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.