Sarah Vaill is a former Program Officer for the Americas/Caribbean/Oceania Team. She is currently Director of International Advocacy & Program Planning for Karama, a Global Fund grantee based in Egypt.
Sarah shared her memories of trips to Haiti in 1999 and 2000 while Program Officer for the Global Fund.
As I did after Hurricane Mitch in Nicaragua and Honduras, and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I have been obsessively thinking about Haiti. I am writing this update for my own need to re-tell it. When I visited Haiti many years ago, I remember thinking how I had never seen a more desperately impoverished place--it eclipsed everything I have seen, in Latin America, East Africa, in the Middle East…. Every woman had walked for miles with a baby in her arms and joined us in a rickety structure that was the only large gathering place, obviously functioning as the school, the church, and community hall.
During our site visits led by the Papaye Peasant Movement (MPP), we followed the format of grantee forums-- we were introduced to groups by MPP, then I shared information about the GFW, and asked them to share what was important to them or the challenges they wanted to overcome. One by one, they stood and described suffering, often an infant's death, a child's illness or hunger. Each asked us to help her family. Bleakly. It was the most awful position I had ever been in.
Where was USAID to build a hospital?? Where were the big foundations to invest in rural development, disarmament, and maternal health? I talked about GFW working with MPP and investing in the local health education efforts--but the GFW grant was already given and would not be enough for MPP to include this village. So much of what I said felt like empty words, I reached deep for scripture and metaphor like the Creole sayings. All my illusions about our GFW goals and impact collapsed on themselves. All I had was a hard resolve to seek other funders to start doing much more in Haiti, and there was little else we could offer. I could barely speak as we drove to the next village.
To our surprise, the next visit was radically different, meeting with a small group of women who were in the middle of MPP's maternal health education project. Sitting in a circle, we had a real and frank discussion about reproductive and sexual health and the lives of the women and their daughters. An entirely different tone existed among the women in the meeting--interest, knowledge, focus, goals, perseverance, and hope for a future that held possibilities. It was difficult but I got the point: They were showing us the transformation, how so much could come from so little invested. Small grants, big impact, indeed, in every sense of the word.
At the third and final site visit, as our jeep pulled into the village, a crowd awaiting us that sang loudly and celebrated their community, showering us with cocoa products as gifts. We heard vocal tales of the vision and goals of the women there, who had completed the health education trainings and were now more interested to talk about their next plans for enterprise development and the marketing of local goods they had produced than even continuing with MPP's project. This was the intangible thing that Paul Farmer touches on, the evidence of what we have always tried to explain. When a woman's health and her children's health are secure, she will next turn her focus to sustaining that health, then investing in it, by increasing well-being through prosperity, education, and community stability, safety, and resources. She gains respect and power in the community as well as the family....creating a layer of local organizing that multiplies the effect among other women, and their girls.
It was an incredible day that had started before sunrise. Yet in the jeep as we raced home across the plateau, we watched the anxiety mount in our hosts. To be on the back roads of the Plateau after dark was a really bad idea, Raymonde explained. At the same time, we stopped often to let people on and off the jeep to ride with us and reach their respective homes more safely... What I will never forget is not just the number of small arms and automatic weapons I saw everywhere, not just the mayhem of honking and lane-swerving in the capital given the lack of (any?) traffic lights in Port-au-Prince and the streets crowded with people walking because the sidewalks are taken up by the informal economy, not just the midwives who wanted to receive badges at their graduation to help them deter attacks when they go out to births in the middle of the night, not the country's only Creole-language newspaper which was published by ENFOFANM -- the most memorable and definitive moment was the surprise that met our translator when we dropped her off in Port-au-Prince at her home. She had been pumping her lactation throughout the day to bring to her toddler at home. She opened the cooler and looked at the container and realized, "Hmm. Somebody drank the breast milk." We all looked at each other. This said so much to me about the needs and shortages and grassroots work in Haiti, the essential humanity of it all.
The GFW has been supporting grassroots women's groups in Haiti since 1991. Find out about GFW's response to the Haiti earthquake and about the Crisis Fund.