Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to grips with Port au Prince

I have been in Haiti just over three weeks now. Week one consisted of Build it Week madness, when 350 volunteers, largely from Ireland descended on the unsuspecting city of Gonaives NE of Haiti. Having raised an absolute minimum of EUR€4,000 to travel, the generous group provided for their upkeep while in Haiti, contributed to the cost of the 80 houses and community facilities built in Gonaives, and laboured on the site to finish some of the work already done by Haven’s local workforce who had been present on the site for months before.

Week two was spent at the desk in Port au Prince, tidying up a few loose ends from Build it Week, getting to grips with my new challenges ahead and meeting my colleagues at Haven’s Port au Prince office. For the first few days I shadowed Haven’s Country Director, John Wain and battled with the Mosquitoes who seemed to love the new Irish blood in town! We attended one meeting with one of our donors, Oxfam America, who had invited representatives from local NGO’s to discuss the topic of Decentralisation – of all things! I was waiting for Charlie McCreevey to arrive in the door, light bulb in hand!

Many of these NGO’s were presenting the argument that the new administration must provide state services in the rural regions, while also retaining these services in the already overcrowded capital city. These representatives wanted to empower the regions to make their own decisions, and in turn provide jobs in the area, which would encourage people to remain living in regions, and reduce the number of people flocking to Port au Prince.

The following week I immersed myself into Community Development which I am slowly discovering is anything but straightforward and I am beginning to understand why they say “Building the house is the easy part”! I studied numerous Terms of Reference documents, consultant reports, and investigated a variety of organisations working in regions that we are hoping to work in, and others in which we currently have a presence. All while tapping into the brains of my Port au Prince based colleagues who know so much about what is happening around here, I am in absolute awe. Plenty of food for thought, but I have so much to learn!

Easter weekend saw Haiti grind to a halt. Everyone took a well-deserved holiday. The staff are a great bunch but I’m sure it must be challenging for them working the long hours and living, socialising and working together 24/7!

Haiti is a very catholic country and thus Easter is a significant event and a big Church day for the Haitians. However unlike Ireland there are no Chocolate bunnies or eggs to be found. My colleagues/housemates and I did not have a scavenger hunt, for the Easter Egg in the back garden. But luckily Siobhan’s (one of the Irish volunteers) mum did manage to smuggle some small Lindt rabbits into America, which Siobhan duly carried to Port au Prince and kept one as a surprise for this chocolate starved, chocolate addict! Thank you Mammy Kennedy, thank you Siobhan!

Another Easter tradition is the Ra Ra dance which we saw driving down the street’s of Port Au Prince on numerous occasions. This is a Haitian dance similar to a march, done only by men, moving along to the beating of a drum. Those taking part are almost in a trance! Not an average Good Friday!

On Easter Sunday we visited the beach – often we forget just how beautiful Haiti really is. Aside from the devastation caused by the earthquake, on top of years of abuse, the coastline is particularly beautiful, with pebble beaches and warm green water that begs for bathers. It would be rude not to!?

This week I attended my first Shelter Cluster Meeting. The provision of Shelter is Haven’s primary focus, and as such I was very keen to tag along. Unfortunately my French is only of average Leaving Cert standard, so when the first half of the meeting was delivered in French, by native French speakers, I struggled to catch the detail. Luckily the second half of the meeting, presented by the International Haiti Reconstruction Commission (IHRC),was in English.

This was particularly interesting as their Housing Team outlined, or tried at least, their strategy for Haiti ‘going forward’. Repairs and rubble removal were identified as two main areas of focus for them. They also spoke of the importance of the new Administration and their commitment to Shelter, as contained in their manifestos at least. The team did assert that an effective housing model had not yet been found for Haiti, and the sustainable reconstruction or indeed construction of the country.

That evening the exterminators arrived. Hurrah! Goodbye swollen red bites, goodbye sticky, smelly 100%, (impenetrable until it met me) DEET, hello again, pale Irish skin. Goodbye mossies, I will NOT miss you! But to exterminate the house, we too had to be evacuated. So we sought refuge in a nearby hotel. It was there that we ‘bumped’ into Sweet Micky Martelly, the recently elected President of Haiti. He worked the room, and had a word with almost everyone. He shook our hands, and joked in Creole (sorry,pardon) about his good form, or so I am told. It was only what I could describe as a ‘Bertie moment’, he worked the room, everyone felt special in his company, and he was gone. Not a Bass in sight.


Louise Glennon is Communications Officer for Haven, based in Dublin, but seconded to Haiti for two months.