That it shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic. That it is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. That was about the extent of what I knew about Haiti prior to the evening of Tuesday, January 12th 2010. That was when the first trickle of news that there had been an earthquake of possibly unprecedented catastrophic proportions in Haiti reached my consciousness & had me confronting the fact that I knew virtually nothing about Haiti, that I had made little attempt to find out anything about it, other than the bits & pieces of information that filtered in without effort through the decades of my adulthood. Last year, as a result of an invitation from Empowerment International, I went to Nicaragua to take photos of the kids they work with in Villa Esperanza, a barrio of Granada. There, I witnessed the dire straits of those living in a degree of poverty that didn't even have a frame of reference in my everyday world. Nicaragua is second only to Haiti as the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. I considered going there also. To record & report the reality of Haiti's conditions. But I didn't follow through, didn't formulate a plan to get there. The idea of going, solo, became a bit scary. I read about rampant crime & violence in the streets. Was it as lawless as I was now imagining it to be ? It's one thing to step into the midst of Vancouver's desperate eastside for one day. Was I courageous enough to step into raging urban lawlessness for 2-3 weeks? Going to Cuba, I hoped to find the truth of Castro's 'socialism', what that actually meant to the daily lives of the people of Cuba, not the propaganda of it that was so easily rammed down one's throat. To do that I went into the core of Old Havana, hung out there for a couple of weeks, talked to the people, asked questions, listened to their stories. But I let the idea of doing the same in Port-au-Prince drift away into an on-going list of "must do someday" ideas, not only because my imaginings of its lawlessness were intimidating but because it was easier to be lazy, to not research Haiti to the point were intellectual & emotional curiosity would have got me there regardless. Easier to turn away. To not look. As the majority of the world has turned away from Haiti over its turbulent disaster-ridden 200 year long history. Haiti is the only republic in the world that earned its independence by slave revolt. That in itself is enough to lay shame on myself that I hadn't been curious enough to learn that astounding fact. That a people in the americas sucesssfully fought for the abolition of their own slavery 60 years before america's slaves earned their freedom. But the ensuing poverty & oppression & foreign interference that has been a constant of Haiti's history ever since had left them vulnerable long before this devastating earthquake. 70% of Haiti's 9 million people had been living on less than $2 a day. There had been no running water, no clean water even, for more than 50% of the population & no electricity to the same degree. At 60, the average life expectancy is much lower than any other nation in the western hemisphere. The infant mortality rate is much higher. And the number of orphaned children is in the many hundreds of thousands. There is a huge yawning discrepancy between the 2% that is the light-skinned mulatto elite & the 98% that is the impoverished black. Political corruption both facilitates & condones that discrepancy. The minimum wage only recently was increased to $3 a day. Hard manual construction labour or toiling in the back-breaking fields 12 hours a day or in service to the rich & powerful & elitist few, will net a hardworking Haitian $3 a day!. Oh, don't we take so much for granted in this, in relative terms, affluent society of ours? Many of us would think nothing of spending $3 a day for a cup of coffee at corporate Starbucks....... or whatever one's particular brand of consumerism is in a world where we willingly spend billions of dollars a year to plaster our bodies & our homes with product names. And imagine that it somehow elevates us to some societal status of validation. Naomi Klein's 'No Logo' is an eye-opening read on the subject. The Tommy Hilfiger company doesn't actually produce or sell anything. Nothing. Except its name, that is. Hilfiger's business is the business of selling the Hilfiger name to other companies, who put it on their products. Products we then buy & display the ridiculously imposed Hilfiger logo. At the time of first learning this, it boggled the mind. What a culture of gullible consumeristic sheep we are. The Haitians however, with that same Starbucks-spent $3 a day, will eke out a measure of life for themselves. Build a house of ticky-tack on a denuded hill & hope it's strong enough to withstand the force of weather pattern hurricanes & fault-line eruptions. That there are no imposed building codes is of little concern or relevance when the order of the day is survival.
We waited with bated breath for the news media to spew it out. How catastrophic is it? How many people have died? But it was so much more far-reaching than that. At 4.53pm on Tuesday, January 12th, the bowels of the planet turned Haiti inside out & revealed, for stark global awareness, the tragic impoverished ignored reality that was Haiti before the earthquake...as much as it is after. Poverty, homelessness, malnutrition, infectious disease, violence, corruption, as far back as anyone can remember. Governments, corporations, churches rallied worldwide instantly. As did everyday citizens who, even if their own lives are a struggle, recognized that they are nowhere near as badly off as the people of Haiti are. Indeed, as they have always been. We've seen the images, we've watched & listened to the news. We now know. Hearts have felt compassion & wallets have been opened. That's the human condition in times of great need. To want to help.
Haitian artist activist Wyclef Jean delivered a message from the people of Haiti on Thursday. Please, no more photo ops. That was the message. 'No more photo ops. We need help. Now.' They have no food, no water, no shelter, no functioning government, no security force. Endless images of their tragic state, their homelessness, of their bone-crushed children having limbs hacked off in primitive medical procedures, of their impossibly damaged & clogged infrastructure, of the lawlessness that has always been there as a survival instinct of a desperately impoverished people but now for the first time has a global spotlight shining on it. These horrific images for endless days no longer serve a constructive purpose. They have accomplished the initial necessary & hoped for effect. Monetary donations of compassion. In the hundreds of millions of dollars. But what does that mean to the tragic figures facing a barrage of cameras every day since January 12th?? Aid is not yet reaching them. Or is doing so far too slowly. The new wave of death is the tens of thousands of seriously injured whose untreated wounds are succumbing to sepsis. But there is little of the equipment & supplies required for medical intervention being dispersed as yet. While countries fight over who has the right to land at the airport, the people of Haiti are dying. Lacking the basics of food, water, shelter & medical help, they fend for themselves as best they can. And soon, the deadly diseases that manifest from contaminated water & barely existent sanitation in the aftermath of disasters of such dimension will show themselves. Some of the people are rebelling, many are pleading for speedier help, some are quietly going about the business of building new homes, crude shelters really, with whatever scraps of materials can be salvaged from the rubble, sticks, blankets, pieces of corrugated iron or cardboard. They are existing in conditions of deplorable human misery. So many tears. So much pain & loss. But their spirit is strong beyond measure. In the midst of unbelievable trauma & chaos, they make music, they sing, they dance, they give thanks to their God for saving them. And they wait. They wait for help, begging not to be forgotten again. The whole world, as one community, has come together, has pledged to help, with both immediate aid & far into the future for the reconstruction of their country. But so far the distribution of basic aid is trapped in the throes of chaos & disorganization & broken down infrastructure & the medical teams & humanitarian aid workers can't do the job they rushed to Haiti to do. Help is needed in Haiti. It is needed immediately. May it be available to them soon. Today.
Hats off to George Clooney for the concept & immediate global-reaching execution of an unprecendented in the history of television telethon concert. Its style & presentation was impeccable. In 2 hours of air-time, nothing & no one up-staged Haiti & its immediate need for help. Not applause. Not the sets. Not special effects. And not the artists, a line-up like we've never seen before, for not one of them was named either on the screen or by announcement. Not Wyclef Jean, who manned the telethon's execution on the New York end. And not Clooney, who was as unintrusive as a charismatic celebrity of his renown could possibly be. The focus was on Haiti & its need. And there it remained. As was the humanitarian intention of the telethon. Bravo.....to Mr Clooney & everyone who made it happen.
Canada's preceding telethon, though successful in its fund-raising aim, 9 million dollars in one hour, a sum which will be matched dollar for dollar by the federal government, was nowhere near as successful in its style. But how could it be with neurotic egotist Ben Mulroney at the helm. Mr Mulroney was so intent on up-staging everyone & everything that at one point it seemed evident that, in his mind, the event was about him. Get it together, Ben. What little charm you do have is wearing very thin.