Friday, December 17, 2010

Christmas Blog

Week ending 17th. December
This week was a busy one as Leslie Buckley, Haven’s Founder came out to Port au Prince to visit our projects and get an update on what is happening around the country.
Ciara, Leslie and I went driving around the city, and the greater Port au Prince area showing him what we have been up to since his last trip to the area.
First we went to Croix de Bouquet to see our Transitional Shelter project, funded by Plan International. While we were there we were able to hand over 20 houses to families. Haven have almost completed 100 T Shelters here in Croix De Bouquet. The families living here used to live on a campsite, under weather beaten tarpaulins, sleeping on blankets spread upon the bare earth.
Haiti is a tough place to be at the best of times, but these are the days that make the hard days worthwhile. And there are plenty more of them to come, with Haven having a further 600 shelters left to complete in and around PaP.

We then moved on to visit one of our water and sanitation (WASH) programmes, which we are constructing with UNICEF funding in 13 schools across the capital. We met with the school’s Principal, and also with Kone from Unicef, whom we have partnered with to carry out this project, bringing a clean water supply, hygiene promotion workshops and latrines to these 200 school children aged from four to 18. Leslie and I got plenty of feedback on how the project is working, what we have done really well to date and what still needs to be improved. We are learning every step of the way.
We then moved on to Camp Crise, one of the 57 campsites in which we are working. Here we met our Community Development Workers, who were in the middle of doing a Hygiene Promotion demonstration. These workshops have been a key part of our workload since the earthquake struck; but since the Cholera broke it is even more important. Haven’s message is simple but incredibly important. It incorporates 6 basic principles:
• Always use latrines, never defecate in the open
• Always wash your hands after toileting, before handling food, after changing diapers, before and after collecting water, before going to sleep at night and first thing on waking
• Never drink untreated water
• Keep prepared food covered at all times
• Full body washes with soap and clean water daily
• Never walk barefoot – always wear washable shoes or sandals

We also brought Leslie to see the Gabion rubble House. The Haven team have termed this the rubble house, as it is literally built using the rubble from the toppled buildings. Rubble is used every step of the way from the foundation through to the plaster! We are particularly proud of this project as we are the first organisation to pilot the method, and we are attracting a lot of attention as a result.
After Leslie left I took a visit to see the Iron Market - the Haitian version of the IFSC! This area was also demolished by the earthquake which Irish businessman and Haven Board member Denis O’Brien, invested in to get this district up and running again. It has now reached completion. It was due to be officially opened this week, but the ceremony had to be postponed because of the political protests. The opening date is now rescheduled for mid January which is a relief to the project team there as recent unrest has caused some delays.
Tonight we are having our final team meeting with our entire staff, both local and expat, based in Haiti. We will give each other updates on what is happening across the country on all of Haven’s sites, covering all topics, from community development, to cholera, shelter, and of course our diminishing budgets!
Once all that is done we will kick back for a little bit of a Christmas party in the Haven house. Haitian Jackson, who was due to perform for our volunteers in October finally gets a gig and it promises to be great craic. Come Saturday our group will disperse, some bound for rural Haiti, Dublin, Longford, Galway and of course the Republic of Cork.
Gerry and Gareth will hold the fort until we return, needless to say there will be plenty of excitement waiting for us on our return in 2011.
Happy Christmas to all.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Politics and more politics..

Hi all,
I spent a lot of time in Gonaives this week and have been paying close attention to the news keeping myself updated on what is happening in the Presidential Election.

It was announced this week that government protégé Jude Celestin and former first lady Mirlande Manigat were the top two candidates who were to advance to a second round run-off in presidential elections, scheduled for January 16th.

By early morning all hell had broken loose, furious supporters of eliminated candidates set fires and put up barricades in the streets of PaP after hearing the outcome. The results were immediately questioned in country and abroad, threatening more unrest for poor Haiti already wracked by the cholera epidemic and still recovering from the devastating earthquake. Popular carnival singer Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly trailed Mr Celestin by about 6,800 votes - less than 1%, according to the results released by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council.

Despite the madness in PaP, Gonaives remained relatively calm and we were able to carry on with a normal working day. The project in Gonaives is progressing well and the 80 new houses should be to wall plate level by the end of January.

Haven is preparing a Cholera mitigation proposal to cover our beneficiary areas of Mount Blanc, Jubalee, Raboto and Latanere. A WASH cluster has been established in the area. This is a group of NGO’s (UN, Red Cross, Government of Haiti) looking after Water and Sanitation in the Gonaives area. They have welcomed our Havens presence as we have a good reputation for building and Gonaives badly needs latrines.

This morning at 6 am, Security gave me the all clear to return to Port au Prince as it was raining and the barricades were being abandoned. Worst luck, it had stopped raining by the time we hit the outskirts of the City and true to form the ‘manifestations’ had started again in earnest. Getting back to the safety of the house was greeted with a huge sigh of relief.

The Haven team are now on ‘lock down’ once again, we are all hoping the unrest will come to an end now that Haiti's Electoral Council (CEP) has just released a note to the press saying that a special recount for the first 3 candidates for President of Haiti: Michel Martelly, Mirlande Manigat, and Jude Celestin is being considered.
In the meanwhile we have plenty to keep us constructively occupied finalising project proposals for Phase 2 Rubble housing, permanent housing submissions to the Haiti Reconstruction Commission (HRC), Cholera proposals for IA, CGI reports and other such fun stuff you never really get around to on a normal day.

Joe Grealy just called from Quanaminthe to let me know we have our first suspected case of Cholera in Bas Dilaire. We made contact with our partners Plan International and they are providing super support.

Now, if only I had stocked the fridge with a few beers before heading to Gonaives! Ah well, roll on the Christmas party………..


Friday, December 3, 2010

We dont have snow but we do have politics...

PaP, 03rd. December

Hello from a scorching Haiti,

Ireland and Haiti have something in common this week; it’s definitely not the weather but rather that both country's political future is hanging in the balance.

On 28th November, the election took place for the next President of Haiti. A successor to Rene Preval has yet to be announced. Despite numerous allegations of vote rigging, the various organisations monitoring and observing the election seem happy with how the day proceeded and are confident that the result will be fair and valid.

The latest update put the musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly and the former first lady Mirlande Manigat at 39% and 31% respectively, with the preferred candidate the previous president René Préval, Jude Celestin, on 12%.

Despite some protests, both peaceful and otherwise in the run up to polling day, the event itself passed off in relative calm. Any anger or frustration was primarily directed at the Minustah, the UN stabilisation mission that has been blamed for various problems - from heavy-handed tactics to causing the cholera outbreak that has claimed the lives of 1,800 men, women and children, since mid October.

The count is currenlty ongoing, with a final result expected on 20th December. Meanwhile the people wait with baited breath.

Haven’s operations were unfortunately affected by security concerns due to the political tensions. The UN and various embassies sent regular updates warning us of potential flashpoints.

Our projects in Gonaives and Ouanaminthe have been particularly affected. The Haven expat team were on ‘lock-down’ for three days at the end of November. This has been totally frustrating for us, as our work plans and schedules seem now to be constantly disrupted due to these pockets of violence and tension which seem to start very easily.

We also have to bear in mind the safety of our national staff when demonstrations get out of hand. If we feel that our staff is under threat or in danger, we send them home until the situation returns to normal. This results in hours and days of productivity being lost as well as putting all of the team on edge.

Not only are the team on edge but our families also. This week my wife, Sinead and I decided that Port au Prince was no longer a safe place for the family to live. Unfortunately she and my two boys Reuben and Louie, left Haiti’s capital, late last week, bound for county Cork via New York and Bornacoola, Leitrim.

Despite all of the dramatics Haven is still ploughing ahead on our Transitional Shelter projects which are funded by American Red Cross, Plan international and Oxfam America. To date we have 100 T-Shelters completed, and another 600 to go. The pressure is on big time to try and increase production to 100 units per month by the end of January.

Housing construction and upgrades continue at Gonaives, Cabaret and Ti Riviere. Last big push before a well deserved Christmas holiday. Bring on the Turkey!

Our cholera mitigation programme is on-going, distributing hygiene kits, oral rehydration sachets, and holding hygiene promotion sessions in the campsites and schools in which we are working, as well as with beneficiaries in Ouanaminthe and Gonaives.

The PAHO has estimated that a massive 400,000 lives will be lost within 12 months of the epidemic taking hold. However they also stated that the rate of deaths from the infection has now slowed to 2.3%, down from 9%.

It may be dim, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Until next week!

Friday, November 19, 2010

John Wain, Country Director, Port au Prince

Hi all,

Just a note on yet another eventful week in Haiti.

Official figures we have at the moment, as of the last report published by the UN, is that 16,799 people have now been hospitalized, and 1,039 people have lost their lives.

Again I must stress however that Dr Jim Wilson of Haiti Epidemic Advisory System (HEAS) believes that there is serious issue regarding under –reporting. It is estimated that that current official figures that have been clinically confirmed only represent a quarter of the true situation.

In Port au Prince where I am based, fear of the unknown is starting to set in. Distress is spreading among the population of the capital. People are now becoming aware of the dangers of Cholera, and are hearing about the growing death toll from the infection which originated in the Artibonite/Central Plateau region of Haiti.

The community’s of Port-au-Prince: Carrefour, Cite Soleil, Delmas, Kenscoff, Petion Ville, and Tabarre have seen increased numbers of case of cholera in recent days. As Port-au-Prince braces itself for a potential full-blown outbreak in the campsites, there is now significant air-time given to health advisory notices about prevention and treatment in advance.

People no longer shake hands when they meet and the subject of cholera is widely spoken about with anxiety among the estimated one million homeless still living in tents, ten months after the earthquake that devastated Haiti.

Medcin sans Frontiers (MSF) expect that they will soon run out of space to treat cholera patients in Port-au-Prince and are anticipating having to treat patients on the pavements, on the side of the road. Many may lose their lives as a result. Some people are fearful about having Cholera Treatment Centres located in their vicinity, while at the same time many realise that this can be of great benefit if you require treatment rapidly.

International NGO's and Haitian NGO's are all working together to treat those affected. These NGO's, have established lines of communications from extremely rural locations using online groups to request medical assistance simply just by using Blackberrys and iphones.

Thanks to these modern means of communications an SOS message can be sent and received within seconds, requesting, for example, medical staff, IV Fluids, antibiotics and re-hydration salts. These messages are reaching a community of hundreds of experienced people who are ready and willing to help with supplies, contacts and advice.

The approaching election is without doubt causing tension on the streets. You can see it on people’s faces when you meet them in the street. There has been some media coverage of the protesters who took to the streets in Cap Haitien on Monday last, setting fire to two buses used to block the main road across the main bridge into Cap Haitien.

Medical teams, and indeed Haven staff were evacuated from the region as riots broke out targeting the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and UN personnel. Of course these evacuations ultimately impact on the administration of much needed medical supplies, as staff we were no longer available to treat the sick.

I cannot over state how the full extent of this epidemic has yet to be realised.
Today a case has been confirmed in the Dominican Republic. Due to the problem of suspected official under-reporting and the rate of spread of the outbreak throughout seven departments, cholera has got a choke-hold on Haiti, and perhaps the entire island of Hispaniola.

Until next week,


Monday, November 15, 2010

John Wain, Country Director, Port au Prince

Every week in Haiti is a busy one, but this one has been particularly rough.

Cholera is spreading throughout the country rapidly. Every day the numbers are getting higher, now approximately 917 people have lost their lives to the infection and 14,600 are currently battling against it.

But these are just official numbers. I have been speaking with my colleagues based in rural Haiti and they insist that these figures do not even come close to the reality of the situation.

There are murmurings that those that co-ordinated the response effort did not move fast enough, and this infection has been allowed to take hold, and have a far greater impact on the country than what was anticipated just a few weeks ago.

For the last 10 months since the earthquake took place, the aid agencies have been focusing their efforts on Port au Prince, to the detriment it seems to the rest of the country.

But the aid community is now ploughing ahead. The Cholera Inter-Sector Response Strategy for Haiti published just a few days ago by the UN and its partners, anticipates a total of up to 200,000 people expected to show symptoms of cholera. The strategy calls for a total of $163,894,856, or €119,532,727.80 to be provided to fund the response to the outbreak.

On top of that Hurricane Tomas hit just off the west coast of Haiti last week.

Unfortunately Tomas brought heavy rain with him, in the bucket loads. Approximately 21 people lost their lives as a result of the hurricane and over 1,000 people were displaced from their homes, on top of the 1.3 million people already living in crowded camps and under tarps in the capital city for the last 10 months.

Haven have developed three operational sectors namely shelter (temporary & permanent), WASH (water & sanitation) and Community Development (CD) which is an integral component of all our projects.

In Port au Prince we have three major Transitional Shelter projects funded by Plan International, American Red Cross and Oxfam America. Our current target is for 700 T-Shelter units along with supplementary WASH and CD services. During the emergency phase of operations Haven constructed 1,360 latrines in 57 of the 1,300 internally displaced person (IDP) camps.

Haven are currently maintaining these latrines. This is a major task when you consider the fact that they were built with an initial six month lifespan and ten months have now passed.

Thankfully Tomas did little damage to the WASH programmes we have in place in the campsites. This was a huge relief as proper sanitation is now more crucial than ever to prevent cholera from reaching the people in the camps.

The hurricane put our T-Shelters to the test also, and I am glad to report that our projects passed with flying colors! All shelters were able to withstand the pummeling that came with the downpour.

The camps were extremely wet and we had to respond with some flood relief activities, but as usual the camp residents got involved, and a major catastrophe was avoided.

In an effort to mitigate against the spread of Cholera in the IDP camps, Haven have commenced a cholera prevention project. Our Community Development team was immediately dispatched to Gonaives to carry out an immediate ‘good hygiene’ practice exercise and distribute hygiene kits. Additionally, our Hygiene Promoters have been giving workshops in schools to teachers, students and student-peer groups about the dangers, symptoms and methods of prevention of cholera.

We are also in the process of implementing additional hygiene awareness training in the Haven camps, engaging the community on hygiene issues, using simple messages like ‘always wash your hands’, ‘never drink untreated water’, or ‘never walk barefoot’.

Our activities have started in 19 camps reaching out to about 35,000 people. This team are receiving $20 per week for two weeks and they will monitor the camps and submit reports to Colin Price, our WASH programme manager based here in Port au Prince.

Country wide Cholera is gaining momentum, and the number of people affected by the epidemic is growing. Haven volunteer, Dr John Morris has sent some grim reports back from Milot hospital, northern Haiti, where he is based, the situation there appears very bad.

Comparatively speaking, Haven is a young and small organisation. We are doing what we can to promote good hygiene and to try and mitigate against this latest scourge to descend on the Haitian people.

Of course, Presidential elections are still scheduled to proceed on 28th November and we are bracing ourselves for possible trouble. Another exciting week in the Caribbean!


Friday, May 28, 2010

Life in Ouanaminthe

Madame Dee put it nicely when she described her recent visit to Bas Dillaire as a “thriving community”, you should see us now Dee!!! The final leg of the village construction is nearly complete. Depending on the rains, we should be finished in four to five weeks.

We have started finishing off the roads and communal areas, the whole community is out planting and tending their gardens. Best of all we’ve started planting crops; each household is growing a particular variety of veg or citrus fruits, so that when everything is ripe the crop growers will exchange the produce within the community. The kids are up at 6am to water the plot, the pepper garden is coming on and we have set aside approximately 1.5 acres of unsuitable building land for a communal allotment. A donation of plants and vegetables gave the programme a kick start, and now everyone is competing with saplings and seeds from all around. All of the initiatives, meetings and challenges faced in getting this village off the ground seem a distant memory to the thriving community we now have.

Those of you who came to Ouanaminthe for Build it Week will be pleased to hear the refurbishment of the school toilet block is complete with new sinks, urinals, loo’s and three shower cubicles. We’ll shortly put the icing on the cake with a solar installation to power light, fans and a computer.

The recent funding influx from the EU has enabled us to commence the final leg – and it’s not just for building 200 homes. We have training underway in a host of areas, construction, road building, agri training, solar power, sanitation, community workshops – you name it! 150 trainees will work onsite over the next 18 months, before we finally hand over to the community.

One encounter I will never forget happened just a few weeks ago; having got the local men involved in setting out the roads and fencing, a group of women ‘door stepped’ me declaring that they are the ones who keep the home and will maintain the gardens, crops etc. They demanded some attention and volunteered for extra training which we simply have to find the funds for – or else! The horticulture trainers moved swiftly and set up an afternoon slot for these women, and they are really enjoying it. To get such a proactive response from the women is fantastic and they have started a community movement that is just phenomenal. You just have to see it to believe it.

Not forgetting the upgrade programme that we are doing to 250 existing homes in the area. Six teams of local tradesmen have nearly completed upgrades to 200 homes. These simple renovations involve repairs or replacement of the roof, cladding, installation of a concrete floor and weather proofing. More often than not the family is aged and the improvements are a massive boost.

To see the kids dressed to the nines tripping off to school is heartwarming, “bonjour Monsieur Joe”. In fact I Skype my daughter most days about 9am Haiti time just as she arrives back from school in Longford and she chats with a bunch of Ouanaminthe girls who stop by on their way to class. I don’t think they have a clue what they are saying to each other but laugh their heads off all the same. I don’t get a word in!

Life in Ouanaminthe is pretty settled already. Some people have acquired jobs on the basis of having a proper address, more are in training with Haven and others are working directly for the contractor.

Every day I chat to families who tell me their lives have been changed by Haven, they have pride beyond belief and this project, our first in Haiti will be a shining example of how to empower a previously helpless community. Your donations and dedication have changed the lives of so many. The founders were up recently for a visit, I think they were touched by the communal effort and are confident that we fulfill the vision.

So that’s it for now, as they say in Haiti… Everything in Ouanaminthe is “bonbagay”.


Thursday, May 6, 2010

Buckets of Rain and Shelter from the storm.

A scientific survey among the music buffs in Haven’s La Boule house has concluded that Bob Dylan’s ‘Blood on the tracks’ is the ‘Carlsberg’ Album (probably the best album etc...).
Haven's ‘young’ Water Sanitation engineer (and convert to Dylanism) reckoned that two of the tracks on that album: ‘Buckets of rain’ and ‘Shelter from the Storm’ would make a good title for a blog and given the conditions here last Sunday when we had torrential rain and strong winds for a six hour period, he was spot on.

There certainly were buckets of rain in the camps in and around Port Au Prince and there was very little shelter from the storm.

A visit to Camp de Sages, the next morning, where Haven are currently in the process of installing latrines and showers, puts the reality of life in camps into perspective. Committee leader Hugo points to the makeshift drainage channels around the shelters and the inadequate numbers of ‘Pwelas’ (Tarpaulines).

The drainage channels were inundated as rainwater and rubble were washed across the camp. But at least this camp is on high ground and shortly after the rains had stopped the water was gone. Not so however in our camps in Bon Repos (Good rest???). Bon Repos is low lying, so when the rain stops the waters remain. The cry of a very young baby echos around the camp and a young mother has to tend to baby while trying to make the shelter liveable again for another few days.

Haven usually installs ‘pit latrines’; but when the water-table is effectively at ground level, as it is in Bon Repos, you can’t use a pit!! So the local men, on a cash for work scheme, prepare the ground for a concrete tank which will sit partially above ground and partially below. The toilet cubicles will then be constructed on top of the tank. The tank will be vented and will need to be ‘de-sludged’ every four weeks.

In Camp se Sages by 10am on Monday morning, the ground is dry again, the wet clothes are dry and the people are in good spirits, the curious children run over shouting ‘Mon Blanc’ and shake our hands, the shyer ones hold on to their mothers’ hands but still extend a hand when we go over to them.

Back in Bon Repos by midday the air is heavy with moisture, the ground muddy but the children still greet us with shouts and the adults with Bonjou, alo, salut or bo’swa but always with a smile. It’s been said before, but the resilience the Haitian people is really astounding.

As we prepare to move on to the next camp we are asked how is Madame D or when will Madame ‘Deerdray’ be back. Madame D certainly made a huge impact here and helped in no small way to prepare her friends in the camps for the ‘buckets of rain’.

Come in she said, I’ll give ya, shelter from the storm!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Outside the emergency… there’s still an emergency

With the emergency in Port au Prince and surrounding towns, it’s natural to channel all energy and focus onto the huge humanitarian disaster that has unfolded here. But, Haiti is a country of some 9 million people and even before the earthquake it was desperately impoverished, with many needs. More than three-quarters of all Haitians, before January 12th, lived below the official poverty line of $2 a day.

This past week, I had the opportunity to travel to Haven’s two long-term development projects outside Port au Prince: our new building project in Gonaives and our first building project in Ouanaminthe.

Myself and a couple of colleagues made the trip to Gonaives by road, a journey of some three and a bit hours. The roads in Haiti leave a lot to be desired but the scenery is magnificent. You leave the throbbing capital, with its thronging streets and hustle and bustle behind and hug the coast for much of the way to Gonaives, with barren mountains forming a bleak but beautiful backdrop.

Gonaives is one of the biggest cities in Haiti and since the earthquake its population is estimated to have almost doubled from 100,000 people. This city has seen its share of troubles over the past decade – from political unrest to multiple hurricanes. The hurricanes wrought the most havoc. Jeanne came in 2004 and took 2000 lives and wiped out the homes of a quarter of a million people. No buildings were left untouched by this hurricane.

Just four years later, Hurricane Hanna ripped across Gonaives, taking 529 lives and causing massive floods and mudslides. Almost 50,000 were forced into temporary shelters after Hanna. But, one of the most disturbing things for me was seeing people still living under the tarpaulins they were given almost two years ago.

Like Rosana Phabius. She, her husband and her two daughters, one of whom has special needs, all live under an A-frame structure covered with plastic sheeting. These tarpaulins are very similar to the ones that we in Haven distribute to the camps in Port au Prince. But, we hope these are just a temporary solution – they are certainly not meant to be affording shelter more than 20 months after being distributed.

But, Madame Rosana will not have to live under her tarpaulins for much longer. She is one of Haven’s 144 beneficiaries in our new building project outside Gonaives. She told me about how frightened she is of the ‘big waters’. And who could blame her? In 2008, the floods following Hurricane Hanna swept away three of her sons, as well as her home. When the waters rise in Gonaives, she and her family go as quickly as they can to the local church which is the highest building in the area in search of safety.

Haven’s project in Gonaives is on high ground, which has no risk of flooding. The houses we are building are hurricane and earthquake resistant. Work on site is progressing really well and preparations are well underway for Build it Week, which is only just around the corner. Some 300 Haven volunteers and staff will descend on the area on April 25th of a one week intensive build – at the end of which, hopefully, Madame Rosana and her family will once again have a proper place to call home.

Excitement is certainly growing in the area as Build it Week approaches. There’s still a lot to do to prepare for the volunteers – including constructing the living and ‘playing’ or entertainment areas for the volunteers. But, we’re getting there. And with the hard work of our two main men on the site – Paul & JP – all will be alright on the night, as they say.

Thoughts of one Build it Week, inevitably lead to memories of another – our first Build it Week in Haiti in October last year. As part of our road trip last week, we also drove onto Ouanaminthe, the site of our first project, from Gonaives. Now that was a hairy ride.

The journey took us over mountain ranges with tiny roads, hairpin bends and sheer drops at the side of the road. The scenery is spectacular – Haiti is truly a beautiful country. But with massive articulated lorries thundering down the other side of these small, pot-holed roads, it was not always possible to drink in the scenery. I was too busy covering my eyes.

Haven’s project in Ouanaminthe is no longer a building site; it is a vibrant community complete with village life. 150 of the houses are now occupied and it was a real pleasure to spend time walking around the village, talking to the beneficiaries and in many cases being invited into their homes to have a look around.

The sense of pride and dignity that these people now feel is tangible. Like the elderly lady who lives in one of the houses with her daughter and son-in-law and four grandchildren. The house is immaculately clean. A wooden dresser, with the family’s treasured possessions has pride of place in the living room, but best of all, according to this lady when it rains the whole family stays nice and dry.

Families have been planting little gardens around their homes or setting out stones to mark out their areas. Last week, the women of the community organised to have a big clean up of the whole village and 60 of them took their brooms to the streets – to give the village a spring clean. While we complete the remaining houses on the site (we’ve been waiting for outside funding to come through in order to finish the housing project) and continue with our upgrade programmes, we are also implementing training and capacity building for the community.

Micro-credit and savings training will kick off shortly for all 200 heads of households in the Haven village; so too will a formal construction training for 30 young people living in the community. We’re also starting HIV/AIDS awareness programmes and info programmes on family planning. We’re trying to do what we say on the tin – “Building hope”. Judging from the atmosphere and the vibrancy of life in Ouanaminthe, we might just be achieving that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A tarp to call home...

The other day an overseas ‘visitor’ to the Haven projects in Haiti made a remark about how he thought that tarpaulins were ‘useless’ and a ‘waste of time’. Tell that to the families who are currently living under bed sheets and bits of cardboards in camps right the way around the city right now, was the not so kind retort from us Haveners.

As of now, almost 70% of the 1.3 million people estimated to have been left homeless as a result of the earthquake have received tarpaulins or tents from organisations involved in the shelter response, like Haven. That’s not bad going – but there are still thousands of families living in absolutely dire conditions and desperately in need of shelter.

The deadline is April 1st for rolling out tarpaulins to every family in Port au Prince and surrounding earthquake affected areas. And the clock is ticking for one main reason – the rainy season.

Rainy season is talked about here in sort of hushed whispers. And we’ve already had a taste of it. A couple of weeks ago, it rained every night for four days straight. Even though it may seem trite to say so, it was very difficult to sleep during those nights knowing that in the same city, hundreds of thousands of Haitians would be getting no sleep at all.

Last Thursday, it rained for 12 hours non-stop. This was not your misty Connemara type rain, or even the downpours that you get in early Spring (or summer, or autumn or winter for that matter) in Ireland – this was torrential, tropical rainstorms, complete with thunder and lighting. In other words – abject misery for those living in the camps. As always I was in the camps the next day – in fact showing potential donors from private industry around three of the places where we are building latrines and where we have given tarpaulins or the much-coveted tents.

Within minutes, all of us were covered in mud. The type of mud that sticks to the bottom or your boots and instantly makes you about four kilos heavier. Sucking, sticking, slimy mud. Our visitors, who were from the Dominican Republic, (and I hasten to add, not the people who made the snide tarp remark) were very gracious in their approach to the less than perfect conditions that greeted them in the camps. And the fact that their nice leather shoes were quickly ruined. But, then again, when you are looking at thousands of people who are forced to live in such conditions – not just visit - it quickly puts things into perspective.

What amazed them – and amazes me every day that I am in the camps – is the unbelievable fortitude and resilience of the Haitian people in the face of such adversity. And the sense of community. In one of the camps we visited, many people were going around barefoot – as there was little point in wearing shoes in the rivers of mud that ran between the houses. In another, within a couple of minutes or our arrival, two committee members, including a ravishing woman who has the most perfect nails on hands and feet I have ever seen, had found themselves wellington boots in order to navigate their way around the camp site.

The mud makes life miserable – but tarps make life bearable in the camps. It’s as simple as that. We have seen the difference that a couple of tarps can make to the comfort and ability of our beneficiaries to survive the rains in the camps. I have visited camps where families construct their shelters out of literally anything they can find. Bits of trees, cardboard boxes, bed-sheets sown together with hope and prayers that they will provide some form of shelter – but against the rain they are useless. The lucky families find bits of corrugated iron or wood and build shelters more reminiscent of Africa than Haiti – the sort of thing you would see in a slum in Nairobi or township in South Africa.

But, the difference a tarp can make is the difference between being wet or dry, getting sick or staying healthy. On a recent tarp distribution Haven brought 350 tarpaulins to a camp with the rather elegant name of Centre d’Ebergement Jean Mary Vincent. When we got there with our large boxes, it could not have been clearer that they were in desperate need. Not one family – some two months after the earthquake - had a tent or a tarpaulin to call home. They were all living under little more than bed sheets, held up by sticks. There was great celebration in the camp at our arrival – and not a hint of shoving or pushing or trying to get ahead of the queue for the tarpaulins.

We leave it up to the committees which run these camps to distribute the individual tarpaulins to each family. It gives them a sense of ownership and pride at the ability to help themselves – and they know each other. Which means that the committees will ensure that all those in most need get the tarpaulins.

Another camp, Lil Avois in the inaptly named Bon Repos, was another such camp without a tarp between the 280 families who lived there until Haven came. We visited again just a couple of days after the distribution and every family was now living under these strong plastic sheets. And, as the president (his name is Louis Stephenson, believe it or not) told me, “We’re not afraid of the rains anymore. They can come and we know that we will remain dry and safe under our tarpaulins.”

I wish our sceptical visitor to Haiti had met Louis and his camp, before passing judgement on our ‘useless tarps’. Or spent a night under a bed sheet in the rain. I don’t think he’d be calling them a waste of time then.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Talking sh*t

I don’t think I’ve ever talked so much sh*t in my life… And I don’t mean the esoteric, naval gazing, chewing the cud or just plain bull that most of engage in on a daily basis. I mean the real thing – excreta, faeces, stools… Not the sort of thing to talk about in polite company, but it is a reality that has to be faced by the hundreds of thousands of people forced to live in temporary camps as a result of the Haiti earthquake, more than two months ago now. And the aid agencies like Haven who are involved in sanitation.

Think about it. These ‘spontaneous’ camps have sprung up all over Port au Prince and surrounding towns. They are now home to people who have lost their real homes as a result of the devastating earthquake on January 12th. While the camps are certainly improving with better shelter getting to more than half of the camp residents – in the form of either tarpaulins or tents – the basic human needs of every one of the people living there still needs to be met. And all of us eat, sleep and defecate. And those of us engaged in the emergency response have to think about, plan for and provide for these needs.

That’s why Haven got involved in a large-scale sanitation programme in Port au Prince. We along with another 25 NGOs are building latrines in these camps – meant to be temporary, but I think we are all beginning to realise that they may be there for longer than the originally anticipated 3 to 6 months. The target is to build a total of almost 13,000 latrines before the end of March and another 21,000 latrines by the end of June. At this point in time, just less than 4,000 latrines have been built – of which Haven has built 389.

While very unpalatable for most people, and who can blame them, the bodily functions of the human is something that just has to be dealt with in an emergency situation. As people’s homes have been destroyed, and along with them, their toilets and sanitation facilities, we must address this and provide them with an alternative. Sanitation and shelter remain the two most urgent priorities of the emergency response, two months after the earthquake. And as every single person in every single camp produces two litres of waste every day, there is a lot that has to be dealt with.

Haven is one of the major players here in sanitation – and we’re very proud of the fact. As our founder Leslie Buckley said on his last trip to Haiti a few weeks ago, “for people who could barely spell the word ‘latrine’ before the earthquake, we’re not doing too badly”. And sanitation is about so much more than a toilet. It’s about dignity: allowing people privacy and stopping them from having to openly defecate on any piece of open ground there is. It’s about improving health: in some camps where we begin our work the committees report up to 50% diarrhoeal illnesses. It’s about preventing the spread of disease: we run hygiene programmes for adults and kids in all the camps which we work in.

In many senses building the latrines is the easy part. We meet with camp committees, either through referrals, or in many cases by people approaching us as we work in another camp to visit them. We speak to the communities about their needs and, very importantly, whether they have permission to build latrines on the land where they are living. Our excellent team of engineers and technicians get to work plotting out the dimensions of the latrines and we provide cash for work for residents of the camp – especially those who are carpenters or ‘bossmen’ as they are referred to in Haiti with construction experience. A matter of days later, the latrines are built by them, under our supervision.

The softer side of things, the development aspects often prove more difficult that the construction. Our team of community development workers engage with the committees in the camps explaining to them the importance of keeping the latrines clean every single day and, believe it or not, how to use them properly. We encourage the committees to form ‘sanitation committees’ who are responsible for cleaning the latrines on a daily basis. They do this in a voluntary capacity – as we are very keen to help communities take ownership and responsibility for their surroundings. This is no mean feat - getting people to take on the rather murky task of cleaning latrines on a voluntary basis. But, the fortitude and strong stomachs of the people we work with in the camps constantly amaze us.

It’s the kids who are often blamed for dirtying the latrines, as they do not quite understand how they work. One mistake that all of the NGOs made when beginning their work here in Haiti was installing what are referred to as ‘squat toilets’ – very common in Asia. These are simply not culturally appropriate for the Haitian people, who are used to the same sort of toilets as we have in the west. Haven was ahead of the posse here with our highly desirable sit-down toilets – made from wood and which look exactly like what anyone has in their own bathroom. Now all we install is our famous ‘blue boxes’.

So, I spend a lot of my time checking on the cleanliness of our latrines and talking to communities about the importance of keeping them clean “Not for my health, but for your health and the health of your children”, said in my bad French. It’s not a job for the faint of stomach – but someone’s gotta do it. And I cannot tell you how happy I am to see latrines that are spick and span. It’s the little things, I suppose. Our community development team run education programmes in all of our camps – and much of this is about repetition as education standards are often very low – in a country where literacy levels stand at around 54%.

But one of the nicest things about this ‘dirty’ job is seeing our community development workers run the children’s education programmes in the camps. Through song and play they teach the little ones, ranging in age from 3 to around 13 about the importance of proper hygiene. It’s not rocket science. It’s mainly around the key messages of washing your hands with soap before eating, after going to the latrine and after changing babies’ nappies. Simple, yet life saving. Particularly in a country where before the earthquake, one in 12 children never live to see their fifth birthdays. Unless we continue with these literally life-saving education programmes that figure will get rise in the much more difficult post earthquake situation.

So, I suppose talking sh*t is actually a matter of life of death here.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The people you meet

It’s the individual stories that hit you like a ton of bricks every now and again in Haiti. They are the ones that drive home to you why you are here and make all the frustrations of working in a country whose infrastructure prior to the earthquake would make a nun weep fade away.

Today when I was out scouting for more sites for Haven to build latrines and distribute tarpaulins I was brought to a sort of ‘backyard’ camp. These are not the tented villages or cities, which have sprung up all over, Port au Prince. Rather they are neighbourhood based – with families whose houses have been destroyed gathering in their tents in the grounds of a neighbour who may have been quite well off by Haiti standards. They are small gatherings – probably around 5 to 10 families living together.

One I visited was in the grounds of a huge property – a pink mansion - with around 8 families living in tents there. I spotted an elderly woman sitting under a type of canopy – and was told by community leaders that she was blind. I went to talk to her and gave her my hand to introduce myself. This 89 and 7-month-old woman clutched onto me like she was a drowning woman. She told me that she lived in Carrefour (which is around 20 miles away) and that she had lost everything in the earthquake. This beautiful old woman, with papery skin began to weep and could not stop as she told me that she did not know where she was, she had no concept of home anymore and all she wanted to do was to return to the familiar – her home. But, the earthquake means that she will never be able to do that. While a house may be rebuilt on her site, it will never replace what she has lost. This was one of the most moving experiences I have had since I came to Haiti almost a month ago.

Another woman I met was an 85 year old who now calls Camp Habitation Hatt in Port au Prince home. This feisty lady insisted on showing me her US passport. She does not have a word of English, despite her adopted nationality, and had been in Haiti visiting her family when the earthquake struck. Her family have lost everything and are now living in makeshift tents in one of the camps where Haven is working. While this lady could return to the US and no doubt a much better life whenever she wants, thanks to that dark blue passport, she is refusing to leave without her three daughters and their children. She may be in Haiti for some time. Particularly if the queues outside the US embassy everyday are anything to go by.

But besides the stories which would break even the most hardened hearts are the examples of fortitude of spirit and unbelievable resilience of the Haitian people, that makes all of us who are here so proud to be playing even a small part in the recovery. Like the 15-year-old boy who cares for his two little sisters everyday as his parents go out in search of food or work. This beautiful boy, with wise eyes and a quiet way showed us the shack that his family calls home. He was cooking lunch over a tiny three stone stove as his sisters, who could not have been older than three and four, stroked and played with their ‘pet’ chicken.

Or Charles, the leader of a community in a camp called Montreville. Charles is large in life and personality and carries around with him a walking stick embedded with crystals. Charles told me that he believed the earthquake was as a result of a fight between the devil and Jesus. He said the devil was teasing Jesus that he had many more followers who would take to the streets of Port au Prince to celebrate carnival, traditionally the weekend before Mardi Gras, or Pancake Tuesday to you and I. Charles says that Jesus got very angry at the devil’s taunts and to show him who was truly the greater leader, he stamped his foot down onto the earth with all his might, causing the earthquake which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. And when he did, according to Charles, all the people of Port au Prince cried out for Jesus to save them. Proving he is indeed the more powerful leader.

Spirituality and Christianity is a huge part of Haitian life – and all the more so since the quake. Every camp has its own makeshift church which is packed to the gills on Sundays, for prayer services that last hours. Singing, swaying and giving loud thanks accompanies these services. In some ways, it’s difficult to see why the Haitians are thankful, having lost so much. But, I suppose sometimes it takes losing a lot to realise the value of what you have. We could probably learn a lot from that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Moving and Shaking

I’m beginning to understand why the Haitians are refusing to go back inside their homes weeks after the earthquake. Three aftershocks in less than 24 hours would make the most foolhardy, brave or indifferent person question the sanity of living indoors in Port au Prince. Particularly when the might of earthquakes are only too apparent everywhere you go.

The first aftershock that I experienced since my arrival in Haiti almost two weeks ago happened two nights ago at around 4:30am. There was a sort of low-level roar and it felt as if you were standing just above an underground train as it rushed past below. It only lasted a few seconds – but it was immediately clear that it was an earthquake. Or aftershock as the scientists would say. It measured a ‘modest’ 4.7 on the Richter scale.

The funny thing for me was that I had been awake for hours before the aftershock struck – which was unusual given how bone tired I had been going to bed the night before. And when the Haven team were all discussing the quake at breakfast – the only thing we talked about – one of my colleagues said exactly the same thing. We surmised, rightly or wrongly, that some sort of animal primitive instinct must have told us that something was going to happen and we were preparing for it. Very little sleep was had by any of us that night – even though we know we are living in a sturdy house that has been given the all clear from an engineer.

But, if I were going to be absolutely honest, I’d have to admit that there was something a little bit cool about having felt the aftershock. A sort of feeling of belonging to the club of the earthquake experienced. This was of course because it was so relatively mild, and we knew very quickly that the quake had had no major impact –no further damage and certainly.

So, when I went to bed last night I somewhat foolishly thought that there was no way that there would be another aftershock so quickly. But, I was wrong. At 1:30am this morning, there was an almighty crash and what felt like a much greater movement – although again only for a few seconds. It was very loud – enough to make me sit bolt upright in bed, all senses completely alert, despite having been very deeply asleep (dog tired again). This time, I will admit, I was a bit scared. It was the noise, as much as the tremors – and as I said, it felt a lot stronger than the previous evening.

The animals go mental when a quake strikes. All the dogs, cats, cockerels, chickens and birds bark, howl and squawk like they are about to meet their maker. You couldn’t blame them. But, they do calm down and a sort of eerie silence descends. For me, every sense feels heightened and you are attuned to every sound around as you lie in bed contemplating the extraordinary power of nature – its mighty awe.

So, when the next quake struck around 10 minutes later, there was no rude awakening – I was already wide awake. It felt just as strong as the first one, although it may not have been as loud. I must admit, I bolted for the door, although I did stop myself from running outside. Probably because again it was over so quickly. This time I really was frightened. Two in a row. So close together. What did this mean? With no scientific knowledge of quakes, the mind runs riot. Once again, very little sleep was had last night.

But, what the three aftershocks have taught me is to appreciate where the Haitian people are coming from when they refuse to sleep inside, refuse to return to their homes, even if they are intact in the capital after the quake.

I’m embarrassed to say that I almost scoffed at one of my Haitian colleagues, who was in Ouanaminthe, not Port au Prince when the Jan 12th earthquake struck. She refuses to sleep in the Haven house in the capital when she is working here with us, preferring instead to stay out in the open with the rest of her family in the back yard of their devastated home. She prefers a tent and the great outdoors. And I’m beginning to see why.

The other thing that really struck me about these series of aftershocks is how the brave residents of Port au Prince are now almost revelling in their decisions to eschew the interior for the exterior. Of course one of the hot topics of conversations post after shock is how did it make you feel. Every one of the Haitians I spoke to today said they didn’t mind them at all. Of course they have seen the worst that Mother Nature can do in terms of earthquake. And these aftershocks were ‘modest’ as the BBC put it today. But, it was more than that. It was verging on congratulatory that they had made the ‘right’ choices by refusing to move back inside their homes.

As someone involved in the whole area of shelter – and in Haven’s case, providing much more than a house – a home, this is both interesting and challenging. Will the people of Port au Prince and surrounding areas who survived the big quake ever want to return to their homes? Will they never want to live inside concrete again?

One of the main priorities of the response from the international community, the NGOs like Haven working in the emergency and indeed the government of Haiti, is to certify the houses still standing and, if they can are deemed safe, to get the families to move back into them. But, with the attitude of the earthquake survivors being so vehemently against the ‘inside’ it may take a lot more than a piece of paper to convince them to venture back to what most of us consider the safest place in the world – home.

Friday, February 19, 2010

First Impressions

It’s hard to know how to prepare yourself for arriving in the midst of a humanitarian disaster of the scale of the earthquake in Haiti. Even if it is one month on and life, for at least some of the survivors in Port au Prince, is returning to normal. It was exactly one month to the day since the earthquake when I arrived in Haiti to join Haven’s emergency response team last Friday.

Even as you drive out from the airport you immediately see the camps that some of the estimated 1 million homeless Haitians now are living in. It’s strange. One side of the airport road has very formalised tents, set out in neat rows, braced down with plenty of space between each one. The other side of the road is teaming with people, with what can only be kindly described as makeshift tents, squashed together, practically on top of one another. These ‘tents’ are made of whatever material is available to the owners – plastic bags, cardboard boxes, bed sheets, if they are lucky some plywood or corrugated iron.

The latter scenes are replicated everywhere you go in Port au Prince. A million people have been left homeless as a result of the earthquake – at least half of these have fled the capital to other parts of the country not as affected. The other half a million are now living in these temporary camps. Some, like the people on the left side of the airport road are lucky. They have gotten proper tents, have access to food, water and some class of sanitation. The others are not so lucky.

Aid is getting out there – but the need is so huge it is difficult to reach everybody and address every need. But, we are all doing our bit. Haven is mainly involved in two ways – providing latrines in 16 of the temporary camps across Port au Prince to prevent the spread of disease, improve health and give back dignity to the people and then secondly in providing temporary shelter to families living under bedsheets before the rain comes in Haiti. And it’s coming soon. We’re also involved, as part of these programmes, in providing cash for work for people living in the camps and improving sanitation and hygiene through education programmes.

But, as you travel around PaP, as a newbie, you cannot help your jaw dropping as you see buildings literally razed to the ground. You turn a corner, and there’s another massive pile of rubble which was once a home, or an office, or a shop. You think to yourself, no one could have survived if they were in that building. And you are probably right. It is overwhelming. And unbelievably sad.

One of the other things that really struck me in my first 24 hours in Haiti was driving through the capital at just after 5am on Saturday morning. As we passed by one of the large informal camps I saw literally hundreds of people queuing quietly in the dark. I asked the Haitian driver I was with what were they doing – they were waiting patiently, quietly, determinedly for food. There was no sign yet of the food truck – the people were just beginning to queue early. Perhaps there was nothing else to do but wait.

The other thing that is crystal clear here is the fear of the Haitian people. Everyone fears another earthquake. No one wants to sleep indoors anymore – even if their houses were not damaged by the quake. People may stay around their houses – in the open mind you – during the day. But, when night falls, many communities close off their streets with makeshift barriers, made of rubble, sticks or whatever else they can lay their hands on. They then sleep in the open. Feeling safe in the knowledge that no roof will cave in on them tonight.