Notes from the Haitian Islands
Photo by Wes Battoclette
Mark Curnette is the author of A Promise in Haiti. You can purchase it here.
Mark Curnutte – author, speaker, philanthropist and cancer survivor – refuses to slow down.
Curnutte, who has been a journalist for more than 30 years – 21 with the Cincinnati Enquirer – says, “Watch out for what you pray for.” He prayed to be “in the middle of it,” and that is what he has been. He is grateful for his past experiences, but excited to move into a new phase of life where he can focus more on the subjects that matter most to him.
At the Enquirer, he was exposed to issues of poverty, race and immigration that have impacted him in powerful ways. While covering and reporting these issues, Curnutte says, “I could not avoid gaining the perspective of my story subjects.” As he interacted more frequently with justice and poverty issues, he says, “It became more difficult to remain neutral and objective.” His work with the Enquirer was very fulfilling. “I’d like to believe I have contributed through the Enquirer,” he says, “but now I want to contribute more.”
The Caribbean nation of Haiti has played and will play an important role in Curnutte’s life. The impoverished country both breaks and inspires Curnutte’s heart. “I have lived a life of privilege,” which motivates him to take his personal experience with Haiti to other people of privilege. “There are many barriers between us and them,” he says, which presents a challenge to communicate the massive devastation Haitians have endured in the past century. In fact, he is quick to remind that January 12, 2015 marked the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic Haitian earthquake, a day he will not forget.
In 1996, while volunteering with Hands Together in Massachusetts, “a nonprofit organization devoted to educating, inspiring and encouraging people to understand the importance of responding to the needs of the poor and disadvantaged,” he learned what mindset to avoid. Hands Together taught him that, “You’re not going down there to save anyone. If there is saving going on, it’s likely it will happen to you.” Curnutte absorbed this wisdom and it motivates his work today.
In 2008, Curnutte began writing “A Promise in Haiti” which was published in 2011 and chronicles a decade of his life while living as an aid organization volunteer among several families in Gonaïves. In the introduction, he writes, “Passion and dispassion – not happiness or sadness – define opposite poles of the emotional spectrum when in Haiti. You feel everything, or you are numb. You subconsciously shut down, blocking out the same sights and sounds that a moment before you hungrily absorbed.”
Curnutte’s ability to capture the struggles of the country caught the attention of the former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth H. Merten, who writes, “Curnutte’s book humanizes a people Americans often view as faceless stereotypes.”
Curnutte’s experience in Haiti fueled his desire to write about social justice in the United States. His reporting increased his compassion for people struggling at the lowest levels of the American economy. His passion became intertwined with his journalistic duties.
"How can I not take this street level education and do something with it?” he asks.
He found ways to cover stories involving poverty and race. His efforts to humanize immigrants, eliminate judgment and help his readers understand cultural and economic differences turned into a personal agenda. His realities forced him to reconsider his identity as a neutral observer and transformed him into an outspoken advocate for the poor.
Curnutte possesses a tremendous amount of respect for the poor to this day, whether in Haiti, the inner cities of the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. He calls it his "joyous obligation" to help those who have been marginalized. But don't call him a spokesman for them.
"I don't give them a voice," he insists. "They have a voice of their own."
Faced with a cancer diagnosis in 2013, Curnette refused to succumb to the feeling of vitimization. He understands he is lucky to have access to world-class treatment at the UC Health Barrett Cancer Center, unlike the many impoverished people he writes about in his book.
“I have been given a second chance at life,” Curnutte says of his recovery. He plans to embrace it that second chance, using his experience and skills to give the “invisible and ignored” a platform for their voices. He wants to teach and write more in addition to running a website dedicated to those voices.
Most of all, he hopes other “people of privilege” will embrace their responsibility and potential to make a positive impact on poverty and injustice as well, to live by the Haitian proverb, “God says do your part and I’ll do mine.”
About A Promise in Haiti:
When a devastating earthquake struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on January 12, 2010, the world reacted with a collective, yet distant, horror. For Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Mark Curnutte, hearing the news provoked a far more visceral response. Curnutte had grown to love Haiti and its people as only someone who had lived with Haiti's families could.
A Promise in Haiti is Curnutte's story of his time, spanning the last decade, living among several families in Gonaives, a city of 200,000 people a hundred kilometers north of Port-au-Prince. He began traveling to Haiti as a volunteer with the aid organization Hands Together, eventually building trust and credibility with many Haitians. Curnutte introduces the reader to the Cenecharles family, strained by entrenched unemployment and the need to continually travel for work. He is invited into the home of the Henrisma family, and is forced to reconcile journalistic detachment with basic compassion as he contributes financially to help them. The reader is confronted with a complicated, conflicted written and photographic record of a worldview that evolves right on the page. As a reporter, Curnutte found parallels between the lives he encountered in Gonaives and the world of the Great Depression recounted in James Agee and Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Agee and Evans loom large as a challenge and inspiration to Curnutte.
The result is equal parts homage to that historic chronicle, on-the-ground reporting, and introspective narrative on the lessons Gonaives taught Curnutte about his own life and family. In late February 2010, Curnutte went back to Haiti on assignment, but conditions made it impossible for him to return to Gonaives. The resulting frustration provoked a meditation on the monumental challenges that face Haiti -- and on the destructive cycle of international attention that constantly moves on to "The Next Big Story."