Psychology in the Haitian Kitchen


The community center in Sant Kore Lavi, Carrefour, a densely-populated area of Port-au-Prince, is already a hive of activity by 9 am on Monday. In a small courtyard in front of the building, disabled women are learning to sew, while inside, people with disabilities—men, women, and children of all ages—wait with their friends and family for the start of a new group support session, and later a cooking workshop. Having never met, they’re a little nervous.

The mood changes when Handicap International’s team arrives. Marjorie, an occupational therapist, Naama, a psychosocial worker, and Eslyne, a trainee currently studying on Handicap International’s course for assistant physical therapists, ask everyone to form a circle and introduce themselves. Slowly but surely, they come out of their shells and begin talking about their lives and day-to-day problems.

Marie Guerda, director of the Sant Kore Lavi center, explains that Handicap International’s community outreach teams had identified individuals needing extra emotional support, and encouraged them to visit. “A lot of people with disabilities find it hard to accept their condition,” says Marjorie, a Handicap International occupational therapist.

After the group discussion, Marjorie offered the group some health advice. “It’s important that people with disabilities take care of themselves,” says Marjorie. “We give them advice on topics such as nutrition, hygiene, and medication. We also encourage them to do rehabilitation exercises. A lot of people here are stroke victims. If they really stick to their exercises, they could become more independent.”

“The rehabilitation process is long, hard and often tedious. That’s why it’s so important to work with local organizations and organize group sessions. It helps people let off steam and gives them a reason to carry on.”

Once a week, the Handicap International team organizes practical workshops for people who have lost an arm or who find it difficult to use their hands following a stroke or accident. At the workshop, they learn how to cook, wash clothes, and clean.

“Household tasks, particularly cooking, are really important because they help people with disabilities regain their autonomy and their role in the family and society,” says Marjorie.

Handicap International teaches simple techniques to make preparing a meal easier. “If you want to peel an apple, for example, you can use a vice to hold the peeler,” says Marjorie.  “A serrated board stops the apple from rolling off, so you can use one hand to cut it. They’re very simple things but they make all the difference. When someone has attended several workshops, they learn enough to carry on doing it themselves at home.”

At the workshop, there’s no trace of shyness left. Everyone is having fun and those who aren’t getting it right first time get a gentle ribbing from the rest of the group. Their friends and family watch in amazement.

“It’s important to invite a person’s family along so they can see what people with disabilities can do. They often underestimate their abilities,” explains Marjorie.

One woman is particularly impressed, the mother of Rose Marie who had a stroke a year ealier. “Before, she couldn’t do anything,” says the mother. “Then one day she was invited to this center. A few weeks later, she could prepare food by herself. I couldn’t understand how she’d done it. So I’ve come here to see for myself. I’m very impressed.”

After eating the fruit salad prepared by the participants, the mother and daughter leave the center arm in arm, smiling proudly.