Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: The iron mermaid and the remarkable human being

The iron mermaid
Courtesy Heather McIlvaine-Newsad
The iron mermaid

I think the year was 1992. All I remember clearly is that I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic and I went on vacation to neighboring Haiti. I was a forestry volunteer working on the reforestation of a watershed near San José de Ocoa. Deforestation was a problem, but people continually talked about how much worse it was in Haiti, a mere 194 kilometers to the west. One of my host-sisters, Mayra, was in medical school at the time and we had many conversations about how environmental degradation, poverty and limited access to health care in Haiti were far worse than in the DR. Curious to see for myself, I set out with a couple of friends and we made the journey across the border navigating our way to the capital of Port-au-Prince.

Crossing the border was an eye-opening experience. The trees simply disappeared after we passed through the checkpoint and there was no green to be seen anywhere. Sitting in one of the coveted front seats in a “tap-tap” we arrived in the capital a bit smelly and hot, but largely unscathed. The city was loud, chaotic, dirty and full of sights and sounds that I had never imagined. Despite the extreme poverty – Haiti is the poorest country in the Latin American and Caribbean region and among the poorest countries in the world - there was a sense of energy and determination in the air.

We saw a lot during our visit, including a trip to the “Iron Market” or Marché en Fer.  It was here while reaching for an iron mermaid that I had a chance encounter with Paul Farmer. I didn’t speak French or Creole and out of nowhere this young, tall, very pale man stepped in to translate for me. He helped me retrieve the piece of art I wanted and we spent a few minutes talking. He asked what I was doing in the capital and I told him I was a Peace Corps volunteer in the neighboring Dominican Republic. He asked what prompted me to do become a volunteer and I said, because it was the right thing to do. I asked him why he was in Haiti. He replied that he was an anthropology and medical student who was picking up some supplies for a clinic he was working in in the mountains in a community called Cange. He invited me to stop by if I had an opportunity. I thanked him for his invitation and we wished each other well. I never made it to Cange nor have I been back to Haiti since. I wouldn’t cross paths with him again until 2016 when he received the Malinowski award at the Society for Applied Anthropology meetings. Although he was being escorted by SFAA leaders to his next appointment, his eyes were constantly observing the people and space around him. I made eye contact, bowed my head, brought my hands to my heart, and without missing a step, he did the same.

Over the years Dr. Farmer and his work as an anthropologist, medical doctor and founding member of Partners in Health has become one of the core components of my teaching as an anthropologist. Dr. Farmer’s belief that “The idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong in the world” is the foundation of the work that PIH has done around the world for over 30 years. Working with people and in places that others deemed not worth investing in, Dr. Farmer worked on public health projects around the globe, developed strategies for dealing with tuberculosis, HIV and Ebola, and in addition provided basic affordable health care to everyone who needed it.

On February 21, 2022 Dr. Farmer died in his sleep at his home in Rwanda. He was just 62. Upon hearing the news, I like so many others wept, knowing that the world had lost a remarkable human being.

In an interview on NPR in 2011 he said, “sometimes when the big picture is just overwhelming or daunting or discouraging, there's always the possibility of the little picture that is responding to a problem.” I have this quote above my desk at work and look at it every day to remind myself that yes, one person can make a difference. Thank you, Dr. Farmer for living a very, very good life and inspiring others to do the same.

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.