Haiti After the Quake begins with an image of Haiti rising, as it always has, to free itself from suffering and shackles, both real and metaphorical.  How many people know that Haiti was the first country to abolish slavery, and that it’s national sculptural icon Neg Mawon  (“the free man”) survived the quake and still blows into a conch to call others to freedom?

Today the University of Wisconsin welcomes Dr. Paul Farmer to its Distinguished Lecture Series, so it’s a good time to post a review of his most recent book,  Haiti After the Earthquake.  Many are familiar with Mountains beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder’s award-winning account of Farmer’s work in Haiti.  For those inspired by that book,  I recommend reading some of Farmer’s own writing.  Well-researched and meeting every academic bar, they are also written in an intelligent accessible voice that does not apologize for its passion or its bias –a preferential option for the poor, and all those who suffer or are voiceless. Titles include Pathologies of Power, Partner to the Poor, and Infections and Inequalities.

Farmer’s 2011 Haiti account is true to what he is and has been.  He takes the reader with him through the days after the quake at an hour by hour pace, as he sees patients, tries to engage constructively in the policy development process, and even as he succumbs to fatigue, lying in bed rather than going to safe ground outdoors during strong aftershocks.  Thankfully, he cannot resist weaving in Haiti’s history,  and lessons from his experience in post-genocide Rwanda.  The book does not have the flavor of distilled wisdom, it is too soon for that.  Instead Farmer honestly walks us through complex issues, sharing his own questions with us, trying to imagine realistic scenarios of success, and, perhaps most importantly, channelling the Haitian spirit, insisting on hope as a moral imperative.

In addition to Farmer’s own story the book includes the voices of others who know and love Haiti.  Nancy Dorsinville brings us close to Haiti and its evocative language as she recounts the various ways people named the cataclysmic event.  The earthquake “tranbleman te,”  that thing “bagay la, “ and finally “goudou goudou,” which needs no translation.  One can hear the earth shake.   Walking around the camps with Didi Bertrand Farmer,  seeing her own daughter in the faces of girls who risk rape and abuse when fetching water or walking to the latrine, one is shaken from the protective distance we create between ourselves and disaster.  It could be us, it could be our children, and in a very real sense, it actually is.

Those engaged with Haiti have become familiar with the term “Build Back Better.” Before reading this book I was uncomfortable with the chop chop of that — it seemed to celebrate erasure for the Haiti that was, in the name of progress.  I worried that master plans would bulldoze local places and the small dreams of people who wanted to restore their own homes, streets, schools and churches.  But the voices of Haitians that come through in the book (particularly in the chapter by Michele Montas Dominique, where she summarizes the Voice of the Voiceless project), seem to embrace this idea as a way of making meaning out of the loss, and, provided that they have a say in the plans and designs, it is something that gives them hope.

Haiti Afer the Earthquake is a collection of voices.  People who have worked together for years, come together around a tragedy, and humbly try to record and make sense of it for the rest of us.   These are wise people, people who, I suspect, think and pray together. The book is a first step toward learning what it means to accompany Haiti, to walk with those who suffer, and to be a healing force when we encounter brokenness in our world.  Let’s build back better.

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