Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Dennis Rosen

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.