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.
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