A little more than a week after a 45-second earthquake ravaged Haiti in January 2010, I drove into Leogane, the epicenter of the catastrophe, where tens of thousands of people had been killed. At the emergency clinic of Doctors Without Borders, hundreds of the injured were waiting in the hot sun for care. There, sitting on his mother’s lap, was a boy named McKenly, then almost 3.
During the quake, a wall of his house had fallen on him and his sister, killing her and lopping off his left hand and his right arm to the elbow. Now he had run out of pain medication. But McKenly was not crying or groaning — just waiting quietly, his bandages bloody. When I returned a few hours later, I found him in basically the same place but across the driveway out of the sun. No one from the clinic had paid him the slightest bit of attention.
I have been working in and writing about Haiti for more than 20 years, yet still sometimes the story overwhelms me. Usually I can maintain a degree of journalistic distance, but in this case it was impossible. I scooped up McKenly and his mother and took them to a hospital outside Port-au-Prince, where he was X-rayed by American relief doctors and held overnight for a refinement operation on his arms. He got pain medication, and I gave his mother some money. When I tried a few days later to find them again, they had disappeared back to Leogane.
As I began writing a book about Haiti, I discovered that this child had invaded my imagination with his silence and his stumps. I began writing a section about him.
And I wondered: What had I done for McKenly? I was writing a book that in part castigated relief and reconstruction organizations for using Haitian earthquake victims, for adding them up and fundraising off them, yet failing to help or to move reconstruction forward in any meaningful way — but was I not doing the same with McKenly? I felt the weight of my responsibility and my exploitation.
I tried to find him on interim visits and failed. Soon, I was attempting to find him long-distance, from Los Angeles, but McKenly was low on the list of priorities for my friends and contacts in Haiti. Some told me they wanted money; I would pay them, I said. Others wanted money up front, a lot of it for this one case. I would promise it, but usually I never heard back.
These conversations and the lack of action that resulted exemplified the post-earthquake “gimme cash” recovery plan, in which the person or group helping with recovery receives donations but the people who need help get nothing. Instead, the monies often go to housing expenses for aid workers, vehicles for aid groups, to U.S. and other outside contractors, etc.
The earthquake had also created a kind of trade in victims among aid groups and workers — how many rapes in your camp? — and McKenly didn’t seem like a profitable enough venture. Other outsiders were offering bigger sums for jobs with less personal responsibility. I was not the United Nations or the Red Cross, nor the Clinton-Bush Foundation or the World Bank. And even such organizations, which by 2012 had given out some $7.5 billion in Haiti since the earthquake, had not managed to get the job done. Three years after the earthquake, more than 350,000 Haitians were still living in wretched tent camps.
So last month, I went to Haiti again to find McKenly. Once I was focused on only that, it turned out that the task wasn’t so hard. At the small wrought-iron gazebo in the center of Leogane, I asked the first person I met, an old woman, about the boy, and within seconds, she directed me to his family, far outside of town.
I was ecstatic at first. But I also had misgivings. Would Haiti’s harsh circumstances have exacted a terrible price on this child? What if McKenly had been abandoned and was starving or homeless? What if he were mentally deranged? I wondered, too, whether in trying to track him down I was suffering from imperial-white-lady syndrome, somehow imagining myself capable of “fixing” things in Haiti.
But a Haitian friend and I set out anyway, eventually leaving the car where the roads ended. We crossed three narrow streams and walked past stray goats and a few starving cattle in grassy meadows. Along the way, we chatted with a sinewy, stick-thin cane cutter in red shorts walking home from the fields with his machete. We passed through a scattered compound of cement, wattle, and mud and daub dwellings belonging to relatives of McKenly’s. And then we came to McKenly’s father’s wooden one-room house, in a grove of emerald banana trees.
And there was McKenly standing out front: He was wearing a blue T-shirt that said “Bounce the Ball” and showed a picture of a basketball going through a hoop. He looked a little malnourished but was surrounded by siblings, cousins and friends. His father, a subsistence farmer, was there. His mother had died soon after the earthquake.
I explained who I was, and as we chatted his father recalled hearing about a white lady and a visit to a Port-au-Prince hospital. For them, though, I was like an interplanetary visitor, my presence on the hillside so unexpected and bizarre. When I asked McKenly’s father if he would mind my trying to do something for the boy, he said, “It’s up to you.”
So now I’ve become my own little international recovery fund. So far I have had to raise no funds for this endeavor. I spent my own money to find McKenly, but soon the cost will probably grow.
Recently I found an American group that does prostheses in Haiti. The group works from a hospital in a town not far from McKenly’s father’s house. I found a Haitian who is no gimme-cash man to pick up McKenly and his aunt and drive them to the clinic and back last week. Now, together, we’re going to get arms and hands for McKenly.
For me, it’s a matter of really “giving back” to McKenly — and to Haiti. Not some notional idea of a first-world burden but a personal commitment — because, over time, I have taken something so valuable from them.
Amy Wilentz is most recently the author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo. Her other books include The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier. Her Web site is www.amywilentz.com.