English prof chronicling HIV in post-earthquake Haiti
University of South Carolina distinguished-poet-in-residence Dr. Kwame Dawes, who won an Emmy Award in 2009 for a project on HIV in Jamaica, is chronicling HIV in post-earthquake Haiti for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, based in Washington D.C.
Working with New York-based photojournalist Andre Lambertson and Lisa Armstrong, an adjunct professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and award-winning freelance journalist, Dawes has traveled to Haiti four times since the Caribbean nation was devastated by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12.
“I’ve been humbled by the strength of the people I’ve met and by their welcoming nature,” said Dawes. “They have such a capacity to look for the good despite what is abjectly tragic around them. Their success in finding it is amazing.”
Dawes has shared their stories through articles, blogs, video interviews, short documentaries and video poems as part of the Pulitzer Center’s Web-based project, “After the Quake: HIV/AIDs in Haiti,” posted on the Web site: www.pulitizercenter.org.
Dawes’ first trip to Haiti in April was to get a broad understanding of the devastation and what was happening with HIV in the country.
“The earthquake destroyed the infrastructure, the medical facilities,” Dawes said. “Haitians living with HIV/AIDs found support with each other. Grassroot organizations and NGOs helped get people back on their regime of medications quickly, but the strain on the existing structures to maintain the care is great.”
He met with government officials and interviewed leaders of grassroots organizations and workers with humanitarian organizations to understand current conditions. He visited communities and saw leveled buildings, loss of infrastructure and grim living conditions.
“I wanted to find people living with HIV AIDS to understand the challenges and how the disease was progressing in front of a backdrop of a devastating earthquake,” said Dawes, a Ghana native who was raised in Jamaica.
With the help of aid workers, Dawes identified and interviewed 30 people, six of whom he has followed intently during subsequent visits in July, October and earlier this month.
One of the most compelling stories is about Joel Sainton, a 38-year-old pastor who ministers to more than 400 people with HIV/AIDS in Carrefour, a crowded bedroom community outside of Port au Prince. Sainton works day and night to find them medical help and run support groups.
And, he prays for them.
“Pastor Sainton has very little and often goes hungry, but he is committed to his work,” said Dawes. “I’m struck by his care for the people, his dedication, his sense of humor and his faith, a pure faith that says ‘I am here to do this.’”
Like the people he ministers to, Sainton has HIV.
“His is a powerful testimony,” said Dawes, whose video poem, “Job,” on the Pulitzer site captures Sainton’s strength and faith. “He lives with the disease himself. He doesn’t have a church, but these people are his congregation.”
Because of the stigma of HIV in Haiti, Sainton’s work is hidden from public view, said Dawes.
“People with HIV live in secret,” he said. “Many of their own family members don’t know they have it. There is a certain intimacy, care and freedom that people with HIV experience by helping one another. For many, it is the only time they can be themselves so freely.”
Dawes said this month Sainton will be evicted from his tiny apartment, which sustained earthquake damage. When asked about it, Dawes said he replied, “God will have to provide.”
Faith and fear run deep in Haiti’s HIV communities, said Dawes.
“One young woman said to me, ‘My mother is the dearest thing to me. She loves me so, but our relationship would change if she knew that I have HIV. I need her to love me fully,’” said Dawes. “She said she had tested the waters with her mother and sister, who told her that if they knew someone with HIV/AIDS, they would want to see them killed or ostracized.”
The deplorable living conditions since the earthquake, which forced thousands of Haitians into tight quarters with very little privacy, have increased the general fear of being found out. Unprotected sex and rape also have increased, and the birth rate has skyrocketed, quadrupling in some areas.
“There is deep anxiety that the next tally of statistics will show an increase in HIV occurrence,” said Dawes.
The tight-quartered camps have also been especially vulnerable during the cholera outbreak, which came after yet another tragedy, Hurricane Tomas, which swept through the Caribbean in late October. Many of the deaths from cholera, Dawes said, were among the HIV population, whose immune systems were already weakened.
While conditions are bleak, the spirit of the people, particularly those with HIV, is strong, said Dawes.
“I have witnessed incredible faith,” he said. “I’ve seen incredible focus and care by many of these people who are living with the disease.”
Lambertson and Armstrong will return to Haiti in January. Dawes has edited an anthology of poems, titled “Haitian Poets After the Earthquake,” which will be released in February by Peepal Tree Press.
“It features some of the most amazing writing,” said Dawes, who has published 15 books of poetry, won the Pushcart Prize in poetry and directs the South Carolina Poetry Initiative.
Building on his Pulitzer Center projects -- “Hope: Living & Loving with HIV in Jamaica” and “After the Quake: HIV/AIDs in Haiti” -- Dawes said he hopes to create a similar project, titled “Touched,” to document HIV in South Carolina.