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Midwives For Haiti - Delivering A New Generation

B. D. Colen | Haiti

Operating out of a small compound in the Hinche, on Haiti's Central Plateau, Midwives For Haiti trains Haitian midwives, traditional Haitian birth attendants - many of whom are male, provides staff for the hospital in Hinche, and hold day-long clinics on a regular basis at various rural locations outside of Hinche.

Though the views of the surrounding mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, the Central Plateau of Haiti is a mean place. In this poorest region of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, maternal and infant mortality, and the death rate for children under five, are all the highest in the Hemisphere. Which is why an NGO called MidwivesForHaiti has settled in for the long haul, providing care to women and children, and training Haitian midwives and birth attendants.

BUY A PRINT - SAVE A LIFE:

80% of the profit from the sale of prints in this gallery will go to Midwives For Haiti.

 

 

This work would not have been possible without the encouragement and support of both MidwivesForHaiti and Project Medishare,

Tell someone in the U.S. that you’ve recently been to Haiti, and if they have never been there, odds are they will ask the question:

‘What is it with those people? I’ve been to the Dominican Republic and it’s lovely. Haiti is part of the same island, so why is it such a disaster?’


The implication is that Haiti’s problems, which are legion and crushing, are the fault of ‘those people,’ and to be kind – and not immediately assume that the person asking the question is racist – the question suggests a complete lack of knowledge of Haiti’s history and the burden of that history, as well as an understanding of the geography of the western end of the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, shared with the far more prosperous Dominican Republic.


First, there is the geographic/ecological problem: Haiti’s mountain ranges, with some peaks as high as the average peak in the Rocky Mountains of the western U.S. and Canada, block the winds and thus the rains, that make the Dominican Republic fertile, making large areas of Haiti barely semi-arid, and making raising crops extremely difficult. Couple that with deforestation that dates back to the nation’s days as the world’s leading sugar producer – and France’s richest colony, and you begin to get an idea some of the natural difficulties Haitian’s face.


And then there are certain historic facts:


When Haiti’s slave population rose up and threw out its French masters, the “civilized world” recoiled in horror at the reality and specter of the world’s only successful slave revolt. As a consequence, neither Britain, France, the young United States – not even the Vatican – would recognize the independent republic declared in 1804, cutting Haiti off from world trade. On top of that, the former slaves refused to return as barely-paid workers on the same sugar plantations on which they had been laboring. Instead, they fled into the rural countryside ,where they established subsistence farms and family-based communities, iliving as disconnected from the central government and political system as they possibly could. That meant that Haiti no longer had the sugar and coffee crops it had had – and was without revenue producing exports. It also meant that two radically different societies developed – a rural, agrarian society, making up the great bulk of the population, and an urban upper and middle class, controlling almost every aspect of life on the island. Additionally, fearing attempts by whites to re-enslave them, Haiti’s rulers invested the great bulk of what revenues they could raise in creating a military establishment grossly out of sync with the nation’s true needs - a decision that would be a political force in Haiti to this day.


But tthe fears of the return of the white man were not completely unfounded: In 1825, French warships sailed into Port-au-Prince and the French demanded reparations for the value of the plantations and slaves they had lost after the Haitian revolution;. they demanded 60 billion in today’s dollars from people who had won their freedom militarily. Unable to resist the threat posed by the French canons, the Haitians capitulated, were forced to borrow money for payments from French banks, and found themselves working until 1947 to pay off staggering foreign debt.

And then there is the complicated relationship with the U.S. – in from 1914 to 1934 Haiti was occupied by U.S. Marines - who virtually enslaved countless rural Haitian males - and run by Americans for the benefit of American banks and corporations. So couple all those facts with more than 200 years of despotic rule, and it is inevitable that "those people" and their little nation are struggling to survive. Add in the devastation of hurricanes, the 2010 earthquake that is estimated to have killed more than 300,000 people, injured another 300, 000, and left 1.3 million homeless – to say nothing of creating tens of thousands of orphans, and it’s a wonder that Haiti and the Haitians are doing as well as they are.

Nor is it any surprise that:


Haitian life expectancy is about 62 years; only an estimated 52 percent of Haitians are literate – a literacy rate lower than that in only a tiny handful of nations in the world; unemployment is staggering; less than half the population has access to safe water supplies; only about half of Haitians have access to, or can addord, health care; and the growth of an estimated one-in-five children under five is stunted. Were it not for the presence in Haiti of an estimated 10,000 Non-Governmental Organizations – NGOs -  providing health care, care for orphans, working to make clean water a reality, building facilities, and on and on, and were it not for the incredible resilience and determination of the Haitian people, the reality of Haiti would be far grimmer than it is.


One of those NGOs working to improve life in Haiti is Richmond, Virginia-based Midwives For Haiti. The organization is the brainchild of Nadene Brunk, a Certified Nurse Midwive who visited Haiti in 2003 as a volunteer member of a medical team. Brunk witnessed first hand the desperate need on the Central Plateau –the poorest region in Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere - for maternal and child health care, and responded to the need by creating Midwives For Haiti.

At the request of members of the Hinche community, Brunk established the training programs that are now the hallmark of Midwives For Haiti's efforts on the Central Plateau. With the help of volunteer nurse midwives from the U.S., the program is dedicated to creating a solid Haitian infrastructure that will be providing care to pregnant women and their infant children long after the last American leaves the Central Plateau.


Said Brunk: ""We were sure that many people looked at us in those early years and thought we were well-meaning idealists on a fool's errand. But, we also knew that empowering women to care for their own communities was the way to effect lasting change in Haiti."


In addition to training Haitian midwives and traditional birth attendants, Midwives For Haiti provides a schedule of traveling clinic visits, returning to specific sites on a regulalr basis, Traveling in the organization's garish pink, chopped and lengthened 1988 Jeep Wrangler - that is now in desperate need of replacement, the staff turns small rural houses into clinics serving women, some of whom walk for hours, often carrying infants and young children, across the eastern end of Haiti's Central Plateau.


In addition to providing rural clinics, Midwives For Haiti, working closely with the Haitian Ministry of Health and the medical NGO Partners In Health, provides maternity staff for St.Therese's Hospital, in Hinche. In a maternity ward that had been staffed by a single OB and one midwife. Midwives For Haiti trained Skilled Birth Attendants, and nurse midwives in training, now support more than 2,000 births a year at the hospital.

Addendum

On January 27, 2015, I received this message from Stephen Eades, an obstetrician who works with Midwives For Haiti, and was in Hinche when I was there documenting the organization's work:

"I am just back from a mobile clinic where we saw 103 women and brought one severe pre-eclamptic woman back to the hospital. This community is in that beautiful, mean place. They really need their own birth center but for now our once a month clinic will have to do."

 

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B. D. Colen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter, editor, and columnist who spent 26 years at The Washington Post and Newsday, covering medicine, health care, and health policy for 17 of those years. A photographer for more than 50 years, Colen began his professional photography career in 1963, covering the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom for a weekly newspaper in Connecticut.


For the past 13 years Colen has taught documentary photography and journalism writing courses at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and has taught photography at the Maine Media Workshops and the Harvard University Extension School.


Colen's work has appeared in publications from Newsday, to the New England Journal of Medicine, from the Boston Globe, to the Christian Science Monitor, and he has photographed for numerous corporate and institutional clients.


B. D. Colen is available for international and national documentary work for NGOs, editorial clients, and private individuals.

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