Today's entry is mainly random thoughts. The slogan of the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP) is "Organize or die." Chavannes's view is that success will be achieved only through a movement of people who are educated about their rights and who support each other in attaining those rights. Over lunch, I learned from Evan Seitz, one of our amazing UUSC trip leaders, that 24 people came to the first meeting Chavannes organized in Papaye in 1973. When Chavannes asked them what they were going to do to improve their lives, they got angry and said they were expecting him to provide solutions to their problems. While he challenged them to work together to improve their lot, they challenged him to deliver what the AWOL government and the church had failed to provide. Half left the meeting and never came back. Half stuck with Chavannes and, over time, helped him gain insight into the defeatism that kept people living in misery, scratching a meager existence from the reluctant earth. Chavanne discovered that fatalism was ubiquitous. If a crop failed, it was God's will. If a child died, God willed it. A proponent of liberation theology and Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Chavannes made educating and organizing peasants his life's work every bit as much as helping farmers grow organic produce. In many ways, Haitian rural life (under the MPP model) is the realization of our dreams, as liberal Western environmentalists. They conserve water, they create beautiful compost, they use renewable (solar) energy, they raise and eat organic food, and they live sustainably. They are absolutely the model for the United States — the $64,000 question is whether life in the United States has to sink to the level of Haiti before we figure that out? In closing, I want to apologize if I have made Haitian life sound idyllic when it clearly isn't. The lack of basic services and basic rights manifests itself in many soul-crushing ways. What buoys me — and all in our group — is the resilience of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds. I've also volunteered in St. Croix and in New Orleans, and in neither place did I find the hope, the spirit, and the energy that is making Haiti a better place every day. In the interest of balance, Haiti has problems I didn't see in St. Croix and New Orleans. UUSC also works on child slavery, the indentured servitude of children sold into domestic labor, and rampant rape in the tent cities. Our work didn't introduce us to the Port-au-Prince partners working in these areas. Had we spent more time in Port-au-Prince, maybe we'd be less sanguine — I don't know. What I did see leaves me feeling hopeful. I can't help but feel the goodwill (and money) engendered by the earthquake has maybe — just maybe — come at a time of ideal confluence. I can envision the following possibilities: The new leadership in Haiti could assume its responsibilities to its people. Evens Mary, one of our translators, certainly seems hopeful that the new president and prime minister could get the country headed in the right direction. The interference of outside countries, ours included, that has long favored elites over peasants could recede. Perhaps even the Catholic Church (which owns two-thirds of the land in Haiti) could see its way to support land reform. A problem we saw throughout our visit was that farmers did not own the land they worked — and could lose it at any time. It could be that the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will cede some of the power, money, and control they have accumulated over the years to allow the government to assume more responsibility. The world's support of the NGOs doing great work in Haiti is in many ways harmful — Haitians look to NGOs for health care, education, and infrastructure instead of their government. That must change, and the NGOs must work with the government to shift that dynamic. "Makanon fasnu kontinuye lite ou Ayiti." The song is in my head constantly. I think that is because the Haitians want us to entwine our strength with theirs to continue to fight for Haiti. And so we will. This week has entirely been a privilege for us, and we were embarrassed by the gratitude poured on us. I thank every one of the UUSC staff for maxing out our visit, in terms of what we did and what we learned and what we saw. Wendy Flick, Evan Seitz, Kara Smith, and Cassandra Ryan — thank you from the bottom of my heart.