Submitted by: Ryan Cherlin
When a Haitian says, Dèyè mòn gen mòn, they mean to say, as you solve one problem there is always another that must also be solved.
Driving through the densely populated city of Port-au-Prince I wondered how many times this old proverb was the subject of conversation this past year.
In the months following the earthquake in early January 2010, Haitians endured the devastating effects of hurricane Tomas, political instability and violence stemming from a presidential election, and a cholera epidemic.
Perhaps more numerous than the aggregate woes that befell this nation are the number of foreign aid workers and spotted NGO sites funded by international donor organizations like USAID. These organizations continue the behemoth task of delivering the humanitarian and development assistance so desperately needed by the Haitian people. Despite some media reports of stagnant progress, one only has to scratch the surface to realize these programs are making a real difference.
I decided to sit down with USAID beneficiaries from Haiti’s famed Cité Soleil, an extremely impoverished and densely populated commune generally regarded as one of the most dangerous areas in the Western Hemisphere. I wanted to get a sense of the impact USAID programs have in an environment seemingly impervious to progress.
Etienne Jean-Gardy and Ernancy Bien-Aime are two youth educators trained by a USAID Leadership Development Program (LDP) led by Management Sciences for Health that sensitizes community members to the importance of family planning and HIV prevention and awareness. Armed with knowledge received in training, they host meetings in local parks, in homes and in schools to disseminate their message in Cité Soleil.
Etienne, a shy, soft-spoken young male in his mid 20s, told the story of a woman who passed away five years ago when her body succumbed to the devastating effects of AIDS. When she learned her HIV status she instinctively tested her children. Three of the seven, all girls, also tested positive. Distraught and shamed by family and friends she was forced to pack up her home and find a new place to live.
Not long after relocating, she visited Maison Arc-en-Ciel clinic where she met with LDP youth educators. She eventually came to terms with her status. She was so grateful for the mentorship she dedicated the little time she had left to her seven children and mentoring others on the importance of family planning and HIV awareness and prevention.
When he finished his story Etienne leaned over to Dr. Emilien the Senior Program Officer for the LDP program, who was also playing the role of translator, and whispered something in her ear. Etienne wanted her to tell me the woman in the story was his mother, and she is the reason he joined this program.
Ernancy, by comparison, is a self-assured and outspoken woman who talks passionately about her role as a youth educator. Her confidence makes her an incredible asset to the program as she interacts with people in the community.
I asked her if she felt being a youth educator was her calling.
Thinking for a minute, she recalled one of her first meetings as a youth educator. A woman approached her after a presentation on HIV prevention and family planning. The woman was 25 years old and already had four children. She had never even heard of family planning and was grateful she attended the session that day. Ernancy and a few of the youth educators gave her money to take a tap-tap (cab) to a local clinic for family planning services.
“I remember thinking about the opportunities she missed out on because she had children at an early age: education and independence.” Ernancy said, “That is when I realized the importance of this information.”
She went on to explain people want these services once someone explains the benefits.
In the past few years she noted that more and more men come to the clinic to support their wives and girlfriends to learn about family planning.
“When the men come with women to the clinic, you know they see the benefit,” she said laughing.
Clinics in Cité Soleil are beginning to offer HIV testing and family planning services as part of a package because, as both youth educators attested to, when you offer more services people are more likely to come.
“Most people don’t have money or the time to take two cabs to two different places,” Dr. Emilien says, “It just makes sense to offer everything in one place.”
After the interview I talked more informally with Etienne and Ernancy. They were both were polite, smartly dressed and well-spoken. They are both educated and compassionate. They envision a future where people have the information they need to help themselves. As youth educators they have that information thanks to the leadership development program and they are eager to share what they know with others.