Building a haven in Haiti

After spending a week in Haiti with the Haven Parternship, Deirdre O’Shaughnessy reflects on the challenges facing the country in the years ahead.

It’s the dirt that hits you first. Poverty is dirty. Poverty means rusted tin cans, broken glass, polystyrene takeaway trays and plastic bottles. They are everywhere.

Ripped, dusty shreds of black plastic salute the onlooker, whipping in the wind from gnarled bushes. Rocks litter the landscape, and dust flies up before the wheels of the four-by-four.

Galvanised metal and dirty plastic sheeting blot the vista, until you look closer and realize the brightly coloured dots beside them are people, and the rubbish is their homes. Goats can be seen tottering precariously on cliffsides, wandering across roads and foraging in deforested, dusty expanses for rubbish and stray vegetation.

Travelling from Port au Prince to Haven’s Build It Week building site in Gonaives, Northern Haiti (about 170km, a six-hour journey by bus), the landscape changes from filthy, dusty urban, to rural poor, and back. The road is rough in places and almost non-existent in others. As we travel it is Sunday evening, and there are people, beautifully dressed in their best, going to and from church.

In one village, we pass a wedding; a woman’s exquisite white dress among the churchgoing crowd draws my eye from the bus, and as we pass the church I see her groom waiting anxiously at the door, with a coterie of handsome men beside him.

The convoy of Haven volunteers – six coaches brought in from the Dominican Republic and a number of security jeeps – gets wide eyed stares all the way. Children wave and shout, while adults look weary, resigned to more interference, positive though it may be.

Before the earthquake of 12 January, Haven had committed to building 1000 houses in Haiti in the next three years.

After the earthquake, Haven’s Leslie Buckley said the charity would build 10,000 homes in four years.

The process had begun with last year’s Build It Week, when 41 houses were built in Ouaniminthe, near the border with the Dominican Republic. Since then, 150 houses have been built and there are 50 more to go.

This year volunteers will build in Gonaives, which was largely destroyed by hurricanes, floods and mudslides in 2004 and 2008. Homes were swept away and over 10,000 people were evacuated for Hurricane Ike alone, while hundreds were killed.

Kosanius Phabiua lost three children and her home in Hurricane Ike in 2008. They were swept away before her eyes.

Now, she lives with her two remaining daughters and her husband, under a tarpaulin, miles from Gonaives, in an area called Mapoue.

They have lived in this shelter – a frayed, dirty USAID tarpaulin, supported by a rusted metal bed frame, a length of rope, and some rocks – for over two years.

She’s terrified of remaining here for another rainy season, afraid to lose the little she has left. Her elderly father lives under a similar tarpaulin beside them.

Her elder daughter, Rosnika, is disabled.

Like most of the children we’ve encountered in Haiti, she jumped excitedly up and down on our approach, waving with her one good arm and squealing. Rosnika’s condition means, our Haitian interpreter told us, “she’s dumb”.

We met her just minutes before, 100m away, a couple of hundred primary school kids came out to play at lunchtime. Rosnika doesn’t go to school, because there’s no school for her.

Perfectly turned out children in white and blue uniforms, the girls with neatly braided, beribboned hair, waved us off from inside the school gates.

Nearer to Gonaives, in a slum area called Raboteau, a densely packed array of shacks greets us. The stench is overwhelming at first, but so is the welcome from the area’s brightly dressed children, who come running out to meet us, curiously studying everything from our shoes to our unusually coloured hair.

Raboteau was decimated by hurricanes and mudslides in 2004 and 2008, and over 100,000 people live there in desperate conditions. There is no sanitation, with pigs, chickens, broken glass, human excrement and playing children all sharing the same patch of ground.

Pamela Vincent, who’s 29-years-old and about six months pregnant, lives in a one-roomed shelter with her husband, Joseph, a taxi driver. He earns about $3 per day, not enough, she tells us sadly, for them to move out of the slum.

Pamela apologises through the interpreter because she doesn’t have enough chairs for us. Despite the conditions she’s living in, her dignity is overwhelming.

In another life, she’d have been an interior designer, or perhaps a fashion buyer. She is wearing a gorgeous, spotless, lace dress. A beautiful embroidered curtain hangs over the doorway to the shack, and inside, just visible in the gloom, is a hanging wreath of purple fabric flowers.

Nearby we can see a dead pig in the only visible waterway, which is murky green. Barefoot children are scampering around us, posing for the cameras and grinning at us.

Both women welcomed us to what currently passes for their homes; they will be beneficiaries of the houses Haven is building. They’ve participated in Haven’s survey which allocates the homes on a points basis; number of dependents, income levels and history all contribute to points.

Both tell us they are looking forward to their new homes. Pamela nods shyly when asked if she has plans to decorate the new house outside Gonaives; she is already imagining it.

As we leave Raboteau, there’s a minor scene when a woman who won’t be receiving a house accosts Farah, Haven’s community development worker. She’s angry and upset.

Not everyone can have one of the new homes; there are simply not enough to go around, not this time. 144 houses are planned for this phase of the development, while volunteers will build 60 of those this week, along with a playground and community centre.


To find out more about Haven’s work in Haiti or to donate, see More reflections on Deirdre's visit to Haiti on Politico here