When Dane Watkins Jr. thinks of his time in Haiti, he remembers the kindness the people there showed him.
“I came to love the country and the people and everything about it,” Watkins said.
Watkins, a district judge in eastern Idaho, visited Haiti in 1988 for a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints mission. He worked with many Haitians again in 1992 after a military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide drove his supporters to flee their country. And Watkins returned there to assist after the 2010 earthquake devastated the country.
Haiti and the continent of Africa have found themselves at the center of political dialogue in the United States, where they are often associated with poverty and disease. The spotlight was shined on Haiti and Africa after President Donald Trump’s reported comments on Thursday that denigrated immigrants from those regions.
Eastern Idahoans who have visited or are from these parts of the world say the issues of poverty and disease remain, but there is more to their respective cultures than is portrayed in often uninformed opinions.
They hope that relating their experiences will give others a better, more empathetic understanding of these countries and their people.
“It is a heartbreaking history over the 200 plus years of (the country’s existence),” Watkins said. He recalled meeting a woman who had survived the earthquake, lost her leg and suffered a head injury. She was luckier than the hundreds of thousands estimated to have died.
And yet, Watkins said, the Haitian people are filled with hope and pride in the face of their misfortune. He remembered how hopeful the injured woman was after giving birth.
“You had all of this destruction of life, and there was this woman who had just had a baby,” Watkins said.
He asked the woman how she would take care of the child after this destruction. She answered, “Si Dieu veut,” which translates to “If God wills.”
“She had an absolute certainty that she was going to do the best she could with God’s help,” Watkins said.
The Haitian people take pride in their origins as a nation founded by former slaves who rebelled against their French colonial owners. The country was only the second in the Americas — after the United States — to succeed in turning out colonial rule, and struggled to form foreign relations and trade with the slaveholding nations of the world. Despite Haiti’s hardships, there’s a desire among its citizens to not just depend on outside help, but stand independent.
In that regard, Watkins said the country has made strides. During his visit in April, Watkins found the country to be safer and more organized, though malnutrition remained a problem.
Many African nations also are primarily perceived for their economic struggles, a perception that misses the growing economic and cultural diversity.
Idaho Falls native Payton McGriff founded Style Her Empowered, a nonprofit organization that funds education and provides school uniforms for young girls in Togo, Africa. The average family lives on $1.90 a day, McGriff said, but the people are resilient and have an entrepreneurial drive. She was also surprised by the gender dynamic in the country.
“I think one of the things that surprised me was how voiced and fierce the women really are,” McGriff said.
Michael Musingi, who emigrated from Kenya to Idaho 20 years ago, says poverty and disease remain issues in his home country. Musingi runs Clean Water for Kenya, a nonprofit organization that drills wells in areas of Kenya to provide access to clean water in rural parts of Kenya.
Despite Kenya’s problems, Americans remain unaware of the economic and technological growth his country has experienced.
“People think about poverty because of what has been portrayed in the media,” Musingi said.
Parts of Kenya have little or no access to electricity, Musingi said, and the climate creates perfect conditions for mosquitoes to breed and spread malaria. What Americans do not hear about, Musingi said, is the growing software development and information technology industries.
“Kenya right now is probably one of the fastest growing economies in Africa,” Musingi said.
Musingi said his home country is thriving, and he hopes his fellow Americans can see Kenya beyond the occasional headlines disease and despair.
“I’d like people to understand my home,” Musingi said.
Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.