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An Editor’s Journey: Return to Haiti

Anpil men, chay pa lou

With many hands a load is not heavy … Creole Proverb

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – There may be a lot of truth found in this Haitian Creole proverb … and especially poignant after packing 16 suitcases of school supplies, diapers, vitamins, duct tape, sandpaper and paint brushes and heading out to Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., after a light dusting of snow.

Last month, I was part of a team of 11 volunteers from Northern Virginia leaving during the wee hours of Presidents’ Day would arrive at Toussaint L’Ouverture International Airport six hours later to the beat of Carnival songs. There were still signs of the 2010 earthquake — from the rubble of the old airport and about 20,000 still living in a tent city.

The sense of frustration over the slow progress of improvements was palpable on the way to Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb that lies just 8 miles north of the capital. Driving down National Route 1, several bystanders shouted epithets and waved obscene gestures.

“U.S. food aid destroyed the poultry industry here,” said Bert Anderson, director of the Village of Hope School in nearby Ganthier. Haitian farmers can’t compete with imports of cheaper chicken. This also is true of rice and corn — staples of the Haitian diet, priced too low.

Last fall, four historically Black colleges and universities — Virginia State, Florida A&M, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Central State — worked with the State University of Haiti, the Caribbean country’s largest institution of higher education, to identify needs, according to Dr. Frederick Humphries, FAMU’s former president and coordinator of a consortium of 12 HBCUs.

“One of the pressing needs is water quality and lack of equipment and training,” said Humphries. “Central State is working on purchasing the equipment and training needed.”

There also are native growing plants that have medicinal value, Humphries continued. “South Carolina State has research scientists exploring healing properties so that we can write a proposal to submit to the National Academy of Sciences.”

Meanwhile, the City University of New York, a founding member of the Consortium for Rebuilding and Improving Higher Education in Haiti, is supporting the development of the island’s public university network in the region. For example, a new university in Jacmel was inaugurated in November. “They are still finding professors,” said Francois Pierre-Louis, associate professor of political science at Queens College. “This summer, we’ll offer some assistance in areas of education, management and tourism.”

In July, Dr. Pierre-Louis taught 43 students working for Haitian municipalities at the Public University in North Cap-Haitien. “Local Governance and Decentralization” was a comparative study of decentralized municipal systems in the United States, France, Canada and Mexico. Students were sent to the northern part of the island to evaluate the history of localities as well as the opportunities and challenges of each place.

“There’s little respect for the mayors in Haiti,” said Pierre-Louis. “They do not have the power of the purse.” Instead, the secretary general serves as an outside controller; funds are distributed by the minister of interior using a three-tier structure based on the size of the town and taxes collected.

This summer, CUNY faculty members are expected to teach English as a foreign language and tourism, said Pierre-Louis. In Gonaives, fourth-year students prepare for September state exams. In Les Cayes, community health and teacher training will be the focus. Finally, research methods for Ph.D. candidates also will be offered.

At the time of the earthquake, 85 percent of all public and private institutions of higher education were located in Port-au-Prince. The targeting of regional institutions outside the capital is consistent with recommendations that emphasize decentralizing higher education, promoting greater access, broadening workforce development opportunities and strengthening regional economies.

The Haiti consortium members include Harvard, Syracuse and New York universities as well as City University of New York and California State University-Sacramento. From other countries, the University of Quebec at Montreal in Canada and the eight-member Association of Catalan Public Universities in Spain have either joined or expressed interest.


Yet, the 4-month-old Haitian government led by President Michel Martelly still struggles to make good on its promises of moving people out of camps by supplying loans to rebuild homes. Free education for 900,000 children is expected to come from taxing money transfers and international calls from cell phone providers such as Digicel.

Other pipeline schools such as the Village of Hope are run by nonprofits. It was founded by missionaries Carol and Jim Herget, who spent more than 50 years in Jamaica and Haiti improving the lives of local children. The K-12 facility has 640 students and recently dedicated a new health center to address women’s health and the high infant mortality rate of 54 deaths per 1,000 live births.

“About 17 percent die the first year after birth,” said Anderson of the Village of Hope School.

Some health problems are more chronic, where medical records would be helpful in treatment.

“We see a lot of cases of high blood pressure, diabetes, acid reflux, vaginal infection and parasites,” Anderson said. “The hope is to provide the initial visit, tests and medicine for $5 to $6.” The exchange rate is about 41 Haitian goudes to an American dollar.

Ideally, 30 to 40 patients could be seen daily — first come, first served. “Eventually mobile medical units with dentists and eye doctors will serve within a 10-mile radius of the health center,” Anderson said. 

Doctors willing to volunteer four to five days in Haiti could see between 600 and 700 patients. Extended care will be provided through a benevolence fund, he said.

Only three major hardware stores serve Croix-des-Bouquets. By the end of the week, they no longer had white paint.

In just four days, the team (Sarah Finger, Jim Lofgren, Tom and Liz DeMik, Mark Guilfoil, Tish Nordvall, Christine Payne, Marilyn Newstrom, Paul Swicord, Yvette Moy and Greer Putnam) used up 80 gallons on rooms, cabinets, railings, latrines and walls. That’s about 28,000 square feet of paint. In addition, 20 screens were made for the windows at the health center.

Two more teams will follow to get the health center up and running by early April.

A multimedia slide show is available on Diverse: Issues in Higher Education website:

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