We left Haiti and Dominican Republic behind a few days ago and I am barely starting to collect my thoughts about the people in the great island of Hispaniola and the 20 million people that live in it.
Our goal traveling to the Caribbean island was to meet with the groups leading the efforts to help people touched by diabetes in Dominican Republic (Aprendiendo a Vivir, in collaboration with Ayuda, Inc.) and Haiti (FHADIMAC). They will receive a total of $50,000 in grants connected to the Big Blue Test program run by the Diabetes Hands Foundation.
This post will focus on the nearly two-day long part of the trip to Haiti and the impact it had on all of us who visited...
From the moment we arrived in the International airport, the impact of the earthquake could be felt. Most of the terminal (as you can see in the photo above) is still being rebuilt. Those arriving are welcomed into a smaller temporary terminal, where local musicians play an upbeat song every time a group of travelers approaches. I couldn't help but notice the irony that, in spite of the sorry state of the rest of the airport, there were already some respectable-sized ads hanging on the walls of the temporary terminal... this wouldn't be the last irony I encountered.
As you leave the airport, the reality of the city starts to sink in. Painted pick-up trucks, so-called Tap-Tap's, constitute the main form of public transportation in Port-Au-Prince, which comes in handy as you notice that many of the roads require 4-wheel drive. Traffic can be challenging for the most astute drivers, not only because of the conditions of the pavement but considering the scarcity of traffic lights and the almost ubiquitous use of car horns, sometimes not to get other cars to move over but honked as a way to say "Thanks!" when people are helpful.
The contrasts are non-stop. One one end you see the buildings for the phone companies, tall and modern (the tallest around), right across from ad hoc markets lining up the streets, with lots and lots of people selling products right next to each other, or carrying fruit, furniture, or boxes on their heads. There are so many street vendors next to each other and taking up sidewalk and street space in some places that some two-way streets are reduced to 1.2-way streets, where cars have to take turns to pass, so as to not run over pedestrians or improvised vending stands.
I asked many times why there were so many people on the streets. Part of the answer has to do with the number of people living in Haiti: 10 million, concentrated in a smaller space than their 10 million Dominican brothers and sisters across the border, in a territory nearly half as small. The other part of the answer broke my heart. So many people share living spaces that they take turns to sleep, they sleep by rotation...
When you consider that 60% of the people in Haiti live with less than US$2 per day, 25% of those live with less than under $1 per day, and 300,000 people older than 20 years old have diabetes, it's hard to imagine how find the motivation to get up every day and hustle to make a living. Yet, they do. And I found the most inspiring example of motivation and empowerment PRECISELY in the team run by Dr. Nancy Larco, current head of FHADIMAC, the only association working in Haiti towards playing an essential role in the daily lives of thousands of people with diabetes and hypertension.
One of the most powerful stories I heard was the story of Widney. EVERY morning he rides a tap-tap from his home to Port-Au-Prince: a 2-hour long ride. He lives with type 1 diabetes and he credits Dr. Larco for saving his life and his sister's life (she also has type 1 diabetes): without FHADIMAC, they wouldn't have access to insulin and they wouldn't have gotten diabetes education to help them make the best possible choices with regards to their lifestyle in connection with diabetes.
As a way to give back, every day he helps screen over 200 people in downtown Port-Au-Prince: he attracts passers-by with a bullhorn and testes their blood sugar. Thanks to this effort, more than 10,000 people have been screened in the past year and hundreds of them have been found to have diabetes. These are people who otherwise would be walking ignorant of their condition and not taking the care they need to take to avoid complications and live a long and healthy life.
Stories of empowerment such as Widney's are profoundly inspiring. These are people who have turned their challenges into opportunities to be thankful and help others. Above is the photo we took together. You can see more photos from this trip on the Haiti 2012 album.