How was Haiti?
It is a question I am frequently asked by both friends and family when they hear I have returned from my 12 week volunteering expedition. Regrettably, the situation I experienced can only be described as bleak.
(Side note: I was not serving as a “voluntourist” [someone classified by paying money in order to volunteer, in the form of a program fee other than what is necessary to cover food and board], but rather living as closely to the standards as those who were displaced by the earthquake as possible. This meant no running water [water was generously provided to our “camp” by the United Nations], sleeping in a tent, no electricity, a glorified hole as a latrine, and no blackout-tinted SUVs. I was working in Haiti from March-June and the majority of my work was manual labor in the form of clearing cement and rubble from destroyed schools)
Located on the Southern coast, Jacmel was the base for my time in Haiti. In the 1960s, Jacmel was a hippie tourist destination, but by the arrival of the 1980s as well as a coup de etats, Haiti’s annual tourism revenue severely dropped and Jacmel’s wealth followed.
After a Dramamine-doped 3 hour bus ride from Port Au Prince, I took a motorcycle taxi through Jacmel to better acquaint myself with my new base of operations. While my driver was busy avoiding zealous dogs, bountiful piles of trash steaming in the Caribbean sun, and pantless children yelling “Blanc! (White!)”, I was hit by the relative cohesion of this dusty city. There were numerous fully-standing buildings, and besides the obvious leering there was a sense of safekeeping I never felt in the capital.
While affected greatly by the earthquake, its devastation (economic and human losses) was no match for the areas of Leogane and Port Au Prince. Little changed my three months of service. There appeared to be plenty of UN workers, ample money being spent on luxurious hotels for the organizations to stay at and there were certainly more marked NGO vehicles on the roads than civilian cars, but oddly enough nothing ever managed to improve. No permanent housing was built; food distribution services were highly curtailed and little to no new employment for locals with the exception of the “cash for work” programs.
Anecdotally, there were cynical expats who cited that no permanent houses were being built until after the hurricane due to the expected death toll (“Why build houses for dead people?”). There were other alleged NGO workers who claimed there was simply no money to build at the moment, which at the offset sounded preposterous. Haiti was promised over 5 billion US dollars to help rebuild their infrastructure and housing, and surely it could not have been spent in the first 5 months?
This, in fact, is true. The money has not been spent. By and large, according to CNN, because it never showed up. According to their investigation, “less than 2 percent of that money has been handed over so far to the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission.” The United States is one of the guilty parties with none of its 1.15 billion dollars having been sent. The Haitians with whom I had the pleasure of working often repeated a mantra that has served important in the face of adversity which I feel terribly applicable to this situation, “Neg di san fe, bondye fe san di” (People talk and don’t act, God acts and doesn’t talk).
In retrospect, I cannot truly say I lived like a Haitian during my time volunteering. While the conditions may have been comparable, the work to me was always temporary and I was able to have mental solace in the concept that this was not my “real” home. The daily work was physically and emotionally distressing (sifting through the crushed identification papers of children who have been killed is a job I would wish upon no one) and finishing a day knowing that tomorrow will bring the same work with little change is a cerebral stumbling block to both foreigners and Haitians. The only bright spot is that outlying cities that weren’t completely leveled, such as Jacmel, have the ability to be rebuilt when the money does (hopefully) arrive.