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Review: Seeing Haiti’s Distress as People, Not Statistics

• November 14, 2011 • 4:00 AM

The new book “A Promise in Haiti” focuses on three families and puts meat on the bones of a nation most of the world sees as just a carcass.

Confronted with large-scale natural or man-made disaster, most people have great difficulty making sense of, or being able to relate to, it in the context of their own experiences and daily lives. Suffering is much more easily dealt with when broken down into small, easy-to-digest portions. Reading Anne Frank’s diary lets us identify with her and almost able to imagine the tedium mixed with fear of detection while hiding from the Nazis, or the misery and horror of her final weeks in Bergen-Belsen. The tragedy of the Holocaust — too big, really, for anyone to fully comprehend — acquires a different meaning than can be obtained from dry numbers and statistics: so many million gassed here, so many million shot there.

This tendency to identify with the fate of a specific individual rather than with that of a much larger group of people is well known, and is used to advantage for both good and bad purposes. Josef Stalin is reported to have commented that “one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic” when referring to the victims of his purges.

It is also the reason solicitations for donations to help the victims of the latest civil strife, or famine, or flood invariably include a picture of someone in distress whom the viewer can identify with. Instead of numbly scanning the numbers, you focus on a child, not very different from your own and who could, in fact, be your own, if circumstances were different by some awful twist of fate too frightening to imagine. It makes you much more likely to try and do something for this particular child. Of course, if you were to stop for a moment and think about it, the chances are very good that she is either already someplace safer, or dead, by the time you see her picture.

The earthquake which struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, was a devastating blow to a country already deeply mired in poverty after decades of neglect and depredation at the hands of corrupt dictatorships and foreign powers. Killing an estimated 230,000, injuring 800,000, and leaving more than 1.3 million people homeless out of population of just over 9 million, the earthquake was a disaster of incalculable proportions made worse by the lack of basic resources and infrastructure: an acute on chronic disaster, to use medical terminology.

The images of the desperate conditions in Port-au-Prince broadcast around the world in its aftermath led to a huge outpouring of support, with donations to the American Red Cross alone topping $479 million. Despite the continued need for assistance even as new problems such as cholera have emerged, thanks both to the efficiency of the 24-hour news cycle in its relentless search to find some new disaster to showcase, as well as simple compassion fatigue, Haiti and its people have faded from public attention.

For those of us with connections to Haiti and its people, through cultural or family ties, or who have spent time there doing relief work, this is especially hard to accept. All too often described as poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (making it no less true, unfortunately), and barely an hour and a half by plane from Miami, Haiti is too close and looms too large for the United States and its people to ignore, especially considering the uneasy and complicated relationship between the two countries during the last 200 years.

A Promise in HaitiMark Curnutte is a veteran journalist for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Always troubled by “the logic behind the attitude that the poor had chosen their condition–or that their condition was God’s will” when writing about poverty, prejudice and discrimination in this country­he was especially moved by what he saw after visiting Haiti with a church group in 1996. Returning there in 2006 and 2008, and once again in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, he resolved to tell the story of “people and a place [he] cared about,” and to demonstrate how much people living in both societies had in common despite their linguistic, cultural, religious and economic differences.

He wrote his new book, A Promise in Haiti: A Reporter’s Notes on Families and Daily Lives, in an effort to describe the hardships of life there through the stories of individuals and families whom he grew to know during the course of his visits. By putting identifiable human faces on the abstract suffering borne by millions just a figurative stone’s throw from this country’s shores, Curnutte transforms it from an abstract concept into something much more easily grasped.

In Gonaïves, a small city in northern Haiti, he spent extended periods of time with three Haitian families, eating with them and sleeping in their homes. Eager to describe the lives of ordinary Haitians, this book chronicles his and their experiences and details the most quotidian aspects of their existence, with whole chapters devoted to topics such as work, clothes, food, shelter, and money.

Observing how the Haitians he grew to know struggled to eke out an existence, he notes that “the goal of the average Haitian is to make something out of what an average American would see as nothing.” This is no small matter in a society afflicted by 67 percent unemployment and 46 percent illiteracy, and in which more than half the population subsists on less than one dollar a day. He contrasts emptying the contents of his refrigerator into the garbage before traveling to Haiti so that they would not rot with how his Haitian hosts let no part of a chicken they cooked in his honor go to waste uneaten, not even small bones or cartilage.

Describing his personal evolution during this period, he writes: “Looking back, I realize that I often dehumanized the Haitians in our initial encounters by elevating them to the level of one-dimensional deity, holy in the helpless victimization and poverty,” even though he himself had struggled against the notion that some people are born destined to suffer in others. Later, after finding himself attracted to a beautiful Haitian woman, he starts to feel “less like ‘me’ and [see] the Haitian people less as ‘them,’” and the barriers he had not been aware of beforehand start to crumble.

Returning to Gonaïves in 2008 and reconnecting with the three families, he comments that “the aging process for buildings, like people, is accelerated in Haiti”, and recalls a verse by the Haitian poet Claude InnocentWalking around looking for life, the poor man’s feet lose their creases. Seeing his friends older, thinner and struggling even more to feed their children triggers further introspection about the disparities between the two countries, and guilt that by partaking of the American cornucopia, he might be “robbing millions of people around the world of basic needs.” Ultimately, though, he concludes that by telling their stories and increasing awareness of their plight, he may be able to have an effect on their lives: “If the world would listen just once in my lifetime to one thing I had to say, what would it be? See these families. Let them in.”

Beautifully written, and very moving, A Promise in Haiti stayed with this reader long after he had finished it and caused him to reflect upon the people it described, their lives and circumstances. It raises the very important question of what our responsibility is towards others less fortunate than us who share the same planet and breathe the same air­a question Curnutte is not afraid to answer. A pleasure to read, it is also an inspiring plea to help others which is difficult to ignore.

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Dennis Rosen
Dennis Rosen is a pediatric pulmonologist practicing in Boston. His book Vital Conversations: Improving Communication Between Doctors and Patients will be published by Columbia University Press in September 2014.

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