The nature of my trip to Haiti was quite different from all of those many people who have spent time there in the last couple of months as part of international aid organizations. For one thing, I spent as little time as possible in Port-au-Prince, the area most profoundly affected by January's earthquake. With three other women, I traveled to the island of LaGonave to work with people in communities far from the reach of most active aid organizations. The emphasis of the trip was to get to know the people in these communities, see what they did well and then to maintain the friendship between their community and ours in the US that has been building for several years.
This relationship has been enriching for both ends. The expertise we offered was in the areas of medicine, public health, soil and crop health, and art in education, and potentially to contribute to womens' economic independence. They gave us good food, wisdom, love and a two week crash course in sustainable living.
Haiti has been poor for so long that receiving charity has become normal for many people. Nevertheless, the people whom I came into contact with on my trip were among the most hard working, creative and industrious I have ever been around. It is these characteristics that allow them to live fairly successfully on an island like LaGonave, which has long ago been raped of many of its natural and left for dead. This island now blooms with kitchen gardens, farms, churches, schools and vibrant woman's rights groups. It is in the spirit of supporting them in the good work they already do, rather than "helping" them do it our way that we made our visit.But, despite my admiration, it was clear that the challenges the islands residents face are many, especially after the earthquake has destroyed many of their homes and brought an influx of refugees who stretch the communities' ability to provide shelter, food and water.
Nancy Casey, the woman who made this trip happen, wrote me a letter from Haiti after I got home, bringing into focus the needs that people still have:
Last night I had a conversation with myself about "stuff," beginning with questions about why I keep waking up in the middle of the night with a weighty sense of dread? It's because I'm so overwhelmed by what I've been seeing.
Abner has taken me out to a couple of communities where the school has been helping people rebuild houses -- with money we raised. When I sent money, I asked that it be spent on places that are likely to see no support of any kind.
It's like the descending chain of trickle-down. If LaGonave sees any of the mega-aid for Haiti, it won't be for months, and most of it will fall into the wrong hands. Matenwa is a little better off because of what comes in through the school. Our donations have gone to places that the school doesn't ordinarily reach. Some of these people are still in housing crises from the four hurricanes that struck in four weeks, two years ago.
The "program" works under these principles: Relief is a community effort; Communities support their members and aid should help communities do that. Aid means help, it doesn't mean do-for-you. This means that we aren't building houses for people so much as helping communities be stronger and meet their own needs.
The first place we visited was a town called Plezans. There are 92 houses damaged or destroyed. "Damaged" sometimes means whole slabs of cement walls fell down and are propped back up with sticks. People are still sleeping in them. Destroyed means that the houses are/were a pile of rubble. In that community one house has been rebuilt (one room, four meters by four meters) and one was repaired, for a total cost of about $1800. Abner Sauveur, the school director, is orchestrating this effort, with help from Balaguel and Elijen (Farming is Life) and Afelene (Fanm Kouraj who visited here a few years ago). They have organized the people with affected houses to meet together and decide who is most in need. In Plezans, they chose to repair the house of a single woman with six kids and that of an elderly woman whose daughter is dying. The other 90 people get to wait and hope.
The school pays for cement, rebar, boards to make a door, a couple of hinges. They have a fixed amount they are willing to pay the builders and masons, less than what they would make in better times and put pressure on them to "work for the community" and not charge the homeowner more. The homeowner gets the sand and the water (a couple hundred gallons carried on their heads), feeds the workers and does a few other things. Mostly they have to borrow money to do it. There's still a hunger crisis here, people struggle to eat, fight over MREs on the dock. Abner is adamant about not doing it all for people. Everyone is suffering, he says. Nobody gets full relief.
People are so glad to see me. They think that my presence means a lot more help is on the way. I really don't know what my presence means.
In another town I took pictures of a house where a woman is living with her ten children. It has so many bulges and cracks that it looks like it would blow down in the wind. In part of the conversation she mentioned how hard it is for her to negotiate with the builders and workers because she is a woman alone without a man to help her out. I ask where the father of all these children is. Shall I say tsk, tsk about making all these babies with who-knows-who? She answers that he had gone to Port au Prince to find work, and after the earthquake, was never found. One of the many hauled off by the truckload and buried in a mass grave. She starts to cry. I try not to cry. Abner says stop crying, you're alive. There is nothing you can do to help the dead. You have ten children, you have to keep moving. Abner talks to her about birth control. After we leave he says, she's going to get another man. A woman with no money isn't going to be able to get three truckloads of sand any other way.
It's just plain overwhelming. I think of things like "What's your house payment? What's your rent?" Is it feasible to raise the kind of money needed here by having fundraisers alone? Would the hippie builders want to help somehow? Imagine what we could do with a half-percent of what people spend on building and remodels? The Rotary is another organization that comes to mind.
I just feel so overwhelmed by all this.
In some ways I feel like a fraud because I have no clue how to deliver the kind of aid that's needed. Yet people say, if you can help buy a sack of cement or a bowl of rice, it's help. If you can't do anything at all, thanks for coming to see us.
And yet, I had a long talk with Elijen and Balaguel about how suspicious people are of all sorts of aid, because of the long history of the mishandling of it. World Vision (where USAID money goes) rebuilt a few houses after the hurricanes. They required user participation like this program does, but didn't use local workers. The workers they brought in made a bundle of money that didn't stay in the communities. A lot of houses were never finished. The people who made the most money in Haiti were the ones who run around in air conditioned trucks.
The most money of all was made by the Americans, who administer the program from the US. If they come to Haiti they make $1000 day or so for the hardship of being here. That's the way it goes.
When the earthquake happened, the very day, with an hour of daylight remaining, Elijen and Balaguel started walking around doing surreptitious assessments. They were afraid that if people knew they were doing it, they would believe they were making money off of them in their misery, and would even come after them for the money if things got dire enough.
It's astonishing to watch Abner navigate all this in his conversations in these towns. In one place he brought the builder around from a position of not having decided yet how much he was going to charge nor how many days the work would take -- to committing to the going rate, two thirds, and the number of days. By explaining that he wasn't working for Abner, that he wasn't going to get to bill Abner, and by asking wasn't he working for his community, helping out this man here and his family who are homeless? Abner knows when to laugh, when to press, when to change the subject and even where to sit. This could never happen without him (and people like him). We joked that, where he can get a house built for $1000, I could build half the house for about $5000. Guess this is the ramble of details that says we can be pretty confident that the money we send is used wisely. And the need is astonishing.
Elijen says that everyone thinks that the earthquake struck a few cities because that where the rubble and the camps are. But the deaths were deaths of people from the countryside and it's the countryside that's absorbing the homeless from the city are now all here. Hurricanes will be disastrous.
This is just housing. Because I've been on a housing tour this week. Which distracts me from human rights, hunger, farming and environmental concerns.
When asked how to give donations of money, Nancy suggests:
Send a (tax-deductible) check to our fiscal agent VP Foundation PO Box 9757 Moscow, ID 83843. Tag it: shelter, food, women & children, agriculture, health, or as needed. Online, you can donate by going to www.couragewoman.org and click on "Donate".
A link to a page with donation information:
People have been amazingly generous in the direction of Haiti since the earthquake, and I have no intention that this post be another plea for money. Still, sometimes giving money is all we know how to do.