health fair in the early days always had a “deworming line.” The red hair and swollen bellies of malnutrition were not just clinical signs of the disease; they were signs for all to see that these children were somehow marked for misfortune and probably premature death. While in Ireland red hair might be considered beautiful, in Haiti it’s a symbol of shame.
One family was particularly poignant—two devoted parents and five daughters, all under the age of 5, all slowly starving to death. I explained to my students how the mother had breast-fed each child but had to stop prematurely to return to her work selling produce in the market. With this many children, none could be adequately nourished. As I was telling the mother what kinds of foods she should be giving her children, she burst into tears. Her children were marked by a particularly unusual sign of malnutrition: Their hair turned not red but blonde, and she blamed herself. Worse, there was nothing she could do about it, as the family was too poor even to raise chickens, let alone goats or a pig. I was ashamed of my insensitivity. Before I left them, I touched her hand and whispered “kenbe-la” (“hang in there”).
Riding back to Port-au-Prince, one of the students, Stephanie, volunteered that her husband worked for a company, Rexall-Sundown, that made vitamins and protein supplements. She would write a letter to the president of the company, requesting a donation. Stephanie’s letter resulted in a donation of 14 palettes (approximately two tons) of multivitamins and protein supplements. With the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, we started feeding and prenatal care programs. Shortly thereafter, the kids in Thomonde started having black hair again.
Over time our health fairs became more organized. The focus shifted from acute care to screening and prevention. I think of Tim at the start of every health fair. He’d be surprised and delighted to see the unexpected way I fulfilled his dying wish. If he could have held on until HAART (Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy) arrived, he’d probably be in Haiti with us.