My Love Affair with a Sh*thole Country

I first visited Haiti in 2006. It was not love at first sight, or even a like. I spent a week on a medical mission trip, missing my family and sweating in the operating room while I performed some of the most difficult surgical cases of my career, without adequate lighting and unfamiliar instruments. Climbing the steps of the airplane to return home was a welcome relief from the searing heat of the tarmac and the aroma that is Haiti (think rotting fruit mixed with exhaust fumes and burning charcoal). I’m not sure when the amnesia set in over the next few months, but I was soon planning my return visit the following year. 15 or so trips later, I look forward each visit to spending time in a country that I have visited more frequently than any other.

My  trip last week coincided with the recent comments about Haiti from President Trump. While he was ranting about the immigration of Haitians to America, I was participating in distributing microloans to a new group of 10 Haitian businesswomen. The women received $200 to help fund their small businesses and will be responsible for paying back the loan over 10 months with a low rate of interest. Each of these women has worked hard selling clothes, food, shoes and motor oil to support their families. This is in addition to the daily tasks that a Haitian woman must perform without the benefit of running water or electricity. Entitled or lazy would be the least descriptive terms that I would use.

IMG_7161

The following day I worked with one of the Haitian seamstresses that we employ to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to Haitian girls. She uses a manual sewing machine and is able to make $4 a day working  5-6 hours. She also participates in menstrual hygiene instruction at area schools so that young girls will have the benefit of knowledge about their bodies and not the fear that her generation of women experienced. She has no desire to immigrate to America away from her family, but wants the opportunity to make her life in Haiti more comfortable.

 

I am not quite sure why this country has occupied so much of my time, energy and pulled at my heart. The opportunity to leave a frigid Minnesota in January makes the idea of sweating in the operating room more palatable. But is much more than that. Haiti is a land of contradictions – corruption and family strength, sadness and laughter, illiteracy and value of education.  There is very little black and white, rather many shades of grey. But it makes my brain think and try new ideas, something that is more difficult to do in my American job. I have been the recipient of many opportunities in the US, and although I have worked hard and been the first to graduate college in my immediate family, there were many along the way that provided encouragement and a helping hand. I would like to think that I can be that helping hand for Haitians – providing business loans for women, saving a baby’s life when her mother is suffering from seizures/eclampsia, removing an enlarged uterus so that a woman can better perform her household chores and providing education and hygiene products so that young girls are able to stay in school during their period. Yes, Haiti is a destitute country that has suffered from both outside forces and its own corruption. But its people are willing to change that – if we would only give them a fighting chance. And remarks such as those from our President don’t help to provide that chance.

Days for Girls Work Day 1/20/18

Saturday, January 20th is the next workday for Days For Girls.  We are meeting from 9 to 4 at St. Mary on the Lake Catholic Church in Plymouth.  Directions here   
 
We have activities for everyone even if sewing is not your “thing”.  Lunch and coffee/water are provided; extra snacks or sides are welcome.  Come for an hour or two or for the day.
What to bring:
·  Sewing Machine and/or serger
·  Basic sewing supplies (polyester thread please)
·  Large scissors marked with your name (may need for some of our non-sewers to use in cutting out bags and diaper kits)
·  Donations for the Days For Girls kits
·  Dark/bright cotton fabric for shields **see note below
·  Bright/light fabric for bags **
·  Dark/bright flannels for the liners **same fabric print guidelines 
·  Washcloths
·  Travel soaps
·  Girls underwear size 10-14
·  Zip-Lock 1 gallon sized bags (Not the slide lock)
There will be an opportunity to hear an update on the work our chapter has done and also to provide a monetary donation if you feel led to do so.
 
See you soon.  Please forward this info to others who might like to help.
 
**Use good quality 100% cotton woven fabric similar to quilter’s cotton. No knits, flannels, corduroy, or home dec fabric.
·  Pick colorful stain-busting fabrics, preferably botanicals, geometrics and batiks. Prints preferred.
·  Fabrics and thread should be medium to dark in color to disguise stains
·  Some prints are offensive or illegal in some communities. Prints with people, animals, faces and figures cannot be sent to Muslim communities. NO camouflage fabrics as these are illegal in many countries. Fabrics with food, bugs, reptiles, guns, knives, culture-specific themes as well as girly-glam should be avoided. Bugs, reptiles and animals are predators in some areas; fabrics including these are uncomfortable for the girls to wear and use. Butterflies are OK. 

A Five Year Review – It’s Not about the Numbers

After returning from our annual surgical mission trip to Haiti in early 2011, one year post earthquake, I was frustrated by the lack of progress that was happening in Haiti and the mismanagement of donated funds. I had had sincere hopes about the possibility of change after witnessing the international outpouring of attention and donations. Visiting with our Haitian co-workers on that trip, I was made aware of their sense of defeat and dimming of eternal optimism. Maybe what was needed was a smaller, more personal effort so that Haitians could realize that they were not forgotten.

My original plan was to appeal to a few friends for donations, kick in some of my own money, and grant 10 women $200 microloans so that they would have improved working capital for their businesses. I met those original loan recipients 6 months later on our next medical trip. Thru an interpreter they expressed their appreciation and wanted me to know how this program was different from other programs. Different because we asked them what they wanted (cash for their small businesses), we did what we said we would do (provide the loans), and finally that we kept returning to fund more loans. After hearing this, I realized that we had the opportunity to make a small part of Haiti understand that the rest of the world still cared about them and wanted to help.

Just as the roads in Haiti are filled with potholes, the journey of HHW has not always been smooth. Cultural misunderstandings, failure of some small businesses and difficulties in accounting to name just a few. But I still see the shy smiles and sense of empowerment of our loan recipients after being handed that first sum of money that makes it all worthwhile.  Five years ago I thought that our program was about giving money, but I now realize that it is about so much more.  It is about creating hope for a better future and making these women aware that we have not forgotten about them. Consider making a donation so that we are able to create hope for more Haitian families.

– Leslee Jaeger

The White Savior Complex that we are trying to avoid.

This video is a good reminder of what we are trying to achieve with our mission at Helping Haiti Work. We work to empower women to help themselves and their communities by providing them with the resources – loans and sewing supplies – to make a livable wage. We will be expanding n 2018 and employing a Haitian to assist with obtaining orders and distribution of menstrual pad kits because we feel that they know their communities better than we do.

 

 

Getting Haitian Men Involved


The majority of tailors in Haiti are men. You frequently see them sewing in the doorways of buildings surrounded by a group of men playing cards. For that reason, finding women who are experienced seamstresses was a bit difficult in the beginning. We had to be patient while less experienced seamstresses worked diligently to improve. Then we could finally approve their sewing skills as proficient and pay them for the products that were created. Now the sewing tables have been turned and our seamstresses are calling on their husbands and sons to help with the final kit assembly when a large order is being completed. The men are only too happy to help as the income that is being generated is making a large difference for their families.

Please make your contribution to Helping Haiti Work today so we can provide more loans to women on our waiting list!

Haitian Seamstress Profile


Yvette and her husband have 5 children and live in Ranquitte, Haiti, a small village located in the mountains south of Cap Haitian. Prior to our Days for Girls sewing program, Yvette had the skills of a talented seamstress but was unable to find the materials or market for any of her projects. Our products of reusable menstrual pad kits and reusable diapers have provided her with both materials and an income to help to support her family and keep her children in school. Yvette has taken this project one step further in that she is training teenage girls in her neighborhood to sew so that we will have extra hands when large orders are placed. Unfortunately, Yvette was very sick earlier this year for a few months. Her 15 year old son stepped up and worked on sewing the reusable menstrual pad kits so that the family could continue to benefit from the income.

Please make your contribution to Helping Haiti Work today so we can provide more loans to women on our waiting list!

 

Our Future Progress

Our building and Highway One in the distance

 

Our distribution building in Cap Haitian is slowly getting near completion. Elly Schreder was in Haiti this fall helping to complete a few large orders, deliver materials for new products and visit the local Haitian Rotary to provide information on our program. Although our sewing centers are located outside of Cap Haitian, in Limbe and Ranquitte, we are in need of a distribution site where completed reusable menstrual pad kits and diapers can be stored, materials for future kits collected, sewing machines repaired and customers pick up their orders. Our building front is located facing Highway One, the main highway that connects Cap Haitian to Port au Prince. Funds from Give to the Max Day will be used to complete the inside of our building as well as to create a sign outside advertising our presence. Consider Helping Haiti Work in your giving on November 16th.

Schedule your Give to the Max Day donation now at:
https://givemn.org/organization/Helping-Haiti-Work


Make a Difference Day

October 28th was National Make A Difference Day, one of the largest annual single days of service nationwide.  Joining in the spirit of this day of giving, 37  women and girls showed up to help with the construction of over 100 reusable menstrual pad kits for distribution in Haitian schools in early 2018. We also cut flannel for 270 diapers that will be sewn by our Haitian seamstresses and die cut cotton that will be used to construct more of the menstrual pad kits for sale in Haiti.

The Problem with Free Menstrual Pads

Sanitary pads are expensive. And in some parts of the world, hard to come by. So why not give pads away for free?

It’s an idea that a number of governments have considered this year. Several African countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, have taken steps toward giving free sanitary pads to girls. In August, Botswana joined the club. And it’s not just happening in low- and middle-income countries. In July, the Scottish government launched a project to distribute tampons and pads to women who can’t afford them.

For some governments, the goal is to boost school attendance for girls. Perhaps free pads would make it easier and more comfortable for girls to manage their periods at school. Others hope that the pads could reduce anxiety about periods — less worry about stains or how to get the next pad, for example.

While menstrual health researchers say it’s encouraging that more countries are talking about periods at the highest levels of power, some question the motivations.

Some critics in Kenya chalk up the plans as campaign promises, and aren’t sure the government will follow through. In June, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed an amendment about sanitary pads into law, less than two months before the country’s presidential election. The law said the government would give pads to all girls in public schools who’ve reached puberty and make sure they have a way to dispose of the pads.

Jane Otai, an adolescent health advisor in Kenya for the Johns Hopkins University-affiliated nonprofit Jhpiego, commends the new law. But the timing of its signing tempers her enthusiasm. “Any promises coming from politicians at this time — you take with a pinch of salt,” she says. “My worry is: are they going to follow up on these promises?”

In Uganda, the answer was no. In April, the government backtracked on its plan to give out pads. The reason: a tough economic climate, said President Yoweri Museveni.

Infuriated, Ugandan activist and academic Stella Nyanzi spoke out. On her Facebook wall, she wrote a message directed to the president, his wife and his supporters: “For the children, I refuse your silence, your inertia and your sweet hollow words.” Her sharp criticism landed her in jail, NPR’s Eyder Peralta reported.

And though governments have said that giving pads to girls will improve school attendance, researchers say this step may not be enough to keep them from missing school.

Giving out pads is only part of what needs to be done to help girls manage their periods. It’s not a “silver bullet solution,” says Bethany Caruso, a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University.

“In addition to sanitary pads, we have issues of water and sanitation within the schools,” Otai says. “If the toilets are not habitable, girls will find it difficult to get to school and be able to continue their education if they cannot visit the toilet during her monthly period.”

Toilets — and having a safe, private place for girls to change their pads — get a lot less attention than sanitary pads, says Marni Sommer, a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

In schools with latrines, it can be embarrassing for girls to throw their pads into the pit, and other people — like boys — might see the pads and tease girls about them.

To address that issue, some girls use reusable pads so there are no issues with disposal. But this method has its own set of problems. Girls need a little bag to take the pads home to be washed.

 

That crucial detail was forgotten in an effort to give out reusable pads to girls at a refugee camp in Tanzania, says Sommer. “The [girls are] going to be embarrassed about what to do with their used pad,” she says.

“You think you’ve thought of everything, but they hadn’t thought about the little baggie to go with the reusable pad,” says Sommer. “There’s an essential need to consult girls. What do they need? What do they think?”

Courtney Columbus is a multimedia journalist based in the Washington, D.C. area. She covers science, global health and consumer health. Her past work has appeared in the Arizona Republicand on Arizona PBS. Contact her @cmcolumbus11.

You can make a Difference

Our Haitian seamstresses recently gathered together to share food and learn how to keep their serger sewing machines well oiled and repaired so that they can continue to create quality products. At our next sewing date we will be taking a picture of our MN sewing group sharing food and creating menstrual pad kits for distribution to a local Haitian school in January. Please join us to help make a difference in the lives of Haitian women and girls.
Save the date – October 28, 2017 – 9-4
Days For Girls workday will be at St Mary on the Lake Catholic Church in Plymouth.  It is also National Make A Difference Day so what better way to spend a day doing something good for others.