Haiti becomes focus of recent college grad
Kendra Davis is a Jamestowner on a mission. Following her recent graduation from Villanova University, Davis went to work for Beyond Borders, one of the many nongovernmental organizations on the ground in Haiti.
However, it is one of the few that is exclusively devoted to making a difference in the beleaguered nation.
Davis was born in Exeter and moved to Jamestown when she was 8 years old. She went through the Jamestown school system and graduated from North Kingstown High. In college, she studied humanities and global interdisciplinary studies.
While a sophomore at Villanova, Davis studied in Trinidad and developed an affinity for all things Caribbean. Her degree program required her to study abroad and write a thesis on her observations. Davis was accepted to the University of the West Indies and spent six months there, one of only six Americans in a program that gave priority to students from Caribbean nations.
Davis was particularly interested in race relations. Since Trinidad has an equal number of people of African and Indian descent, she was fascinated to see how they got along. She wanted to see how power was shared.
“There’s no conflict,” Davis said. “They have cultural differences, but the nation as a whole celebrates both. They have a black male president and an Indian female prime minister.”
According to Davis, her time in Trinidad was a life-changing experience. When she returned to the United States, she wondered whether her passion for Caribbean culture would fade. It never did. She branched out to other Caribbean nations, and visited diaspora communities in the United States and Canada.
Her interest in Haiti grew when she learned it was one of the first countries in the region to gain its independence. It’s the only country to ever achieve independence as a result of slave rebellion. Davis was particularly taken with the achievements of the Haitian community in Montreal when she visited the city.
When it came time for Davis to write her thesis, Davis again focused on race relations. As a model, she decided to use the contentious relationship between Haiti and Dominican Republic, two nations that share the island of Hispaniola. Davis found Dominicans have clung to the vestiges of colonial heritage and Spanish influence. On the other hand, Haitians have become more rooted with their African ancestry, largely because they became independent so early in 1804. She thinks the differences between European and African cultures have stirred the tension between the two, despite their proximity.
Davis began to look for a nongovernmental organization that was focused on Haiti. She was impressed that Beyond Borders was completely focused on Haiti. The organization has two main offices, one in Washington, D.C., where she works, and one in Port-au- Prince, Haiti’s capital and largest city.
Davis worked in communications with Beyond Borders in Washington, and it wasn’t long before she learned the organization would send her to Haiti.
“They said I needed to become fluent in Haitian creole,” Davis said, “and that I needed to go to Haiti as soon as possible.”
Beyond Borders has been working in Haiti for 20 years. The organization has become well connected in the country. As a result, Beyond Borders has been able to stretch a small budget a long way. It supports several social movement s , best known for its work in putting an end to “restavek.”
“It’s a type of servitude that looks different from other servitude around the world,” Davis said.
Often times when children are born in Haiti’s countryside, families don’t have the means to support them. The children are then sent to live with relatives in Portau Prince, and in many cases, they become slaves in the house, known as restavek. The majority of those children are girls.
“They sleep on the floor,” Davis said. “They’re the first to wake up and the last to go to bed. They don’t go to school at all. There is a lot of sexual abuse. It’s a hard life.”
Beyond Borders combats the problem by working with volunteer networks that focus on protecting children. The volunteers report incidents of restavek in their area and encourage the government to intervene. In the countryside, the organization does its best to provide education so that the children don’t have to leave in the first place.
Davis visited Haiti for the first time in June and was there for a little over a month. She says everyone agrees on one thing: the need to decentralize the country’s “massively” overcrowded capital. She says it could be achieved by providing affordable housing and better jobs in other parts of the country. Port-au-Prince was built for half a million people, but there are more than 3 million people living there now.
Davis spent her time in Haiti shadowing the work of local Beyond Borders personnel. She became convinced that Haiti had the potential to follow the lead of other Caribbean countries and establish a viable tourism industry.
“I worked with my colleagues on the ground who I had only met through Skype,” she said. “I was getting to know them, getting to know what their jobs look like, and how we can work together to build a different narrative of Haiti.”
While she was in Port-au- Prince, Davis became friends with an artist and musician by the name Michelet Calice, nicknamed Najee. She bought one of his paintings and offered to help sell his work. Little did Davis know, but on the eve of her departure, Najee left about 40 paintings and 30 sculptures on her doorstep. Knowing she couldn’t refuse them, she gathered as much of the work as she could and brought it back to the United States.
Davis recently displayed Najee’s work at the Fools Rules Regatta and placed it on Etsy.com for sale. In the meantime she’s been talking to cafés in Washington about displaying the work.
“He’s so talented, but it’s a matter of luck sometimes and getting word out,” she said. “I’m hoping that people see the talent in it. He deserves a fair price like anyone else.”
Although Beyond Borders can only afford to send Davis to Haiti once a year, she hopes to save enough money to go on her own.