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Experts offer insight into Haitian culture

Katie Peralta | Tuesday, February 2, 2010

In an effort to raise awareness about the situation in Haiti and what should be done next, the International Development Research Council (IDRC), along with Notre Dame Haiti Working Group and student government, hosted an informational session about the devastated island nation Monday night in the Geddes Hall Auditorium.

IDRC leaders said the event was meant to give students a deeper understanding of the country that has permeated the media since the Jan. 11 earthquake.

“When the earthquake hit, I began to notice that the media was doing a great job of keeping us all up to date on the situation in Haiti, but that I didn’t learn very much about Haiti itself — about its people and its culture, and about the political and economic challenges that the nation has faced before, during and now after the earthquake,” senior Paul Jindra, IDRC president, said.

Jindra hoped the event would encourage students to ask “the tough questions” about Haiti and put what they learn to use towards relief efforts.

“Tonight we can only give you words,” Jindra said. “It’s your job to turn those words into action — make something real, make a difference.”

Professor Karen Richman, director of Academic Affairs at the Institute for Latino Studies and the Center for Migration and Border Studies, addressed Jindra’s first concern by providing a historical background of the Caribbean country.

Located on the western third of the island Hispaniola, where Columbus first landed, Haiti was claimed by the French government, which soon began importing African slaves to harvest sugarcane, Richman said.

“There was a great hunger for labor,” she said. “Thousands of Africans were taken over across the sea.”

Because of the high death rate of the slaves, Richman said, the turnover rate of slaves themselves was very high.

“It was a very cruel system,” she said.

In 1791, however, slaves rebelled and in 1804 won their freedom from the French, becoming the first nation state to gain its independence through slave uprising, Richman said.

“They called their land ayiti, meaning mountain,” she said.

Although it gained independence, she said, the country maintained an economic hierarchy.

“Creole planters saw themselves as culturally French and pretended not to speak the language of the people,” she said. “The elite have no real interest in development of the country.”

Richman said Haiti fell into an ever-deepening economic slump as France demanded money for losses incurred by the slave rebellion.

“Last year Haitians sent back $1 billion in remittance,” she said.

Fr. Tom Streit, C.S.C., director of the Notre Dame Haiti Program, has spent a good portion of each year for more than 15 years working in Haiti with patients suffering from lymphatic filariasis, also known as Elephantiasis.

Streit reflected on the impact the slave rebellion had on the rest of the world.

“We might be speaking French in Minnesota if it weren’t for the slave rebellion,” Streit said.
“Napoleon might have not have realized he really could not control the people,” he said, referencing the fact that Napoleon decided to carry through with the Louisiana Purchase.
Streit, who was in Haiti when the earthquake struck, discussed stories and memories of the impoverished country.

One night after the earthquake, Streit said, he heard people screaming between aftershocks, then praying to and praising God intermittently.

Streit also examined the cycle of poverty that persists in the country.

“[We need to] go in and fight the root causes of poverty,” Streit said. “There is a preconception of poor people sharing everything they get. They are rich for 10 minutes then give it all away. They therefore never get out of the cycle of poverty.”

Streit also attributed Haiti’s persistent poverty to the presence of and oppression from the few elite citizens. They stand in the way, he said, of successful business growth in the country.

“Elites have never wanted things to change,” Streit said. “Elites keep peasantry, [which is] about 97 percent, in economic slavery until now. Elites would prevent any kind of foreign investment there.”

The enormous presence of poor people and accordingly small elite class leaves little room for anything else.

“Haiti has no middle class. A lot of what could be considered middle class was decimated in the quake,” Richman said.

Joey Leary, a 2009 Notre Dame graduate, was also in Haiti when the earthquake struck. He had been volunteering for six months with patients suffering a variety of medical problems.

Leary was optimistic about the outpouring of assistance.

“I’m a glass half full kind of guy,” Leary said.

He also echoed Jindra’s sentiment about the need for education about Haiti.

“We should learn about the culture, learn the language … we can help the country go in the right direction,” Leary said. “I encourage people to get involved.”

All three speakers agreed that the priorities for the devastated country have changed since the earthquake, and aid will be directed towards the numerous areas decimated.

“I am horrified by the loss of the schools,” Streit said. “Haiti was on a good trajectory as far as education is concerned. Schools for me were the biggest hope for development in Haiti.”

Leary compared Haiti to a sick patient at a hospital, with ailments afflicting virtually every part of the body. Now Haiti has suffered in all areas similarly, he said, like its agriculture, education system and overall infrastructure.

“You can’t really pinpoint one single thing … that is the most important to fix,” he said.

Jindra said IDRC plans to continue its efforts to educate students about Haiti’s situation.

“We’ve begun working with a number of hall presidents, for example, to set aside a night to show documentaries about Haiti in the dorms,” he said. “We’re also working on a larger event in the spring that will help students learn more about Haiti by experiencing different facets of Haitian culture. In all of these cases, students will have the opportunity to donate to the Haiti Response fund that student government has set up.”