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"The filter is for the health of our bodies."
In some ways, it was a comedy of errors. In other ways, it felt like destiny. We had heard that Dr. Paul Farmer, famous physician and Haitian advocate, had one of his Zanmi Lasante (Partners In Health) clinics in Petite-Rivière. We had also heard he was doing work with HIV and the biosand filter, making the connection between clean water and immune-system health with one of the most vulnerable populations on earth.
When we arrived at the clinic, the place was packed. People collected in long, snaking lines, some lying on the floor, some looking like they had been waiting for days. Staff rushed around, staring at us, but never slowed down.
We tracked down the clinic administrator, who directed us to the head nurse, who directed us to a nutritionist who knew nothing either, but knew someone who did. It began to feel like we were chasing something much more elusive than a biosand filter project. But eventually, a handsome young man walked into the bare white room where we waited and – miracle of miracles – told us he was the head of the HIV/TB department.
He told us about Zanmi Lasante's HIV program and how they work around the powerful stigma that keeps many HIV-affected people isolated and untreated. Zanmi's work is wonderfully holistic, approaching psychological, social, and health issues; everything from helping the people find meaningful employment to making sure they take their antiretroviral medication consistently and regularly.
"Haiti has a lot of infectious diseases," the doctor explained. "For the HIV patient, whose immune system is very weak, it's very important to prevent infection. When patients drink treated water, they have a better chance of preventing disease. So, it's important to have a program to train them about good water."
"We know that this biosand filter project is new," I said carefully. "What did you advise your patients to do before that?"
"Before, we advised them to drink good water by their own capacity either by buying water from Miractek or boiling it. But they didn't really do it because they don't have the financial capacity."
I nodded my head and, behind me, the clinic administrator said something.
"They're having a training for a group of patients," Rosemay, our translator, piped up. "About the filter."
"Where?" I practically screamed.
"Here at the hospital," she said.
"When?" I almost screamed again.
"Right now," the doctor said in English.
"Let's go!" Cate said, already standing.
Giddy, we went to a small outbuilding at the back of the clinic compound. From inside we heard a chorus of voices and through the doorway. We saw Errol, a filter technician and visual artist who had become one of our dearest friends in Petite-Rivière. We called out a jubilant greeting and Errol's serious face cracked into a bright smile.
Inside the training facility, fifty Haitians, the beneficiaries of this ground-breaking and important pilot project, sat attentively in their Sunday best.
A thin, bright-eyed older man stood up. Proudly and in a loud voice, he recited what he had learned: "The filter is for the health of our bodies. When you have the filter and you use it, then you see what it does for you. They give the filter to us, so we can have good water, because science lets you know that it's only 1% of water that is good. We use the filter so we can be in good health."
He nodded his head while the rest of the people began to clap. Cate and I clapped too. Then, all of them stood up and smiling so hard their faces might break open, they clapped and clapped and clapped.