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RED the Book: Return to Haiti -- and Haiti to Haitians

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This post was written by Meike Schleiff, 22. Schleiff is an author of RED the Book, a collection of essays written by 58 American teenage girls,available in paperback.

I'm back in Haiti--because I love it here and because I'd visited two days before the January 12 earthquake. I have been working closely with my former students and their communities since to help rebuild their country.

Two years ago I'd volunteered as an English teacher in Cap Haitien in the north. From all I'd heard, Haiti would be hot, dirty, poor, with a lack of security and political unrest always lurking. I'd expected to teach for a few months and then come home and go on with my American college life.

Instead, I had 55 highly enthusiastic and intelligent English students, several of whom I prepared for the TOEFL test. I found Haiti to be a beautiful country, with robust, positive people living in small communities centered around large, multigenerational families and strong religious and cultural institutions. The food is fresh and healthy.

Some of my students helped me explore the countryside, where I was greeted with the greatest respect and admiration for being a teacher, coming to live with them, and for being open to their culture. My students and the people we met shared their music, art, dance, and religious traditions, Vodou and Christianity. They impressed me every day with their strong will, independence and pride in their homeland. We talked at length about what they aspired to do in life and what Haiti as a nation needed.

Now--for better or for worse--the rest of the world seems to have a lot of ideas about what Haiti as a nation needs.

The New York Times recently published an article outlining official plans and arguments in favor of decentralizing Haiti, moving populations out of Port au Prince and into smaller urban "growth poles" away from fault lines. It was an exposition of the Haitian government's action plan to prevent future disasters and improve the quality of life for many of its citizens.

While I was very pleasantly surprised to see a plan laid out like that, and the emphasis on local economic growth and restructuring, I have plenty of concerns. For one, some of the large projects--like a national electrical grid--seem to be counter to a vision of small communities and decentralization.

Two, the plan also calls for the building of a second hydroelectric dam. Here's the backstory on the first one. It was built in the 1950s, in Duvalier-led Haiti, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other American construction corporations. That dam caused the displacement of thousands of peasant farmers who received no compensation and who to this day cannot afford the electricity provided by it. So we might ask: Did this help? Should we really build another one?

In the days immediately following the earthquake, we of course worked first on emergency relief--helping move people and supplies in rented school buses and supporting blood drives and medical care for victims. In the weeks that followed, we developed a rebuilding plan for Cap Haitien and surrounding areas, as well as for newly arrived people seeking refuge from disaster zones.

Our plan included community centers, vocational schools, training and opportunities for locals to share their wisdom and learn together, and ongoing health and trauma care.

Through many conversations with Haitians, experts in relevant fields, and family and friends in both countries, I realized that for the nation to recover, it was of the utmost importance to preserve the pride, communities, and culture of Haiti. Maintaining local centers of energy production, commerce, and authority is also crucial, and we need to invest in programs on the ground. Promoting and supporting the local people is the most effective method of planning for Haiti's future.

So, yes, I agree that the right direction for Haiti is to decentralize as suggested. But I propose taking it one step further. Create these new city centers, but do it in a way that the community is involved and its residents the first to contribute to and reap the benefits of building energy sources, subsidies, and educational opportunities.

Pride is local, especially in Haiti. We owe it to the people of Haiti to listen closely as we help them rebuild. After all, they are the ones who live every day with the results. History has devastated their country, but it has also created strong, independent, and incredibly resilient people. Who are we to tell them what to do--especially if we are just telling them to be more like us?