Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Port-au-Prince 101

Paula Drumond, Elise Young and Philipou community members with Action Aid at the 'Cash for Work' project in the Philipou Neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.

I arrived in the Port-au-Prince airport this morning under a hazy, sleep-deprived mental cloud. As we came in for a landing, though, I perked up considerably. Beautiful, mountainous Haiti was quickly approaching.

It has been a long day of meeting people, visiting Action Aid sites, taking pictures of the earthquake’s destructive aftermath and trying to stay awake for my first Haitian dinner. My very first impression of Port-au-Prince is that of a crumbling post-war zone. Every other building has experienced significant damage. Several buildings have collapsed onto themselves. Rubble and trash strew the streets. Makeshift camps populate each intersection, park and open space.

My second impression of Haiti is that people seem to be miraculously coping and moving on with their lives, at least on a surface level. Girls balancing heavy loads on top of their heads navigate over rubble piles with expert grace. Sellers enthusiastically peddle their goods at every corner. Colorful tap-taps whiz around piles of broken mortar with ease. Children are playing. Music is blaring. People are laughing.

Yet, we hear a different story when we take a closer look at one of the camps at Marini, on the outskirts of town. Here, we inspect a new Action Aid model shelter, a small, yet sturdy 2-room home, coordinated with the help of a local organization called COZPAM. This solid building has a stable foundation, a good tin roof and windows to let in the light. We meet Daniella, a laconic forty-something women’s leader who will soon move into the new home with her two young girls and four additional family members. Daniella explains that her community, although starting to get organized, is still in desperate need of help.

In her neighborhood, 1 toilet is available for every 130 people. Food is scarce and presents a daily challenge for survival. Dead bodies on top of the mountain range have contaminated the water source, which is making people sick. Jobs are non-existent and constitute a major barrier against sustainable recovery. And yet, Daniella and her neighborhood are some of the lucky ones. They have occasional food aid and shelter support from Action Aid and UNICEF. They have a sturdy meeting hall for children, youth and community meetings. They are identifying internal leaders, are meeting 3 times per week and are starting to utilize their voice.

 When we ask Daniella and the community members what they would ask for if they had an opportunity to meet with their reclusive mayor, she doesn't hesitate. "We need jobs," shes says firmly. People want to work. People need to work. Although they are thankful for what they have received, donor fatigue is setting in and it has been 22 days since they've
 seen any food aid. But, they don't really want food aid. That want to buy and produce the food for themselves. Plans for a community garden are already underway, if enough rubble can be removed and water ways unclogged. Daniella herself hopes to run her own business one day. That way, she can have a sustainable source of income for her family and bring much needed clothes and goods into the community.

Despite these hopeful dreams, life remains extremely difficult for people in Marini. A certain quiet sadness seems to fall over everyone that we meet. Action Aid’s Director of the Americas has the perfect cure, though. He asks the hovering group of curious men, women and children if they support Argentina or Brazil for the World cup. “Brazil, Brazil!,” they collectively cry out. Giggles and laughter and whoops ensue and smiles finally radiate each face.

Despite the fact that this community doesn't have an elementary school, hospital or even a place to bathe, Brazilian flags proudly decorate each corner. Perhaps Team Brazil presents an opportunity for Port-au-Prince Haitians to band together around a regional symbol of pride. So, as we wave goodbye and head back to our nice, air-conditioned 4 wheel drive Toyota, I say the following short prayer. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, for the game of soccer. And please, please, please, let Brazil win.”


  1. Thank you for sharing this amazing journey to Haiti with us, Elise. It is such a gift to learn from your experiences and read about some of the people you are meeting. Thinking of you during your travels.

  2. Bonne arrivee!!! Noticing any beninois similarities? I'm glad to "see" Haiti thru your eyes, Elise. Dieu va avec toi! love, Michelle

  3. What an amazing piece! I felt like I was right there with you. Thank you so much for sharing this journey. You have quite a talent.