PIH Medical Director Dr. Joia Mukherjee arrived in Port au Prince less than 48 hours after the 7.0 earthquake left hundreds of thousands of people dead, injured, homeless and afraid. As she recalls the smell of decomposing bodies in the street and dust from the rubble that choked her breath and stung her eyes, it is clear she has seen horrors that she will not soon forget. It is even clearer, however, that the image burnt most powerfully in her memory is one of hope.
After her first day—a day during which she, along with PIH physician David Walton and a team from Medicines Sans Frontiers Belgium, treated over 800 people—Joia asked the Zanmi Lasante driver “Kote Neg Mawon?“ (Where is Neg Mawon?) He brought her to the destroyed National Palace, and there in front of it was the statue of Neg Mawon. The symbol of Haiti, Neg Mawon means at once marooned man, the runaway man and the free man.
In 1804 the Haitian slaves defeated the army of Napoleon making Haiti the first and only nation founded by a slave revolution. At the time of the revolution, 70 percent of the slaves had been born free men and women in Africa. This victory resulted in Haiti being feared by the world’s powerful countries and thus politically marginalized or dominated for the next 200 years. Symbolizing this epic struggle, Neg Mawon stands, shackles broken, machete in hand, defiant and unafraid. He blows a conch to call others to freedom.
Joia found herself weeping in front of the statue when a Haitian woman—a survivor who until that moment was a stranger—approached her. She too was crying and as she put her arms around Joia, she said “Neg mawon pap jamn kraze.” The free man will never be broken.
Back in the United States, Joia is frequently asked about how Haiti can rebuild in the face of this tragedy. Her response is an optimistic one. “Haiti’s strength is her people,” she says with confidence. Insisting that if foreign aid can invest in the public sector--particularly health and education-- and communities are actively engaged in the process, Haiti can be built back better. The woman in front of the statue is not far from Joia’s thoughts as she says “The indomitable spirit of the Haitian people is Haiti’s greatest resource, and it is a spirit that is present in abundance.” Neg Mawon, the free man, will always stand for Haiti. We will always stand with Haiti.