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Heals Over Head in Haiti

Gregg Phillips

A colleague of ours, Jessica Covell, recently returned to Haiti working with a team from the University of Miami to install self-composting toilets in this island nation struggling to recover from January’s earthquake.  I travelled to pre-earthquake Haiti with Jessica working on a grassroots food production and distribution project.  In addition, she was instrumental in our effort to ship a digital x-ray machine to Port-au-Prince following the earthquake.  She is an amazing woman and a great writer. 

Jessica’s Story: Back in Port-au-Prince, which in many ways in unchanged since I last was here. It is still starling to see buildings that have literally just pancaked. There is one, on the way to the compost site, that looks almost perfect-it’s just missing the second floor. There is another building off a main drag that was 4 stories and now is about 15 feet high. Some places did not fall quite as neatly and are twisted in ways that seem to be a feat of engineering. They also look like a good breeze would blow them down. Actually one did blow down during a recent windy day. There are still countless people in the city whose homes have been deemed safe who sleep outside.

On my first day here I went to a camp that I had not been to before. It was one that has not received many services. There are not many real tents, mostly tarps and blankets. Blankets are not super effective against the rain. There were somewhere around 6,000 people in this camp and it has 20 toilets. SOIL, the organization I am staying with had just added 6 more. Every time they install new toilets they have a party to educate the population on how to use them. They are “dry toilets” so people have to add dry organic material after using them-typically sugar cane fiber, the leftovers from making rum. The camp committee (people who live in the camp who are in leadership roles) are given funds to plan the event. They can do what they want. This group decides to build a stage that sat about 4 feet off the ground, they had a DJ, skits, and dancing. (there is generally not power in camps-they used a generator) This was the first camp that I have been to that the kids found the color of my skin really interesting. I had my finger nails and palms inspected more times than I can count. It was very sweet.

So typically at these events I get treated like a guest and as such get prime seating. In this case, on the stage. As I climbed the rickety ladder I told myself, this stage is going down. There were at least 25 people on it, plus all the dj equipment. Loud music plus people dancing on a stage built that day… So much like the fish sandwich I choked down at another event I focused on my thankfulness for the hospitality and not the way it was expressed. I decided I needed to relax my body, because if the stage fell and I was tense I would be more likely to get hurt. So I had a shot of warm rum and enjoyed the party. Lots of laughing and dancing. Nick, the SOIL community educator speaks flawless Creole and had the kids dancing. He is amazing. It started to rain and about thirty minutes in a really loud cracking noise and I find myself laying on my back. The stage tipped backwards. No one was hurt beyond a little banged up. I walked away with a fist size bruise on my thigh and a slightly sore thumb. People were wonderful and very concerned that I was ok. It was quite a way to start my visit. Last time my first day started with me testing the idea that sun and antibiotics don’t mix-I can confirm they don’t.

Last trip there was more chicken and less sleep. Lots of good things going on in terms of the organizations I am close to-progress for sure. I think one of the most surprising things in the overall lack of violence. Yes there are cases, very brutal ones. They are almost always Haitian against Haitian. But even in the worst camps and areas things are relatively peaceful. I think for many, living in a camp is not a real step down. People here were brutally poor pre-quake and have strategies and know how that the rest of us could not even begin to imagine. For many, access to services that the quake has brought has been greater than they have ever had in their life. The middle class here had a much harder time in the camps. The poor know how to be poor. If I suddenly lost everything and I was in the states basics would not be an issue-water, bathrooms, even food- all can be readily found. How you do that here I cannot even begin to imagine. At the end of the day being here a is a great reminder of one simple thing, It is not okay that people live like this. Everyone should have the basics.

With love from Port-au-Prince

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