Ciamhie took part in Haven’s Build It Week in November 2012. Here, in her regular updates from the site, she shared her experiences and all the progress made by the teams of volunteers.
Haiti, October 2011 – the week that changed my life!
Just a little taster from my Build it Week trip in 2011! We hope to keep you updated on a daily basis from Haiti next week, so please stay tuned.. .only two days left before we go!
Build it Week Oct 2011.
As I stepped onto the plane on October 30th, my stomach was one giant ball of knots, a mixture of nerves and excitement. My head was screaming “What the hell are you getting yourself into?”! I was on my way to Haiti as part of 300 volunteers with Irish charity Haven to build houses for the homeless of Haiti.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone, as I was travelling with my mum, dad, two sisters and brother, collectively known for the week as the Brady Bunch! One look around the plane – never mind the two crazy individuals sat beside me – and I knew that, no matter what was to come, we were in this together.
We arrived at lunchtime into searing heat and a swarm of heavily armed United Nations (UN), local police and private security men, all watching attentively every move we made. We were quickly escorted straight from the plane onto a fleet of six 52-seater buses, before being lead under tight security from the airport grounds in a convoy of buses, each with its own armed security guard sitting in the front seat. In Ireland, when a guy tells you he’ll show you his guns, this is not what I have in mind: I’ve only ever seen this amount of weaponry watching Ross Kemp!
Nothing in my wildest dreams could have ever prepared me for what I was about to see. As we traveled through the streets of Port-au-Prince, the sheer devastating poverty left me utterly motionless, with tears flowing down my cheeks. I could never even begin to properly describe the views from the bus windows, as we passed rows and rows of shoe-less children and plastic sheeting made into rows of tents, which lay beside the disease-infested rivers that these poor people were forced to live in, following the infamous earthquake which struck in January 2010, taking the lives of approximately 220,000 people.
Don’t get me wrong, this destitution was not solely caused by the earthquake. Haiti has been battling for years through slavery, revolts and the dictatorship of Papa Doc and his son who followed him. The Haitians had very little before January 2010, but whatever they had had been snatched from them.
As we headed west towards the Christianville campsite in Gressier, the deprivation got worse and worse. Families were lucky if they could find some corrugated metal and plastic sheets to piece together and create a shelter for themselves. To think that this nation had to endure these terrible conditions, particularly during hurricane season which had just past, beggars belief.
We pulled up to the site with our faces melting down our clothes – the bloody humidity is unreal! We were met with rows of tents side by side. If you gave me one of these at home, you’d quickly be told where to go, but, after the sights we had just witnessed, we felt extremely privileged. We found our beds for the week that would quickly become home, and headed off to the bar/stage area to learn more about what lay ahead of us for the week. The realisation of where we were lay firmly in my head that night, as the images of the bus journey went over and over in my head. I thought I had prepared myself but, really, I had no friggin’ idea.
Not exactly a morning person myself, you can imagine what I was like when I was awoken at 5am the next morning to get dressed and ready for our first day on the building site! I reluctantly dragged myself off to the newly erected toilet and showers area, armed with my bottle of water to wash my teeth! Even these little things that seemed like such a chore at the start of the week quickly became the norm by the end of the week! Off then we marched like the animals from Noah’s Ark to the canteen area for breakfast. As bad and all as I felt about having to get up that early, it was nothing compared to the poor catering team, made up of volunteers who had been slaving away in the kitchens since 4am preparing the feast.
After breakfast, we all headed off towards the gates of the compound, towards the buses that were to take us to the building site which was some 50 minutes away. At the gate, we were met by the most magnificent sight: local Haitian children arriving by foot and on the back of motorbikes (used as taxis), dressed immaculately in their uniforms. Their shoes, their hair, their bags, all coordinating perfectly with big gleaming smiles of pride on their faces.
In Haiti, it is a BIG deal to be fortunate enough to attend school. Us Irish could certainly learn a thing or two, as I certainly had never made that much effort getting ready for a school day, nor was I ever that happy to arrive, and yet there they were at 6am, dancing around at the gates.
After travelling by convoy, again accompanied by security, we arrived on site in Santos, Léogâne. Léogâne was the epicenter and worst-affected area of the 2010 earthquake, and there was very little to show for life before the earthquake, as we traveled the windy, dangerous dirt tracks to get there. Surrounded by displaced persons camps and rows of tents for as far as the eye could see, we pulled up to the site and, once inside the large metal gates, we descended the buses, and made our way to find our foremen and meet what was to become our team (family) for the week.
I was to be on the “House Team” for the week; my dad and brother were the same, although they were on other teams further down the site. My two sisters were assigned to the painting team, and my Mum to the water team. After meeting my team – Foreman Gerry, Gerry Mc, Aidy, Frank, Paul, Rosemary and Aileen – we gathered our tools and nervously made our way to the individual houses we were to work on for the week. I can barely change a light bulb, so you can imagine what I felt like surrounded by scaffolding and tools and ladders! It quickly became apparent that what you didn’t know, you would learn, as it was all hands on deck this week. Thankfully, we were lucky to have at least a few people on our team who knew what they were up to!
It wasn’t long before we all fell into our little roles within the team, and we were all busy working away together on getting the frame of the house together. The foundations, along with waist-high concrete walls, had already been built by local Haitians employed by the charity, and each team was tasked with finishing two houses, from the timber walls and roofs to the doors and window shutters.
We had no sooner started when we were joined by a Haitian worker, Santir (who was affectionately christened “Santa” for the day). Santir spoke broken English and explained how he had lost his family and home in the earthquake, and was now living with his uncle in Port-au-Prince. He had traveled to the Santos site that morning in search of work to help his uncle. He became part of the team as we laughed and joked throughout the day whilst working. The water team regularly swung by to ensure we had water and were kept hydrated, and boy were we happy to see them, with temperatures well the 40°C bracket.
Local Haitian workers, along with recipients of the houses, worked side by side with us throughout the day, and, from chats and conversations aided by the translators on site, we got an insight into what life was like as a Haitian. To this day, I don’t know how these people get up in the morning. They have nothing, and very little hope of ever getting anything. It is absolutely heartbreaking and extremely hard to accept.
We had a quick 15 minute break in the morning for a drink and a snack, and an hour at lunch, when temperatures reached the max and it was too dangerous for us to be out in the sun. By the time 5pm rolled around and it was time to return to the buses for our journey back to site, we were utterly exhausted. That first journey back to site was very quiet indeed, with very little for people to say, as the realisation of the days events and our surroundings hit home.
Espwa Pou Ayiti- Hope for Haiti