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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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!

 

Back in Haiti and Sweaty as Ever October 16, 2010

Filed under: Haiti,rubble — themadmadmadmadworld @ 2:30 am
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I arrived back in Haiti just over 48 hours ago and the amount that I have sweat can already be measured in litres. The seasons have changed since I left here in July, and everyone agrees that it’s much cooler than before. Great news! I no longer pour sweat out of every part of my body from just lying around; I now have to at least lift my little finger before I feel that familiar trickle.

Today I lifted much more than just my litte finger. It was my first full day back out in the field “rubbling”, and man was it ever amazing. When I first started volunteering with All Hands Volunteers in May, it was called Hands On Disaster Response and their main function in Haiti was clearing rubble and doing demolition work for residential properties. Over the course of my time here, and during the three months that I was back home in Canada, the project has changed a lot. Instead of having 120+ people living together on base all the time, we’re down to about 70-80 volunteers. And instead of sending out 5-10 teams of volunteers to rubble, today we were just one team of 12. More people are here long-term and are involved in more sustainable development-type projects like developing hygiene education programs and constructing schools. It makes for a very different feeling on base…fewer sweaty shirtless men, more people cooped up in the office or in meetings, and a generally elevated level of hygiene. Being a fan of filth, I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.

Not that it’s not great to be back. In many ways, I feel like I never left. A lot of my friends who were here before have either stuck around over the past few months, or have done as I have and left for a while and then come back. The volunteers who are new to me all seem wonderful, and it feels good to be back in this communal environment where everyone feeds off each other’s energy and ideas so readily. I’ve been blown away by how well received I’ve been. All our Haitian voluteers made me feel like a long lost sister when I walked through the door, and random people from the community who I never expected to remember me have been calling me by name to come get a hug and a “welcome home!”. We had a big dance party my first night back, and I’d almost forgotten how good it feels to dance barefoot to terrible Haitian hip hop in the pouring rain. (Still very sweaty!)

Whenever I’m about to set off on a new adventure (or set out to revisit an old one), I always have a few solid freak-out sessions during which I question everything and wonder what I was smoking when I decided to go through with this crazy plan, whatever it may be. (Usually this process involves  teary phone calls to my parents and at least 2 of my best friends, and eating my feelings through either ice cream or poutine. All of the above is sounding pretty good right now, actually…) The more I’ve experienced the easier it has become to reason with the voices inside my head, but they still pop up every single time. Even once I get to where I’m going and am doing what I’ve set out to do I can’t help but experience serious doubts now and then about the choices I’ve made and my reasons for making them. I tend to act on impulse or instinct (often confusing the two) and my “shoot first ask questions later” lifestyle does catch up with me from time to time.

But no matter where I end up, I always end up finding something that reassures me and makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing. In this case, it was my reception from the Haitians I was involved with last time. No matter how different or frustratingly the same things are here, I know I will be able to count on the personal relationships I’ve established, and the culture I’ve grown to love, to keep me going. I still have conflicting feelings and opinions about “the situation” in Haiti and my role as a volunteer here, but at the end of the day I know that if I have treated people well and kept a smile on my face, I’ll know I’ve done some good. This is one lesson that is amazingly easy to forget, considering how relevant it is to everyday life no matter where you are or what you’re doing.

I am excited about what the next 3 months have in store for me. Over the weeks to come I’ll figure out what I’m doing as far as work goes and what my role in the orgaization will be. But for the time being, I am just so unreasonably happy to be back with a sledgehammer in my hands and an obnoxiously repetitive song called “Anba Dekomp” in my heart (and in my head, 24-7). I can’t wait to build up some muscle again and get dirty cleaning stuff up. 

The generator gets shut off in half an hour, so I’d better wrap it up. Now it’s off to treat my heat rash, drench myself in carcenogenic DEET to avoid Dengue fever, check my teeny tiny tent for tarantulas and poisonous centepides, and curl up on the concrete floor on my yoga mat so that when it inevitably pours rain tonight I don’t get wet from touching the tent walls.

Wait…what the hell am I doing back here again?