“An eye-opening experience” is how Kalamazoo photographer Keith Mumma describes his first trip to Haiti in 1989. Prior to that trip, which was arranged through his church, Stockbridge Avenue United Methodist, Mumma wasn’t sure he had much to bring to the poverty-stricken people of the island nation.
But the answer came quickly: “I can tell a story with my pictures,” thought Mumma, a corporate photographer for The Upjohn Co. for eight years and a freelance editorial photographer.
That trip was “a great experience, but I didn’t think I would go back,” recalls Mumma. But his photos foretold a different outcome.
“International Child Care (the agency that hosted the church’s trip) liked the way I saw Haiti. They asked if I would return and capture images for their publications,” Mumma says.
That second trip occurred in 1990. Again Mumma thought, “I probably won’t be going back.” Yet each time he focused his lens, his eyes opened that much more. “It’s a beautiful country,” he says. “Beautiful people.”
But that’s not always how Haiti or Haitians have been represented. Mumma saw a book by another photographer about Haitians in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and was dismayed. “His photos were dark, noir,” he says. “That’s not what I saw. I saw kids playing, parents and kids together, families.” Mumma says he was “a little upset” about this other perspective, “this sensationalism.” So he returned to Haiti in 1991 with friend and writer Kaye Bennett to capture “a day in the life of a Haitian.” International Child Care helped with logistics and, in exchange, Mumma donated his photos to the organization.
That was the beginning of a long-term relationship between Mumma and ICC, one that continues 25 years later. At first Mumma’s involvement included leading groups to Haiti. He ultimately joined ICC’s board of directors, serving as chair and vice chair. Finally, in 2005, he became ICC’s national director.
ICC, a nonprofit dedicated to health development in Third World countries, was started in the mid-1960s by Indiana residents Jim and Virginia Snavely. The couple visited Haiti and, while wandering away from souvenir shops and onto side streets, saw many children with tuberculosis, a major cause of death in the island nation at that time.
“This bothered them,” Mumma says. “When they returned to Indiana, they literally sold their farm and packed up their family, which included three young children, moved to a slum in Port-au-Prince, and started a clinic.” The Snavelys were farmers and had no medical training but were skilled at organizing supportive friends, some of whom “thought they were nuts,” Mumma says,
Thanks to shipments of food and medicine, administered by medical personnel the Snavelys enlisted, the health of children in the Haitian slum started to improve. Word spread. Demands grew. According to one of the Snavely children, “We had kids all over the place. Babies in the bathtub. We had to expand.”
ICC purchased a former ambassadorial residence in Port-au-Prince and transformed it into Grace Children’s Hospital, following the wisdom of the Haitian Creole proverb Degaje pa peche, which means “Making do with what you have is not bad.”
ICC made do with the ambassador’s residence-turned-hospital for nearly 50 years, enlarging it, adding equipment and treating about 400 patients each day. The hospital operated pediatric and adult clinics, including one of the best eye clinics in the Caribbean, conducted health checks and administered vaccinations at 125 satellite clinics outside Port-au-Prince.
But a catastrophic earthquake in 2010 turned Grace Children’s Hospital into a vacant lot. “The building didn’t collapse, but it was too structurally damaged to be safe (and had to be torn down),” explains Mumma, who also lost a good friend, Claudy, in the quake. “One little girl was killed when a wall fell on her. The rest of the children ran out. A girl about age 13, with epileptic seizures, saved another child. She was quite the hero. We’re in the process of rebuilding.”
At the time of the earthquake, Mumma had been ICC’s national director for five years. He had moved the organization’s headquarters to Kalamazoo and hired local staff members. He also began creating alliances with other organizations, including Kalamazoo College, the Steven M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, and Rotary International and WMU Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine. These alliances have been critical as ICC has picked up the pieces and carried on its mission in Haiti.
“We continue to look after the health of the children in Haiti as well as neighboring Dominican Republic,” says Mumma, “not only if the child is malnourished or has TB or other diseases, but we holistically ask, ‘Why is the child malnourished? Is the family not generating enough money to feed the children?’”
International Child Care also provides microloans to women, helping them increase their income to raise their standard of living. Through social service programs, ICC educates about disease to reduce the stigma of TB and AIDS.
“Haitians are very proud people,” Mumma says. “Theirs is the first independent black nation, founded in 1804. They’re not like we see on the news, refugees on boats trying to reach Florida. The majority love their island and don’t want to leave. They want their children to be healthy and have a good education, just like anybody else. They’re proud that the rate of AIDS is declining in their country.”
ICC is sensitive to this Haitian pride, aiming to empower and ensure sustainability per the maxim “to work with but not to do for.”
For example, to construct a new clinic, ICC raised money and assembled an advisory team. They hired at least three Haitian locals for every American, coaching them in doing ongoing maintenance.
“When people ask, ‘What are you building in Haiti?’ I reply, ‘We’re building relationships,’” Mumma says. “The main focus is not to build a fence or paint a wall — although we do some of that — but to know people and why their situation is the way it is. We want to counterbalance harsh stories in the news. We want Americans to be able to say, ‘I have friends in Haiti, and I know the way it really is.’”
When someone volunteers to travel with an ICC group to Haiti, they become part of a Mission Education Encounter Team (MEET). “Going to Haiti with ICC isn’t a vacation; it’s a journey, a mission,” Mumma says. “We’re there to encounter and learn about the people. The education is for us. It’s an education that’s humbling.” And it’s consistent with another Haitian Creole proverb: Fok ou aprann pou w konprann — “You must learn in order to understand.”
Mumma relates a story from a daily MEET debriefing session in Haiti in which a distraught American said, “Everywhere I go, people want to kill us.” Discussion revealed that the person had seen some Haitians passing their hand in front of their neck in a slashing gesture. Mumma quickly explained that the gesture meant something else. “They don’t want to cut your throat. That’s a sign of distress,” he says. “They’re saying ‘I’m hungry. Help me.’”