Connecting the Dots

This past week, I started an online course called Storytelling for Change. It is offered for free by Acumen and The Ariel Group. The first assignment was to create a life map, capturing key milestones that have led you to be passionate about a social cause.

I often look back over my life and think about certain events that have occurred that have led me to where I am today. There are many things I didn’t understand as they were happening. There were some moments that, when looked at individually, seemed to have nothing to do with my dreams and desires. And there were many disappointments and challenges along the way. But when I look at the whole picture, I can clearly see that nothing that has happened in my life has been random. 

my life map.001

Edited to omit recent employers.

Reading the school lunch menu over the intercom in 7th grade prepared me for a local radio interview I did last year on International Women’s Day. It’s no coincidence that my high school French teacher is Haitian and 17 years later I found myself in Haiti. Paying off all of my debt financially prepared me for unemployment several months later. Having an employment opportunity rescinded led to my current job in a town I never thought I’d live in, which is putting me into position to fulfill some lifelong dreams. 

Completing my life map reinforces my belief that God is directing my steps and He has a divine purpose for my life. I can take great comfort in knowing that, even though I may not always understand and the path is not always direct or logical, He will never lead me astray. I can’t wait to see how this life map continues to develop.

Four Years Later

Seeing the devastating impact of the January 12, 2010 earthquake up close and personal is something I will never forget. As I woke up this morning and began reflecting on the events that happened four years ago today, one of the many things I thought about was this blog. Much like my original journey to Haiti, Se Lavi began out of a tragic event. But it evolved into so much more. It became a place for me to share with others the joy, beauty and magic of Haiti, alongside the challenges and devastating realities of living in a developing country.

As I often say, I’ve received more from Haiti than I’ve given. It’s the reason I feel obligated in a sense to be an “ambassador” for the country. I jump at the chance to talk about my experiences with people who’ve seen first-hand what Haiti is like, as well as those whose only knowledge is what they’ve seen on television or via social media. I want people to remember Haiti not just once a year on the anniversary of the earthquake, but year round.

And so, I’m re-launching this blog. Though I’ve been back in the United States for about 18 months, Haiti remains a significant part of my day-to-day life. I still have a lot to say and a lot to share about navigating the ups and downs of life. Stay tuned.

Empowering Local Employees

There are lots of critics of the international development sector, and in many cases, their criticisms are justified. Without a doubt, there are changes, adjustments and improvements that need to be made to strengthen the effectiveness of development programs. Most development experts and experienced aid workers will agree that local ownership and engagement are the keys to long-term sustainability and stability. Yet when talking about local ownership and engagement, most people are talking about governments, communities (where the program will be implemented) and organizations. Recently, I realized there was one group missing from the equation: local employees of international NGOs.

I know many locals who work for international NGOs in Haiti who don’t feel qualified to make a real contribution to the organization in which they work. Instead, they often feel disrespected and disenfranchised, comparing their work experience to slavery and prison. I understand why such dramatic comparisons are made, because I’ve seen firsthand how some local employees are treated by their employers.  That’s why I firmly believe that an international NGO should be judged in part on how it treats its local employees, and not merely on the fact that it has local employees or more local employees than expats.

I think many international NGOs are simply using local employees as props to generate funding and to support their claims that they’re building local capacity. But the truth is, many of these organizations do not properly equip their local employees with the training, resources and mentoring they need to succeed and eventually hold leadership positions within the international development community. If you’ve ever been to a cluster or similar type meeting, then you know most of the attendees, presenters, etc. are expats, and not Haitians. Much like not involving local governments, communities and organizations in the planning, development and implementation of aid/development initiatives leads to unsustainable, ineffective programs with lackluster outcomes, so does the mistreatment and/or failure to train and develop local staff.

Clearly, some NGOs working in Haiti need to make more of an effort to train, mentor and retain its most promising employees. In so doing, a stronger, more competent workforce will be developed; one that can handle its own country’s problems long-term.

My Mother’s Daughter

Growing up, I always knew my mom was in deep thought when she’d aimlessly sweep the floor, repeatedly moving the broom back and forth over the same spot for what seemed like an eternity. Well last night, while talking to her on the phone, I found myself doing the exact same thing. I had called my mom to discuss my current finances and future career options. I didn’t realize it, but I picked up the Swiffer and started gliding it across my bedroom floor. When I realized what I was doing, I said, “Oh my goodness, what is happening to me. I’m sweeping like you.” We both laughed.

Without a doubt, I am my mother’s daughter. So much of her is reflected in me. The older I get it seems the more I notice the many similarities in our personalities and physical appearance. I think I inherited the best parts of her.

Aside from being a great caretaker and provider, my mom has been the best teacher I’ve ever had. She has taught me so much, often delivering her messages in a subtle, unassuming way instead of being preachy and overbearing. She’s given me the space to live my life as I see fit, rarely giving her opinion on the decisions and choices I make.

I am so thankful for my mom. I’m especially thankful for the time I spend with her as an adult. I’ve learned a lot about her…her life, her dreams, her disappointments. I’ve come to appreciate her not just as my mother, but a friend.

When the time comes, I have no doubt that I’ll be a good mother because my mom set a really great example. I truly believe she’s the best mom in the world.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mommy. I miss you. I love you.

Made in Haiti

Today is Labor and Agriculture day in Haiti; a day to celebrate locally grown and produced agricultural products, as well as plant new trees and crops. Some would argue there isn’t much to celebrate, as the majority of farmers in Haiti struggle to earn a decent living due to factors such as low production, poor quality inputs, outdated techniques and cheap imports that undermine the local market. While I agree that the agriculture industry here needs a complete overhaul, especially a major change in policy as it relates to food imports, it isn’t all gloom and doom. There are many good local products and products made with local ingredients available in markets and from street vendors.

I make a conscious effort to purchase locally grown and/or produced food whenever possible. That’s relatively easy to do with things like coffee, tea leaves, cocoa (for making hot chocolate), bread, honey, beer, rum, confiture, peanuts, almonds, cashews, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. It’s also pretty easy to find local beef, goat and pork. It’s much more difficult, but not impossible, to find local chicken, eggs, sugar and rice, as imports from the Dominican Republic and the United States flood the market. (I recently learned that many onions are also imported from the DR, so I’m going to make a point of asking about the origin of all the fruits and vegetables I buy just to be sure.)

There are several products that use mostly local ingredients, which I’ve come to enjoy; mostly sweets and baked goods like granola cookies, comparet (scone-like ginger bread made in Jeremie), bon bon siwo (also a ginger bread but a bit sweeter and with a softer texture), peanuts coated in cinnamon and ginger, tablet pistache (similar to peanut brittle) and dried pineapples covered in coconut.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Occasionally, I buy locally made potato chips and breadsticks (I can’t remember what they’re called in French/Creole). A couple of weeks ago, I saw a locally made hot sauce at Giant Supermarket and decided to purchase it instead of the omnipresent Louisiana brand. There are many other products that I’ve had my eyes on, and plan to try soon.

Sometimes, it’s a bit more expensive to buy Haitian products, but to me, it’s worth it. Hopefully, the many ex-pats living here feel the same way. I realize our purchases alone won’t stimulate local production, but every little bit helps.

Rain, rain go away

The gloomy view from my balcony this morning.

It’s been raining in Port-au-Prince (and other parts of the country) everyday this week. Yes, I know it’s the rainy season. I’ve been in Haiti this time of year before,  but the rains have been particularly brutal this week. It’s been raining steadily throughout the day, alternating between heavy and a light drizzle. This cloudy, cold and wet weather has given me the blues. By moving to the Caribbean, I thought I’d never have to deal with weather-related malaise again, but here I am, feeling exhausted and unmotivated to do anything except lay in bed all day under the covers, staring blankly at the TV.

The rain has caused a lot of problems throughout the city, especially for people still living in tents and under tarps in makeshift camps. According to an OCHA situation report I received, nearly 10,000 people still living in camps have been effected by the heavy rainfall. Concerns about cholera have re-emerged. Local travel has been further impeded due to flash floods and muddy roads. There have been landslides. It was reported on news this morning that nine people died, including several children. Haiti simply cannot handle this much rain.

It hasn’t rained today (yet), so I’m glad we were spared another full day of wet weather. But it’s still cloudy and gloomy. Hopefully, the sun will come out tomorrow.

Easter Weekend Getaway

After seven months, I finally went on vacation over the Easter weekend. A friend had out of town visitors, and invited me to join them for a beach day at Moulin Sur Mer in Montruis, north of Port-au-Prince in a tourist zone known as the Côtes des Arcadins. I’d been wanting to check out the place for quite some time, and was happy I could finally enjoy some much needed R&R on the beach. I wanted to spend longer than a day, so decided I’d stay the weekend, and would get a tap tap back to Port-au-Prince on Sunday. Given that it was a holiday weekend, finding a room was a challenge. The popular resorts in the area (Moulin Sur Mer, Kaliko Beach Club, Wahoo Bay and Club Indigo) were either sold out, too expensive or hosting a concert, meaning they would be too loud/crowded. So I scratched them all off the list. Then I remembered someone telling me about a place called Ouanga Bay. I tried to find information online, specifically pictures and reviews, but all I could find was a phone number. When I called to inquire about rates and availability, the lady I spoke with, whom I suspected was the owner, said she could make something work for me and quoted me a price of US$275 all inclusive. It was more than I wanted to pay, but I really wanted to spend the weekend outside of the city, so I decided to give it a try.

The Moulin Sur Mer is a sprawling, beautiful, historic property, though it’s a little odd with its iron and plastic lawn decorations, swans, sculptures, pigeon house, koi pond and two monkeys in a cage. It’s the closest thing I’ve seen in Haiti to a true resort, with a children’s playground, basketball court, racquet/handball court and water activities (e.g. kayaking and jet skis). The price of admission for non-guests was US$15 without the buffet and US$40 with it. We opted to skip the buffet, but I actually think the buffet is a better deal if you plan to eat while there. The food prices are quite high. For example, griot de porc, deep fried pork, was US$20, whereas it’s usually only US$5 – $6 in an ordinary Haitian restaurant. I ended up ordering a rum punch, hamburger, fries and a coke at a cost of US$17, for a total paid of US$32. At least now I know for next time. Anyway, because of the holiday weekend, there were a lot of families with children there, but we managed to find a quiet spot and spent the afternoon relaxing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When I arrived at the Ouanga Bay that evening, I was a little nervous, unsure what I’d find. The reception area was fairly nice, so I was hopeful that I’d be pleasantly surprised. I paid upon check-in and was escorted to my room by a housekeeper carrying my bath towel over her arm. As soon as she opened the door to my room and I saw the floral bedspread, I knew it was going to be a long two nights. Things didn’t get any better as I turned the corner to the bathroom. Thank goodness I brought my own sheet and a few Benadryl capsules.

As I sat down for dinner that night, I was hoping the food would make up for the room. It didn’t. I popped two Benadryl and went to bed.

The next morning, still not wanting to give up on the place, I thought perhaps breakfast was their speciality. But when one of the options was spaghetti, I knew it wasn’t. (I’m well aware of the fact that spaghetti is a traditional Haitian breakfast. And that’s fine. But at $275, I expected more.)

Unfortunately, I didn’t even find the beach all that relaxing. It was small and rocky with very little sand. The wooden, unadjustable lounge chairs with their straw mats were uncomfortable. It was crowded because of the holiday, and excited kids were flying a kite in the small space in front of where I was camped out. I made a mental note to only vacation during the week.

Despite all of that, I tried to enjoy my last night. I selected the lobster for dinner, and while it was better than the previous night’s meal, it was no match for the lobster I’ve had from locally manned stalls on the beaches of Grand Goave, Port Salut and Cayes Jacmel.

Since the owner was able to accommodate me at the last minute, I tried to find at least one redeeming quality about the Ouanga Bay, but I’ve come up with nothing. In fact, the best part of my stay was checking out.

Worst Week Ever

This past week was the worst week ever. Apart from learning that a colleague was hit by a car while driving a motorcycle to conduct a field visit (he wasn’t wearing a helmet), two high profile Haitians were murdered/assasinated (one of which happened in my neighborhood), there was an earthquake that literally left people shaken up, and unnecessary panic and chaos ensued pending an announcement from President Michel Martelly regarding his nationality.  (There has been rising political tension over the last month or so, primarily due to an investigation of the nationality of some elected officials, including the president. Former Prime Minister Garry Connille supported and cooperated in the investigation, and as a result, he was forced to resign after just four months in office. Also, three secretaries of state resigned when it was discovered they hold foreign passports. Martelly showed eight Haitian passports on national TV in order to dispel rumors that he holds an American passport, but skepticism remains, as there are accusations that the president has a second identity as Michael J. Martelly.) To be sure, things are getting increasingly tense and unstable, specifically in Port-au-Prince.

Whenever bad things happen, I try to look for the lesson or use it as an opportunity to make a change in my behavior. So from the incidents last week, I’ve been reminded that:

1) I need a helmet. I will not get on a moto again until I have one. Period.

2) I need to check the credit balance on my phone everyday and make sure I have enough credit to make at least one phone call. Earlier on Wednesday evening, my call with Felix was disconnected because I ran out of credit. So that night when I tried to call him after the earthquake, I couldn’t. I had to go online to Digicel’s website to add credit to my phone. Luckily, I was able to get Internet, but I may not be so lucky next time.

3) I need to charge my phone everyday. When I couldn’t use my personal cell phone on Wednesday night, I tried to use my work-issued phone. But the call wouldn’t go through because the battery was too low. I have consistent electricity now, so there’s no excuse for me not to keep my phones charged.

4) I need to keep a small, packed bag with a change of clothes, my passport and credit card near the door. Perhaps I’m being paranoid but given the political tension in the air and this country’s vulnerability to natural disasters, I feel like I should be prepared to leave in a hurry if necessary.

5) I need to make sure I always have an ample supply of Prestige beer and/or Barbancourt rum at home. Throughout last week, I kept putting off going to the market, and planned to stop on the way home on Thursday. But of course with the President’s announcement, that didn’t work out. So I was left with one Prestige in the refrigerator, unsure whether or not I’d be “locked in” for the next few days. That won’t ever happen again. Ever.

A Legacy of Sisterhood

Fifteen years ago today, on March 6, 1997, I became a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. It was one of the best days of my life.

Founded on the campus of Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1908, Alpha Kappa Alpha’s mantra is to be of service to all mankind. The sorority’s membership includes prominent businesswomen, entertainers, politicians, educators, athletes and medical professionals. In other words, extraordinary women striving to make a difference in their communities and throughout the world.

March 6, 1997: After initiation with our Dean of Pledges

The chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha that I pledged, Delta Tau, was founded in 1964 on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri. During a summer journalism program on campus and a subsequent visit as a senior in high school, I decided that I wanted to be a member of the organization. Finally in my junior year, I received an invitation to join and began the membership process.Through that process, I learned a lot about the Sorority’s history, the chapter’s history, what it means to be an AKA, and most importantly, sisterhood. It was a humbling and challenging experience; one that contributed greatly to my development as a young woman.

Alpha Kappa Alpha has allowed me to create friendships and bonds with women from all walks of life, especially the six women with whom I was initiated. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve been by each others side during deaths, births and weddings. We’ve watched each other grow and evolve. No matter where I am in the world, I know that I can call upon my sorority sisters to be there whenever I need them.

August 2010: After dinner at the Tap Tap Room in Miami

To my ship, SS Nisus: Thank you for your sisterhood and friendship. Thank you for sharing in the ups and downs of life with me. My life is richer because you are in it. I will never forget our journey together into this sisterhood. I miss you all dearly and think of you often. I look forward to our next reunion…in Haiti (hint, hint).

Skee wee!

Two Years and Counting

Two years ago today, I landed in Haiti for the first time ever. It was the beginning of a new chapter in my life. Even now, I cannot adequately articulate why I fell in love with this country. The only thing I know is that Haiti feels like home.

As I look back at some of my favorite memories captured with a camera (trust me, there are tons more that weren’t photographed), I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all of the wonderful, inspiring people I’ve met, as well as the joyful and heartbreaking experiences I’ve had thus far.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.