The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Be sweet, and do awesome stuff all the time

A Year We Can Never Forget January 17, 2011

Filed under: Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 2:29 pm
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Today is my second to last day in Haiti. The sun is shining, the motos are honking, and from the perspective of this shady hammock it’s hard to believe that in just over 48 hours I’ll be dealing with snowbanks, black ice and fozen nose hairs all over again.

That’s right, I’m leaving Leogane. All Hands temporarily shut down operations this week to allow the staff and volunteers to take a much needed break before ramping up operations for 2011 starting on January 24th. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with everyone working like crazy to get everything in order before the break. There are only about 12 of us on base right now, with a laundry list of optional chores to take care of but no real obligations. It’s a weird way to wrap up 3 months of serious communal living and extreme hard work.

My last week of work was intense, for lack of a better word. Last Wednesday was January 12th, which marked the one-year anniversary of the reason why I’m here in the first place. The City of Leogane decided that they needed to do something to commemorate the occasion, but didn’t have the means to make it happen on their own. One of the biggest issues that they had was the mass grave site, just outside the cemetery. There were over a thousand people buried there after the earthquake, with nothing to mark their place but a simple iron cross and a sign explaining that the site would be renovated in the near future. The bus station is across the street, and it wasn’t rare to see vendors setting up shop next to the cross or moto taxis cutting through the grave site. The Director General of the City, with whom I worked closely during my time on the Mayor’s Office project, approached All Hands and asked if there was anything we could do. All it took was 3 architects, 40 local and international volunteers, 2 weeks of hard labour, and 1 whole year gone by since the disaster, and now Leogane has a dignified place to remember those they lost to the 2010 earthquake. One of our volunteers who worked on the grave site writes for AOL Travel, and her story and photos are worth checking out here.

Because of my familiarity with the mayor’s office operations and staff, our project director asked me to help out with the planning and preparation for the events of the day itself. (For my involvement I made my hometown paper again, if you’d like to read the story here.) All Hands offered to provide logistical and financial support for whatever Leogane wanted to do to commemorate the anniversary. I’ll spare the City my rant about their usual lack of organization, planning, proactivity and vision…let’s just say it was an uphill battle to have everything in order by January 12th. What matters is the end result, and it all came across quite nicely. There was a mass early in the day at the Catholic church, which had been destroyed by the earthquake and rebuilt by the Canadian Army last January. In the afternoon, a funeral procession started at the mayor’s office, wound its way through town collecting supporters along the way, and made its way to the mass grave site. A brass band (called a “fanfa”) played Haitian funeral songs, and there was some singing and chanting by the vodouisants. Mirlande Manigat, the supposed front runner in the  ongoing extreme confusion of the presidential elections, made a surprise appearance to pay her respects at the mass grave. The Sri Lankan army, who make up the security portion of the UN mission in Leogane, joined the community in their march, trading their assault rifles for bouquets of white flowers.

The march ended at a soundstage set up on the main road, with music and speeches from local officials. Chris, one of our project coordinators, and I were unexpectedly called to the stage to sit with the city officials to thank us for our help in preparing for the day. When I was done panickedly composing a speech in Creole in my head in case I was called on the speak (I wasn’t, thank God), I surveyed the crowd in front of me.  I was surprised to see that our volunteers made up the majority of the international participants. There were rumours of security concerns leading up to the 12th, with some NGO’s worried that there would be protests about how little had been accomplished over the past year. It seems that those concerns kept most of the international actors in Leogane from attending the day’s ceremonies. I felt like it was one more nail in the coffin of NGO relationships with this community; proof that they habitually keep the people they’re helping at arm’s length. It was nice to see our international staff and volunteers standing side by side with the people directly affected by the earthquake, and to know that they were glad we were there.

At the end of the day, all of our volunteers came back to our base to commemorate the anniversary privately. Thomas, one of our local volunteers, put together an emotionally charged slideshow of photos of the past year. Many of the local volunteers stood up and shared their stories of where they were on January 12th 2010, and how the disaster affected them. We heard about people’s friends, relatives, lovers, and colleagues crushed under concrete. They told us about nights spent huddled in cow fields, living like animals, feeling like this had to be the end of the world. We heard about the rumours, about not knowing who was dead or alive for weeks and months, of hearing screaming and crying that seemed like it would never end. Most of them spoke about it almost subjectively, as though it were something that had happened to someone else. It’s crazy to think that every pile of rubble in this city has a family attached to it, and that each member of that family has a story similar to what our friends shared with us. We’ve all known someone who has suffered through the tragedy of losing a loved one or losing their home, and can all empathize with that individual or family’s pain. But I can’t even begin to fathom that  pain on the massive scale of these millions of people who experienced those life-altering losses all at the same time. It was hard to hear, but we all knew how important it was that we at least get an idea of what the Haitian people experienced this time last year.

At the end of the day I was exhausted. I went up to the roof to look at the stars and digest everything I’d seen, heard, and experienced. I called my sister Mallory back home in Canada, because I felt like I couldn’t end the day without telling my family how grateful I am that we are all still alive, and to know that we are safe, and how lucky we are to have never had to experience the kind of loss that was all around me on that day. It was a hard day, it’s been a hard year, but at the end of it all life has to go on. The next day we were back at work building schools and clearing rubble. Lavi pa fini.

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Life, Love, and the Pursuit of the Haitian Dream January 9, 2011

Filed under: Awesome!,Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 4:45 pm
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I’ve gone longer than usual without posting of late, and not for lack of interesting things to write about. The past 2 weeks have been among the busiest, and best, that I’ve had in all of my time in Haiti. Welcome back to The Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Let me tell you about life, love, and the pursuit of the Haitian dream.

Life – Public transportation in Haiti comes in the form of colourfully painted trucks called “tap-taps” (because you tap the ceiling twice when you need to get off…clever, right?), most of which have slogans painted on them that are reminders of how to best carry on, loving God and country. Today as my child-bearing hips were locked in a vice-grip between the other human sardines on the way home from church, I looked up and saw my favourite piece of tap-tap wisdom painted above me: “Lavi pa fasil.” Life is not easy.  Very true, for some more so than others. Seeing this on the back of a dilapidated truck crammed with people, as I whip past roadside shacks filled with those left homeless or worse by natural and human disasters, makes me think twice about ever using those words again back home. Heavy thinking for a Sunday morning hangover…

Love – On a much more upbeat note, I love my family! The now-world-famous Watsons of Phelpston made a brief but memorable appearance on a rubble site near me last week, and man was it fun. (To see the front-page article in our hometown newspaper click here!) It was amazing to have all 7 members of my immediate family sledgehammering in sync to smash up the better part of a collapsed roof in just one day. Our team leader called us “the Von Trapp’s of rubble” (stay tuned for an awkward family photo or 2…). Considering that everyone in my family falls more on the “nerd” side of the high-school yearbook spectrum (no matter how hard I try to argue my rightful “jock” status), I was pretty impressed with how naturally they all took to rubbling. Junior, one of our strongest and longest-serving local volunteers, took my 17-year old sister Mallory under his wing and within the hour they were an unstoppable team. By the end of their visit I didn’t see much of Mallory, as she seemed to be always covered in a pile of adoring Haitian children who wanted her to stay and play with them forever. It seems that whatever it is that I have that makes me do what I do is genetic, and I don’t think Haiti’s seen the last of the Watson sisters. Having my family come volunteer with me was a really special experience, and it meant a lot to me that they would put themselves so far out of their element to come and see firsthand what the work I’m doing is all about.

The Pursuit of the Haitian Dream – Although it’s hard to define what “The Dream” is for any country (except for Canada, where it is clearly finding attractive winter footwear), last night I felt like we were as close as we’ve ever been to seeing it for Haiti. After coming back from my break(down) in November, I switched from working with the mayor’s office project to assisting the coordinator of our local volunteer program (see my November 27th post for more on that). Since last April, All Hands has welcomed young men and women from Leogane and the surrounding area who want to volunteer to help their community in whatever way they can (see November 18th’s “Interview with the Volunteer” for more on the program). I was involved in the initial restructuring of the local volunteer program that happened back in June, when we created a mentoring program to make sure that our volunteers got the best possible learning experience out of their time at All Hands. The program has grown and developed since then, thanks to the volunteers themselves and the amazing project coordination of my friend Jess. Our original group of volunteers, which has grown to about 30 over 9 months, celebrated their “graduation” from the local volunteer program last night. The ceremony was great, with valedictory speeches and a slide-show put together by Emmanuel, an incredible 17-year old kid who has gone from a shy rubbler to head of our Bobcat operator program, over the course of the past 9 months. Everyone looked extra “fresh” (the adjective of choice for a well-dressed Haitian), and it was a beautiful way to celebrate an inspiring group of people. I’m proud to be a part of something that connects people with a genuine desire to help with the means and materials to do so. Every day I’m amazed by the energy and passion of our local volunteers, and the more I’ve gotten to know about them as individuals and about their circumstances, the more I’m blown away by everything they do. Lavi pa fasil, but my friends here in Haiti are proving that no matter who you are, there’s always something you can do to better it.

 

Christmas in red, green, gray and brown December 27, 2010

Filed under: Awesome!,Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 10:59 pm
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Merry Christmas everyone!

 

It was definitely a holiday I will never forget. As I’ve said before, Haiti is pretty much the opposite of Canada in every way, so it was quite the location for my first ever Christmas away from home. It was a wonderful weekend, full of food, dancing, hilarious presents, and the strange comfort and feeling of “family” that comes in the form of a group of random people all in a similar situation, making the most of things. I celebrated with my Haitian family on the 24th, my international volunteer family on the 25th, and tomorrow afternoon marks the first of three days of celebration with my biological family, when the entire Watson clan lands in Port-au-Prince!

I’m definitely someone who loves her traditional family Christmas. I’ve done pretty much the exact same thing every holiday season for the past 20-odd years and enjoyed it fully every time. Every December 25th I get a wake-up call in the form of a whack on the head with a pillow from one of my 4 siblings. We jump out of bed like little kids to go open our stockings with Mom and Dad. This year I woke up to the sound of English Christmas carols on a nearby radio, sharing a single mattress with my friend Rose Daphney in a tent in her back courtyard (her 3-room house has about 8 other people living in it), feeling a bit shaky from the rum and kompa street dancing that we’d taken part in the night before. I sauntered my way over to the coffee lady to have a chat and exchange holiday greetings with my neighbours before they headed off to work for the day.

Although it didn’t look much like home, spending the day with the international volunteers had the same sort of warm, happy feeling that goes along with a traditional family Christmas. Being away from home for the holidays isn’t something I’ve ever aspired to do, but I’m glad that I did it here, with these amazing people.

 

 

I hope everyone had a happy and memorable holiday as well. Much love and hugs to those of you who I usually spend this time of year with…although it was a great experience, I think saving me a place at the table for next year is probably a safe bet!

xoxo Madison

 

Political Cacophony December 11, 2010

Sleeping in a tent on the roof of base, I’ve become pretty accustomed to the “unusual” sounds that go on in Leogane after our 10pm curfew – the voodoo ceremonies that get rowdy late into the night, the Jesus-loving evangelicals who have sing-along concerts that can be heard all over town, a “rara” passing by our base on special occasions (roaming dance parties, complete with brass bands and drumming), the barnyard symphony of noisy dogs and roosters, and even the occasional gunshot from our backyard guards scaring off thieves. When I first arrived in May and would hear these noises, I would lie in my tent rigid with fear, trying to talk myself down from the adrenaline rush of the unknown. Now that I’m a bit more familiar with Haitian culture and how people here party, pray, and react, some of these noises have become quotidian and even somewhat comforting…they indicate that people are carrying on with their lives as they normally would, no matter what recent calamity has affected them during the day.

The election results from the first round of voting were announced at 9pm on Tuesday night, and by the time our generator was shut off an hour later we could hear that the soundtrack to our night was to be anything but soothing. People were demonstrating until almost dawn, and continued on for the next 3 days. Burning tires, road blockades, and massive protests went off all over Haiti, shutting down most businesses and halting all inter-city travel. The people believe that the elections were rigged – Jude Celestin, the current president’s son-in-law, made it through to the next round of voting over Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who (as I mentioned in my post last week) was considered a heavy favourite. Celestin’s campaign headquarters were burned down in Port-au-Prince, municipal buildings were torched in around the country, and most of the 19 presidential candidates are calling for the elections to be considered null and void.

As for us here on base, today is Day 4 of Lockdown. No one has been allowed to leave or enter the base since Tuesday, except for our Haitian staff who have been an invaluable source of information and supplies. We are safe, albeit rapidly approaching cabin fever. Adding to the tension of the political situation, a French epidemiological study has shown that Nepalese UN soldiers are responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti in the first place (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11949181). Given the UN’s rocky relationship with the Haitian people, and the tendency of the people to lump all foreign organizations under the same umbrella, this is not good news for Blancs. There had been some rumours and suspicion about Blancs bringing cholera, and now that it’s basically been confirmed, we’re being very careful about everything we say and do.

Getting back to my original train of thought, there is good news. Last night after a day of office-type busy work, marathon yoga sessions, lots of reading, and a game of All Hands-themed Clue, I lay in my tent and listened to Leogane. After 3 long nights of either noisy protests or eerie silence, I heard the joyful songs of the evangelicals coming over our gates. In the middle of the night, I could hear the voodoo drums off in the distance. It’s been a rough week for everyone, least of all for those of us who have been locked in on base. We all took last night’s musical offerings as a sign that things are looking up. It is important for the protests to happen, but it’s a relief to hear that at some point life must go on. Tomorrow we’re anticipating to be allowed out (restricted to our small corner of town) and we should be able to get back to work sooner rather than later.

 

The Best Rubble Site Ever December 5, 2010

True to my word, I’ve been doing a lot more rubbling since I’ve been back from break. In the past week I had my first experience as a rubble team leader, on what has been referred to by newcomers and veterans alike as “The Best Rubble Site Ever.”

One of the biggest problems with the aid work that’s going on around these parts is the lack of co-ordination between actors. For example, All Hands has been clearing residential rubble sites since the project started up in February. The idea was that once the slab where their home got cleared, families could safely move back onto their property. At first the immediate goal was to get tents to the people who’d lost their homes (they were still working on this when I arrived in May), then they moved on to transitional shelters (or “T-shelters” as they’re called in NGO speak – we’ll take any chance we can get to condense terminology into acronyms), which are basic one-room houses with metal frames covered in plastic sheeting to make it weatherproof. The next step will be the safe reconstruction of homes, and there’s no word on a plan for that so far. Coming back in October, it was disheartening to see rubble sites that we cleared in the Spring still sitting empty, tropical weeds overtaking the concrete slab, with no family and no form of shelter. There is an endless list of reasons why and excuses that we’ve heard from all sides, most of which have to do with the bureaucracy that goes along with issues related to land ownership and giving away something as large as a home for free. Still, it’s hard to see the hours of work we put in seemingly going to waste.

But wait, this is a happy story! In the past few months All Hands has been partnering with the Red Cross (the Canadian sector of which has a small T-shelter factory in our backyard) in an effort to expediate the process of getting families out of temporary living situations, such as IDP camps and living in cramped quarters with extended family and neighbours, and into a shelter on their own land. The Red Cross gives the family tools to clear their slab, and we send a small team of volunteers to help them with the smashing and the shovelling. The work usually goes pretty quickly, as the families are motivated to move the rubble that’s been keeping them off their land for the past 10 months. After the slab is clear, the Red Cross sets up a T-shelter for the family and they can move in right away. Brilliant! Why weren’t we doing it this way all along?

The site I was on was a bit unconventional (yes, there is a full spectrum of rubble sites, ranging from “classic” to “epic” to “f***ing insane!!”). The first storey of the house remained structurally sound, but the second floor was badly damaged and threatened the integrity of the rest of the house. Our awesome demolition team came in first to tear down the most dangerous part, then the rubblers came in to help the family clear off what is now the roof of their one-storey house. Charlie, an amazing carpenter and all-around great guy from northern California, MacGuyver-ed up a “rubble chute” to (somewhat) safely get the rubble to ground level, where we used it to build a new road for the neighbourhood.

The family was great to work with, especially the lady of the house. She worked non-stop, running giant wheelbarrow loads out to the street and eventually taking charge of the actual construction of the road. A neighbour passing by stopped to gawk at her, and commented that she shouldn’t be doing hard labour like this. Without missing a beat with her shovel, Madam answered “Apre douz janvye, tout moun travay,” – After January 12th, everybody works.

Happy International Volunteer Day, everyone!

 

“Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m!” November 27, 2010

Lately I’ve been hearing from the people who know me best that my blog has been giving me away, indicating signs of wear and tear, exposing my waning optimism and questionable mental health. I just can’t get anything past you guys, can I, and mesi bondye for that!

I have definitely been feeling the strain of not only living and working in a challenging environment, but also the added stress of having multiple existential/moral/socio-economic/sexual (why not?)/political crises every single day about said life and work in said environment. When I said in my last post that I needed an extended mental health break, I was serious. It started out with just a week with good friends from base at an insanely luxurious all-inclusive resort in the Dominican Republic, which was at the same time the most amazing and most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. (Kind of like dogs wearing sweaters or Chinese children who can expertly play classical violin while still in their mothers’ wombs.) Crossing the border and seeing the difference in the quality of life was shocking enough (pothole-free roads! Christmas lights! Lights at all!), but the extreme excess of the Lifestyle Hacienda Resort in Puerto Plata was enough to send me into a frenzy. So I did what anyone in my position would do: I drank and ate as much as possible, then booked a ticket back to Canada to digest for a week.

My visit home was unexpected. Even I didn’t know I was coming! I had a lot of time to relax and hang out with the people who I love most of all. I got a lot of insight into everything that’s been going on in the past month, both inside and outside of my selfish self. I am uncomfortable with the situation in Haiti and how it’s being handled by all parties involved, right down to who thinks they have the right to even be involved. What am I, as a white Canadian from a privileged background with little to no connection to this country, doing here at all? Am I some kind of a saviour, or some kind of sick tourist on the ultimate off-the-beaten-track backpacking adventure?  Both of these ideas sicken me. I don’t want to be either, but I guess the best I can do is to fall somewhere in between.

I’ve decided that in order to continue with whatever it is that I’m doing here (helping? gawking? sweating?), there are a few things that I have to do. I’ve decided that I can’t continue with the project that I was leading before, which involved working with the local government trying to do capacity building and liason stuff with the UN and other NGO’s. I know that I don’t have the knowledge, experience, or resources to do any really useful capacity building, and I also feel wrong pushing for the local government to rely more on NGO’s when I feel like that’s a really terrible way for a country to be run (something I will rant about later…I’m trying to keep these posts a readable length). Over the 2 months I have left with All Hands I’m going to do more physical, outside-type work, and also more work that gets me into the community on a personal level. I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing, but I feel like by doing that I can help in a more sustainable way. Mostly because it won’t make me go crazy and I will be a happier, more productive volunteer.

Yesterday was American Thanksgiving, and because we are a US-based NGO, we had a huge party last night to celebrate. We invited about 60 people from the community, including all of our local staff and volunteers and their families, and there were volunteers working all day to cook an amazing, full-on turkey dinner. It was the best holiday we’ve had so far on this project, mostly because of the positive reaction of our Haitian guests. I tried to explain the conecpt of giving thanks in my sometimes passable Creole, and asked my Haitian friends what they were thankful for. It was so great to hear them say “Mesi bondye pou tou zanmi’m,” – I thank God for all of my friends – refering to us, the foreign devils who have infested their town and tried to take over their lives.

I know I’ve said this before, but if nothing else,  this is what keeps me believing that I have a place here.

 

Interview with the Volunteer November 18, 2010

The past month has been pretty taxing, in pretty much every way you can think of. In my not-quite 4 weeks in Haiti there was an outbreak of malaria and dengue fever on base (I got only the mildest of dengue-s and it knocked me out for a week), a serious cholera outbreak, a hurricane, massive flooding, protests and riots. Bad timing on my part…? Anyway, I decided to extend my mental health break in order to actually get mentally healthy, and won’t be back on base until Tuesday. But to keep the blog momentum going, I thought I’d publish an interview I did back in September with Jenni Dunning, who works for the Toronto Star. The interview never made it to press, but it was interesting to do and it gives a pretty good picture of my first time around volunteering in Leogane. I predict that if you ask me the exact same questions when I come home from my second stint, many of these answers will have changed. I suppose time will tell.

Why did you decide to go? (What was the particular moment when you said, “Yes, I’m going to do it”?)

I have wanted to visit Haiti ever since I can remember. I was in Mexico, where I’d planned to spend the year volunteering and backpacking with friends, when the January 12th earthquake hit. A week or 2 later I met Chelsea, an American girl who told me about Hands On Disaster Response and her plans to volunteer in Haiti with them in March. I had no idea that it was possible for someone such as me, who has no specialized skills and zero disaster response experience, to go and help out. I immediately said “Me too!”, and signed up online. Then I thought about it. But by that time I had already been accepted, and before I realized what I was doing I was buying myself a ticket to Port-au-Prince!

What did you do over there? Did you work with a charity or local program?

I was one of a constantly rotating group of 100+ international volunteers with an organization called All Hands Volunteers (formerly known as Hands On Disaster Response…they just changed their name September 1st). They’re a US-based grassroots non-governmental organization (NGO) that uses skilled and unskilled volunteers as manpower to help communities worldwide recover from natural disasters. The project they are currently operating in Leogane, Haiti, is the largest in their 5-year history. With this project, they have had the opportunity to get involved in the community on a deeper level, branching out into more sustainable development initiatives in addition to basic disaster response activities.

The primary activity of All Hands in Leogane is rubble clearing. We are the only NGO doing residential rubble clearing in Leogane. This is unfortunate because, according to reports from the UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, rubble is one of the main barriers preventing people from moving into the next stages of recovery (i.e. having somewhere to put their temporary shelters, or eventually rebuild). We all spent a lot of time clearing rubble by hand, using shovels, wheelbarrows, sledgehammers and pickaxes, and a whole lot of teamwork from the other international and Haitian volunteers. I also got to participate in some of All Hands’ other projects, including building demolition, school construction, tent distribution, internally displaced persons’ camp relocation, creating a community garden, and teaching English to our local volunteers.

Throughout my time with All Hands, the main project I was involved in was at the office of the Mayor of Leogane. All Hands was working with the employees of the mayor’s office to get their systems back in order after the chaos caused by January 12th. We offered training to support staff, helped the executive to improve their internal systems, and were working to improve the relationship and facilitate communication between the local government, NGO’s working in Leogane, and the UN (who were in charge of coordinating the relief effort). It was an uphill battle, as the local government was generally unreceptive to the idea of working with a foreign NGO after having many bad experiences in the past. It wasn’t until we went to the office every day for about 2 months that they finally realized that we were sincere in our desire to help, and not just there for our own self-interest.

What part of Haiti were you in? Did you move around?

Our project was in the city of Leogane, which is about 30km west of Port-au-Prince (although it takes 2 hours to drive because of the terrible condition of the roads). I spent all of my time there, except for during my ‘mental health breaks’ after every 30 days of work, when I would hitchhike around the area and go camping with friends.

Tell me about your experiences over there. Describe what it was like. Where you lived, what you ate, what you saw, what you did.

Whenever anyone asks me what Haiti is like, I always struggle to come up with an adequate description. Basically, it’s the opposite of Canada. It’s hot. It’s crowded. There is a lot of garbage burning everywhere, because there is nowhere to dispose of it properly. There are a lot of goats and pigs eating the garbage. There are a lot of children laughing and chasing the goats and pigs in the streets. There are a lot of parents chasing their children in the streets. That’s where they live now that they no longer have a house that is standing. Every piece of public space has been filled with temporary shelters and tent cities. Everyone travels on motorcycle or in beat up pickup trucks called tap-taps (except for most of the people who work for wealthy foreign organizations, who travel in air-conditioned SUV’s), so the atmosphere is noisy and full of exhaust fumes. Everywhere you go there are lots of people, even on what you might have thought was a deserted beach or mountaintop. And everywhere you go there is rubble. Lots and lots of rubble.

I lived with the 100+ other international volunteers on the All Hands base not far from downtown Leogane. The building used to be a disco, and sustained little damage in the earthquake. I, along with about 50 other people, pitched my tent on the roof. The other half lived in bunk beds underneath us. All Hands hired an amazing team of Haitian ladies who cooked for us 6 days a week (all of the days were working). The food was surprisingly good considering the circumstances, although there was always someone complaining about the lack of variety and nutritional value. Rice, beans, goat, fried plantains, chicken, and spaghetti with ketchup were in solid rotation on the meal table. Meat and vegetables were always rationed, with the bulk of our diet coming from white rice. On Sundays, when we had the day off work, we would usually buy egg sandwiches from a lovely lady who set up shop across the street from our base. While she cooked, I would exchange English phrases for a basic Creole lesson. All of the vendors in our neighbourhood were happy to see All Hands volunteers, especially the people who sold beer out of coolers at roadside tarp stands.

What was the best part?

Without a doubt, the best part of my experience was having the opportunity to meet so many amazing and like-minded people.

Getting to know the Haitians who volunteered with us was an amazing part of my time with All Hands. These were young men, many of whom were still in school, who came in their spare time to work for free doing hard labour with a bunch of ‘blancs’ (the Haitian slang word for white people or foreigners) who didn’t speak their language, all for the greater good of their community. It’s rare to see volunteerism in the developing world, and a lot of our Haitian volunteers were stigmatized by their peers. People in the community would ostracize them, saying they were lying when they said they weren’t being paid for their work. But they kept showing up every day, because they were proud to be Haitian and proud to help without asking anything in return.

My fellow international volunteers gave up vacation time, jobs, school, and all notions of personal space and comfort, to pay their own way to a disaster zone in the poorest country in the hemisphere, to help people who they had never met before in a place to which the majority had no tangible connection. Amongst the long-term volunteers (people staying for 2 months or longer), the unwritten rule was that you never asked why someone was there. No one could explain it; we all just knew it was where we had to be.

Worst part?

The worst part about volunteering in Haiti was the constant feeling of powerlessness. Since Haiti is a country that has a history of being bombarded with well-meaning NGO’s, people tend to expect that as a foreigner you have the resources and the know-how to fix anything. On a daily basis I was forced to tell people that there was nothing I could do for them, whether they were asking for housing or for a pair of shoes for their children.

There have been billions of dollars poured into the ‘Haiti earthquake relief’ fund, and yet there are still so many Haitians living in the earthquake zone who are not much better off than they were in January. Especially when I was working at the mayor’s office, people were always asking me, “Where is that money?”. It was incredibly depressing and frustrating.

So you made poutine on Canada Day…? How did that go?

The poutine was great! The number of Canadians on base fluctuated between about 5 and 15 during the time that I was there. On Canada Day there were 7 of us, representing 6 of Canada’s major cities (2 of us were from the Ottawa area). We got some powdered gravy from Port-au-Prince, and fixed up some makeshift cheese curds out of whatever kind of cheese we could find in Leogane (mostly Bongu, Haiti’s answer to La Vache Qui Rit). After an all-Canadian rubble team cleared a slab for a local family in the morning, we spent the better part of the afternoon cutting potatoes into French fries and preparing a snack for all our fellow volunteers. The Haitians loved it, and it made us all feel less homesick to have a little piece of Canadiana with us in Leogane.

What struck you the most about Haiti when you arrived, and when you had been there for a while?

When I was flying into Port-au-Prince, my jaw dropped as the clouds parted and I saw the seemingly endless landscape of tent cities and broken buildings. I have always assumed that most of the things I see on the news back home are exaggerated, or that they show the same images over and over to make it seem worse than it actually is. But when I got to Haiti, it was even worse than I had imagined. Everything was damaged.

After I had been in Haiti for a while, I guess the thing that struck me the most was how normal everything I was seeing and experiencing had become for me. It took next to no time to get used to the rubble, the chaos, and the extreme poverty that was everywhere around me. That’s just how life is in Haiti, and you can either live it or leave it. There’s no in between, and there’s no ‘break’ from it all.

Why do you want to go back?

I want to go back because I feel like there is so much more that needs to be done, and that there is so much more that I can offer as a long-term All Hands volunteer. A huge problem with NGO’s in Haiti is the short-term nature of many of the staff and volunteers. It’s difficult to move forward with initiatives and build effective relationships when the international “face” of a project changes every couple of weeks.

How are you trying to get back? (you’re trying to raise some money, no?)

I have basically been trying to get back to Haiti since I returned to Canada in late July. I tried writing to different community organizations looking for grants and I searched all over the internet, but it seems as though no financial support exists for independent volunteers. Eventually I resorted to independent small-scale fundraising, in the form of asking my family and friends for money. Everyone has been really supportive, including the choir I sing with in Ottawa and the Toronto folk community with which my family is involved. I think that I will be able to get enough money together to make it back for October. It’s later than I would have hoped, but it’s been harder to get funds than I had hoped it would be.

What do you want to do when you go back?

I want to continue working on the mayor’s office project that I mentioned above, as well as continuing to become more involved in the Leogane community in any way that I can. Also, I want to perfect my Creole!

Are Canadians still doing enough to help? Are we forgetting about Haiti?

I’ve heard that North Americans are suffering from ‘Haiti fatigue’, after being bombarded with news of the earthquake and its aftermath, and being asked for donations at every turn. Canadians have been very generous, and everywhere I went in Haiti people had a story about the Canadian Army or a Canadian NGO that had helped them in some way. Haiti had a lot of problems before January 12th, many of which were compounded by the impact of the disaster. There is going to be need for help for a very, very long time, and we shouldn’t ‘forget’ about Haiti, in the same way that we shouldn’t ‘forget’ about Pakistan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Iraq…I do think that if Canadians want to help out through donating, it is important to do your homework and find out exactly where your money is going. Smaller organizations often have lower administrative costs and your money will likely be used in a more direct way to help people on the ground.

What has been the response from people about your work there?

There has been a mixed response. Most people have been incredibly supportive, especially my family and friends. Before I went to Haiti, my parents were pretty freaked out by the whole idea of it. They tried not to let on, but I could tell they were worried for me. But once I was down there, every time I talked to them on the phone or sent e-mails, all I could do was gush about what a positive experience I was having. I guess it had an impact on them, because both of them (along with my two brothers and two sisters) signed up to come volunteer with All Hands for a week in December! It will definitely be the best Christmas present I’ve ever received!

What do you hope to take away with you from your experiences there, as a life lesson kind of thing?

This wasn’t my first time in the developing world, but every time I travel I’m always amazed at the things I learn. This was the first time I’ve done any long-term volunteer work overseas. As a ‘volunteer tourist’ coming from a background of relative privilege, it is shockingly easy to dehumanize the people you are supposed to be helping. As terrible as it sounds, foreigners volunteering in the developing world are always about helping ‘The Haitians’, or ‘The Africans’, or ‘The Guatemalans’, or wherever it may be, and not just helping people. It seems ridiculous now, but when I first arrived in Haiti I couldn’t believe that the people that I have always seen on the news as the poor and starving were one and the same with my new friends who came out hip hop dancing every night, told filthy jokes, and debated religion and politics with me over a cup of coffee or a beer. People are people everywhere you go, no matter what circumstances they grew up in or what they have experienced in their lives. The way that the media portrays the people of Haiti paints a picture of a long-suffering people who have the strength of character to endure hardship upon hardship. In real life though, Haitians are human and are simply carrying on living, much as anyone would.

Jenni Dunning works for the Toronto Star. Her blog can be read at www.nowherewithyou.wordpress.com