Haiti and the white saviour industrial complex

Haitian doctors and nurses

Haitian doctors and nurses. © Sokari Ekine

Make a cursory online search of mobile clinics in Haiti and you will come up with thousands of results. I searched the first three pages and found clinics operated mainly by US faith-based charities and a couple of international medical NGOs such as International Medical Corps, the International Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières. But apart from one clinic initiated by Sophia Martelly, there was no mention of any Haitian-led mobile clinics. And it’s not just in health-related projects that this is true. Haiti is at the centre of the ‘white saviour industrial complex’, especially faith-based charities from the US. I have always wondered about white faith groups that have no relationship with Black people in their own country, yet travel thousands of miles to ‘save Haitians from all manner of miseries’!

By reporting on health, education and housing over the past few months, I have tried to present a different Haitian narrative – one which puts Haitians at the centre as initiators, organizers and participants. I have actively participated with the people and organizations I have written about. This is how I met Dr Theodore Rony Brown. I was sick, so my host in Haiti, Rea Dol, introduced me to him. We had a conversation about a mobile clinic in Camp Canaan, which was organized by Rea. I discovered that Dr Brown had himself organized two clinics at a home for the elderly, with local volunteers.

Dr Brown graduated from Université Quisqueya Medical School in 2010. Initially, he was a reluctant medical student – he had started his studies under parental pressure. Nonetheless, he was one of the highest performers in his class. He explained that this was the primary reason behind his decision to create a movement of Haitian doctors and nurses under Soli Medic Haiti – an all-volunteer medical project which runs outreach and community health clinics across Haiti.

‘I was very fortunate to pass my exams with no problem,’ says Dr Brown. ‘But this was not the same for many of my friends, who had to retake them, worrying about how to pay their school fees. Because of this, I felt blessed and decided that I would give back to my community by volunteering my services in addition to my official paid work.

‘I started a mobile clinic with a friend, at my mother’s church, because there are many people who cannot pay to see a doctor or buy medicines. We run the clinic every two months and it is always full, with hundreds of people. The way we fund this is by giving 10 per cent of our salary and asking our families and friends for support. We run the clinic every two months.

‘Before that, after the [2010] earthquake, I was part of a group of 26 Haitian doctors and nurses who went to Corail, near Okay for a three-day mobile clinic. We had received a letter from a local priest saying that they needed help after the earthquake, so we spoke to a local deputy who agreed to help. We hired a car ourselves, and then set up three mobile clinics in the town.

‘Another mobile clinic I have been involved with is in Limbe, near OKap at the Hospital Saint Jean. Here we were dealing with terrible motorcycle accidents, because this is the main form of travel but the bikes are in bad condition.’

Last week I visited the old people’s home at Azil Communal to deliver some personal care and medical supplies that a friend had brought over from the US. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but was impressed with the cleanliness and general organization of the home. There are 86 residents – 45 women ranging from mid-sixties to the oldest, who is over 100. Although the residents and patients are well cared for, the funding for the home provided by the local government is grossly lacking and it is only due to the dedication of the unpaid staff and volunteers like Rea Dol, Marie Anise Flaurantin and Dr Brown that the residents get the care they need.

Dr Brown agrees: ‘They do very good work at Azil Communal, but they are short of capacity and resources. For example, the patients are elderly, and many are diabetic, or have high blood pressure or TB or, in some cases, all three. Yet all the patients eat the same food. There is no funding for special diets according to the illness. This is a very bad situation but there is little that can be done without more government funding.

‘This is a general problem in Haiti. The government doesn’t pay doctors and nurses on time.  Sometimes in the public hospitals and homes like Azil, there is insufficient equipment or no gas for surgery. But it’s not just the government that is to blame. Foreign NGOs come to Haiti with expired medicine and expect us to be happy about it. This is wrong. We need medicines, but not medicines discarded by Americans.’

Dr Theodore Rony Brown is the Chief Practitioner for nights at a private hospital in Pernier. He is also a consultant physician at Kay La Sante in Delmas.

Sokari Ekine is an IRP New Media Fellow