(Wednesday, September 8, 2010) — Today I fly to Haiti. In some way I feel like I am going home. For three months I called an unfinished nightclub in Leogane Haiti home. I went to help in the aftermath of last January’s earthquake there. I worked with people from the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, other European countries and, of course, Haiti. In my time there I grew very fond of both Haiti and the other international volunteers who I worked with. I plan to be there for another three months. I expect to be helping to rebuild schools and with the ongoing demolition of dangerous buildings.
I arrived in Haiti late on the first trip in the evening of April 18th after eight hours crossing Hispania on a bus and then lucking into a ride the rest of the way to Leogane with two Haitian ministers and a woman judge. Leogane is a town of about 200,000 people 20 miles west of Port au Prince or two hours by bus. Road conditions are poor throughout Haiti and traffic in Port au Prince is almost always bad. The earthquake was centered just outside Leogane and most of the buildings there were destroyed or unsafe.
Driving through Port au Prince was surreal and intense. There was a nervous energy with people everywhere going this way and that, crowded along the streets among shelters made of tin and scraps of wood build right on the edge of the road with cars wizzing past with horns blasting. When we stopped to get something the car doors were locked while we waited. There were many buildings collapsed and rubble all around. We drove past the presidential palace leaning dangerously to the side with the fancy domes askance. Then past the courthouse where the judge’s colleagues had died. Then out of the city, past broken houses, sugarcane fields, and tent camps in the twilight gloom.
Our base was in a giant open building that was going to be a nightclub. When I first arrived there were 68 people there but later there would be as many as 120. Just outside of our base there was an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp where the people lived in shelters made of tarps and sticks. Leogane is a far cry from Port au Prince. While a greater percentage of its buildings were destroyed, it does not suffer from the same desperation and violence as the larger city.
Among the rubble there was beauty. Parts of Haiti are dry and arid but where we were it was lush and green. More than the landscape, the Haitian people had a beauty to them. They might seem severe but if I said bonjour and smiled they would return my greeting and smile back with radiance.
Arriving in Haiti I expected to see a malnourished population with amputees and beggars on the streets. That is not exactly what I found. The poverty was obvious but despite this most people appeared clean and healthy, and young. I did see some amputees, but not very many. What was more common was seeing people with poorly healed or miss set bones or infections. Some people would ask for things but they were not truly beggars. Despite that fact that people were living in tents and improvised shelters most managed to maintain a level of dignity.
Most of the work we did was hard physical work clearing rubble from wrecked houses so that perhaps a new house could be erected in its place. We did this work by hand with sledgehammers, shovels, picks, and wheelbarrows. Most of the houses were made of weak cinderblocks which weathered hurricanes well but failed terribly in an earthquake. We had to smash what was left of these houses with sledgehammers into small enough pieces to load into wheelbarrows and hauled to the street. From there another organization would haul it away in dump trucks to rubble dumps.
People have been asking me, “Do you think that things will get better in Haiti?” I don't know how to answer that question. It did not feel like the people I met were in despair or had given up. People were continuing with their lives. The people of Haiti have survived so much already, maybe they are used to tragedy.
Most of the problems I saw were there before the earthquake and will not easily go away. Unemployment is over 60%. There is major deforestation (mostly caused by charcoal production). Agriculture has depleted the soils and is inadequate to feed Haiti. It is difficult for Haitian farmers to make a living because of aid food imported from the United States. Of course food aid saves lives but it is not simple. The population is growing very quickly. I hear that by 2014 the population of Haiti will be greater then it was prior to the earthquake. The average age is 20 and the life expectancy is only 45.
Many NGOs have been working in Haiti for decades. Some of them actually do good, others seem to only ride around in air conditioned Land Rovers and go to UN cluster meetings. It seems like some NGOs need Haiti more then Haiti needs them. Even when the intentions are good, hasty or ill-informed action often causes more problems then they solve. One organization building latrines put them too close to the well of a village causing the water to become contaminated. I saw other organizations put up flimsy useless latrines that blew over in the wind. Sometimes this is incompetence but sometimes it is more cynical. Disaster is a business.
It will be very interesting to see how things have changed in the two months I have been away (in Anderson Valley). I hope to see temporary shelters where we left clear foundation. I expect things to look very much the same as when I left. What scares me more than anything is the prospect of a hurricane hitting Haiti. I am not scared for myself or the other volunteers I will be working with. I am scared for all the Haitians still living in tents and tarp shelters. If only Haiti can weather this season with no bad storms maybe things will be more prepared by next year.
If anybody wants to learn more about what the organization I am working with is doing in Haiti please look at their website (hands.org) and consider donating to them. ¥¥