Panelists discuss Haiti’s culture, reconstruction
By Clare Coffey, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Monday, April 11, 2011
Three panelists discussed their efforts in Haiti, including providing medical care and educating locals, in the aftermath of the catastrophic January 2010 earthquake during a forum Friday afternoon at the Haldeman Center. The panel focused on the challenges of rebuilding Haiti’s infrastructure and providing medical care to those affected by the tragedy, while also preserving the nation’s cultural heritage.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center nephrology and hypertension specialist Brian Remillard and Dartmouth Medical School professor Jim Geiling — both members of the Dartmouth Haiti Response Team — opened the event with an account of the team’s efforts to provide medical relief without access to many basic supplies. The Response Team has sent medical professionals on multiple trips to Haiti over the past year to assist with local relief efforts, The Dartmouth previously reported.
Geiling, who also serves as director of the intensive care unit at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt., explained that he had to beg government and international relief organizations for baby bottles to assist infants suffering from dehydration and malnourishment.
As he recounted his experience teaching in a one-room medical school in a Haitian library, Geiling stressed the importance of transmitting medical knowledge to a new generation of Haitian doctors, and the role that new technology can play in that educational process.
On a recent trip, the medical team used the Internet to teach local Haitian medical students residing in some of the nation’s poorest areas how to use a dialysis machine, Remillard said.
“The biggest thing is knowledge,” he said. “Nothing can impede know-how.”
Henry Jolibois, the technical consultant to the Prime Minister of Haiti’s Office and a Haitian native, discussed the importance of preserving Haiti’s national heritage while providing humanitarian relief.
“We need everything we can get,” he said. “Not just medical, but spiritual. Everything.”
Jolibois said his beliefs on the subject stem largely from a Haitian proverb: “Cut your chains, and you are free. Cut your roots, and you die.”
Haitians have a complex relationship with their national identity, Jolibois said. Although Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804, French language and culture is central to Haiti’s heritage, he said.
“We fought for our freedom and it’s only in the 20th century we discovered that we are a French culture, and it’s all a love-hate relationship,” Jolibois said. “We are Haitian and we are American, but there is a strong influx of French flowing in our blood.”
Jolibois displayed pictures of Haiti’s historic buildings and national monuments. Such architectural structures encapsulate Haiti’s history by drawing on modern innovations and colonial history, he said.
Jolibois displayed pictures of a pristine villa adorned with pillars and arches reduced to a crumbled pile of rubble in order to contrast the images of Haiti’s architectural accomplishments with scenes of the havoc wrought by the earthquake.
Relief organizations must focus on a three-part strategy of conservation and protection, identification and inventory and restoration and preventive use if they want to help Haiti truly recover from the devastation, Jolibois said.
Jolibois also discussed a possible new design for the capital city of Port-Au-Prince, which includes a power center featuring a cistern, solar panels and a community generator for each city block. Although the current design may not adequately reflect Port-au-Prince’s cultural heritage, Jolibois said he believes government officials will consider cultural questions during future discussions.
During the questions and answer session, a Haitian native asked the two doctors if any plan exists to address the trauma experienced by those who lived through the earthquake.
“I have not heard much about the mental health system for the remaining population of people who have partial amputations, for people who have lived through the tragedy, for children who will have to live with this nightmare for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Geiling responded that he does not know of any plans and agreed that it is an issue that should be addressed in the future. Survivors need access to psychological care and relying on the resiliency and faith of a suffering population may amount to a mere dismissal of their true needs, he said. The panel discussion, “Return to Haiti: Cultural Recovery,” was co-sponsored by DHMC, the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, the Hood Museum of Art, Baker-Berry Library, the Leslie Center for the Humanities, the Center for Health Care Delivery Science and the Office of the President.
French professor Keith Walker, Spanish professor Rebecca Biron and Presidential Fellow Molly Bode ’09 organized the event, which was held in the Haldeman Center, through the Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies department.