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Leogane, Haiti, meeting the neighbors. [Apr. 28th, 2010|07:37 pm]
Leogane, Haiti, meeting the neighbors.

The last couple of days have opened a little perspective on the NGO world and Haiti, and provoked some thinking that has yet to germinate fully. Of course, I spend a lot of time thinking about what HODR does here in Haiti, how effective and even worthwhile its model is, if there are ways to improve it, and generally wrestling with existential questions like that. I'm spending this week assessing home sites with other NGOs, seeing how they work, and what their priorities are. I haven't decided if they're better or worse than HODR yet, but this experience is a good basis for comparison.

Monday, our translator Jacob and I spent the afternoon with two employees of the Spanish Red Cross, inspecting destroyed home sites in an outlying area called Grand Savanne. I want to take a second here to heap praise on Jacob. He's been my translator for almost all of the assessments I've done, and is the second half of my brain. He knows our operations, Leogane, me,and Haitians so well that, when he went on vacation last week I shouted at the nightly meeting, “Fuck it. We'll just have to stop operations till he gets back.” On with the story about The Red Cross in Grand Savanne. The last road there is just a rutted track that's washed out in some places and nearly invisible in others. It's not even very distant from Leogane, but population density drops to nearly nothing just a few blocks from the town limits and then it's palms, mango trees, and cows too hot to move. I was there to do our normal assessment for potential home sites to clear of rubble, but the Red Cross threw in a couple of changes.

First, we rode in an air-conditioned, white SUV, like a real aid worker. Let me tell you, it's a hell of a step up from clinging to the back of a tap tap with fifteen other volunteers and tools, with suspension only a sad memory. I hadn't worn a seat belt since the shuttle ride from Port au Prince, six weeks ago. Second, I'm coming to realize that HODR's model of lots of international volunteers and comparatively few local ones is rare. The two people I went with yesterday were a pretty large portion of the Spanish Red Cross's international staff in Haiti. Both have their pros and cons, but for what it's worth, many of the NGOs with small international staffs have tapped HODR for help in Leogane. Third, the Red Cross was seriously into prioritizing their work based on need, and on community involvement. HODR tries to do both, to a limited degree, but these were part of every conversation I had with Gonzalo and Rosario, the two Spaniards I worked with.

The 75 year-old lady who took care of her grandkids, alone in a tarp shelter next to her collapsed house, was “muy vulnerable.” The couple in their forties with two healthy, teenage boys running around was not. When they asked me what HODR's criteria were for jobs, I answered, “Well, we look at vulnerability, but mostly what makes us turn down jobs are physical restrictions, like jobs requiring machinery, multi-storey buildings, sites without a rubble dump, or buildings with human remains in them.” They looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language. I guess technically I was, but physical restrictions nearly made me turn down our last job. The only available rubble dump was hundreds of yards away, way to far to push a rickety wheelbarrow full of 120 pounds of rubble. Gonzalo and Rosario's solution was to have us dump the rubble in a small nook between a stand of palm trees and the road that would fill up instantly and they would provide tools for the locals to transfer the rubble to the distant rubble dump. This would be stunningly inefficient, confusing, and difficult, and would require the full participation of a pretty large crew of local volunteers, which is sometimes easy to come by and sometimes impossible. The family we talked to agreed, though, with the caution that we'd have to stop work if there were no place to put the rubble, and away we went. The Red Cross seemed to think this would work fine, but I have my doubts.

Yesterday, and for the rest of this week, I've been doing different types of assessments with Cordaid, a huge, Dutch NGO that no one's heard of, but they'll be in Leogane for five years, distributing ten thousand shelters. They already distributed several thousand questionnaires to households in Lomprey, another rural area twenty minutes from central Leogane that's nearly empty except for palm orchards, tall mango trees, views of the deforested mountains, livestock, and isolated houses or families in groups of houses. Lomprey was about a mile from the earthquake's epicenter. Our job was to visit home sites and assess them for suitability for one of Cordaid's shelters, which sound more like small, permanent, modern, pressure-treated lumber frame houses to me than transitional shelters. I've seeen a lot of traditional Haitian homes this way. They're built of rough palm planks or palm frond thatch, and roofed with tin, sometimes painted in a primary or pastel color, and have decorative cutouts over their porches. When they're packed into a city, these houses are called “gingerbread.” In Lomprey, they're the only houses that survived the quake intact at all. Some have been so buried by sedimentation during yearly hurricane floods that they're mostly underground, with only their roofs exposed. Most are two rooms, house up to a dozen people, aren't very waterproof, and are infested with spiders and vermin. None have electricity, running water, or plumbing of any kind.

What struck me the most of this experience was the town meeting that Cordaid arranged yesterday to introduce the program to the community. About a hundred people showed up to the mayor's yard and sat in the shade of a huge, spreading mango tree. The mayor, or “elected representative” was there, as well as Carl, the assistant to the shelter director of Cordaid in Haiti, and Marie Maud, the extremely animated and charismatic Haitian woman who is Cordaid's director of social development in Haiti. I really appreciated that Cordaid would have an open meeting like this. In typical Haitian fashion, it started late, and ended with a lot of passionate arguing about the best way to get trucks into a neighborhood where the primary transport is horseback. What was best though was watching Carl, as pale as a Dutch winter and looking wilted, fan himself, drink water, and speak quietly while Marie Maud, through a megaphone, translated for him in what was nearly a vaudeville act. She brought a drummer, started the audience off with a sing along, and elicited applause, laughter, and “amen!” throughout the meeting. I think she may not have been literally translating. She emphasized that, although Cordaid would supply the materials and some help building the shelters, the responsibility for constructing and maintaining them was the community's. “The responsibility is YOURS and YOURS and YOURS,” she said while poking her finger at individuals in the audience and bugging her eyes out. Everyone nodded along and seemed to understand. Standing there, sweat pouring down my ribs even in the breeze, watching the palms sway away to the mountains, I had one of those “holy crap, I'm in Haiti” moments, where the reality of what I'm doing and where I am is unignorable. They're increasingly rare as I get more used to being here, but they remind me to keep my mind on task.

Thanks for reading everyone. Other than busy and working hard, I'm doing well. I'll write more about me later.

From: (Anonymous)
2010-04-29 01:44 pm (UTC)


In Bangladesh, the big NGO's had LEXUS SUV's. What the heck is that about!? Grrr.
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[User Picture]From: pentheus
2010-05-01 01:51 am (UTC)

Re: NGOs

I've heard of NGOs or the UN setting up private bars with generators, movie nights, and amenities that the people in the refugee camps right outside will never have in their lives. HODR is a hell of a lot more real than that, in part because we are much smaller and poorer, and have a much looser curfew. The organization doesn't provide us with much entertainment, so we're left with whatever's in the neighborhood to spend time outside of work. Yesterday morning I got a haircut from the barber on the corner. My hair may never forgive me, but it was a fun experience. I think he'd never cut a foreigner's hair before, because all his friends came in and took photos on their phones.
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[User Picture]From: gingerroo
2010-04-29 05:26 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing. I look forward to and always appreciate your posts. I'm glad you're doing well and I miss you. Every once in a while I catch myself thinking, I should give Dylan a call and see what he's up to. Then I remember that you are far south and smashing buildings for love, humanity and perhaps a little of that ever human joy in creative destruction and it makes me smile.
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[User Picture]From: pentheus
2010-05-01 01:56 am (UTC)
I miss you too! I'll see you in July, though. Occasionally I get to build things, like today I helped build one of the Cordaid shelters. Then after lunch it was back to demolition and rubble clearing.
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[User Picture]From: swingsyren
2010-05-03 05:18 pm (UTC)
I'm curious, what sort of relationships are you able to establish with the Haitians? Are they brief or have you made any deeper connections with anyone you are helping?
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[User Picture]From: pentheus
2010-05-04 01:20 am (UTC)
I haven't developed many relationships with the folks we're helping, but I'm really shy. I have made friends with some of our local volunteers, who I see and work with every day. Jacob, who I mention here, Berlyne, a local woman who is another of our translators, whose mom's house was destroyed in the quake, which we cleared and are trying to get a shelter for, and a gang of guys from HODR's project in Gonaives, Haiti, who came here to volunteer with us and are now working for Cordaid as translators and supervisors.
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[User Picture]From: swingsyren
2010-05-06 02:41 pm (UTC)
I just learned yesterday that Gandhi was incredibly shy, so shy it almost ruined his law career because he would stammer and freeze up in court.
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