The great American novelist and activist, James Baldwin, once said that we must look unblinkingly at the circumstances, confront the constructed reality, face the tears of the wounded, and harness ourselves to a great collective effort toward justice.
Last month, a cholera outbreak erupted across Haiti’s Artibonite region. It has since spread across half the country, claiming at least 1,200 lives and sickening 20,000 others. According to the latest UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs cholera situation report, in the Artibonite region alone, one-fifth of the population is at risk of contracting the deadly waterborne-disease. If left untreated, cholera can kill in mere hours.
To many, International Action is a non-profit organization on Capitol Hill that provides clean water to the people of Haiti. To the people of Haiti, it is much more; it is a movement to restore their dignity and health, and rebuild their smiles through the gift of the single most important nutrient of life – water.
Upon my arrival in Haiti on Sunday, October 24, our Country Director Dalebrun Esther met me at the airport in the “Dlo Pwòp – Clean Water” truck wearing his work polo. As a fellow Haitian, I was very surprised by the fact that he was wearing his work polo on a Sunday. In Haiti, Sunday is a sacred day of rest, worship, and fellowship with friends and family. Before he even said a word, I knew that we were in an emergency situation.
Dalebrun briefly greeted me and immediately apologized, “I’m sorry Wesley but you’re going to have to remove your shirt and tie. I have an IA work polo for you. We are heading to the AME Hospital in Arcahaie.” I immediately changed my outfit in the car and we headed to Arcahaie with our team of plumbers and technicians.
We arrived at the African Methodist Episcopal Church Service and Development Agency hospital in Arcahaie and immediately a large group of people begun to cheer. They recognized the “Dlo Pwòp – Clean Water” logo on the truck. We could tell by the look on their faces that the town had been hit hard by the cholera outbreak. As we entered the hospital, I saw countless lifeless bodies on the ground and others lying unconscious on tiny wooden hospital beds. Half were dead, the other half were barely clinging to life. The most heart-wrenching scene was that of a frail body of a 3-year-old girl sharing a bed with a 60-year-old man, both linked to serum IVs. At that very moment, I was faced with the reality of the people of Arcahaie and their plight against the deadly cholera outbreak.
As I interviewed people and took pictures, our plumbers were working hard under the sun installing a chlorinator on the water tank of the hospital. One of our plumbers was stung by a bee and almost fell off the ladder. Fortunately, he was able to hold on to the concrete pillar under the tank. After a few hours, the installation was done. We waited a half hour, tested the water, and voilà it was clean!
As we left Arcahaie, the people thanked and hugged us. One woman was in tears as she explained that she had nothing to give us but she would pray that God blesses us. Our work made a difference for the 20,000 people of this historical city.
Arcahaie is the birthplace of the Haitian flag, symbol of Haitian freedom from the French army 206 years ago. On that day, October 24, 2010, the people of Arcahaie will always remember that International Action made an historical impact against cholera.
The following day, we packed our bags and drove to the Artibonite region, the epicenter of the cholera outbreak. As we drove through the city of Saint Marc, I witnessed several funerals taking place. One family had no funds to bury their loved one. I took some of the money from my own pocket and gave it to them. As we continued to drive to our destination, we saw more funerals. I told myself that we could not leave those folks stranded, we had to help them. We decided to go directly to the reservoirs to make assessments. We took measurements, pictures, and other statistical data. We went to two large communities where we made chlorine-based solutions that will serve 20,000 people, and taught them how to use it to purify their buckets of water at home.
Furthermore, we distributed Albendazole deworming pills. Lastly, we educated them on cholera prevention. Unsurprisingly, many had no idea on how to protect themselves from cholera. Our stop in the town of Boudin educating locals on how to protect themselves was one of many 14-hour work days during that week.
The following day we headed back to Saint Marc with all of our equipment. We climbed a steep mountain. After half an hour, we arrived at the site of a massive reservoir in the town of Desdunes that feeds 30,000 people daily with unclean water. Our staff immediately went to work. The complexity of the German-made reservoir posed a great challenge. However, our staff met the obstacle with their expertise.
After hours of work, they were able to install a big chlorinator – LF 2000 model – on the reservoir. We headed down the mountain and drove as far as we could into the community. There we waited an hour or so, then tested the water. Again, voilà clean water! Again, we were received like heroes. Many wanted to pose for pictures next to our staff.
Our team also installed a chlorinator in Mirebalais, in the heart of Center Department, serving another 20,000 people with clean water.
Later during the week, I attended several meetings with the government agency responsible for water and sanitation in Haiti, DINEPA. They requested that we install 20 chlorinators a week. It was clear that they needed and wanted us to assist them against the cholera outbreak.
To meet the high expectations set for us by the Government of Haiti, we should consider setting up a satellite office equipped with a chlorine bank in the cholera-affected region. A base directly in the emergency zone will give us increased presence on the ground and allow us to preposition critical supplies for quicker mobilization to save lives.
This is a unique opportunity for us to scale up to meet the mounting cholera threat and further prove that our innovative chlorinator technology can protect lives on a national scale.
Having been born and raised in Haiti, I believed that it is my work with International Action that has afforded me the opportunity to look unblinkingly at the circumstances, confront the constructed reality, face the tears of the wounded, and then harness myself to a great collective effort toward justice. In a short week of work, 90,000 lives were protected because of International Action.
As I write this report, tens of thousands of more lives will be saved because of your support and commitment to our work. International Action will bring dignity to millions of people through clean water. Without a doubt, being a part of this campaign is the most wonderful experience of my life. I am personally inviting you to join us in our Campaign for Clean Water in Haiti.