I don’t even remember when I first met Paul Farmer, he was so much a part of my world, especially my world in Haiti. Maybe I met him down there, where he’d lived on and off for five years at a time, after college. Or maybe in Boston, where—when I met him—he was on the way to becoming a world-famous infectious diseases doctor with an endowed chair at Harvard Medical School. Once I knew him, he became a touchstone for me. We had the same attitudes about power and powerlessness, but that wasn’t what made him precious.
He had something that I didn’t have, and that was a kind of shimmering wonder and sweetness. I would always call him for quotes for my stories, which, very kindly, he would never give me, while never quite refusing. “Oh Amy,” he would say (now I’m quoting him, finally), “You know that I know nothing about Haitian politics. I don’t really stay in Port-au-Prince. I’m out in the countryside, and there all we do is gossip about daily goings on.” He sprinkled his refusals with little bits of Creole.
It was true that he did stay mostly in Cange, in the Haitian countryside, where there was a hospital run by his group, Partners in Health. (Cange probably seemed pretty swank to Paul, who grew up poor in Florida, and had lived for a time in a bus.) But he knew a lot about Haitian politics. By not being quoted, he was protecting his growing turf in Haiti from political controversy, and in doing that, he was protecting the people Partners in Health cared for from battles that can be very dangerous for patients. He never said so, but I knew it, and I’d just go “Okay, uh-hunh, Paul, whatever… And when will we meet again?”
We had disagreements about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the immensely popular Haitian president, the first one freely and fairly elected in Haiti, whose last term in the early 2000s was marred by violence, and who was ousted twice from elected office in coups greenlighted by the United States. I always supported Aristide in my writing, but I was personally saddened by the situation he was presiding over. Paul had nothing to say about this, even privately. “He’s my friend,” he would say, effectively putting an end to the conversation. Loyalty was everything, and I knew, from other conversations, that his loyalty to Aristide was, in effect, his loyalty to the Haitian people who’d elected him.
I emceed a conference at UCLA years ago and invited Paul to speak, which he did. We were sitting with all the other participants at a Middle Eastern restaurant in LA, when a semi-infamous American journalist who attacked Aristide at every turn sat down at the other end of the table. I saw Paul lean over to mutual friends of ours and heard what he said: ‘Gen reaksyonè isit,” which means “There’s a reactionary here.” I’d invited the man for balance, I told Paul later. Paul shrugged and smiled. Balance was not his thing, but justice was.
In his early days in Haiti, a friend told me, Paul went walking with her in and out of Port-au-Prince’s shantytowns back when it was safe to do so, and people kept calling him Pè. Which means “Father” or priest, in Creole. The word echoed around him. Eventually, Paul stopped in his tracks and asked her why they were calling him “Father.” And she said, “Probably because of the 20-pound cross you’re wearing.” And he nodded and laughed.
But he always wore that cross, and he had a popular touch. He somehow managed to be on everyone’s level. Shantytown kids and their parents, me, wealthier Haitians, Bill Clinton (we tangled over that and came to our usual affectionate stalemate), suspicious Haitian health ministers, rich donors. All were met with equal interest and kindness, and thus he built Partners in Health, not just in Haiti but all over the world, from an idea into a mega-global public-health network with hundreds of millions of dollars which were poured into health care in neglected communities all over the world. Via Partners in Health Paul probably saved tens of thousands of people worldwide from the ravages of AIDs, tuberculosis, Ebola, and other human scourges.
He also wrote 12 good books in his spare time.
To lose him right now is particularly hard. Haiti is at a political impasse, and the US government is exacerbating the situation, afraid to allow Haitians to move forward with a new democratic blueprint. And Paul was watching. At the time of his death he was trying to work with Haitian stakeholders on a satisfactory Covid vaccination program for the country, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. Just going over my recent WhatsApp back and forth with him, all our conversations seem to be a series of in-jokes interspersed with the most serious things, like assassinations, coups, a raging epidemic. Jokes and tragedy? Paul would say: “Well, that’s Haiti.” I say it’s Paul, too. The place was never far from his mind and heart, even though he was worried about going back into the chaos and violence that reigns there now.
“I’m afraid of those people,” he wrote to me on WhatsApp after the Haitian president was assassinated in July. “I’ve known a lot of the folks who’ve been kidnapped or killed over the years, and I’ve got a pretty big target on my back.” But he did go down after the earthquake in August, less than a month later. He emerged unscathed: That wasn’t the way his life would end.
Nadia Todres, a photographer who often works in Haiti, wrote about Paul on Instagram Monday. She met him while she was shooting photos after the 2011 earthquake, and saw him a few more times. They met up again more recently at the teaching hospital that Partners in Health had built in the provincial town of Mirebalais. They’d both fallen for a young boy who’d been badly injured in the 2021 earthquake, and were going “to see him through college” together. The last messages Paul sent her were from Rwanda. “When I noted how late it was there,” she wrote, “I asked him how he wasn’t exhausted. And his response was ‘who said I wasn’t exhausted?’—to which I said ‘I knew you were human’ and he replied ‘all too.’”
“All too” is right, it turns out. I certainly thought he would go on forever, and so did most who knew him, even though, as one wrote me today, he was “a maniac of the best kind.” How else to do all he did in his limited time? Paul was really the best that humanity ever offers from its complicated ranks. He was all too decent and generous, he was all too quick and perceptive, he felt pity and love for the stranger, and the destitute, and the outcast. Haiti helped him see ways to make the right things happen for those last. He started there, and branched out, but he never forgot. Even though he died in Rwanda, he never really left Cange.