On The Road Blog
FT Behind the Scenes: Haiti
- By Sandra Macías del Villar on December 21st, 2012
- Category: Blog, Featured, Featured Blog, Home, Latin America and the Caribbean
It was a warm and breezy Sunday afternoon in the capital of Haiti, and the downtown area was full of activity. As in many parts of the world, on Sundays many Haitians take the opportunity to meet with family, dress in their finest to attend religious activities, hang out with friends, and if they can afford to, get some rest. As I was walking in Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince’s emblematic plaza, where statues of revolutionary heroes adorn walkways and parks, it was hard to believe that only a few months ago I had been walking in the same area in between tents. Survivors of the 2010 earthquake had been living for years in the Champ de Mars tent camps, in detrimental and inhumane conditions created as a result of cramped space, intense heat, poor sanitation, limited resources, and copious neglect.
As I was explaining to Financial Times reporter Orla Ryan and photographer Charlie Bibby how tents used to populate the plaza, it was hard for them, and for me, to picture the wretched tent camp conditions against a background of green mountains, young men playing soccer, couples holding hands and enjoying shaved ice, and artisans showing us their latest paintings depicting life in the province. It had been four years since I had enjoyed a Sunday afternoon walk in Champ de Mars, and I must say I was surprised to be able to do so. But I couldn’t help but think of those who had lived underneath tents here not long ago, and to wonder where they had gone.
Lakou is a Haitian concept that stands for community, mutual responsibility, cooperation, respect, and self-sufficiency, a system of living that is intricately woven into daily Haitian life. Solidarity within lakou starts with the immediate family but expands to encompass extended family members and friends. It is not uncommon for a hungry child to walk to a neighbor’s home to get a meal, for someone to offer his or her home during heavy rains, or for everyone in a community to help build a drinking well. There is no doubt that thanks to the rescue and response by Haitians within their lakou and beyond, many lives were saved immediately after the earthquake. Unfortunately, an event as catastrophic as the 2010 earthquake radically changes the lives of many, as well as the support system that they rely on for basic survival.
Community-based grassroots organizations, especially in Haiti, have become key community agents and at times have stepped up to rebuild and revive lakou. When Orla and I sat in the small, one-room home of a 19-year-old woman who had been raped while living in a tent camp and was now a beneficiary of GFC grantee partner KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim), it became clear that shortly after the earthquake this young woman’s support system was shattered. The home where she lived was destroyed, family members passed away, and at the age of 16 she was left defenseless in the street with nowhere to go and no one to help her out. As she described to us the perils she had suffered while living in a tent camp in Champ de Mars, she explained how she went days without food or water and how each day she worried about her safety. Through KOFAVIV’s outreach program for women victims in tent camps, she was taken to a safe house, where she found a support system and people to rely on.
Despite a surge in forced evictions throughout various tent camps and the camps’ slow disintegration, tent camps continue to be home to close to 400,000 people. Even though conditions are far from optimal, some people are recreating their lakou in the place where they have now been living for almost three years. As Orla, Charlie, and I walked on a narrow dirt road past an empty soccer field and into a displaced community on the outskirts of Léogâne, we were joined by a community leader and the coordinator of GFC grantee partner MUDHA (Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico-Haitianas), an organization based in the Dominican Republic that is dedicated to helping and supporting Dominicans of Haitian descent. These leaders described how the entire soccer field used to be covered in tents, which housed close to 200 families.
At MUDHA’s center, many people living in the tent camps have received health services, food, and psychosocial support, in addition to critical life skills training. Even though the 200 families are no longer living on the soccer field, having dispersed to smaller communities, they are still in dire straits. During our visit, we met several families that now live in smaller tent camps of approximately 20 tents each. Some have moved into the backyards of family members; others, in an act of desperation, decided simply to move into empty fields. Despite the continuous migration, MUDHA has been in constant communication with all its beneficiaries, regardless of where they live and where they move, through its network of community workers. These community workers are the thread that links the community together, and they are actively supporting the reconstruction of lakou.
Haiti is a country of stark contrasts—in a single day, it is easy to go from the peaceful to the chaotic, from seeing sprinkles of beauty to ruthless acts of injustice, from meeting those basking in lavish lifestyles to those who humbly offer a cinder block to sit on at their homes. Despite the contrasts, those who have the chance to visit this mesmerizing country are always pleasantly surprised by the warmth of its people, and my guests were no exception.
While life remains difficult for so many in Haiti, I find a sense of comfort in knowing that our Haitian partners are in the field, arduously working to support those who are most vulnerable and in need. Our partners have been responding to crises long before external entities have, and they will continue to be key agents in their community as long as they need to. I know that some of those who left the Champ de Mars tent camps were helped by our community partners. They were not alone, and this brings a sigh of relief.
Read more about GFC on FT.com