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Haiti’s camp misery

Ricky Jordan

Haiti’s camp misery

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The DAILY NATION attended last month’s United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) four-day workshop in Haiti, and took a look at the capital in the aftermath of the earthquake, as cholera and other crises loomed. Daily Editor Ricky Jordan reports.
It had rained heavily overnight, and one of the first thoughts that entered the minds of most of us visiting Haiti was the campsites.
The tents are where hundreds, in some cases thousands, of survivors have been living since the January 12 earthquake literally changed the face of Port-au-Prince.
They are made of canvas, plastic and whatever pieces of fabric people can find, and held up by pieces of discarded wood – little match for heavy rain, especially if accompanied by a strong wind; but they have lasted, on the strength of much improvisation by these resilient people, for the last 11 months.
It is a blessing that a hurricane or very heavy rainfall – both regular occurrences in Haiti – haven’t hit Port-au-Prince so far this year.
And even if we could have imagined the actual dangers faced day and night by those living in Port-au-Prince’s camps, we were not prepared for this: There is little or no protection from physical harm if an altercation gets ugly; women and girls have to bathe and dress with very little shade or privacy; bathroom facilities are plywood huts with the painted silhouettes of males and females or, in the heart of the city, chemical toilets.
So what good can the rain do but expose even more for passersby and visitors like us to gawk at? What good is rain for these tent dwellers except to keep down the dust?
It was a challenge to remain composed at the sight of such affliction, but the sun came out that morning and it was as hot as one would normally feel in Barbados, Jamaica or Trinidad – where the lone English-speaking  journalists hailed from .
As we looked over the town square from Le Plaza Hotel, which was hosting the pre-launch workshop of the United Nations Population Fund, the unfortunate souls who have become refugees in their own country seemed  to have not had a bad night. It could have been worse, based on the record of tragedy that is synonymous with Haiti.
But the sun is shining, outside is dry and people are catching the colourful minibuses called “tap tap” – translated “quick quick” – waiting in lines by a bank, and hanging clothes on lines in the middle of town; while craftsmen ply their ware at street corners, selling sculpture, paintings, beads, shells, jewellery and other intricate works of art that represent the amazing talent rooted in Haitian culture.
In fact, so impressive is this unique style of art and craft that one can be temporarily distracted from the primitive conditions. For  the art is not about struggle, but reflect creation, love, harmony, the supernatural, and the triumphant Toussaint L’Ouverture, father of this free but impoverished nation.
 “I’m convinced that Haiti’s biggest [but lowest earning] export is its brain power,” says Chantal Lafond, a Haitian interpreter and translator in three languages, who lived for over a decade in the United States, but returned home to build a family.
“This is a beautiful country and if you getto go out of Port-au-Prince, I think you would be struck by the beauty of the island. I say the island because I know the Dominican Republic somewhat and they’re both the same place . . . but we do have some differences!
“We have one of the most famous mangoes. It grows only in the western part – the Haitian part. The Dominican Republic has tried to grow it, because it’s quite popular and would’ve been a nice cash crop for them, but every attempt to grow it in the Dominican Republic has failed,” she proudly informed with a chuckle.
Haiti’s contrast to its neighbour is not only in fine art and food.
The main contrast, sadly, is a source of mind-numbing amazement: natural disasters. How is it that Haiti has been hammered by mudslides and hurricanes in the last five years, its capital deeply scarred by January’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake, and its people wiped out in areas by cholera, while its neighbour is a tourist destination known for its advanced telecommunications service and commercial growth? Only God can answer this.
“The topography is not quite the same. They [DR] have more areas of flat land and more water.
They also protect their environment better with trees, while we have a problem with deforestation because we sell most of our wood . . . which leads to flooding and mudslides,” she explained.
Strong desire
While Lafond did not mention the uniquely strong desire for freedom that Haitians have historically maintained, it’s clear that today another kind of freedom is being longed for – recovery in a new Haiti, which many believe Haitians will also achieve, on their own.
A young man – in whose heart and hands reposes the strength necessary for this new  freedom – looks up from the dust-paved street and asks for money. With a broad smile, he lifts his shirt and points to a flat stomach, indicating his reason for asking.  
Never could I have imagined someone actually begging with dignity; in fact this is not begging at all. He is stating without words: “I am a man just as you are but we’re in different situations, that’s all. I want your help but only if you want to help.”
Another “free” youth who has seen hardship is Jean-Claude Niosthene, a restaurant maitre d’ who lost nine relatives in the January earthquake.
Jean-Claude had to face the reality of his family being decimated, but he and his brother survived.
“My brother Frederick was at home upstairs and heard someone calling him from outside. He went down and walked outside and, minutes later, the house caved in,” Jean-Claude recalls.
Miracles like that keep the flame of hope burning, and was articulated by Minister of Public Health and Population Dr Alex Larsen at the launch of the State of the World Population 2010 Report: “We are poor and in need. The clothes I am wearing are not in good shape but I’m trying to rebuild them and they are clean. So I demand respect. Come to help me but respect me. We are beggars unfortunately, but we’re very proud beggars.”
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