Haiti (still) Mon Amour


This was my fourth trip to Haiti. It seems like I have to wait for disasters and mayhems to happen to rush back to the embrace of my beloved Haiti. 

This time it was the Hurricane Matthew that wreaked havoc to Haiti in general and to my school in Leogane in particular. My Haitian daughter, Thamara, wrote:

“Dad, things are bad all around, but we are fine, please do not worry”.

I could not sit idle and had to go assess the damage and plan reconstruction.

My Haitian American friend Jensen joined me. After a red eye flight to Miami, I took the noon flight to Port Au Prince (PAP). Lack of sleep was taking its toll on me, but I was cheered up by the Thammie’s embrace at the gate. Jensen and I checked in the Best Western where another young man, Clarence, joined us.

Thammie came along with Dmitri, whom I met 5 years ago during our medical camp. I listened to Thammie’s chatter about her family, her job and her recent encounter with rogues that robbed her family savings and her laptop. I told Dmitri to find a place in a safer neighborhood for Thammie’s family to move. Thammie insisted on my taking a nap. They all went to Jensen’s room while I showered and rested for about an hour.

We all then went to a nice restaurant. Jensen and I had a Caipirinha. Jensen made me order a Haitian dish with Conch meat, which I didn’t fancy much. The restaurant band played beautiful Caribbean music including my request of Guantanamera


We were all happy to be together once again in Haiti. I recalled my last blog entry on Haiti…

Haiti envelops me, embraces me, engulfs me in her unconditional love. And so little I can give back in return.

Dmitri drove Thammie back to her home and we returned to our cozy hotel.

Next day, after breakfast Jensen and I with our driver James went to Leogane. After about an hour we started climbing up through the forest towards the mountains. The wreckage from the hurricane was all around us. We came to a shallow river which James drove through slowly. 


We were all worried about hitting a boulder under water and getting stuck. I got out and put on my wading boots, we carefully walked through the river to the bank where we found horses waiting for us. I climbed up on one of the horses and started trotting towards the mountain. It was an arduous journey for about two miles until we reached the top.


My feelings were bitter sweet finding the school still standing but half the roof and solar panels had been blown away. The children surrounded me and the 86 year old grandmother was happy with my assurance about repairing the roof of the school. The doors and windows facing the blast of the hurricane were also broken. The community leader and teacher Jonas showed us around and we discussed our plans on repairs to be done.


I was extremely tired, but rejuvenated with coconut water. We came down the mountain again on horseback to our car by the river. The village children waved farewell to us. Jensen said that Thammie called and rebuked him for taking me all the way and I said that if I had known it was going to be so hard I may not have come but I am glad that I did make the journey.  We drove back to PAP where Thammie and Dmitri were to join us for dinner, but it started raining and I told Thammie not to come in the rain.

Next day after breakfast I took a stroll in the city on foot. Our car had sustained damage to the brakes, so James took it for repair. I rested in the afternoon watching US election fever on CNN. In the evening Thammie came to visit after work. We had a long chat about her work, finances and her future. She was visibly enchanted by my visit.

We went for dinner at a nearby hotel. Jensen’s Facebook friend Abbey joined us. Jensen made a touching farewell speech thanking me for coming back again and again to stand by and help them. I thanked them for their accommodation and acceptance and giving me the opportunity to serve Haiti. 


My flight was early the next morning, I said goodbye to Thammie. Her eyes welled up as she hugged and said, 

“Thanks, Dad.”

I know I left my heart in Haiti and I will always have a place in the Haitian heart to come back to.

Now I have to raise awareness and gather funds to repair and expand the school in Leogane.

I shall not give up on those beautiful as well as resilient children of Haiti.

Haiti 101, a brief history of Haiti

As one of the poorest countries of the world Haiti bears the historic scars of economic and political exploitation by the western powers from its inception as the first black sovereign state. 

In 1492, with the expedition of Columbus, the island of Hispaniola was colonized by Spain. In quarter of a century the natives were almost completely eliminated and repopulated by slaves from Africa. In 1697 Spain ceded one part of the island to France that became Haiti and kept the part that became the Dominican Republic. Sugar industries and forestry soared but none went for the local population of the slaves. In 1791 the slaves rebelled against the French and in 1804 declared independence driving away the French. The rebellion became the only slave uprising in history with the foundation of a new country of Haiti.  

Unfortunately and sadly for reasons inexplicable to many, in 1825 the new Haitian government agreed to pay France 150 million francs to compensate them for their losses from the uprising and even though defeated, France would recognize the independent nation. As bizarre and unfair it may sound, Haiti continued to pay around 80% of its national revenue until the entire amount was paid off in 1947. By then Haiti became an economically fragile nation.

The US as well as other European countries were eyeing Haiti for a potential naval base in the Caribbean since mis-1800. In 1915, the US invaded claiming to be there as a stabilizing force to ease civil unrest as a parental figure. But its actions revealed the underbelly os self interest. One of its first moves was shifting Haiti’s financial reserves to the US and rewriting the constitution to give foreigners land rights on the island. Haitian writer Edwidge Dandicat notes – During the 19 years of the US occupation, 15 thousand Haitians were killed. Any resistance to the US-installed puppet regime was crushed and a gendarmerie modeled after an occupation force was created. Although US troops officially pulled out in 1934, the US exerted control over Haiti’s finances until 1947. Many argue that American intervention in Haiti still has not ended.

This unstable financial mayhem led to political turmoil. From 1957 to 1986 Haiti was ruled by two terrifying corrupt dictators: Francois ‘Papa Doc’ and Jen Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier. Both the father and the son employed armed militia to silent dissenters and stole millions of dollars from local and foreign sources as country’s loans that amounted to about 40% of the country reserve. About 30 thousand Haitians were killed and all major social institutions were crushed or infiltrated during their regime.

Since then Haiti has been controlled by various military dictatorship and democratically elected governments. Years of brutality and oppression have scarred the political system, and Haiti is still trying to find its way as a democratic nation.


“Leaves get yellow. The tree puts out fresh roots and makes them green. Why are you so content with a love that turns you yellow?”
– Jelaluddin Rumi

Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Sufi mystic poet Rumi has always fascinated me with its history and intrigued me with its decades of mayhem and catastrophe. So when Zia, the Afghan-American husband of our resident, Erica, invited me to join him in starting the Pandora Foundation for Health and Education in Afghanistan, I readily complied.

With plans to make an onsite assessment, I arrived in Kabul on December 9th. The airport bus dropped me at the main security gate where I was relieved to find myself in the welcoming arms of Zia and his two brother-in-laws, Sharif and Hamdulah. They both work  for International NGOs and share a rented house with their families.

We arrived at the house around midday, the air was already turning gray from fog and smoke. I shared the room upstairs with 3 other adults, sleeping on pads arranged along the walls. There was a wood burning stove in the middle and quilts to fight the bitter cold.

Dinner placed on a vinyl sheet on the floor. The meal was made up of flat breads, several plates of rice with meat, some vegetable dishes and salad. We ate together, with everybody dipping and picking up food from the dishes. To drink, a dilute concoction of tea, which is also served throughout the day.

The food was carefully prepared by the women and brought up by the boys. I heard the whispered questioning behind the curtains and felt their sisterly concern for my food habits… but, I never saw the face of an adult woman throughout our stay. This was extremely distressing for me.

Sharif took me downstairs to the small courtyard with gutters to urinate in. On one corner there was a doorless room with a squatting hole. The stench was overwhelming. Because there is no running water in most of the country, it is difficult to clean floors and you have to be careful not to step in any stray deposits. I decided to consume minimal food and drink to avoid the urge to need the facilites.

Early next morning, before dawn, we left for the six hour drive north to Zia’s village of Baghlan. Even with three layers of cotton, wool and velour I was terribly unprepared for the bitter cold. Sharif took the coat off his back and saved my trip with his Afghan gesture of kind hospitality.

The paved road was constructed by the Russians in the 80s. It ultimately forks off to Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. On both sides I could see the beautiful snow covered peaks of the Hindu Kush range. At 8,000 feet we passed through the Salang tunnel and started our descent towards Baghlan.

We went straight to the house of Zia’s cousin. He is the village community leader, a five-year term. Amidst the warmth radiating from the wood burning stove we had more tea followed by lunch, similar to the previous day. Once again there were no womenfolk to be seen and the toilet was a squatting hole in an adjacent room, a gunny sack curtain for privacy. I was told that people, including women, mostly go in the open fields.

Later in the afternoon, the village elders arrived for a discussion about our project. Sharif did a wonderful job of translating and conducting the meeting. I found the elders quite animated and involved in their discussions and questions to me.

But, again, you did not find any women, even in their head to toe Burkha, joining us with their suggestions. Especially, when these problems are mostly theirs to deal with and suffer through. Instead it was the men making all the decisions… the ones who have dominated and created this backwardness for half a century.

It was like deciding on diagnosis and treatment without any input from the patient. To me, very frustrating and upsetting.

The elders continued their discussion and came back with suggestions on construction sites. There was a suitable piece of land belonging to Zia’s family, but his patriarch Uncle felt that such a central location would cause indecent exposure for the girls. He would rather have the girls walk three miles to another school site than offer the convenience of a nearby school.

That night I was to stay at the lovely house of Basir, another brother-in-law of Zia. As we were walking for about a mile I was boiling with rage about the lack of women’s rights. I told my companions:

“… gentlemen, you talk about women’s emancipation, education and empowerment, but it is sheer hypocrisy that you don’t consider giving them the decency of an in-house toilet.”

In the evening I sat down for dinner. Basir’s children brought the dishes from their mother, who was whispering instructions to them from behind the curtain. Perhaps because I had been nurtured by the love of my three elder sisters, I found it distressing to be unable to offer a simple gesture of gratitude to my Afghan sister.

Next morning we went to assess the proposed construction site. The local elders were enthusiastic and sympathetic about the plight of the girls and promised to provide assistance in construction.

We then went to visit the local hospital. I roamed around the immunization clinic, outpatient department, operating room, radiology, pediatric wards and other departments. It was a reasonable structure, though the relatively empty beds were disconcerting. We then met the surgeon and had a formal meeting with the hierarchy of medical staff who were excited about our commitment to improve their healthcare delivery. We made a list of items to be brought in to enhance the service.

At night Sharif and Basir joined me for dinner. We had a long discussion about politics, social culture, women’s rights and religion. The local TV channel was broadcasting the human rights group’s complaint about rampant torture of women with acid attacks and beatings. Sharif told me about his aunt who had both wrists fractured and deformed from repeated beatings by her husband. My eyes welled up when he told me about a girl in Kabul with an undiagnosed psychiatric ailment, she remains in shackled, in chains, without evaluation or treatment.

I told them about the fertility index of Afghan women being the worst in the World along with the deplorable literacy statistics and human rights record. I noticed a look of concern when I mentioned my liberal views in support of gay rights and my opposition to capital punishment. They were quite vocal about the Islamic teachings and how the Taliban had distorted their views influenced by Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda.

I carefully concluded saying that my religion is Love and my religious rites consist of service to humanity: “I serve therefore I am”. They were very amused.

The next morning, amidst rain and snow we started our drive back to Kabul. As we reached Salang tunnel it started to snow heavily, so we had to put chains on the tires. We stopped at a large eating house for lunch, where I was relieved to find a reasonably clean toilet.

We reached Kabul in the early evening and after dinner I decided to turn in with half an Ambien. 

Very early in the morning I woke with the call of Azan from the neighboring mosque. I noticed a mild pain in my upper chest, that persisted even after rest, and some shallow breathing. My chest wall was not tender and I was overwhelmed by the ominous thought of a coronary attack. I stood up to go to bathroom but sudden dizziness made me hold on to the walls and sit down.

All morning I stayed reclined on a bolster and played gently with Humdulla’s daughter and Sharif’s son. I decided not to tell anybody about my predicament.

At midday Zia and my new friends took me to the airport. I was still dizzy with some chest discomfort. I knew that I couldn’t tell anybody because I wouldn’t be allowed to board the flight. I was not afraid of death, but certainly was scared about the process of dying. I also knew, that if anything were to happen, the Afghan process would be very convoluted and disastrous. I had to reach India soon.

I slowly inched to my seat. Shortly after take off the stewardess came to serve lunch. Airline food has never been my favorite, but I noticed that I finished the salad, the yogurt and the vegetarian dishes, scraping up every last grain of rice. Within a few minutes I was totally rejuvenated with no more chest pain and no dizziness. I fell into a blissful siesta for half an hour.

At Delhi airport my childhood best friend, Abhijit, met me. He was appalled by my appearance. I told him that with no shave, no bath and very little food for six days he couldn’t expect much better. Later Abhijit cooked as I took the most refreshing steamy hot shower of my life.

I devoured the feast of fried fish, tandoori chicken, mattar paneer and steamed vegetables. I was ravenous and I ate with reckless abandon. We chatted till late about our life, our pursuits and our friendship. He presented me his latest book, talked about his other literary works and about the school that has blossomed under his nurturing for 30 years.

We both agreed that we have found meaning and purpose in life. We have achieved much and failed in as many, but the journey has been enchanting. And now, if the curtain drops, I will only hear the applause, with no regrets nor resentments.

“On this day of my departure, let me utter this; All that I have seen and all that I have received, is beyond comparison.”
Rabindranath Tagore

My niece Sonali picked me up the next morning. We went to ‘Oh Calcutta’, my favorite avantgarde restaurant in New Delhi. As I gulped down several delectable Bengali fish dishes, Sonali opened her heart to me. As usual, we parted in tears at the airport. I love my niece so much, it hurts. And now…

“I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep”.

This school for 700 girls will be a formidable project. But I cannot give up, as this would be the stepping stone for the emancipation of those Afghan girls from the tyranny of illiteracy, ignorance and gender discrimination.

I seek your blessings so that I don’t give up.

January in India & Bangladesh

Last month was another one of my annual visits to India and Bangladesh to look into our schools, rural development projects and micro credit schemes.

School Visit

Visiting our schools enables us to meet the children, assess their progress and arrange ongoing scholarship support. Above all we emphasize and encourage their focus on the goal of higher studies leading to meaningful self-reliance.

In Bangladesh I visited a non-governmental primary school near the sprawling city of Khulna. Khulna was my ancestral hometown in the 60s before we emigrated to Kolkata.

The school of 202 children, divided amongst five classes, has been run by 3 female teachers and a headmaster since 1986. All with miniscule financial help from the City Municipality.

Teachers receive salaries one-tenth of government school teachers, yet they love the students and show an exemplary dedication to teaching.

I assessed their needs of enhancing teachers’ salaries, hot lunches or snacks and school uniforms. Once the legal logistics of money transfer through another existing NGO are cleared, we’ll start channeling help to them.

Another School and a town City

After taking the the opportunity to visit my old St Joseph’s school with some friends I ventured through a radically changed Khulna.

Gone are those bucolic sparsely populated streets with flowering trees, ponds and playing grounds. Unrelenting development has erased and demolished almost all the old structures, now replaced with high-rises and wide paved streets.

Our House

My geographic sense was totally confused. I was almost on the verge of tears not being able to locate our ancestral home; suddenly I found the house where I was born and spent my childhood.

All the neighboring houses have been replaced leaving only our dilapidated house standing in vigil for my return. The neighbors helped me get in through the back door to the large courtyard where we had papaya and a tall flowering Shefali tree. Our small chicken coup was still standing.

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked out unnoticed. I whispered,

“Sorry my friend that we deserted you. But we both are the victims of religio-political strifes like millions of others. At least you waited for our final reunion. I love you my beautiful birthplace.”

Unoccupied and falling apart from neglect, I found my long lost Taj Mahal.

– Sakti Das, 2010.

  • The remainder of Dr Das’ trip included surgeries in rural Guajrat where he was also able to add his O+ mark to an 11,111-strong petition battling an industrialist and Government to stop a cement works displacing 55,000 farmers, 15 villages and inflicting untold damage to livelihoods and environment – sadly, not uncommon in our ‘modern’ India…

    He was also able to meet Baber Ali, the young headmaster we blogged about last month – very much impressed by this now-18yo, he’ll be keeping in touch to see how Baber can be helped.