Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Other Shoe

It's been two weeks since I returned from Port-au-Prince.  I've been using the term "grim" to describe conditions there.  As the official tropical storm/hurricane season draws to a close next week, the sigh of relief I've been waiting to exhale is on hold.  Instead of a threat from hurricane force winds and flooding and mudslides, the 1.3 million residents of tent camps face a cholera epidemic.

Ansel Herz of Inter Press News reports that heath workers are scrambling to bar cholera from the crowded camps in and around Port-au-Prince.  As of yesterday, at least 160 people have died in the central Artibonite region, according to Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian arm of Partners in Health.

Cholera, a waterborne bacterium, stands to devastate the camps by contaminating the drinking supply.  The Haitian government says that the bacterium can incubate in the human body for days and rapidly cause death by dehydration.  Spokespersons from the Pan American Health Organization said Friday that laboratory tests had confirmed the outbreak.

Acting like generals responding to an invasion by hostile forces, authorities have sped medical personnel to St. Marc, about 70 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince, where a single hospital is overwhelmed with cholera patients.  Villagers from remote areas are sprawled on the floors, intravenous lines in their arms.  In the meantime, patients queue up outside the gates.

In a blog post by Partners in Health Chief Medical Officer Joia Mukherjee called cholera "a disease of poverty" (80 percent of Haitians live in poverty).  She asserted that loans from the Inter-American Development Bank meant for the development of a public water supply in the affected region were blocked on political grounds during the tenure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The background section of the the PIH website, relates how the "dire" public health situation in recent years was worsened by a U.S.-backed embargo against the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and then by the coup that drove him from office.  Further, "dismal health outcomes are especially pronounced in Haiti's rural interior, where deforestation, erosion, and lack of infrastructure have crippled the agricultural economy."  The region supports only 10 percent of the population, but they are the poorest people in the nation, a condition that makes them a perfect target for cholera.

The disease is transmitted by drinking water contaminated by the feces of infected persons.  Only ten percent of those drinking such contaminated water come down with the disease.

Back in the capital of Port-au-Prince, Herz reports that it is not clear that prevention measures have been implemented.  Mark Snyder, a development worker with International Action Ties, has not seen "any general information distributed on the streets or in the camps at this time."  Snyder pointed out that the U.N. peacekeepers patrol the streets to provide security, not to supply information.

So, while smaller storms have harassed the camp residents, the feared hurricane season is taking second place to the specter of a cholera epidemic.

What can you do to help?  Organize an event to show solidarity with the Haitian people.  Donate to Partners in Health, or Konpay,, a Haitian organization that "builds networks and collaborations so that technology and expertise can be shared and used to strengthen Haitian solutions to social, environmental and economic problems."

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's All about Translation

At some point, I had to post about language, translation, and meaning.  As some of you recall from an earlier post, I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's compelling book about the socio-political impact of disaster, A Paradise Built in Hell.  Combining, among other disciplines, philosophy, psychology, and the sociology of disaster, Solnit masterfully explains the way disasters, despite the devastation and anguish wrought, can create community, solidarity, and, however, briefly, utopia.   Suffice to say, that the mutual aid and altruism often exhibited during disasters is transformed through initiative into a democratic participation, empowering enough to threaten and even change governments.

The only part of my visit to Haiti more frustrating than the incompetence, tone-deafness, and indifference of the international disaster recovery leadership to the experience of the Haitians on the ground has been my inability to pick up Haitian Creole.

Now some would say that if had been sitting in a classroom five or six hours a day to learn the language of the people of Haiti, I might be functioning pretty adequately now.  The first week I was running around with an NGO and interpreters or speaking English (or Spanish or French).  Given that I had severed my day-to-day ties with the organization whose work induced me to travel to Haiti, the next week I was pondering whether it made any sense to continue my stay, since I no longer had a platform to interact with people who interact with other people in international organizations.  How could I interact directly with the stricken Haitian people or even Haitian activists or NGOs trying to make a difference?

The last week, my third, was one where two American activists I had contacted would be arriving in Haiti.  Both included, if not featured, communication among their skill sets, including fluency in Creole.    At least I had to remain until I had a chance to speak with them, to meet the people behind the websites.  I had been poring through the websites learning about Haitians who were taking matters into their own hands, making decisions, and building the community that would be needed to break through the inertia that has settled over the country like smoke over Port-au-Prince.

What do Rebecca Solnit's take on disaster and activist-advocates and Creole have in common?    In reading an op-ed from Sunday's New York Times, "Found In Translation" by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, I learned that while many novelists have been honored to see their works translated into other languages, the novel itself is a translation from the planned book that lives only in the writer's brain to the actual book that winds through a process of cutting, condensation, and compromise before it ends up in print.

The opportunity that many Haitians and their advocates and allies see to build the Haiti that has been deferred since the triumph of the revolution in 1804 involves translation of that idea, updated to 2010, into a reality.  While the symbols of that finished work might include still and moving images, dance and other nonverbal communication, the heavy lifting will be done through words, and those words have to be in Creole.  Unfortunately, I don't know enough Creole to quote poetry, folk wisdom, and even jokes, but I do suspect that a particularly Haitian form of deliberation and democratic participation couldn't occur in translation.  Maybe a kind of Whorfian hypothesis applies here - in a nation that overthrew slavery and colonialism, the language used by the rebels must have been one of the keys to success as it influenced cognitive processes.

 I'm glad that I have essentially finished Paradise (since I'm most of the way through her account of Hurricane Katrina, the last of the disasters Solnit details) in order to translate her point into the work-in-progress that is the earthquake recovery.  And, now I've translating the frustration at the conditions here in Haiti to the patience needed to learn Creole.