Life gets worse for Haiti’s hungry children
Long before dozens of Haitian children died from severe malnutrition, their rural community was no stranger to hunger.
December 1 2008
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
BAIE D’ORANGE, Haiti — The slow road to death runs high above the scenic coastline, past the crumbled bridges and buried rivers. It traverses a jagged trail passing green slopes and red fertile dirt before arriving here: an isolated mountain village where little Haitian girls dream of eating rice and the doctor is a three-hour walk away.
This is the place where children, suffering from stunted growth, look half their age, where struggling mothers cry that their half-starved babies with the brittle orange hair — evidence of malnutrition — neither crawl nor walk.
‘He doesn’t cry, `Manman.’ Or `Papa,’ ” says Christmene Normilus, holding her visibly malnourished 2-year-old son, Jean-Roselle Tata.
In the last month, international aid workers and doctors have airlifted 46 children on the brink of death from this southeastern village and neighboring communities to hospitals in Port-au-Prince, and elsewhere in the south. The emergency intervention came after it was reported that 26 children from the Baie d’Orange region had died from severe malnutrition in the wake of the four successive storms that devastated Haiti in less than a month this summer.
But long before the deaths and hospitalizations plunged this poverty-stricken nation into the global spotlight amid fears of storm-related famine, the people of this farming community were already battling hunger.
Proud, they reluctantly admit that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to feed their children, many of whom already suffer from chronic malnutrition. Their story is repeated throughout the countryside, where a lack of roads, potable water and public-health facilities, as well as deforestation, already had Haiti’s rural poor living in life-threatening misery before the four back-to-back storms washed out more roads, killed livestock and wiped out crops.
”We can’t give our children what they need,” says Jilesca Fulcal, 37, a mother of seven, who recently sought medical care for her 2-year-old son, Jean-Samuel Jules. ‘There is no food. No work for the people. The children can’t live like that. The children are suffering in their mothers’ arms.”
Fulcal’s own cupboards are bare. By mid-afternoon on a recent Sunday, she and her husband, the pastor of a tiny roadside Protestant church, had yet to feed any of the children. The night before, the day’s only meal consisted of rice with black beans — gifts from a friend, they say.
Recently, Fulcal’s husband, Mecéné Jules, terraced several rows of carrots and sweet peas in the family’s front yard. Showing off the humble plot, he says there is no guarantee of a harvest. Everything can be lost with too much sun or too much rain.
Behind him, more vegetable plots dot the rocky hillside where even the few grazing cows are skinny. Decades of cutting down trees for charcoal have denuded the mountain, stripping away the topsoil, which washes down during heavy rainfalls. Now, instead of fertile soil, there are only patches of red dirt between the rocks.
”Before, people didn’t have a lot of money, but they lived because the soil used to produce a lot of food,” says Jules, 50. “There were potatoes, pigeon peas, all in large quantities. Now, with all of these hurricanes, what’s left of the soil has washed away. Crops don’t grow. There is no cabbage, no vegetables.
A one-time cane cutter in the neighboring Dominican Republic before he moved back here, Jules says the suffering in Baie d’Orange has been decades in the making, and no one is immune. The people are living on faith, he says, remarking that the Sunday offering earlier that morning amounted to eight cents.
”Sometimes you go to buy food on credit from someone, and you are buying without the hope of being able to pay them back,” Jules says. “We just don’t have the means, and as a result, the children are crying at your knees.”
His wife adds: “The children are eating, but only God knows how they are living.”
In recent weeks, the United Nations World Food Program has delivered food to the region, taking care to treat the children who are severely malnourished. But with many parts of the hilly hinterland accessible only by foot and horseback, residents say some people still have no access to the food.
Unlike Port-au-Prince, where Haiti’s crushing poverty is visible in the crowded slums and on the streets, the misery here is through what visitors don’t see: the eight- to 10-hour walk for water because there are no rivers; abled-bodied young men toiling in the fields; the daily struggle to find food — including three hours to walk 12 miles on a rugged road to see the doctor.
“What’s happening in Baie d’Orange is the result of poor political decision-making that has happened over several years,”said Fednel Zidor, the government delegate for the southeast, who has gone on the radio to bring attention to the community’s plight. “No one paid any attention to it.”
Zidor says the hurricanes simply aggravated an already worsening situation. As a result of the storms, he says, the community was completely isolated and people could not get down the mountain because roads were cut off.
The 15,000 or so residents ate the few crops that were not wiped out. But soon, starvation began to set in and the chronic malnutrition became acute in some cases.
”Parents didn’t want other people to know they had their child who was dying of hunger, so people would not criticize them,” he says. “One child dies, a second dies, and they bury them quickly so people wouldn’t find out.”
Zidor has been trying to get seeds, farming experts and a public-health clinic for the area. He says all are needed, along with a change in the way farmers harvest. Because of the cooler temperatures at high altitude, farmers grow once a year, and there isn’t much variety in their crops.
But despite the environmental degradation, Zidor believes that what is happening in Baie d’Orange “is not a question of the mountain itself. It’s a question of having the means to cultivate the soil. That is what we are searching for: to get some technical assistance and seeds into the area so that residents can restart their lives and put it on the path to normalcy.”
Jean-Claude Pierre, 36, who splits his time between here and Port-au-Prince, says he would like to see things change for the better. For the first time, he says, he had to choose which two of his four school-age children would get to attend school this year. After deciding on the two oldest, he then had to decide which one would have to make the daily two-hour walk to the cheaper, government-operated school.
”That hurt,” says Pierre, who like many young men from here supplements his income by hustling on the streets of Port-au-Prince. In his case, he shines shoes.
Like most children from the area, Judith Saintilus, 9, says she and her siblings regularly go to sleep with empty stomachs. When they do eat, it’s mostly beans, she says. Asked if she could have anything, what would it be?
”I want to eat rice,” she says with a child’s smile.
”It’s a very precarious situation,” says Jean-Maurice Buteau, a Haitian mango exporter who is familiar with the region and its challenges. “Every time there is rain, the roads get cut off.”
Buteau says the area needs a quick government intervention coupled with an extensive reforestation program. Without either, he warns, “you will see the whole population moving away because they have nothing to hold on to.”
Haiti’s new health minister, Dr. Alex Larsen, says his ministry will continue to treat the children with meals of high-calorie peanut butter until they are healthy.
But saving the children of Baie d’Orange will take more than a high-calorie diet.
”This problem requires a global response: medicine, nutrition, agriculture,” Larsen told The Miami Herald. “We are working rapidly to find a solution, a solution that will last long-term.”