Sunday, April 14, 2013

Under an April Haitian Moon

Under a Haitian Moon
Fok ou kon kote ou soti pou ou konnen kote ou prale.

You must know where you come from to know where you’re going.
Haitian Proverb

Panorama of Port-au-Prince from the hills above the city.

Bonjou, zanmi m’!
Greetings from 18.5 degrees N latitude!  (You can take the geography teacher out of the classroom…)  The rainy season has not yet arrived, meaning virtually every day has been 90 and sunny so far this spring.  When it hasn’t been 90 and sunny, it’s been 80 and a little overcast, which suits us just fine, thankyouverymuch.  It has rained a few times (once recently like cats and dogs causing localized flooding in front of the Embassy – and in the restaurant where we were eating), but generally we’ve had very pleasant weather since our arrival.  If it stays like this for the next two years, I would be ok with that.  Ah, if wishing only made it so.

That old moon over Haiti.

Sophie and Kate enjoying a tropical drink on the beach.
A man selling fresh coconuts on the beach.
Kate enjoying her fresh coconut.
A beautiful palm tree at the Karibe Hotel.

"I love the smell of burning trash in the morning!”
Yes, yes, I know that isn’t exactly what Lt. Kilgore uttered in Apocalypse Now, but my interpretation of the quote runs through my little brain most mornings on my short walk through Canne a Sucre on my way to the embassy.

One of the things for which I was rather unprepared is the dust and smoke that pervades most days here in P-A-P, as we call Port-au-Prince.  (Today just so happens to be an exception – partly sunny, slight breeze, feels about 75 – however I expect a change any moment now.)  Coming from the far north where residents tend to hibernate several months each year in the cocoons of our hermetically sealed, centrally heated homes, we love it when warm spring breezes return, carrying the sounds of birds and the rustling of new leaves, and we can once again open the windows to provide some much needed fresh air.  Here in PAP we tried that a few times, hoping the warm Caribbean breezes would be something we could enjoy with more regularity, but soon discovered that a thin film of dust coated nearly everything in the house after only a short time, and the smell of smoke from the nearby burning trash would waft into the house, bringing that acrid odor one normally gets only when a random fire breaks out at a tire-disposal yard and the old Goodyears and Firestones burn for days on end.

Now we open the windows wide only occasionally, and instead keep several room air conditioners running most days.  Then I find that when I open the front door to head off to “the office,” I am struck almost immediately by the smell as I cross the threshold, one of several surprising by-products of coming from “the land of sky-blue waters” and clean, crisp air to living in a developing nation.  As my friend and colleague (who also hails from the North Star State) put it recently:  “All those years of not smoking are finally catching up to me!”  Chuckle-inducing to be sure, but unfortunately rather true.

Haiti ain’t for sissies
Of course this could likely be said for just about any developing nation, and it’s not like I’ve got boatloads – or any – experience in other emerging countries, but from those who know about these things, Haiti is a bit of an anomaly in the world of development and international aid.

We’ve been here over two months now, and can say with some level of certainty that this is, indeed, a tough place to live, even as we enjoy air conditioning, indoor plumbing, cable TV and Internet services and work in modern, pretty typical office conditions (as far as an embassy can be, you know, typical).  I routinely find myself imagining life for most Haitians as we drive from place to place, taking in the public conditions and overtly visible elements of life in this country.  It’s uncomfortable and not a little disconcerting to contemplate the life circumstances of the average Haitian, not to mention those at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, but of course thinking about this has the silver lining of making one feel awfully grateful for what one has.  Maybe that’s a bit patronizing given how easy – how soft – my life really is, for people here go about their daily business, feed their families and manage to do the best they can with what they have, but it’s very hard for me to consider the daily struggle that must take place to meet the most basic of needs, and how much time I imagine is spent just to provide the necessities.

If there is anything you need and don't see, please let us know and we'll show you how to do without it.
- Haitian saying.

When comparing one country to the next – always an inexact science – a useful thing to use is called the Human Development Index.  We used this in my geography classes when looking at the relative levels of development between different countries, and it’s a good way to compare the well-being of one place as compared to another place, like Haiti to the US for example.  It’s calculated by taking the life expectancy, literacy rate, level of education, standard of living and quality of life for 185 United Nations member states and mathematically creating a score from 1.0 to 0.0 (theoretically anyway), where the closer a score is to 1.0 the more developed it is.  For example, the United States ranks #3 in the world with an HDI of .937, behind only Australia (.938) and Norway (.955).  As one might imagine, the countries with the highest HDI tend to be clustered in Europe and North America (with some exceptions like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Qatar), and those with the lowest HDI are generally in sub-Saharan Africa, with some exceptions like Bangladesh, Pakistan and a few others.

Using this index, the nations with the lowest level of development are Niger and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, tied for 186th place with an HDI of 0.304.  Haiti is in 161st place, having fallen three places in 2013 from the year before, with an HDI of 0.456.  The literacy level hovers around 50%, and the country is one of the lowest ranked in the world on spending for public education.  I don’t know who the Haitian Education and Leadership organization is, but they state that only 60% of Haitian kids will attend primary school, only 20% of that group will go on to secondary school, and only 1% of that small sub-group will go on to university.  Not sure if this includes Haitians who immigrate to the US, Canada or other developed nations or if it is strictly a domestic tally, but this does not bode well for the future of this country.

We’ve become associated with a local orphanage here in the city called SMDT, which are the Kreyol initials for Sant Mete Men Pou Defann Dwa Timoun, which roughly means Hands Together to Defend the Rights of the Child.  There are many orphanages in Haiti, although the total number isn’t exactly clear.  According to a NY Times story from 2012, a UNICEF group examined 725 orphanages around the country (likely not the total) for safety and quality. Only 112 (at that time) were accredited by the Haitian government, and the rest are often small family run operations or are run by religious missions, operating informally (like so much in this country).  Orphanages are a particularly tricky issue in Haiti, as many of the estimated 35,000 orphans in the country aren’t, in fact, actually orphans.  Some parents are in such desperate straits that they utilize the orphanage system to provide for the children for whom they are unable to care.  It’s all rather heart-rending, really.  At SMDT, we try to visit the children each week or two, although I’ve only been there two or three times so far.  Kate & Sophie have gone more often, and there is a small group of dedicated volunteers from our Embassy family that go regularly.  We bring small gifts, we read to the children, we provide for them a very small amount of humanity, of physical human touch.  It isn’t much, but it’s not nothing, either.  They have always been very excited to see us.

SMDT is one of those family run orphanages (accredited by the Ministry of Social Well Being), and currently houses, clothes, feeds and educates 30 kids.  They range in age from just a few months old up to kids in their early teens.  The family lives on site, and their oldest son is a law school student who hopes to continue in his current role as director after graduating.  It was founded by his mother, and before the earthquake of 2010 was operating as an informal orphanage for up to 40 children.  The home was destroyed in the quake, and they have since moved to their current location which has four bedrooms and two bathrooms (a two-seater outhouse), an outdoor kitchen where food is prepared over a charcoal cooking stove, an on-site well, and several large outdoor tents that house classrooms and double for whatever purpose for which they might be needed (clothes washing by hand, for example).  While standards here are significantly different from a children’s home we might find in the US, their basic needs are being met, and the children are cared for by this loving family dedicated to their well-being.

We hope to strengthen our relationship with Carlo and his family over our time here in Haiti, and by publicizing their efforts in various forums (Sophie’s alma mater, my former school, our network of friends at home, this post, for example), we hope to assist the Loroza family in their tireless work in  aiding some of the least of us.

Kate and a group of children at SMDT. 
One of the classrooms in a relief tent.
Sophie and a sleepy little friend.
Elizabeth with the youngest child.
One of the tents used as a classroom (or a clothes wash room as on this day), with the well in front.
Another of the younger kids.
Haiti isn’t like any place else
A good friend has come up with a slogan that likely wouldn’t go over well with the Haitian Chamber of Commerce (if there is such a thing), but would look awfully funny on billboards and bumper stickers.  It goes like this:  Haiti:  You Can’t Make This Shit Up!  He’s been here quite a bit longer than us, but he’s also signed on for another year, so he can’t really be counted on as a good source – maybe Haiti has wormed its way into his brain. 

Now we are the first to note that we have no experience in other developing countries, so it is hard to make comparisons of that sort.  However, we can most certainly rephrase that to say Haiti is definitely not like anyplace we’ve ever been, and that would be the God’s Honest Truth.

Let’s start with land and buildings, a complex issue I would suspect most Americans think little about, even in the United States.  In Haiti, there is no system for mortgages, and consequently people often spend decades building homes, adding space and floors as they have the money. There also is a rather unusual system of land inheritance called the “lakou” system, in which land is passed from one generation to the next in equal parts to all children at birth, and which exists outside the control or regulation of the state; there are also few written or preserved records of ownership, which causes all sorts of problems.  In Haiti, there is no system of property insurance (at least for homes), and consequently when there is a hurricane, or when the disastrous earthquake from January 2010 struck, many, many Haitians lost absolutely everything, with little or no opportunity to rebuild.  Haitians who rent property often pay exorbitant prices or are forced to move, in part because of the NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) here, whose aid workers need places to stay but who unwittingly drive up rents because their organizations can pay more, and therefore the landlords know they can charge and make more by renting to them.  Squatters in Haiti can claim property after having lived in that property for three years, which had a pretty darn big impact as the three-year anniversary of the earthquake approached and passed and there were still hundreds of thousands living in tents or on someone else’s land.  The Haitian government has no law that allows it to lay claim to private property (like the eminent domain clause in our 5th Amendment, which allows the government to claim private property for public use, with proper compensation, of course), which means that after the earthquake the government could do little to aid the housing needs of some 600,000 – 800,000 displaced people in the Port-au-Prince area.  Finally, (and this is only hearsay, but I’ve heard it many times since our arrival), a very large proportion of buildings appear to be unfinished, with most having rebar sticking up through the walls above the incomplete upper floors; evidently this is done deliberately in order to constitute an “incomplete construction” of the building, which allows the owner to avoid having to pay real estate taxes.

And this is just land and housing. 

Then consider all the other areas of private and public life which are built upon a stable, working and (relatively) efficient system of government and services at all levels that provide the public with that which is necessary to support commerce, growth and public & private life, and imagine most if not all of them working essentially the same way as described above.  This gives one a decent picture of the way Haiti works currently.  Of course advances are being made, but the social, political, economic, health and education systems are sorely in need of repair.  It is my estimation – and I’m no expert, mind you – that Haiti desperately needs two things:  1) Its own home-grown New Deal, and 2) A Sputnik moment.  Of course neither of those things will do much to alleviate suffering and daily difficulty without top-notch leadership and vision, which is also necessary to actually see a positive difference on the ground.  These things might at least give the country a good base upon which to build a future.  It’s hard to know where to start really, as so many elements of society are in need of reform simultaneously.

At the same time, the people of Haiti that I’ve come to know are warm, welcoming and ingenious, and there is progress on many fronts.  They can make anything out of the most unusual scraps of whatever they have available.  Often it is not of very high quality, but every car, bus, Tap-Tap and motorbike has been patched together with duct tape and baling wire (whatever baling wire is used for) and remains functional until it isn’t anymore, when it is then cannibalized and used to patch up other things.  And this is true for many things, not just means of transportation.  It’s really quite amazing to witness.

There is also a very heavy reliance on manual labor.  Buildings are constructed, roads are built and maintained (such as they are), gravel and stone are harvested from the Earth, and all is done largely by laborers with hand tools.  To be sure there are large trucks hauling things from place to place and heavy machinery and equipment that exist here, but much of the private building and “doing” in this country is still done by hand, and often needs to be redone shortly thereafter when the rains come and wash it all away again.

Suffice it to say that life isn’t like anything we’ve ever experienced, but our lives are mostly spent within the bubble of the Embassy and the community of fellow diplomats within which we live.  That isn’t to say living in that bubble is easy, per se, but certainly it is more comfortable than the life of the average Haitian.  The isolation is one of the most difficult; we have our car now, but there are restrictions on where we can go, both by regulation from the Embassy and by the realistic nature of life here.

Several areas of Port-au-Prince are designated as ‘red zones’ by the RSO (Regional Security Office) here at post.  The American staff is not allowed to travel to red zones unless on official business, with permission of and notification to the RSO, and with a convoy of two armored cars (although we are allowed to drive through red zones as long as we don’t stop, and provided we don’t get out of the car).  Some other areas are ‘yellow zones’, which have restrictions but not quite as severe.  For safety purposes, we are advised to have our windows closed at all times when driving around the city.

And then there is the simple yet difficult act of just going somewhere.  At home if you need to run to Target for a few things, it might take half an hour to drive there, do the shopping and return.  First of all, there isn’t really such a thing as a Haitian version of Target, and second of all, the process isn’t nearly so simple.  Recently, with our friend Elizabeth (visiting from Minnesota) in tow, we set out to “run to the grocery store.”  We expected a long and traffic-choked trip the six miles it is up the hill into the suburb of Petionville where the Caribbean Market is, but surprisingly that trip only took about 20 minutes all told.  We shopped, stopped for a gelato at a local restaurant, and then made our way back down the hill to have dinner.  This was when the fun began.  Good street maps don’t exist here, and even if they did there are few if any street signs, almost no street lights for aid in driving at night, and buildings often have no numbers by which to tell where you really are.  Short-cuts might theoretically have been possible, but we would have had no idea where one might have taken us.  Traffic coming down the hill was horrendous, and by the time we returned more than 90 minutes had passed.  Not 90 minutes total for the entire trip, but 90 minutes just to go the six miles down the hill to Canne a Sucre.  Traffic and road conditions are truly incomprehensible.

It’s not all fun and games, though
And of course all of this is set in the context of world events and the threat of violence that exists.

Like the attack on our mission in Benghazi, Libya last fall that wounded ten and killed four US citizens, including US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Like the suicide bombing at the US Embassy in Turkey earlier this winter.  Mustafa Akarsu was a member of the local guard force protecting Americans and Embassy employees for 22 years when he was killed on February 1st in the attack on our Embassy.  He thwarted the attackers attempt to enter the Chancery in Ankara, causing the coward to detonate himself and kill this loyal employee and wound several others.  He leaves behind his widow and children with whom he wished to immigrate to the US under the Special Immigrant Visa program for long-time workers of Embassies around the world so that his kids could attend college in the United States.

Like the attack  in Zabul province, Afghanistan last week that killed five Americans, including 25-year-old foreign service officer Anne Smedinghoff, on her way to donate books to a local school.

Fortunately these events are rare, but they do put an awfully fine point on the work we do today.
Anne Smedinghoff in body armor while in Afghanistan (Facebook).

US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (Wikipedia).

Mustafa Akarsu and his 19-year-old son (
Settling in
Almost three months have passed since we arrived at post, and we are now settling in to something of a routine.  Clearly the job is dominating this routine, as that is the reason we’re here, after all.  I leave about 700 am every day, and return home between 400 and 500 every afternoon. We watch a little TV, maybe watch a movie or an old episode or two of West Wing, eat dinner, clean up and read before bed.  Occasionally I’ll get together with a friend and have a beer or two and a nice Dominican cigar.  Some of our personal items from home have arrived, but we’re still waiting on the biggest shipment from Minnesota to get here.  Weekends we visit the orphanage, go grocery shopping (we try to avoid Saturday mornings as that is market day here and traffic is an unusual nightmare), hang out at the little pool here in Canne a Sucre, and have dinners with friends.  One weekend we made a trip a resort and beach called Moulin sur Mer with a group from the Embassy.  Eventually, we’ll attempt weekends away to points even further afield.  Just last week we had nine wonderful days together as an entire family in the Dominican Republic (Tommy flew down for his spring break).  Sophie got a job at the Embassy, and is now waiting on the finalization of her security clearance (particularly exciting to have a “Secret” clearance when one is 19!); she starts the summer internship next month.  She also continues to volunteer with the neighbor boy (also 19 and taking a gap year) at a local non-profit.  All of us are taking Kreyol lessons several times each week, there is a small gym at the Embassy which Kate and Sophie use, and we walk or jog around the compound for some exercise (it can be mind-numbingly boring though, as the entire distance is about 1/3 mile around and you have to do that 10 times or more to get any distance).  Tommy has finished the swim season, having taken 6th in the mile at the MIAC Championships and is now in the home stretch of his sophomore year of college.  He’s also training for his first Iron Man competition this summer in Kentucky, which is crazy …  I mean, awe-inspiring.  Kate spends her time working on Kreyol, completing long overdue projects in the house, figuring out how to prepare meals and run a household in a developing country, learning to drive the crazy streets of Port-au-Prince, participating in the planning for local events (this weekend we have a “State Fair” event at the Embassy, and coming up a 4th of July event in Canne a Sucre) and meeting with friends and colleagues to arrange more volunteer opportunities.

So far, life for us is good.  We hope you can say the same. 

More photos can be viewed here:

And here is some video of a crazy (yet normal for PAP) roadside Saturday market and some of the countryside north of the city (Haiti is 98% deforested from its state in the 1930s): 

And finally, here’s our contact information:
Dave, Kate & Sophie Panetti
Unit 3400 Box 24
DPO-AA  34060

Home phone: 1.952.583.1529 (yes, it’s a local Minnesota number!!)
Dave:  cell – 509.3701.4117, email –, skype – dabes.panetti
Kate:  cell – 509.3144.3513, email –, skype – kate.panetti
Sophie: cell – 509.3114.0645, email –, skype – sophie.panetti

Not interested?  Just send me a note and I'll gladly take you off the list, no harm, no foul, no hurt feelings. :)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.  Please do not disseminate widely without permission.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to hear you all are doing well and settling in. Some of what you say sounds familiar, here in Togo, but to a more extreme degree! Stay safe, and I hope to see you guys again at FSI in awhile.