Monday, May 31, 2010

Déjà vu at 32,000 feet

Initial scene: American Airlines flight 822 & 1382
Current scene: An airconditioned (!) room in the Suri residence, Khel Gaon, Delhi

I learned more about the way the world works and doesn’t during my one week in Haiti than all year and then some. (No offense, Kennedy School.) What I witnessed and the people I met simultaneously broke my heart and uplifted it.

For starters, I would like to introduce you to a few Haitians.

Enchanté, Pierre, my driver. I’ve never had one before, but I needed a car to crisscross the rubble-laden city to get from meeting to meeting. Pierre knew every backstreet to escape traffic. He also indulged my curiosity: What’s that graffiti mean? Typically support for or opposition to a political candidate. What was that pancaked building? Sometimes a house but often a school, a hospital, or a Ministry.

When debris suddenly began caving in the top of his car on the afternoon of January 12th, Pierre survived by swiftly reclining his seat to a horizontal position. Over four months later, he and seven of his family members are living under a tarp – not even a tent. It poured every night of my visit.

This is one small informal camp of "shelter boxes." Tents are absolutely everywhere.

Enchanté, Johnny, an inspiring and aspiring student. Some of you might remember Johnny from an article written by Aarti Shahani, an HKS classmate, friend, and mentor in all things right. Johnny, 25, wants to finish up his degree, but the State University and many others are now in ruins. According to a member of the President’s Commission on Education, only .2% of Haitians are university students, “a catastrophic situation for a country.” Of the approximately 4,000 students who graduate each year, about half of them move abroad.

Johnny and his family live in Cite Soleil, the biggest slum in the hemisphere. Despite his difficult circumstances, he started a program for research and reflection with a few of his friends to bring people together around education. He also represents his block in Cite Soleil’s Community Forum, a network of local leaders and organizations that started a few years ago. The Forum aims to harness their neighborhood’s own resources and to hold the local government and international community more accountable to the needs of residents. Johnny wants to be a journalist.

Enchanté, Annick, mother of two. She works in finance for a bank and is on the Board of INURED. Last Sunday, Annick invited me and a UC-Berkeley PhD student (also staying at INURED) to her beautiful home at the very, very top of the mountain. We installed Skype on her computer so that she can see her 13-year old son in Boston and six-year old daughter in Miami. Still traumatized, they’ve been living with relatives since the quake.

The back of Annick's home

Annick's mother-in-law, who lost a son in the earthquake and whose home was badly damaged, looking out at a view of Port-au-Prince from Annick's balcony

After dinner, her husband peer pressured us into drinking a glass of Barbancourt Rhum . He then took us to Petionville’s Golf Club, now the Sean Penn-managed home of 60,000 displaced persons. We were picking up some water filters for the Community Forum from a professional surfer-turned-humanitarian. It is not possible to make sense of these two worlds.

While watching Invictus on my plane ride back to the States, I recalled feeling a similar sense of hopelessness and hopefulness when I left South Africa in 2004 – the country’s 10-year anniversary of democracy. I had been studying in Cape Town, a starkly divided city surrounded by mountains and the sea still trying to overcome centuries of oppression -- much like Port-au-Prince. I wonder how Pierre, Johnny, and Annick and their families will be faring on the earthquake’s 10-year anniversary.


PS. I didn't feel comfortable snapping photos in Port-au-Prince, so I'm sorry this isn't more visually engaging.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Relieving My Various Itches

Scene: A library in Coconut Creek, Florida

Since leaving Cambridge last week, I’ve spent a few days at home with my parents, sister, and dog in New Jersey and last weekend on Sanibel Island to marry off one of my longest friends. I’ll be heading out shortly to stock up on anti-itch cream to sooth the dozens of mosquito bites already gracing my body - an appropriate precursor to the rest of my summer. But first, my very first blog entry via my grandma’s house, my launch pad for Haiti.

I leave on Thursday for Port-au-Prince, which was devastated by an earthquake and its aftermath, killing over 200,000 people and displacing one million. I’m traveling to Haiti on behalf of the Haiti Recovery Caucus, launched in late January with over 60 Kennedy School and other Harvard students. The group aims to promote and facilitate faculty and student involvement in the next steps of Haiti’s development. Most of my semester revolved around this organizing effort, so I’ve been itching to get to Haiti for months now.

The trip is building upon the experiences of several students who visited Haiti during spring break and a comprehensive mapping we have conducted on available resources and interests at HKS. With the help of our group’s leadership and other contacts, I’m setting up a slew of meetings with Haitian and international officials, organizations, and institutions. I’m hoping the trip will give us a better sense of the challenges hindering Haiti’s recovery and potential entry points for students and faculty to plug into for the next academic year and beyond. I’ll be staying with INURED, a research and training institute that aims to improve education, policy, and socioeconomic conditions in Haiti.

After a one-day stopover in NJ, I’ll be heading to India for 10 weeks, where I’ve been itching to get back to since my first visit there last March with RESULTS & ACTION.

This summer I’ll be working with Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN). PRADAN is one of the most effective women’s empowerment and sustainable development organizations around. They currently work with nearly 200,000 marginalized women in eight poor states to help them and their families enhance their skills and assets in order to lead more dignified lives. Upon invitation, PRADAN places skilled professionals in villages to promote and nurture women’s groups, develop sustainable economic activities such as water management and agriculture, and mobilize microcredit and other financial services. PRADAN recently established a Research and Resource Center to convert its fieldwork into policy and practice. I’ll be helping them develop a policy agenda and advocacy strategy.

I first heard about PRADAN last October from MPA/ID and Roy Family Fellowship alum Gretchen Phillips who has been working with PRADAN for a few years. I’ll be working with Gretchen and the director of the Research and Resource Center in Delhi, with some travel to central and eastern India to visit with PRADAN’s field teams and local women’s groups.

Request: If you know of any rooms in Delhi near Niti Bagh, let me know!

Stay tuned for a post from Haiti later next week, photos, and other goodies.