2010 / HAITI& Mr. Fredy Sidler


COUNTRY: Republic of Haiti
CAPITAL: Port-au-Prince
LANGUAGE: Haitian Creole, French
GOVERNMENT: Parliamentary Republic
PRIME MINISTER: Laurent Lamothe
AREA (TOTAL): 27,751 km2
POPULATION: 9,035,536 (est. 2009)
GDP (NOMINAL): $6.943 Billion /
$790 per capita (est. 2008)
“Once a young man, decked out in his best Sunday clothes, asked me if all the houses where I come from have central heating. When I confirmed this (I am from Switzerland) he looked at me with something resembling pity in his eyes” says Fredy Sidler, chairman of the Fondation Suisse-Santé-Haiti (FSSH).

In recent years Haiti has been in the news for the devastating 2010 earthquake, which killed around 316 000 people and left more than over a million homeless, and the Cholera epidemic that followed. It is a country where life expectation is low, infant and child mortality rates are one of the highest in the world. Where malnutrition, malaria, aids and tuberculosis are a feature of everyday life. And if that weren’t enough, natural disasters like tropical thunderstorms are a regular occurrence. It is hard to believe that the other side of the island is the tropical holiday destination known as the Dominican Republic. You’d think that Haitian people would have fallen out of love with their country. Yet, what Fredy Sidler finds most endearing when visiting the island in his function for FSSH – which he usually does twice a year for a couple of weeks – is the genuine happiness and friendliness of the people and the love for their country. Haiti – Cherie.

“I guess I’m genuinely interested in people. I like watching them and trying to understand their way of thinking. I believe it is vital to challenge your own ideas and thinking patterns in order to run a successful charity project. I don’t think that going out to a country and imposing Western blueprints works. The way our charity operates is educating people to educate themselves,” says Sidler, who, before his retirement, was president at both the School of Engineers in Biel, and the Berne University of Applied Sciences. Naturally education is close to his heart. A modest person, he sees not much difference between the work he does in Haiti and what he did professionally. “All my life I was helping young people to acquire knowledge and skills. Haiti has come to me through friends and acquaintances and I grew increasingly fascinated and interested in exploring the differences in cultural backdrops and historical development, topics which I’ve always been interested in. Understanding how a people’s psyche works is vital to understanding how to help. You have to accept how they are otherwise you risk overlooking the real needs.”

At the heart of the FSSH are the Dispensaires, which are located in the Artibonite valley, north of Port-Au-Prince. A Dispensaire is, simply said, a GP practice which provides basic medical services ranging from ambulant treatment for minor injuries, to vaccinations and providing education, both in terms of basic hygiene and nutrition. Again, education is the key word here.

A very successful scheme is teaming up mothers from families whose children suffer from malnutrition – over 30% in Haiti do – with mothers whose children don’t. ‘We arrange two week long training schemes within the families so the mothers can learn hands on how to prepare healthy and balanced food for their children’ says Sidler. For him this is one of the most rewarding elements of his work out there, helping toddlers and children make it safely through their early years. “We’re not only looking after their weight but deworm them, give them vitamins which are vital to prevent blindness, vaccinations etc. This all happens right out in the countryside where they live, we’re able to reach even the smallest of hamlets and those who can’t make it to the Dispensaire.” The practitioners who go out there are known as Agent(e)s de Santé, and report back to the staff at the Dispensaire. All in all it is a complex organisation which is working together with the locals on a number of levels.

When asked if he does not despair in view of the never ending work they’re facing and the high rate of malnutrition and illiteracy, he responds pragmatically that ‘the collective experience of this people is that everything can be destroyed at any time – be it caused by political or natural disasters. If you work out there, you have to accept this as a given, otherwise you might as well stay at home. Haitians have accepted this as a truth in their lives and this attitude has helped them survive.” As a critical afterthought he mentions that we Westerners have lost these survival skills because we are pampered by the State and Welfare Society who we totally rely on to sort things out if they get a bit rough. Bearing this in mind it is easy to see that the channels of education are open in both directions, we learn from them as much as they do from us, albeit in different contexts.

Over the years Fredy Sidler has accompanied many children and adults, and it is always a pleasure for him to see them well and happy. And he not only brings back memories of hardship and deprivation but of genuine joy and happiness. Qualities which Haitians have in abundance despite the hardships they’re faced with. He muses about how technology, (cue mobile phone!) has changed even places like Haiti where it is hard to get hold of the most basic things like clean drinking water. With a wry smile he recounts a story where he visited an acquaintance and her child, who has lost one leg and one foot due to a severe infection at the age of one. “When I arrived at her hut, the neighbour’s kids told me she’d moved. A girl showed us the way to her new place. When we finally arrived after a half hour journey by car and foot, we were greeted by the mother in her best dress. Somebody had told her by mobile phone that we’re on our way to see her.” When you have to type in numbers and your name in order to use it, basic writing and reading skills suddenly become highly sought after. It seems no matter what and how, education really is at the heart of the matter and a subject which has been with Fredy Sidler throughout his life.