No end to hardship in Haiti
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. Today’s report is the final of a three-part series by Daily Editor Ricky Jordan.
Going into any campsite in Port-au-Prince is like stepping back into time. None of the amenities which we take for granted are here, unless you consider an old refrigerator lying around for storage of dry food and other non-perishables a modern piece of equipment.
Twenty-first century civilisation has been snatched away from the heart of Haiti – its capital – and the rapidity of action that is synonymous with this century is not apparent. These people – our CARICOM neighbours, who share a common bond of African and colonial heritage and cultures – cook outdoors, fetch water from a lone tank that serves over 500 people, use an outhouse for bathing and other sanitary practices, and have only fabric to shield them from the elements.
This particular camp, which we entered under United Nations security watch, was chosen by the UNFPA for the distribution of condoms. It is the organisation’s way of reining in galloping rates of pregnancy which, according to the UN, have tripled in the last ten months.
The camp is one of many in the capital – some as large as two soccer fields and accommodating as many as 5 000 people or small enough to hold under 1 000. It means that many Haitians have become like their ancestors of centuries ago: a nation of tent dwellers.
If this is their wilderness experience – like the Biblical children of Israel who dwelt in tents after fleeing from Egyptian bondage – will Haitians come to anything remotely similar to the Promised Land?
One mother, who takes care of 13 children, some of whose parents were killed in the January 12 earthquake, spoke of a possible relocation.
“They told us they might move some of us to Senegal, but to move there you might as well take your whole family. I’d prefer to go to the Dominican Republic because Senegal seems so far,” she said wistfully.
Change is also in the air from a political standpoint, and with elections due November 28, with 19 candidates on the starting line led by Jude Celestin of INITE, the women in this camp want Mirlande Manigat, the leading female candidate who is also the wife of former president Leslie F. Manigat.
“We want a woman at the top. The men have done a lot of harm,” the women chorused.
This camp overlooks the island’s lone crematorium, which was destroyed in the quake, making it necessary for victims to be buried in mass graves. It’s a chilling daily reminder of January 12 when, around four o’ clock in the afternoon, the Haitian capital was turned into a scene from hell as buildings crumbled, the earth shook and, according to conservative figures from the UN, 230 000 perished and one million were dislocated. Survivors estimate the dead at more than 500 000.
Yet, in this camp which is located on a slope and bisected by a gutter to assist the runoff of dirty water, children run and play; the youths are ready to dance when those distributing condoms raise a rhythmic nursery rhyme; while the older folk bring water and pause to chat with reporters.
“I have had five children and I’m no longer interested in any man . . . . You are handsome though,” she says through an interpreter, while accepting a paper bag full of condoms. Her pregnant daughter also takes a bag, but notes “these irritate me, and I prefer the injection.
“We’d prefer them to bring rice, flour and ground provisions right now”, she adds.
They don’t look malnourished but these Haitian women, though given rations of food by a range of voluntary organisations, enjoy cooking their own ground food, fish which they buy or catch. Their ancient independent spirit is revealed in the little things.
As we walk through the camps, the mother who is maintaining 13 children asks questions about the condom, jokingly trying to stretch one over her fist. One female distributor shows her this can in fact be done with this sturdy brand of latex.
Not many men are in this camp. “They are out working or looking for work,” says another lady who is cooking at the roadside beside the camp and selling food. The busy highway makes her location an excellent one. Mostly women – understandably housewives – and children are present. But why arent’t the kids at school?
“80 per cent of education in Haiti is private,” says interpreter Chantal Lafond. “And that’s just one of the reasons. If you can’t even feed and clothe these children, how can you send them to school?” she asks rhetorically.
As we leave the camp we wish them well, but the slow pace of recovery has kept these families in tents to face the hot sun, rain and wind, and to endure unthinkable hardship: including settlements of unclean water and mosquitoes in several campsites, and unhealthy disposal of garbage and waste – which have led to a cholera outbreak.
Compounded by the easy access to unprotected sex, the likelihood of HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and occasional violence, this is a timebomb waiting to explode. And the UN and other organisations know it; hence the contributions not only of food, clothing and contraceptives, but also the presence of heavily armed security forces, armoured tanks, a fortified outpost topped with barbed wire, surveillance cameras and a sniper’s guard hut on the outskirts of the capital.
Relief in Haiti is a dichotomy, and any return to a civilised way of living is still way off. Even if the current ruling party is changed in the next three weeks.