As a journalist living and working in a foreign country (I’m an Indian citizen, but live in the United States), I like to think of myself as being culturally sensitive and aware regardless of where I’m reporting from. But I hadn’t realized that the pressures of being a journalist can dampen some of that sensitivity. At least that’s what happened on my recent trip to Sri Lanka, where I faced a situation very different from what I expected.
I visited the country for the first time this summer to report on a mysterious kind of kidney disease that is affecting thousands of rice farmers and their families.
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The tiny island of Haiti is one of the most densely populated and poorest countries in the world. Its latest report says that at least half the population lives in the countryside, with no access to safe drinking water and health care. There are just three doctors for every 10,000 Haitians.
But there’s one thing they have plenty of. Sunshine is free and finally someone is tapping into it.
Getting to Boucan Carre is no easy feat. It’s only 45 miles, or 70 kilometers, from the capital of Port-au-Prince, but it takes an arduous three hour drive to get there.
Located in the Central Plateau, Boucan Carre and its mountainous remote communities have been cut-off from the rest of the country for years. Most of its 58,000 inhabitants have never been to Port-au-Prince. There are virtually no roads, and in the rainy season, the smallest path is flooded. Until two years ago, it had a tiny health center that functioned mostly in the dark, even in daylight hours.
Cate Oswald is the program director for the U.S.-based non-profit Partners in Health. She arrived in here five years ago.
“What we found was a small two room clinic, no doctors,” she said. “Not only did we go without electricity because we couldn’t get gas out, but we also had women in labor trying to cross the river and not able to. We ended up losing a number of patients because of that.”
But tucked away in the mountains is its hope for the future: the St. Michel Hospital. Built and run with Partners in Health funding, it’s powered by an abundant resource: the sun.
Driving the jeep on the rocky road to the town, Jean Baptiste Certain of the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) told us: “To bring solar panels and fragile electronic equipment and very large batteries on a dirt road for hours is not the easiest thing to do.”
But all 66 solar panels did make it, thanks to the efforts of SELF. Today Boucan Carre has a fully-equipped hospital with power 24 hours, seven days a week.
Certain told us, “That’s a radical change for the population. They finally have access to modern medicine.”
Now young and old patients benefit from a laboratory complete with electron microscope, radiology equipment and a state of the art surgery room.
In the hospital’s crowded waiting area, an ultra-violet light is on to kill the bacteria of coughing tuberculosis patients. The fan circulates the air preventing the infection of other patients and staff.
Dr. Moise Compere told us, “Its a tremendous difference, whether it’s the laboratory where the machines can’t run without the solar panels, radiology, and especially our surgery room.”
Inside the women’s ward, Dr. Compere talks to Narcisse Dieudonne, who brought her daughter to St. Michel Hospital.
Narcisse told us, “Thank the Lord we came here. My little one got to see a doctor right away.”
A bank of solar batteries are the lifeline. They require skilled maintenance and recharging.
Andre Poteau Geles is one of the technicians trained by SELF. He’s been here for 10 years, and as the logistics manager has seen a vast change.
“When we started here with our little health clinic, we didn’t have power. It wasn’t until 2003 that we finally got a generator. Very often we couldn’t get the fuel up here and we had to work in the dark.”
Ironically, it’s thanks to the dirt road built to transport the solar panels to Boucan Carre, that the Haitian government finally started installing the first electric poles ever here… just two months ago. But with Haiti’s weak and unreliable grid, they might at best come in handy to recharge the solar batteries, says Certain.
“It’s highly unreliable, at best a couple of hours per day.”
Meanwhile, St. Michel is already well on the path to improving and guaranteeing the long-term well-being of these remote communities.
As we left, ominous skies foretold the start of the rainy season. The river of hell, as it’s called, will overflow. Only now Boucan Carre won’t be left in the dark.
For more stories on Haiti see: http://www.ghfn.org/3-stories_videos-individual/haiti-rape-and-the-refugees