"Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive...then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Howard Thurman

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Ann Ale Lakay! (Let's Go Home)

Early in my sales career I learned the benefit of asking my clients, "When this campaign is done, what will success look like or how will we define success?".  It's a question I oftentimes forget to ask myself in life, but is equally relevant, if not more so. 

Throughout our time in Haiti Al and I have had frequent conversations around the topic of 'how will we know when our work here is done?' and 'what does success look like in the humanitarian world?'.   I continue to believe that we should work ourselves out of a job.  That as soon as we have raised the capabilities of our national counterparts and have transferred whatever unique knowledge we possess - we should be replaced by a Haitian worker and our time should be done.

Mixed in with that is the pull of family and friends and the reality that this is the only life we are get...I'm been sad to miss so many milestones.  All that said, I felt my team was getting close to taking over for me so I started asking around about job options in the U.S. and fairly quickly found a great job with a company I know and trust in NYC working with colleagues from my past.  I resigned my Haitian position feeling a little uncertain, that maybe I was leaving too soon.

Then came Friday of last week.  The most rewarding day of my work life to date (I'm looking forward to more!).  I have always been lucky in work, and even more so here.  I report to an amazing man and work for an organization that I admire.  Last Spring I told my supervisor that I didn't think we were working with the most vulnerable in Port au Prince and I thought we could do more.  He listened and asked me to write the program I thought could work, then to turn it into a proposal. I received funding which means - all hands on deck - you're approved and now you get to bring your idea to life!  My program name is Ann Ale Lakay, Kreyol for Let's Go Home.  Since arriving in Haiti, I've been working on Resettlement (trying to get people to leave the tent camps which were spontaneously created after the earthquake and move back to their neighborhoods).  First we worked in the camps, providing immediate disaster relief.  Then we moved to the neighborhoods, trying a pull strategy.  The thinking was that if we leave the camps and move to the neighborhoods, the people will follow.

It worked for many, but with 125,000 very vulnerable families still living in camps, Ann Ale Lakay was a plan created to provide monetary assistance for people to leave the camps AFTER they fulfilled their end of the deal - completing a six week life skills training program.  The small group training, led by Haitian University graduated Social Workers and Psychologists included:  Communications, Conflict Resolution, Personal Responsibility, Needs Assessment and Financial Basics.  After completion, each family worked one on one with their Social Worker to write their own Family Plan.  They detailed their needs based on priority and created solutions for each. 

We entered our first camp about nine weeks ago.  We were met with anger, frustration and fear.  The residents felt abandoned in the aftermath of aid organizations trying the pull strategy in neighborhoods, and while not the best living conditions, many people hadn't allowed themselves to think past a permanent camp existence.  That first day in the camp I knew I had a team of people that could take over what I'd created.  They jumped right in with compassion and tremendous listening skills. Since that day the atmosphere in the camp has changed to hope and joy.  Every family has found a new home.  Each day I see families washing their belongings and dismantling their camp homes.  The families that haven't yet moved are anxious to go.  By Friday, December 9th, which happens to by my last day of work here, the camp should be completely empty.  I am SO proud of my team!

Finally, what happened on Friday...
I arrived at the camp to see one of the women that I remember being amongst the angriest and most bitter on our first day.  I was invited to visit her in her new home.  I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but as soon as she opened the gate to her home a huge smile spread across her face.  She introduced me to her husband and two teenage sons.  She then proceeded to tell me how much the Ann Ale Lakay program has changed her life.  She cited the training as the catalyst to allow her and her husband to reconcile and enjoy each other again.  She said she has been able to let go of her anger and find something to celebrate every day.  She said she loves waking up to life outside the camp and most of all she pointed out their Family Plan, which she says will guide them and has enabled them to take back control of their own lives.  This is sustainable change.

And after all, isn't that what everyone on earth should have?  The dignity and self respect to get up every morning and feel hope and find some part of our day that brings a smile to our face that we can share with others?

I could stop here, except it gets better.  I left her home, feeling far more gratitude towards her than my language abilities would allow me to explain or that she might ever understand to go to the Healing Hands tree topping ceremony for the new handicap accessible Outpatient Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Center.   After the clinic was torn down post earthquake Al was able to find generous donors in the International Committee of the Red Cross, American Red Cross, Australian Red Cross and Norwegian Red Cross.  They agreed to work together to fund this new building.  Friday was the day that the final cement was poured on the roof of the structure.  WOW!  It's been fun to watch it go up - by a Haitian construction firm that has been supervised by a French Engineer - and watching Al scoop a ceremonial shovel of cement was incredible.  The culmination of his passion for rehab in Haiti over the last eight years will stand to serve the disabled community for a very long time.

And so, after much uncertainty about whether or not now is the time to leave I can say that I feel good about the work I have done here.  The frustrations, injustices and inhumanity witnessed, tears shed and sleepless nights were in the end definitely worth it.

Arriving home

Kids helped to pack

Getting everything ready to leave the camp

Moving Day

New Healing Hands Orthopedic & Physical Medicine Center - Opening to Patients in March or April 2012

Al adding the last shovelful of cement to the top of the building

Sunday, July 3, 2011

A Voice for my Feelings

After months of writing generic posts about our experience here in Haiti I ran out of things to say. Every week I think about what I could possibly add that would explain what I'm seeing or feeling and I keep coming up blank.  Until today, when I read what two women that we know wrote.  It really resonated with me and sums it all up perfectly.  I'm incredibly grateful to them for giving voice to my oft confused, conflicted self...
Reposted from Tara Livesay and the Livesay (Haiti) Weblog, 
"It's about collecting other people's pain and trying to hide it, write it, 
catalog it, transform it, understand it, avoid it." 
emily troutman

Over the last few weeks as I've had extra time at home with my kids and and away from the daily grind and the realities of Port au Prince I've been thinking a lot about the responsibility that comes with telling the stories of Haitian people.

We're not journalists, we're not hired to tell stories, we're not experienced professional writers. We're sharing Haiti from one unique perspective that certainly cannot even begin to cover all of the angles. We're not experts on this culture or country. We never will be.

We're learners.We're learners that care about Haiti.

We've said before-  every day, month, and year in Haiti brings us to a greater realization of how little we understand.  The only "experts" around here are the people who have been here a couple weeks or months.  [Ouch. Was that too snaggy? It's okay, because with time, they'll know a lot less.]

We've come to care deeply about this place and her people. Our biggest fear in sharing our experiences in Haiti is that we, in places of discouragement or frustration, might disrespect the people of Haiti or generalize when generalizing is simply unfair. We never want to do that.  We don't wish to preside as judge of anything; it is impossible for us to completely understand the complexities of their lives and histories and culture. 

A portion of what happens each week is never written here. The stories left untold usually remain that way simply because framing them without all of our personal biases and disillusionment would be impossible.  Those stories are for late night exchanges between trusted friends over a bottle of wine. They are to be trusted to God in humility and prayer. Some stories are so difficult we simultaneously want to remember and forget.

It is painful to read comments from people that hate this little island. We get them occasionally and over time we've found that it doesn't hurt in the least to be told we're crappy parents or people, or that we're stupid or abusive to "force" our kids to live here.  That doesn't bother us at all. Our skin has thickened enough to take that. But when people say terrible things about Haitians it grieves us.  The level of animosity and prejudice can be shocking.  Those odious words have actually served to help me be more aware of the times I am "down on Haiti" and making generalizations based on one cruddy or discouraging encounter.

We're grateful to know there are those in the world that care deeply about the struggles of the people of Haiti.  We're touched you want read about their lives and hear their stories. Thank you for opening your hearts to them.

Our prayer and desire is that we share the stories with the utmost care and respect for the dignity of the people that we so want to esteem and uphold.



By Emily Troutman
A Journalist in Haiti: A Year of Collecting Pain 
January 2011

(Posted here with the author's permission, the original posting of this article can be found here.)

People in Haiti are always telling me their earthquake stories. I am prepared, but still a little surprised, when the moment arrives. The stories seem too personal. The personal is public now.

We stand in hallways as they tell me. We sit at the beach. We are climbing the stairs or maybe I am just about to get out of the car. It is almost never what I would consider an appropriate time or place. Then again, what would that be in Haiti? Certainly, not the therapist's office.

A Journalist's Year in Haiti: Collecting Pain
In Haiti, a women mourns the loss of her family and home

First they tell me their own story: I was at the house. My husband was coming home from work. I called him, angry, convinced that he was out having a drink somewhere and didn't know about the earthquake. He answered the phone, said, "I'm stuck in traffic." He couldn't explain the buildings, the body parts. "I'm not at the bar," was all he said.

Then they tell me someone else's story: The public official, wonderful woman. Lost her staff. Dragged nine people out of a building, walked home. Realized then, after eight hours, she was only in her underwear.

The stories of the collapse are followed by the stories of the reconstruction -- misery and corruption, mostly, politics and misspent money.

"And what did all the misery of Jan. 12 get us?" they seem to say.

They look at me as if I might answer. And it's tempting, for a moment, to play the analyst: What I think isn't important; it's what you think that's important.

But they already know that. I'm 31 years old, an American, a journalist. Even if I did have an answer, which I don't, it would obviously be circumspect, philosophical, wrong.

Still, people beseech me with their stories, and I have to think it's because they know I'm a journalist. I'm a trained listener. I know when to ask questions and when to nod. I've taught my face to behave like a doctor's or a judge's. I don't grin or interject. I know the funny bits are actually the saddest.

A Journalist's Year in Haiti: Collecting Pain
Tarp distribution, Leogane, Haiti March 2010

I listen to all of them, knowing that somehow, Haitians are redefining themselves now, in terms of this great truth. Saying it out loud makes their experience truer, and also, less true, less hurtful. Every story is important -- a thousand little blocks built like a wall against the pain.

But I listen, also, to Haiti's silence. I try to understand why people tell one story and not another. They never, ever say they're sad, for example. They talk about the government's failures, but they never talk about change. They don't believe in it, or don't want to. They don't talk about the people who died.

For me, the question is what to do with all these stories. I'm not a therapist or an aid worker. My main credential is having a camera around my neck and a pen in my hand. I didn't come here to document that one particular moment -- those 48 hours of catastrophic post-earthquake horror and death. Despite whatever the one-year coverage says, people here want to move on.

I'm just trying to do my job. But what is it, exactly?

If I spend all day shooting in a camp, I find that I can pretend until I don't feel like I'm pretending anymore. There's a lot of urine in the gutters and parents who beat their kids, but I walk around with a straight back and smile at small children. I laugh with old ladies and share beers with old men.

I find the dignity, where it surfaces. I look for it. I write down what everyone says and feel useful. Then I come home grim, depressed.

If I'm working at home, like today, I'm looking out at the island from a hotel on a hill. Finally, I am appreciating what is beautiful here. Then it rains. I think about the tents, but since I'm not actually in one, both my guilt and my gratitude feel disingenuous.

I try to accept my pain and my anxieties as a gift -- it's better, I think, to feel than to be the sort of person for whom sad things stop seeming sad.

I don't know how other people deal with the normalcy of tragedy. But the people I know best all seem to drink a lot. Or work a lot. Or chase a lot of women. My friends, by and large, are not other journalists. I consider journalists friends, but we don't really hang out. It's competitive. It gets weird.

When we run into each other, we feel a professional and friendly obligation to ask, "What stories are you working on?" Then we demure, and smile politely when the answer is, "Oh ... this and that."

Once in a while we run into each other unexpectedly, and if it's dark enough or we've had enough to drink, we tell the truth. We talk about how hard the first weeks were after the earthquake. How strange it is to seek out other people's misery, and also how easy it's become. How it seems to seek us out, now. The conversation inevitably turns silent, and in our fog, we realize: This is why we never hang out.

There are a lot of stories I'd like to tell but no one wants to hear. "Inside baseball," my editor says. There are a lot of stories people want to hear but I can't tell.

We keep talking about the "rebuilding" and "reconstruction," as if there were something grand here to begin with. There is an enormous mythology about progress. And in our photos, we're constantly trying to prove or disprove its existence. We talk about measuring it, without talking about whether or not that can be done. Or whose job it ought to be.

We're not supposed to write about our own lives. We're not supposed to write about all the listening and the deciding. We're not supposed to keep talking about loss.

I have an earthquake story, too. And this is it, I guess. My story is about exhaustion and long, hot days. It is about late nights and complicated friends. It's about what happens off the record. It's about collecting other people's pain and trying to hide it, write it, catalog it, transform it, understand it, avoid it.

I am trying to memorize and forget everything all at the same time.

My story is about the earthquake, true. But it's also about deciding what truth I want to tell, and to whom. Mostly, I realize, my story is just a collection of other people's stories. It's about how words can capture something complicated and make it seem simple, painless.

The personal is public now. And like everyone else, my silence will say more than I can. I told the truth. Imagine all the truth I didn't tell. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Prezidan Sweet Mickey

WOW!!!  Preliminary election results named Michel Martelly as the new President of Haiti and the streets immediately erupted in joy - screaming, chanting, singing, horns, gunfire, for two hours and it doesn't seem to be letting up.  We were all sent home early today in anticipation of the announcement and have a delayed start tomorrow, depending on the level of activity in the streets in the morning.

Tet Kale (bald head as he is nicknamed) has an enormous job in front of him and I just read a Tweet that said it all, "I wonder if Tet has had the "oh, shit" moment yet".  He is one of Haiti's best known Kompa singers who is infamous for taking his clothes off while performing and has no prior government experience but definitely has the hearts of many Haitians and maybe that is what it will take.  Having lived in a state with a professional wrestler as governor I have kept my mouth shut on the issue.  He isn't a fan of NGO's being here, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out when he officially takes office on May 7th.

If you'd like to read more about him, here is a quick article with some info:


Sunday, March 13, 2011


Throughout Port au Prince amazing street art is found in random places, the best includes the same trademark signature "Jerry".   He's incredibly talented and has gained quite a following.  We've learned about him through various people who know people who know Jerry.  We were lucky enough to run into Jerry leaving an art gallery where he was dropping off invitations for a "Friends of Jerry" event a few people helped him put together.

The event was today and it was amazing!  His friends prepared a wall and he did a live demo.  He's incredibly shy so there was no speech or information shared, but after a quick introduction he turned to face the wall, spent a few minutes thinking, and then just 11 minutes later he put the finishing touches on the painting.  

He also had approximately 15 small watercolors for sale.  Based on the orders placed today he will now do up to 50 of each, numbered, to be picked up within two weeks.  I'm very excited to see our new art!  He charged $50 each... there is a gallery in town that has bigger canvases of his work for $2,000.  

I've included some of Jerry's street art that I've captured over the last year as well as photos from today.  

His use of other elements like the two real trees holding up this hammock are so creative.
Jerry's Introduction
First sprays.

The finished work - just 11 minutes.

Jerry with the watercolors he painted.
One of the watercolors.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A More Informed Life

The longer I live here the more I find that the things I thought to be true from our occasional visits over the last nine years are in fact far different from reality.  I'm not sure if it's that the people we know are trusting us and starting to reveal more or if it's simply that after stringing so many days together we've just observed more.

For instance, I was told many years ago that one of the reasons traffic is so crazy here is that anyone can simply start to drive when they decide they'd like to.  I'm sure there are people that do, in fact, do that.  I observed the reality this week while waiting for someone in one of the busy blocks in Petion-ville.  I saw three of the most decrepit, crashed up cars with students in the drivers seat and instructors in the passenger seat.  I'm not sure how long they'd been at it, but  after I'd noticed them they spent another 20 minutes driving maybe 5 mph in a somewhat straight line on one of the slower sides of the street.  When they reached the end of the block they put the car in reverse and the instructor took the wheel to back them up to the starting point.  Over and over again.  Occasionally they would add a crazy dynamic, like passing one of the other student drivers.  It was like watching in slow motion.  After the aforementioned 20 minute period they all three lined up and went all the way around the block.  Two attempts at that and they parked the cars, the students said goodbye and went their own way.

Another example has to do with Haitian dogs.  They are strays and there are literally thousands of them.  For the most part they are fairly healthy looking dogs and depending on which part of the city look somewhat well fed.  Over the last year I've observed how that happens, and it doesn't involve garbage piles (those are left to the goats and pigs).  When I'm working in neighborhoods we will occasionally break for lunch.  Lunch with my Haitian staff is either A) Brought from home, B) Purchased from a street vendor (picture a tarp strapped to four poles under which is the two foot charcoal stove with giant cauldrons of rice, beans, meat, etc. or C) Eaten at a neighborhood "restaurant".  This is where to dogs come in...The restaurants in neighborhoods are typically created by adding a tarp (again with the poles, but generally a much larger space is covered) and moving the entire kitchen stove under the tarp.  Plastic tables and a variety of chairs are added for diners.  It's somewhat like a greasy spoon in the U.S. with the women that are cooking and serving yelling orders back and forth.  There is no menu - you eat what they are serving, and the concept of vegetarian is NOT understood.  For anyone that knows me well, I am not a fan of meat unless it's a nicely grilled chicken breast or delicious cut of steak.  I've had to let go of the surprise (shock) at finding random pieces and parts in things - like the crab claw and chicken knuckle I found in what they called their vegetable dish for the day.  I was in a new neighborhood place last week and decided to try to place a vegetarian order again.  Their interpretation to this is that I didn't want the chicken so they went into a cooler and created something that looked like a meatball.  I, of course, was grateful to them for going over and above.  I was then even more grateful to my co-worker that explained that this was the perfect reward for the dog that had been patiently sitting at my feet.  I had always noticed all of the street dogs that make their way into these restaurants and had seen them begging but I now noticed the order of things.  Each of the six dogs in the restaurant had staked out 2 of their own people.  An extra dog wandered by, looked in from the street, noticed that everyone was spoken for and kept on walking.  The thing that amazed me most was that while I was a little nervous that this dog might not understand what was meatball and what was fingers, he very gently took the food from my fingers.  After a few minutes he put his little paw on my foot, probably just a reminder that he'd like more.  

A non-dog random note, as I mentioned to Al last night.  My entire ability to move beyond the fact that the woman that takes the dirtiest money you've ever seen (I'd eat off of American dollars at this point) then waves a few flies away and grabs my fried plantains out of the pan with the same hand no longer fazes me.  Of course, we try to use just a few vendors that we "know" because of the whole Cholera thing, but overall it's tough to get by without indulging occasionally.  A big benefit of this type of experience is that you can get an enormous plate of rice and beans, meat (generally a chicken leg, pork or goat), banan frit (fried plantains), piklez (very spice cabbage) and for extra carbs a scoop of cold pasta salad for just under $2.

On the other end of the spectrum, we've experienced some really good fine dining.  Last night we went to a restaurant called Chicken Fiesta with some friends.  The fact that it was Chinese American was a small surprise based on the name, but it was really good!  It's run by a Haitian woman that lived in the Bronx until the recession hit and then couldn't make her restaurant go anymore.  She moved here and opened near our apartment.  We each had dinner and two beers and it was $50 for both of us.  It's generally U.S. standards for cleanliness, but  it's not  affordable for the average person here.  Expat / NGO workers and the Haitian upper class are the typical customers.

Monday, March 7, 2011


There are some nice soccer fields near the airport that have been the site of some of the amputee soccer league practices and games.  The Challenged Athletes Foundation held a running clinic there on Saturday for people with amputations.

One of the people leading the clinic was an American who was born without legs.  He lives in California and can run 100 meters in 11 seconds (pictured below).  A big group of able bodied kids had just finished playing soccer and gathered around him when he arrived.  He asked if they thought he could run.  When they said "no way" he challenged them to a race - he won, which will hopefully go a long way in helping them understand the abilities of people with disabilities. 

He was very inspirational for those participating and almost as important were the people that became observers, including the group of kids he raced.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gardening in February

To provide hope of Spring for all of you in Northern climates, here are a few photos from our garden, taken just a few minutes ago.  It's been fun to watch how fast our garden grows!

We planted these tomato seeds on February 1st.

Our basil isn't looking as good, but still exciting progress.

This pot was my first successful purchase done on the street, negotiating with the guy that made it.  We found these plants in an abandoned house near our apartment.  They've really taken off!

We found some of these little plants in a rocky area near our apartment and transplanted a few.  They just started blooming.