While in this singularly beautiful place, we wondered what the appropriate response to such a challenge might be. Should we design something especially cheap that could quickly be put up to address the issue of much needed medical attention? Should we attempt to respond to the challenge with an architectural solution?
With a little time on our hands, we explored the latter option. We asked, “what does the vernacular architecture of Haiti and Jacmel look like? What are its roots? What would Jacmel residents take pride in, identify with, build, own, and care for as their own?”
The story of aid to Haiti is long and fabled. One of the poorest countries in the world, it has become a land of institutionalized welfare. While in their, asking our hosts what the course of education looks like, we were told that after high-school most just wait. “Wait for what?”, we asked. “For someone to help.”
And this is not the only time we have heard this sentiment expressed. Over and over we have heard of the Haitians expectation for hand outs and help. And the plan has not worked. Not for the helpers or the recipients. For generations, the country has languished in poverty and disease.
So what does help? Or what might help?
If we could effectively answer that question, we’d probably have a high ranking job with World Relief or the UN. We don’t pretend to be such experts. Instead we have joined the long line of well intentioned people with an idea. And really, it’s not even particularly original. From countless conversations with NGO staff, charity workers, mssions teams and the like, we have come to the belief that when you give Haiti a fish it doesn’t particularly want and hasn’t earned, it will probably rot at the Port au Prince airport before even being eaten.
We wonder, if you teach the community of Jacmel to build a clinic it does want and needs, a nice facility where visiting doctors and nurses will have a decent place to stay while volunteering their time, a building reflecting a familiar style made fresh, personal, symbolic of hope, can such a building and the process of it’s creation become a seed for more good things to come? Can this clinic be part of the start of Jacmel taking the reigns for its own renaissance?
We are architects. We dream such things. And this is where we started.
As we thought about the clinic from this perspective, we thought about what Jacmel residents would want, what they would consider theirs. So we looked around and we asked a few questions. “What is here? Where did it come from? How does the community feel about it? In looking around, we discovered a decaying, though still beautiful, French Colonial vernacular lending both a sense of history as well as a hegemonic oppressive countenance to the region. We learned of the trail of colonizers exploiting Haiti and its labor for its resources, sugar in particular. And of the ultimately successful repulsion of these forces by Haiti, a force magnified and cohered by the dark mysticism, voodoo, witchcraft.
We also discovered a rich artistic community with specialties in painting, tin sculpture, and especially vibrant and expressive paper-mache. While volunteering to help paint the children’s classroom of the host church, we saw first hand the talent and focus of a young Haitian artist who added a beautiful waterfall and river to our crude mural. There is little doubt that such efforts if collected and sustained would revitalize any place, anywhere.
Recently while walking along a beach on Cape Cod, Caroline and I met a man going by the moniker, Joe Bones. He’d just returned from Haiti via catamaran. When asked if he’d gone to help, he scoffed at the thought, “nah, I’m done with that. Been with NGO’s, the UN. Now I go just to have fun.” He told us of his plans to start a business there, perhaps go down for good. And he assured us with an assured wry smile that Haiti would not be changing in any meaningful way during our life times, but that you could find little pockets where good times and opportunities abound, nonetheless.
The clinic has not yet been built. As with everything Haitian, there always seems to be delays, challenges that go beyond the expected. We hope and pray for a breakthrough, for the vision of this facility to be realized. If you are interested in helping, please contact Hank Haskins at Lumiere Ministries, firstname.lastname@example.org, and leave your feedback below.