Meetings with Remarkable Haitians: Pierre Andre DuMas

April 22, 2010

Haiti is often criticized, even derided for its lack of leadership, or alternately or in addition, for the corruption and cruelty of its leaders. And there is, no question, a long legacy, during and after slavery, of oppression; and of political, social, economic, and spiritual hopes raised and devastatingly betrayed.

On the other hand — and there is definitely another hand — the Haitian people are blessed, at least within the fields I’m coming to know best (medicine, mental health, and public health) by a leadership group that is knowledgeable, thoughtful, and skillful, as deeply committed to the welfare of its people and as open-minded as any I’ve found anywhere in the world. These Haitian leaders seem at this crucial moment in history far less encumbered with the self-importance and pride that afflicts many national and, indeed, professional leaders I have known. Their commitment to the welfare of their people and their compassion trump received truths and narrow professional prerogatives.

Already you’ve met two of these remarkable people: Alix Lassegue, the physician who directs the University Hospital, and Marlaine Thompson, the nurse who works closely with him. Together, they embrace the flood of people who overwhelm the hospital. They shape the comprehensive services for the complex problems that their patients, overwhelmed by the earthquake as well as the ordinary calamities of Port-au-Prince daily life, bring to them. In the next few blog entries I’ll introduce you to several other of these remarkable men and women, the welcoming leaders and kind teachers with whom we hope to be working closely in the months and years ahead.

Monseigneur Pierre Andre DuMas

There are certain people, who upon entering a room, fill and light it up. Monseigneur Pierre Andre Dumas, bishop of the Diocese Anse-a-veau/Miragoane and president of the Catholic Church’s service arm, Caritas, and Dr. Emmanuel Justima, a psychologist who is a leader in shaping the Haitian national mental health plan (whom you’ll meet next installment) are two.

Pierre Andre DuMas is tall, supple, gray-haired, and dressed in gray vestments. Sitting with him I feel myself warmed by his abundant energy and his generous sweet nature. Though I have never met him before, I somehow feel that I know him. Like my old close friends, we simply share what is most important to us, find ourselves embellishing each others’ narratives, and quickly invite each other into our unfolding lives.

I tell Pierre Andre a little bit about our work and where we have done it, and he smiles with recognition. He invites me to present our way of healing trauma to Haiti’s religious leaders, “as soon as we can arrange it.” It is part of his job, he tells us, to bring together Protestants as well as Catholics, Jews, Muslims and Voudoun practitioners.

He tells us about the thousands who have returned from Port-au-Prince to his rural diocese and the dislocation and suffering they bring with them. On Good Friday, he hiked up a nearby mountain with 6000 people from his diocese. “We sat by a waterfall and breathed deeply, relaxed — Like your work, no? Some of us swam. All of us needed a catharsis.”

When I give him a copy of my book Unstuck, I assure him that he will enjoy it even though he’s not depressed. “I know that you know that I am not,” he says. “If you are still alive,” he adds, opening his hands, “you have to stand up and give hope.”

Next installment, meet Emmanuel Justima, a psychologist working on Haiti’s National Mental Health Plan