First Impressions of Haiti
Ever since I started my job I have had my eye on a trip to Haiti. Partly because the country’s strong cultural connection with parts of West Africa has interested me (same people, language, voodoo culture, etc), and partly just that it is a place that is hard to visit as a tourist (because of the level of violence that has plagued it for so long) and so I wanted to take advantage of the ability to see the place through the protection of my employer.
However when they turned to me last month and said they needed me to take part in an assignment there, it was not the same Haiti that I had been thinking of before. The violence is still there but now there is all the devastation and hardship that has resulted from the earthquake, and as my trip approached also a growing cholera epidemic and even the threat of a hurricane.
Well I arrived yesterday, and the place has made a strong impression on me. Perhaps partly because I was a little tired and perhaps disoriented from my travel (I left Johannesburg Friday night and after flying via Nairobi, Dakar, Washington DC and Miami I finally arrived in Port au Prince some 67 hours later), but it is certainly true that this place is unlike any other I have visited.
The city has a beautiful location, set on a number of hills, with higher hills behind and the Caribbean Sea on one side. It is also very green, with tropical vegetation filling whatever space it can find. But of course the earthquake damage is so visible. There are many damaged buildings around, some just with one wall missing and cracks in what remains, some pushed over at crazy angles and some completely collapsed, where the walls obviously gave way and the floors of the building fell in upon one another. I suppose many of these must have skeletons amongst the remains – family members and friends of those who still remain. There are also piles of rubble everywhere – and amazingly, a few very beautiful traditional old wooden houses that survived the quake.
Around these damaged buildings and piles of rubble people get on with life, setting up little stalls and making new pathways between them. However there is still a big danger of further earthquakes (there was apparently a tremor just three days ago) and the buildings that remain, already damaged, are now very vulnerable. We’ve been told that the usual earthquake response, when indoors, is to remain inside and shelter under a table, but that given the fragility of the buildings here we should try to get outside as quickly as possible.
There are also the big tent cities of the homeless. The first tents you see are right outside the airport, and there are many other camps around the city.
Taking photos of all this is difficult. In common with most other INGOs, expat staff are not allowed to walk anywhere (even just to cross the road from the hotel). The gang violence that used to plague this country has returned, with robberies, kidnaps (89 reported so far this year) and shootings quite common. White people are obvious targets for muggings. In addition there is an election due in three weeks’ time, which has always led to violence here. So far there has not been much – two shooting incidents, one involving one of the candidates who was the one with the gun! – but it is expected to build up over the next week. Our hotel, the only one with space, is on one side of what was the main square (now a massive tent city), and this is where the biggest demonstrations and riots are expected to occur. We’ve been told that in such a situation we remain inside the hotel if already here, or spend the night somewhere else if it happens when we are at work. There are many weapons in the country (the gangs, some of whom are behind certain presidential candidates, even have AK47s) so anything that turns violent is to be avoided.
The hurricane largely missed the island, thank goodness, although it did cause flooding in some areas. That flooding, however, is likely to increase the risk that the cholera epidemic spreads to the capital, and if that happens it would be disastrous as so few people here have access to the kind of sanitation and cooking facilities needed to avoid it. We do have a limited supply of tinned and packet food with us just in case!
My overall impression at the moment really is of chaos, and I do wonder what on earth I am doing here…