Out in the Field: A Chat with Garmalia Mentor William

This was my final piece for FREN/CPLT 359.

“He-hello? Can you hear me?”

“Uh…yes. Are you there? Yes.”

After many hellos over the crackle of a poor connection, I come face-to-pixelated-face with Garmalia Mentor. The smiling Mentor sits in a parked car in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, as that is where her internet connection is the best.

A medical doctor graduated from the Escuela LatinoAmericana de Medicina in Cuba, with a Master’s degree in Public Administration in Emergency and Disaster Management from the Metropolitan College of New York, Garmalia has many years of schooling under her belt.

Her path has not been a linear one, and it has largely been driven by her overwhelming compassion for her community. Born and raised in Haiti, Mentor earned a scholarship to study medicine in Cuba. After six years of studying to become a doctor in a foreign language, she returned to Haiti and began working with the Ministry of Health. She remained in that post until 2010, a year when the lives of many Haitians were indelibly changed.

The earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010, causing an estimated death toll of over 200,000, was devastating. It awakened in Garmalia, a desire to change the scope of her impact. She no longer wanted to work one-on-one with individual patients, but to reach entire communities.

She now works primarily on disaster preparedness, making communities aware of seismic risk, tsunami risk, and other hazards. She places a heavy emphasis on training representatives of the civil society, from women’s organizations, to social and economic organizations, to representatives of the media. Her approach is participative and inclusive, prioritizing institutional memory and inter-generational education. She acknowledges that public health, her original field, is still poorly served in Haiti. Her calling, however, is undoubtedly in the area of disaster preparedness and community training.

Garmalia is currently serving as a representative of GeoHazards International, a nongovernmental organization that aims to be “on the ground before disasters, helping communities prepare.” They strive to reach the most vulnerable communities, and prepare them for those disasters whose damage cannot be avoided, but whose impact can be mitigated through education, preparation, and awareness.

Through her work with GeoHazards International, Garmalia has thoughtfully tailored her outreach to the communities with which she works.

“Usually, projects are not conceived or designed in Haiti. This is the only concern I have. It’s nice, thinking about [developing] countries, and helping people, but it’s hard to know the real needs of a population without knowing them, without visiting the country. But, unfortunately, this is how projects, usually, are designed. People [elsewhere] read about the needs in Haiti and they just make a proposal. Once you’re working for [this kind of] organization you’re supposed to implement this project the way it is.” Garmalia adds that the difference with GeoHazards International is that the organization allows and encourages her to work in a more effective manner. This particular NGO has given her the opportunity and resources to tailor her outreach to the communities she knows well.

Garmalia believes in adaptability and in tailoring projects as thoughtfully as possible. She thinks that this is the best approach for communities in Haiti, and she raised this concern with her supervisors. “I’m the only one based in Haiti, and I’m the only one who knows the situation…so I tried to create some flexibility before implementing the project.” [Edit to add (23-sept-2019): Since our interview, Garmalia has been joined by other staff members in Haiti.] 

There are other organizations like GeoHazards International whose work involves similar disaster preparedness instruction. Garmalia’s approach is customized for each classroom, each church, each workplace that she enters. She teaches children to go home and teach family members who would not otherwise be reached. She believes in spending the time getting to know the community in order to foster long-term growth.

Garmalia’s passion is palpable. She has pushed herself beyond her comfort zone, fueled by a desire to reach as many people as possible. She has spoken on the radio, beginning to realize her dream of reaching whole communities and creating positive change. This mission of hers is also personal. As our video-call is dropped and I ring her once more to say goodbye, I recall what Garmalia said to me about her connection to Haitian communities compared to that of her colleagues who do outreach in other countries: “I’m based here. I’m just as vulnerable as the population. I’m vulnerable too.” Sometimes, advocating for a community means immersing yourself, being in the thick of it, and creating new and sustainable ways to overcome adversity. Garmalia Mentor is a magnificent example of what you can do to leave a community better off than you found it.

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