Intercultural Compassion in Haiti

In May 2012, Centenary student Tia Landrum ’14 travelled to Les Cayes, Haiti, with her peers and professors as a part of the 2012 Centenary May Module program. She reflects on her experiences in this essay.

Modules are immersive, month-long courses covering many academic areas and offering intercultural experiences as close as a few minutes from the College’s Shreveport, Louisiana, campus, and as far away as Australia and India. Many of the students attending the Module in Haiti were from Centenary living learning communities Santé and Le Quartier Français. Students learned first-hand about life within and near the orphanages of Les Cayes, a coastal city located on the southern peninsula of Haiti.

I recently had the privilege to visit a nation of incredible dignity and hope. Ayiti (or “Haiti,” as the United States calls it), is a developing country with an incredible and tumultuous history. Its current national conditions are not merely the result of the January 2010 earthquake that leveled much of its capital city, Port au Prince. The extreme poverty, dishonest politics, and ruthless dictators that have marked the years of the country’s history have contributed to the bleak environment found there today.

I accepted an internship with an organization called Global Brigades in Ghana, West Africa, immediately before my journey to Haiti. One of the fundamentals of Global Brigades that led me to accept the Ghana internship was a principle of cultural respect. They emphasize an approach to instituting sustainable initiatives in developing countries that is entirely dependent on community involvement. They share my belief that there is no potential for project success without cooperation of and respect for the culture for which the development is intended.

This is exactly what I witnessed in Haiti.

Generous doctors, missionaries, and other first-world volunteers travel to Haiti regularly to perform acts of service. One major flaw in their otherwise goodwill is a mentality of charity rather than cooperation. From an outside perspective, bringing supplies, technology, and project designs to a developing country can only be a positive contribution, especially if those things have been valuable to the success of one’s own culture. Unfortunately, this assumption often leads to a counterproductive imposition of value systems and/or personal practices that is culturally insensitive. This breach of potential common understanding renders otherwise generous contributions ineffective in the society they are intended to improve.

For example, I was personally interested in the medical initiatives we may be able to implement in rural Haiti. In conversations with locals in Les Cayes (in South Haiti), I found many believed there were preliminary steps missing in the practice of establishing and staffing medical clinics. Basic resources and knowledge were unavailable to the rural people, eliminating any ability for them either to attend the clinics where they had been established or to understand prescribed treatment in order to participate effectively as a patient. Also, doctors were scarce and poorly educated in the rural areas from lack of medical schools outside of Port au Prince (roughly a six hour drive from Les Cayes).

I encountered several young adults who told me of their desires to work in medicine. All of these individuals were bright and spoke many languages despite a lack of travel and formal education. The reason for their alternate career paths was the same despite very different backgrounds and circumstances: there is no medical school near them. The city of Port au Prince is too dangerous and too expensive for their families to afford, even if they could miraculously afford the travel and medical education costs.

Our group alone invested over $80,000 collectively to travel to Haiti and teach minor concepts in two orphanages. The financial investment of the thousands of doctors and other healthcare professionals who volunteer their services in Haiti is exponentially greater. Our traditional model for humanitarian aid is obviously not cost- or culture-effective considering the medical school we could establish in Haiti using humanitarian funds to train a region of native doctors.

As a nation with abundant resources and opportunities, we have a responsibility to use our excesses for respectful collaboration in humanitarian efforts with developing nations. We should embrace education of culture and appreciate the shared history that resulted in our successes and others’ struggles. This mutual respect is the mechanism for effective, sustainable good works in developing nations.