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.