For the better part of a half-century, Creighton University has been sending students, staff and faculty on immersion experiences and service-oriented excursions to the Dominican Republic, the nation that makes up the eastern two-thirds of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
For 10 days this summer, a group of 10 Creighton students and two professors — Laura Heinemann, PhD, a medical anthropologist, and Roger Bergman, PhD, director of the Justice and Peace Studies program — traveled to the western side of the island, to Haiti, to get a broader, deeper perspective of that Caribbean nation. Kat Turco, student life director for Creighton’s Encuentro Dominicano program in the Dominican Republic, also accompanied the group.
Creighton University Magazine sat down with Bergman, who was on his fifth trip to Haiti, to talk about the motivations and opportunities for what he hopes is a new relationship for Creighton.
Q: Creighton has a long-standing relationship with the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s neighbor. What inspired you to look west at Haiti?
A: More and more, I have thought of Haiti as a window on the modern world. It was the first place Columbus landed on his first voyage. It was the site of the first European settlement in the so-called New World. It was the site of the first genocide in the Americas. And it was the place where the first African slaves were brought.
Haiti was the wealthiest colony in the world, then the site of the only successful slave rebellion in world history, and yet we don’t put the Haitian revolution in the same category of importance as the American and French revolutions. The world doesn’t have a grasp on what Haitian history and contributions have been. It was the first fully free republic in this hemisphere, abolishing slavery six decades before the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment.
Q: How would you gauge the student reaction to this trip? What were some of the most moving learning experiences?
A: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that all 10 of our students thought our 10 days in Haiti were the best experience in their time as Creighton students. Carla Bluntschli and her young staff of the N a Sonje (We Will Remember) Foundation were wonderful hosts and guides to Haitian history, culture and current issues. I have heard our students say we learned a ton, we were safe, we had fun, and we were certainly well-fed. I think we all kind of fell in love with Haiti, thanks especially to Carla and her staff.
The single most moving experience for me and many of our students was visiting with a woman described as “ultra poor” by Fonkoze, Haiti’s “bank for the organized poor,” the largest microfinance organization in the country. Fonkoze seeks out such women for a special program that leads them from not being able to sign their own name to building up small assets to benefit their families, such as the four goats that the woman we spoke with showed us so proudly. She told us she was “a new woman” because of the Fonkoze program. Standing next to her new home with a concrete floor and a tin roof, it was beautifully heartbreaking.
Q: Since your trip, Haiti was again hit by tragedy as Hurricane Matthew struck the island in October. What did you learn about the resilience of Haitians?
A: Matthew was, I believe, the fifth major storm to hit Haiti in the last decade, and of course the 2010 earthquake was even more devastating. Haiti’s own elites have failed it time and again and ever since its revolution, the international community, including the U.S., has treated Haiti like a pariah state.
Much of the “aid” sent to Haiti is uninformed by local realities and culture, and seems mainly to reinforce prejudicial stereotypes about the inability of Haitians to fend for themselves — which they could do successfully if the rest of the world would learn to listen to the grassroots leaders who have their communities’ best interests at heart.
The suffering has been great and there’s still misery everywhere, but I think most Haitians would say that resilience, survival from day to day and hoping for a better future, is what Haiti is all about. There’s been progress, despite the tragedies, as the rise in life expectancy rates over the last few decades attests.
Q: You experienced a Haitian Voudou service. Tell us a little about what Voudou means to Haiti.
A: The old joke is that Haiti is 90 percent Catholic and 100 percent Voudou, although today that overestimates the Catholic affiliation, as Protestant proselytization has made inroads. Our young guides had all grown up with respect for Voudou as the indigenous backbone of Haitian culture, whether they were active participants now or not. You have to remember that the slave masters were Catholic, and that slavery in Haiti before the revolution has been described as the cruelest anywhere, so it’s a wonder Catholicism has had as much staying power in Haiti as it has. Voudou has deep roots in the slaves’ memory of their African ancestry and is honored today as providing the spiritual fire for the revolution.
We were welcomed into a three-hour service and escorted to the heart of the congregation, with some people going so far as to give up their seats for us to take a closer look as some of the initiates experienced possession by spirits. It’s not possession as we might connote it popularly — Voudou spirits are said not to enter into anyone unwilling. The metaphor is that of a rider on a willing horse, and the spirit does not do harm but rather, through the initiate, shares wisdom, advice and insights meant to help members of the community. To some of our religious sensibilities, it was very different from anything we had ever experienced, but it was also profoundly human. Ignatius enjoined us to find God in all things, and I’d rather take that perspective than condemn Voudou as pagan superstition out of hand. Besides, for many Haitians, Voudou and Catholicism exist side by side, as Catholic saints and Voudou spirits are thoroughly conflated.
Q: A second trip is in the works. What are your hopes for Creighton establishing an ongoing relationship with Haiti?
A: Our 2016 trip was the first Creighton-sponsored trip to Haiti since 1999, I believe. Students in our Dominican Republic program have not been allowed to travel to Haiti since then, but I think we’ve blazed a trail that other Creighton programs will follow. A Creighton delegation to the DR over spring recess will also travel into Haiti, and I think the semester program is considering the possibilities. You can’t fully understand the eastern two-thirds of the island that is the DR if you don’t understand the western one-third of the island that is Haiti. That’s still a fraught relationship, and our students need to see both sides of the history. Again, it’s an essential window on the modern world, especially in this hemisphere.