Kate in Haiti's Blog

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Still standing June 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateinhaiti @ 3:39 pm

The hurricane season has started. Hurricane Alex (as you probably know, hurricane are named alphabetically in each season) passed by us last week, and a wild and wet visitor he was. He took away most of the tents on our campsite, and soaked most of everything else that we have in our uplands base. And he wasn’t even categorised as a hurricane by the time he made landfall here; instead, he was just a small yellow swirl, barely the level to be categorised as a tropical storm. Hurricanes Celia and Derby are building themselves up nicely offshore, somewhere in the Atlantic as we speak. I’m not sure what happened to the ‘B’ hurricane, but I can only be thankful that it didn’t come to anything and went by without us even noticing it.

The people here are all still living in tents, and the tents took a beating from Alex. I – and I’m sure, they – worry so much about the upcoming letters of the alphabet, and how many of them will be like Alex, how many like the mysterious ‘B’, and how many like more ominous names ….. Katrina, for example.

Before I came to Haiti a man in a church I was at told me that he believed that the earthquake in Haiti was God’s punishment on a people who had gone away from God and were worshippers of Voodoo. The fact is, the United States get just as many earthquakes and hurricanes; annually, they prepare and survive several events. The only difference is poverty; and that isn’t God’s curse on these people, it is man’s. In the States they have houses built to withstand earthquakes – in 1982 a similar size earthquake to the one in Haiti on January 12th struck the San Andreas fault. Only 41 people died in the States, but 210,000 died in Haiti. Every year in the Southern States homes are braced against cyclones, with shutters and shelters – but in Haiti people live in crudely constructed shelters, or currently tents, which could never be designed to withstand such windspeeds, and with a Government that does not have the capital to be able to provide safe shelter for it’s people. 

We have been talking to some of the people in this area about how they deal with hurricanes, and many of them talk about going to the church or school for shelter. Of course this year, the church or school is just a pile of rubble, and the hurricanes are still coming.

The last week I have been spending all my time involved in writing the funding proposal for the coming year, deciding what activities we will be doing, what projects we will be involved in, and trying to work out in the budget how we can afford it. I felt proud as I watched my colleague spend an evening playing around with the design for the shelters we will be building so that he could improve the design and give the people more space for the same amount of money. But it doesn’t help me feel less guilty; sat here with my laptop, ruthlesslessly cutting projects we can’t afford to do, deciding where to spend our funding and where we can’t afford to intervene. In our draft we originally wanted to build 10 schools to a standard that they would serve as hurricane shelters, and protect whole communities for the annual onslaught; funding restrictions, and the capacity of of our staff, have cut us back to 5. I don’t think that we should feel any more negativley about that – five hurricane shelters will have a huge impact in this region, and may even save lives – it will certainly give many families the peace of mind they crave, and release them from their current fears. I guess however long I do this job, I never quite feel like I can do enough.

Someone told me recently that I had to get past my desire to want to save the world. Saving the world is God’s job, and He is managing just fine in doing it. As long as I do what I am meant to do to play my part, I should live my life in freedom, not guilt. To the person who wisely told me that, I can only say that I keep learning and  that I keep trying to take your advice. With God’s help, I might get there one day.

I attach a photo of our valiant toilet, our loo with a view, that survived Hurricane Alex. Where all other tents failed, he stayed standing. It’s the same with the resiliance of the people here too; although they lost so much, they stayed standing – and with whatever they were left with, they started to rebuild. Hope did not fail them, and I pray it will not fail me too.


Smiling through the week June 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateinhaiti @ 2:28 am

Some sights make me smile. Even after years, the unusual and the surreal still bring a smirk to my face – no matter how many times I have observed such events, they never fail to amuse. Two such events happened to me last week.

The first was when I was visiting one of the children’s clubs which Tearfund runs in the Leogane region. We operate 45 children’s clubs in the 5 districts in which we work, with another 30 clubs opened this week. Each week children meet to hear health education messages, and to feel the psycho-social support of being together and being able to talk about their experiences. We also teach ‘Disaster risk reduction’ – which basically means, we teach them what to do if there’s an earthquake or hurricane to give them the best chance of survival. It is a sad truth that many people died in Haiti because they simply didn’t realise that they should go outside. So I had walked an hour over a mountain path to reach this club; working in rural and mountainous locations, my team think nothing of walking for 3 hours up and down mountains to reach schools we are supporting. Some of the children got up to perform a song, the words of which teach children what to do if they have diarrhoea. (Again, it is a sad truth that, across the world, many children die simply because they believe that you cure diarrhoea by stopping taking in fluids – which is the exact opposite to what you need to do). So up get this group of little girls and sing this song. And they are all wearing safety goggles. Yes, that’s right – safety goggles. I had no idea that singing about diarrhoea was such a high risk event (although some have suggested that perhaps their prior experiences of diarrhoea made the goggles a wise precaution). Or perhaps Health and Safety has really gone a step too far. Either way, I smirked all the way back up the mountain to the road.

Yesterday morning I had to attend the Catholic church in the community where we have our Uplands base, to represent Tearfund at a community celebration for the Festival of Saint Antoine. A three-hour service, in French, in a hot and crowded room, wasn’t my preferred choice of how to spend the only day off a week that I get, but the duty had to be done. We are currently camping on land owned by the Nuns and as such we had contributed towards the event and had to attend. Writing about the Sisters would be a whole entry to this Blog on it’s own, so I will save that for another day …… right now, I am in church, looking at my watch, when it comes the time for the collection to be taken – and suddenly the whole uncomfortable three hours is worth it. A team of women dressed in matching clothes take around the collection baskets, and everything is going in there – live chickens, bananas, bottles of rum, ears of corn, and one very bemused live turkey. They all get piled into the baskets, and I am sat disappointed that I only had money to contribute. Then, as if the spectacle wasn’t already fabulous enough, the baskets then got put on the women’s heads and danced down the aisle!

The sight of chickens strapped into baskets, dancing down the aisle on peoples heads to the sounds of glorious singing, is the image that will get me through a very busy week. We have two weeks to write two funding proposals (which isn’t long) and I am still trying to get my Uplands team into better accommodation than tents before the hurricanes hit. We had a red hurricane warning today; momentary panic was fortunately replaced a couple of hours later when it was downgraded – but I feel that this fear will be ever-present until they are out of tents and into buildings. Here in the lowlands, we are now into our house, and even have furniture. Surreal as it is to sit on my comfortable sofa and look out of the window to see the collapsed building across the street, I remain grateful. Even more so perhaps.


A battalion of bastards June 10, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateinhaiti @ 2:24 pm

I am under attack, and my enemy are getting organised. By night they silently skirmish themselves into formation – poised to attack as soon as I awake, catching me unawares. They lie in wait in their ranks, biding their time.

Yes, I am talking about mosquitos. And I have never met a more evil and predatory race of them anywhere in the world. In the morning I open my eyes and there are loads of them on the other side of my mosquito net, just waiting for me to come out. They are patient little bastards; sitting there until I awake and then as soon as I open my net a crack, they’re in and feeding. I have had to start sleeping with insect spray so that I can kill them from within my net before the coast is clear to get to the bathroom in the morning.

If you know of a sure fire way to kill these evil genuis’, please do send it my way, before my skin is just one big patchwork of bites!


Home sweet Home June 8, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateinhaiti @ 7:50 pm

My arrival in Leogane was not really as I expected. Having come from the team house in Port au Prince, where I had my own room and standing fan (and, indeed, bed), finding that we were all sleeping in the office was quite a shock. My gear ended up next to the safe, getting ineveryones way, and although I got  a matress, the National staff are still sleeping on thermarests in mosquito domes on the veranda. The surreal thought of waking up in the morning and meeting my staff for the first time in my pyjamas as I headed with my toothbrush to the bathroom meant that I hardly slept on Sunday night and rose briskly at 6am to avoid such an introduction to the people I would be working worth for the next year and a half. By this time next month I will have 9 expatriot staff and at least 6 Haitian staff who require housing (our senior staff who are recruited from Port au Prince are accomodated here, as it is not their home place), so fortunatly work was progressing on a house in the plot that adjoins the office to prepare it as a team house for the expats. We moved into the bizarrly laid-out house last night; 5 bedrooms, a bathroom which is bigger than almost all the bedrooms, and one of the rooms is in the centre of the sitting room, in the centre of the house – which will make for a loud, hot, and rather exposed location, as the window looks out into the sitting room. All I could think for the first day was, “I have 4 beds, a 5 bedroom house, and 15 staff to accomodate”. The maths was not working out for me. I just hope we get some furniture at some point  …… Port au Prince logistics, who sleep each night in their comfortable beds in their sole occupancy rooms with a standing fan to keep them cool :-),  say it’s coming soon.

But greater than my accomodation woes are the woes of my valient Uplands team. The project here is split site; I have the office and team here in the Lowlands, by the coastal area, and then I also have another team who work in the Uplands, in the mountains. Currently I have a dozen staff living in tents on the top of a mountain. In hurricaine season. And that is freaking me out. We have got land up there to establish a site but so far it is only partly walled, and that is all. It will be about another month before the hurricaines really kick in, but as I write this the lightening is flashing outside my window and the rain is pouring and it is making me more and more nervous that the winds are not going to keep to my optimistically late schedule. But one thing for which I do envy the team is their view. I can see the mountains from here and the walker inside me is just desperate to get up them. I have seen photographs of the view from the campsite and I am jealous (and slightly worried that once I have been up there, I won’t want to divide my time equally between the two locations, as I should). This is a truly beautiful country.


A foreign, yet familiar, land. June 5, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — kateinhaiti @ 3:23 am

Well, finally I am here and ready to start my messages into cyberspace. Thank you for joining me, and I hope that I’ll be able to give you an impression of the country of Haiti and the work that I’ll be doing here with Tearfund.

I arrived in Port au Prince yesterday morning after what seemed like forver in the air. Actually, in reality, (and when not on unexpected detours with American Airlinesines due to my BA flight being cancelled because of the strike) Haiti is much more accessible for me that Darfur ever was. I am only a 2 hour flight from Miami, or 5 hours to New York, directly. When I lived in Garsila I was two days flying just to get to the capital city of Khartoum, and then a 7 hour flight to Amsterdam. Now I can drive from my field site in Leogane to Port au Prince in 2 hours, and then be in Miami 2 hours later – without the need to have secured an exit visa in advance. The feeling of freedom and access to the outside world is quite liberating.

On the drive from the airport to the Tearfund house I was struck by just how like West Africa it is. If you had dropped me here, I would have said we were in Monrovia in Liberia – were it not for the French writing. Maybe Gambia or another Francophone country instead. People line the streets, selling a variety of things from their heads – plantain chips, assortments of vegetables, and other random and amusing items. I saw a man selling bras out of a wheelbarrow and could have been transported to the market in Monrovia, where the seller would shout your bra size to you as you walked by – and was usually correct – while wearing one of his products. Everything is sold from the side of the street; large metal gates for sale, three peice suites, chickens, goats, second hand American clothing and flags in preperation for the world cup (they are mostly supporting Brasil here, if you were wondering). The shops have names like ‘Merci Jesus pharmacie’ and ‘Ange de Deiu supermarket’. Overcrowded public buses are brightly coloured and covered in slogans of a similar nature; my favourite so far said ‘Welcome Darling’ on the inside as you entered. Long potholed roads curve up and down hilly streets, packed with cars and no identifiable road rules.

It is true that you see many buildings which have collapsed, but I was also surprised by how many buildings survived. Even the squatters in collapsed buildings reminded me of Monrovia, where buildings had collapsed not because of an earthquake but due to the civil conflict. Communities of tents can be found along the road, mini-camps which have been established by people who have either lost their homes or are too scared to live in them aagin if they survived. Many building I saw had tents outside them; people who were too scared to sleep inside anymore. As the hurricaine season approaches quickly, I wonder how long it will be before they are forced back inside by a more present fear. A terrible choice for them; trapped between their fears of two ever-present natural disasters.

Tomorrow I will make the drive to my new base in Leogane. I am excited to see it, and to get stuck into the work there. It sounds like theres still alot to do, but it is exciting too to be able to have such a position of  influence over the direction that Tearfunds work will take here. I will writie more soon, and take some photos for you.

Thanks for coming with me ….