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The Uses of Haiti

The plight of the people of Haiti, made even more terrible than usual with the ravages of the earthquake, serves to remind us of our good fortune.  Despite the sickly economy, despite the weariness with winter, despite day to day anxieties and worries, our lives in America are infinitely easier than those of the people of this impoverished nation to our south.  We might be tempted to say a quick, silent thanks for our luck to live in a rich nation and flip the channel to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.  Or we could pause to wonder about this country, her people, and their lives there.  If that wondering leads to curiosity to know more, a few books are well worth reading, not only for the enlightenment they bring, but also for the inspiration they generate.

Paul Farmer
Tracy Kidder tells the story of Paul Farmer, a doctor fighting poverty and disease in the poorest corners of the world, in “Mountains Beyond Mountains”.  Farmer is a Harvard-educated physician and medical anthropologist who has valiantly fought to reduce the incidence of multi-drug resistant tuberculosis in Haiti, Peru, the prisons of Russia, and third world nations in Africa and Asia.  His understanding of the interconnectedness of politics, wealth, social systems and disease has helped to revolutionize infectious disease treatment regimens. 

Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, writes with riveting immediacy and intimacy about his subjects that grabs the reader and holds him to the last word.  He lays the foundation for Farmer’s empathy for his patients and commitment to caring for them in Farmer’s youth with eccentric parents.  He and his siblings grew up living on an old bus, then in a tent, later a salvaged riverboat.  They were poor but encouraged to be self-reliant by their very bright, ingenious father and nurturing mother.

While studying at Duke in 1982, Farmer became interested in public health during a visit to Haiti.  He saw how desperate poverty inescapably affected health and life expectancy, and felt compassion for people in need of basic help to survive.  From then on, he divided his time between Duke, then Harvard Medical School and Haiti, developing his own curriculum for a dual MD/PhD in medicine and medical anthropology, with the objective of helping Haitians fight contagious disease through meeting essential social needs—for housing, clean water, sanitation.

He is a passionate, driven man, incredibly intelligent, with an inexhaustible desire to heal.   Despite the political turmoil in Haiti, he set up a clinic, Zanme Lasante (Partners in Health, an international non-profit), and found ways of connecting with the Haitians whose culture is so different from his own, thanks to his insatiable curiosity and genuine interest in others.  Farmer received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for his work developing effective treatments for multi-drug resistant TB, which he donated to Partners in Health.  Today, in addition to his work in Haiti, he teaches at Harvard, is a practicing physician, and writes (“The Uses of Haiti” among others).  As an expert on Haiti, Farmer is consulting for and actively engaged in earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. 

BookPage said that “compared to Dr. Paul Farmer, Mother Teresa was a slacker. But she had better PR.”  “Mountains Beyond Mountains” has helped the world know him since it was published in 2003.
His story would be inspiring to young people who are thinking not simply of careers but also of doing something significant with their lives, making a meaningful contribution to society. Farmer is a testament to the powerful influence for good just one passionate person can have.

Edwidge Danticat
Another writer worth reading is Edwidge Danticat (pronounced Ed-weedj’ Dan-ti-kah’), author of “Breath, Eyes, Memory “, “The Farming of Bones”, “The Dew Breaker”, “Brother, I’m Dying”.  Born in Port-au-Prince in 1969 to Haitian parents, she was raised by her aunt and uncle when her parents emigrated to the U.S.  She joined them at the age of twelve in Brooklyn and began writing about the Haitian experience.  Her work is praised for its lush lyricism.  Her first book was an Oprah Book Club selection, another was a National Book Award finalist, a third won the American Book Award, and her latest won the National Book Critics Circle Award.  In 2009, she received a MacArthur Foundation genius award. 

“Brother, I’m Dying” is the account of the attempt of her Uncle Joseph, minister of a church near Port-au-Prince, to emigrate to the U.S. after political conditions grew exceedingly grim and his life was threatened.  When he arrived in Miami, with his papers all in order, Homeland Security and Immigration officers shackled him and placed him in Krome Detention Center where two days later, at the age of 81, he died.  

Zora Neale Hurston
Native Floridian Zora Neale Hurston, discovered and popularized by Alice Walker, lived in Haiti, researching folk traditions.  She wrote her most famous novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, in the space of several weeks while living in Haiti.

To keep up with the latest news on the impact of the earthquake, visit news organization websites (,, among others).  To take action, see these sites for organizations participating in the relief effort.  Be cautious of organizations not already known to you that ask for money.

To learn more about Haiti, visit the Library at or call 988-2541.

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