At the Miami International Airport, an Airbus A-330 is really full, carrying 252 Haitians and one Notre Dame MBA student - me.
Everyone speaks Haitian Creole, a mix of French and West African. The woman next to me is wearing four dresses and three hats. The hats are decorated with fluorescent plastic flowers, wrapped carefully in a plastic bag and stacked on her head, giving her the appearance of a Dr. Seuss character.
A quick glance around the cabin reveals that Madame Trois-Chapeaux is not alone, as most passengers have found similar ways to get around the baggage limits.
I am such an obvious outsider here. I respond to calls of 'Blan!' ("blanc" in French; "blan" in Haitian Creole). Although blan means "white," the term doesn't refer to my skin color, I'm told, just to the fact that I'm a foreigner. Children erupt with laughter when I respond to their calls with "bonjour."
I am traveling on behalf of Fr. Thomas Streit, C.S.C., of Notre Dame's Department of Biology. Fr. Streit has been working in Haiti for more than seven years, developing treatments for lymphatic filariasis, a mosquito-borne disease that severely damages lymphatic tissue. The disease is also referred to as elephantiasis because infected tissue becomes so distorted that it resembles elephant skin.
This is one of the most common forms of disability in Haiti. My role is to work with a group of industrious students from Notre Dame. They are helping Fr. Streit and Holy Cross Hospital start a small business in the town of Leogane. The business will manufacture and distribute mosquito nets in the community.
It would be difficult to appreciate the challenges facing Fr. Streit without understanding Haiti's past. The country is the most densely populated in the Western Hemisphere and its people are among the poorest.
Most live in a dense collection of partially completed concrete block structures and small buildings made with whatever is available - usually tin, cardboard and plastic. Women sit by the side of roads tending small charcoal cooking fires selling cups of cooked rice and beans.
One of the most significant challenges to Fr. Streit's work is the legacy of Haiti's long and troubled history. Dominating this history are elite groups who used violence and oppression to gain power and keep it. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, FranÁois Duvalier (Papa Doc), used his personal armed force, the Tontons Macoutes, to crush his opposition and rule the country as its "president-for life."
Upon his death in 1971, his son, Jean Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) took over. Growing opposition, however, finally forced Baby Doc to flee to France in 1986. Unfortunately, he took a large portion of the national treasury with him.
Hundreds of years of corruption and oppression make it difficult for today's democratically elected leaders to succeed. Consider the election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a man with a reputation for being a strong advocate for the poor. When he was elected, the military revolted and Aristide was forced to flee to the United States the very same year.
Eventually, he was able to return to office, but only with the help of a U.S. military force of 20,000.
Haiti later elected a new president, RenÈ PrÈval. As PrÈval took office, international lending agencies imposed "austerity measures" on the newly formed government. These measures prompted the resignation of PrÈval's prime minister, who believed that enforcing the austerity measures would be immoral for any government, as they would require cancelling social programs needed to relieve the suffering of Haiti's poorest people.
In this environment, it is easy to be discouraged and discount the value of starting one small business to manufacture and distribute mosquito nets. This project, however, is an important part of Fr. Streit's work in Haiti.
Operating a business in a country with a marginal economy and a fragile political system, however, requires vigilance, skill and self-awareness. Fr. Streit's work is an example of the extreme dedication and diligence required for success in this environment.
I am grateful for the opportunity to work with him.