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Published: January 4th 2009
Wow. I had forgotten what a time warp I live in when volunteering for Hands On Disaster Response. I left Bangladesh when the project completed last April and continued traveling throughout India and South East Asia, before the "call to duty" came again in mid Sept to help out the people in Gonaives, Haiti. 4 hurricanes and tropical storms within a few weeks in late August to early September ravaged the city of 300,000, raising the nearby river to above its banks. It flooded the city and brought more mud than I have ever seen in my life to the streets, the shops, the inside of homes, buildings and schools. I can hardly believe I have been in Haiti nearly three weeks now, and at the project, nearly 2.5 weeks. Time has just flown by, though the amount of work that we as an organization have done is surprisingly plentiful.
Haiti is an country slightly smaller than the state of Maryland residing on the western 1/3 of the island of Hispaniola, shared with the Dominican Republic on the east. This tiny Caribbean country of 9 million people is primarily Catholic. The Haitians speaks French and Creole (with a number of locals speaking surprisingly good English, especially with the younger generation boys in their early to late 20s, many self-taught), sees 80% of its population living below poverty level, yet 1/2 the population over 15 years of age can read and write. Life expectancy at birth is under 60 years of age and after witnessing some of these hardened people down here, they either work their fingers to the bone until the day they pass on, or sit and play dominoes under a small shaded building with their buddies, no care in the world.
No matter how you look at it, Gonaives is a mess. A big, massive muddy mess. The mud, whether oozing, sticky, soupy, sloppy, gritty, or dried, is everywhere. The main streets as well as all the back streets are covered; piles and piles of mud cover what used to be the streets, the mounds often rising higher than the houses themselves. Many people are working diligently to muck out the sludge from their homes and the only place to put it all is on the roads. The city is fortunate to have some heavy equipment that has come in and cleared off most of the main streets and are now slowly creeping towards the back streets. Most of our heavy mud work is, of course, on the back roads of the town. Naturally, these are now only accessible by foot, and sometimes the makeshift pathways are so narrow it's inevitable one or both feet are going to sink on either or both sides in the freshly mucked mud.
The UN estimates that 2.5 million cubic meters of mud was deposited in the city from the hurricanes. One article I read quoted Donal Reilly, a past CRS (Catholic Relief Services) senior emergency advisor in Haiti, as saying "I estimate it would take removing about 400 truckloads of mud a day, every day for a year to clear Gonaives." Living here the past few weeks, I can see how true that must be, and am surprised he said he thinks it would take only "a year." Now, where are all the trucks and where are all the drivers?
Mr. Donal Reilly continues his article by saying that the local people are "already cleaning the mud out of their homes and business, but the problem is, there is nowhere to dump the mud. So they put it in the streets and it piles up and hinders mobility. If it rains again before the streets are cleared their houses will effectively be turned into swimming pools. This is because their buildings are at a lower level than the streets around them. Since there is no drainage, the water just stays there." Again, we volunteers are finding this to be true as well. We clear a house full of mud by either forming a bucket brigade where all the volunteers stream out into the streets passing the buckets to the next person down the line, or shoveling the slop into wheelbarrows, taking it out of the homes and negotiating hills and mounds of existing debris and mud (debrud, as we are now calling it), looking for places where it can be dumped. I have even seen locals wheelbarrowing out of their homes and placing the mud directly in the middle of a cleared street. Course this makes no sense; what it creates, temporarily, is either a "speedbump" of sorts or yet another obstacle for cars and trucks to go around. This becomes a problem when the mud starts to pile back up again.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and one of the most disadvantaged countries in the developing world. Seventy-six percent of Haitians live on less than US$2 per day, while 55 percent live on less than US$1 per day. Everywhere we foreign volunteers go we are bombarded with stretched arms reaching out to us wanting a handout. Hand to the mouth gestures are common, indicating the kids or adults looking at us with hungry eyes are just that - hungry. If we are heading to or working at a job site near our home base, we don't see this as often since the local community is really starting to catch on as to why we are here and what we are doing for their neighborhoods. They respect us, often give us a thumbs up sign and many lend us a hand passing buckets or taking their turn at wheelbarrowing on the job sites. What is unexplainable to me is how clean they stay, even after hours of sloshing mud about! We foreign vols head back to the base caked in mud, weighing down our clothes and our knee-high rubber boots. Mud in the hair, in the nose, splattered on the face and arms is a common sight in Gonaives, especially for us after a long hot day working. Not all Haitians stay clean, though. The local kids are often so full of mud you can't tell what color they were to begin with. Arms and legs a dirty chocolate masking the dark brown smooth color of their real skin beneath.
Extreme poverty, along with political, social and economic instability as well as recurrent natural disasters have increased vulnerability for large sectors of the population in Haiti. It's hard to say no to everyone, hard to explain we are not a relief organization here to doll out food clothes, other handouts, and the like. We are here to muck out the houses and the schools whose occupants are unable to do it themselves. We don't - we can't - give just anything just because. Strangers have asked me for my watch, my camera, my pencil (even when I didn't have one) my shirt off my back, my lunch. It's not easy to say NO, but we stand firm. This is a me, me, me, what can you do for me society and everyone thinks the white foreigner is going to give them something, whether or not they have done anything to warrant it in the first place. It's hard to change a society when something is so ingrained in their heads on how to behave, whether it is proper behavior or not. It's just sad when the locals approaching us are under the age of five.
There are a few "tent cities" in the town along the perimeter borders, areas where hundreds and sometimes thousands of displaced people now live after being forced from their homes after the flooding. Many will never return to what they used to call home, either because their houses were swept away, looted so badly the tin walls and timber floors are gone, or their homes are still under standing water, over 2 months later. Many families are still living on the roofs of their homes or their neighbors' homes, along with the possessions they managed to salvage.
It's a sad and pitiful situation in Gonaives, Haiti and the impact we as an organization will make in the 3.5 months we are down here will be minimal. But at least we will be making the difference to some. And that in itself feels good.
For more information or to donate to Project Gonaives, please visit our website at www.hodr.org. At the very least, check out the photo gallery page to view the photos from our project.
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