Reflections And Advice Roger Benham

Mon, 1 Feb 2010 — Unless something goes wrong at the airport tomorrow, this will be my last night in Haiti. In the ten days or so that I've been here, I've seen some heartbreaking things, met many committed, wonderful people, and worked alongside many great old comrades and some great new ones. I have come to love Haiti and its people, and been deeply impacted by the disaster which occurred here. This morning, Team 1 and Ekip Bon Fwa had a final face-to-face meeting, and discussed our experiences here and our visions for the future of our network.


My personal experience here has been often frustrating, although ultimately rewarding. I have done some medical work, but not nearly as much as I expected when I decided to come here. To be honest, had I known then what I would have been doing here, I might have decided not to come. Here are my main reasons:

  • Team 1 arrived as soon as they could; nevertheless, it was probably about two days later than they should have. I wish I could have been on Team 1, nevertheless, for they did superb work in the first week they were here, doing stuff their skills suited them for: immediate trauma care in "unsafe" situations. Action medic and WEMT work. I have done a little of this work, but not nearly as much as they did in their first week. Neither have they.
  • Finding a place to plug in has consumed a monumental amount of energy. It seemed sometimes that everytime Team 2 thought we had found a place to plug in, the next day turned out to be a bust. If we had lots more time, like maybe several months, I am sure we could build further upon the work we have done, and be effective. However, I am not prepared right now to commit that amount of time. This is not to say that we haven't had some effect; but it has been incredibly difficult.
  • I have learned a great deal more about Haiti. I have studied Haitian history, particularly the revolutionary period and the American occupation, off and on for about twenty years. I realize now I have much more to learn.
  • Working with Haitian partners was essential to my idea of coming here. We on Team 2 have worked hard to develop these partnerships, and have had some success. However, some of the folks we have worked with would, outside of the context of the disaster, not be people we would have anything in common with politically. Some of our best contacts have been people who are anti-Aristide and have expressed nostalgia for the Duvalier regime. Not all; however, by the very nature of our outsider status, the folks we were most likely to hook up with were those who spoke English or had family members who do. These folks are the upper classes here.


As a result of this, I would share this advice with anyone else contemplating journeying to Haiti to do solidarity medical work, outside of a pre-earthquake program:

  1. Have a working knowledge of French, or at least have one member of each buddy pair have such knowledge. Ideally, have one member of each buddy pair know Creole, as well. At the very least, have one Creole speaker for every three buddy pairs. Those who do not know French need to learn basic words and phrases. These are essential for independent travel, for patient care, and to defuse potentially confusing and/or dangerous situations.
  2. Have contacts on the ground, multiple contacts. Often, work will not be obvious or available at one contact. Have a backup.
  3. Have at least one M.D. on each team. This is essential at this point in Haiti; injuries from the earthquake and from everyday life are still prevalent, but the vast majority of patients suffer from chronic ailments and communicable diseases. Measles, malaria, typhoid, and other conditions rarely seen in the U.S are common here. Ideally, this M.D. should have a background in pediatrics. Many of the patients you see will be children.
  4. At least one person on the team should be familiar with tropical medicine.
  5. Everyone on the team should have a working knowledge of Haitian history and politics. That means knowing who people like Toussaint l'Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Hippolyte Forveal, Charlemagne Peralte, and others are. This is a revolutionary country; coming here without a basic knowledge of its history would be like travelling to Russia and not knowing about the revolution.
  6. Be culturally sensitive. Most Haitians, and the vast majority of poorer Haitians, are Christians. Jesus is very important here, just as much as if not more than in Appalachia. If we need to be culturally sensitive there, it is even more necessary here.
  7. Come prepared to stay for a while, at least a month, ideally three. You will spend lots of time trying to make connections; a stay of less than a month cannot be effective.

These are my thoughts as I prepare to leave this incredible place. I hope they are helpful for anyone seeking to come down. Once back in the States, I plan to be very involved on that side of organizing, and to be back on those wonderful conference calls. I miss and admire all of you folks very much, and look forward to working with you in solidarity with Haiti, and for a just and sane world.

Kembe fem.

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