Author Kent Annan has been working the past several years to help change Haiti through education with the nonprofit organization Haiti Partners. Having split his time between Florida and Haiti for the past few years, he, like millions around the world, was heartbroken at the devastation caused by the earthquake. We talked to him between trips to Haiti about the people there, the media coverage and the next steps necessary for recovery.
Can you give some background on your connection to Haiti?
Within 24 hours of moving to Haiti seven years ago, my wife and I were living with a Haitian family under a tin-roof, no electricity or running water, and no English. We lived in Haiti for two and a half years, and then I’ve been going back and forth from the U.S. for the past four and a half years. It’s been an adventure and a privilege to work, learn and have friendships grow. The focus of my work has been on education for schools and churches through Haiti Partners. I also wrote a book (it just came out) while living in Haiti. It’s about life there—and all the accompanying adventure and ideas of crossing cultures in a really radical way. I think it’s relevant to people interested in Haiti and also to anyone interested in pushing to follow Jesus and more fully love our neighbors (and just be more alive). I’m pretty honest about the doubts and stumbles along the way, as well as the joy. The title is Following Jesus through the Eye of the Needle.
What work has your organization—Haiti Partners—been doing in Haiti over the past several years?
Our focus is on helping Haitians change Haiti through education, especially for four groups: students, teachers, leaders and disciples. There are lots of great things about Haiti that I love, but the challenges for Haiti—even before the earthquake, let alone now—are daunting. Ultimately the changes are going to come from Haitians changing their own country. Haiti Partners sees education as a key tool or resource that will help them shape and improve the future of their country.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the quake? What were your immediate concerns for Haiti?
I was in the U.S. at the time, and it was heartbreaking to watch it unfold. Even when it seemed it would be bad, who could have guessed the extent of the tragedy and devastation? Feeling sad, helpless, too far away. Starting to see images of the solid buildings that collapsed in Port-au-Prince, one started to imagine how many not-well-built buildings collapsed. Unfortunately the worst-case scenario all came true. And there was a lot of devastation out in the countryside, too. Feeling urgent to hear from so many friends and colleagues—which took days because communication was cut off. Two of our elementary schools collapsed and the other is unusable. I felt (and still feel) overwhelming sorrow for the city and the whole country—and of course my heart especially ached for the people I’m closest to. I wanted to go immediately, of course, but worked to help coordinate our response and communication from this side—and then went down six days after the earthquake. I’ve since been back to Haiti again for a week and then will go again in a couple of weeks.
What work have you been doing in Haiti since the quake?
We’re a longterm development organization, but of course immediately focused on relief. Getting supplies to people. Getting resources to our schools and colleagues so they could get basic necessities. After the initial emergency stage, we focused on relaunching our schools under tarps. In places where the buildings are destroyed, children and teachers are now meeting under these tarps. Teachers are getting paid, which helps their families tremendously. We’ve also launched a project (with a Haitian engineer who specializes in earthquake- and hurricane-resistant structures) to build Learning Center Shelters. This project will (1) create jobs that will help local families and the local economy, (2) create shelters for homeless families and (3) provide a place for school to take place into the future. We’re launching a micro-credit loan program among the network of churches we work with. We’re responding to the demands of the new reality—and more committed to education than ever.
Are there any stories and images you wish the TV crews and news outlets would show? If so, what are they?
I can’t offer an overall evaluation or critique; I kept up with the news, but didn’t watch a lot of TV coverage. Some things like the stories of violence or rioting after food or looting, in the early days, seemed overblown and sensationalized. But that’s the nature of the media beast, right? It did seem the media held up people’s courage and ingenuity—and their faith, worshipping next to crumbled churches or praying and singing hymns as they were extracted from the rubble. So alongside the very real suffering, it was good to see these positives that often go unnoticed.
The stories I’d like to keep seeing are: What does it take for normal people to make it through each day now: recovering, rebuilding, trying to find a way into survival … and then hopefully into a better future, despite the daunting challenges? Those are the stories that draw my attention. They’re not sensational, but they are incredible.
For more information on Annan and his book, visit his website, KentAnnan.com.