My name is Sarah Wrixon and I am currently in my third year of International Development and Food Policy in University College Cork.
As part of the course, each student undertakes a 24 week work placement with a development organisation. This work placement is designed to give students the practical experience of working in development and a great understanding of key development challenges in reality.
Last October, a list of potential placements was handed out by my lecturers. The range of potential placements was highly diverse, with many aspects of international development covered. For me, Haven was my number one choice from day 1 for many reasons. Firstly, geography was always my favourite subject in school and I was studying earthquakes in fifth year around the time that the 2010 earthquake struck Haiti. I was absolutely fascinated by the event and equally as shocked at the widespread devastation that it caused. Another reason why I chose Haven is because the work that Haven carries out is extremely relevant to the everyday aspects of my course and the aspects that I am most interested in. Haven concentrates its work on community development, water and sanitation, sustainable livelihoods, training and education and disaster relief and recovery. I was ecstatic when I found out that I got the Haven placement.
In the months and weeks leading up to my departure for Haiti, it really hadn’t hit me that I would be spending nearly 6 months in one of the poorest countries in the world. Little did I know what I was about to get myself in to. Reality set in when I stepped out of the terminal in Port-au-Prince and was hit by a wave of intense heat and instantly surrounded by people selling goods.
As we drove to the apartment in Pétionville in the east of the city, my jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe the levels of poverty that I saw. No amount of reading or research can prepare you for what you see every day on the streets of Port-au-Prince. Seeing it first-hand was overwhelming and a big reality check. But I feel it was the reality check that I was looking for.
Straight away I began work in the office in the Irish Village. The annual Haven Volunteer Programme was taking place 2 weeks after my arrival in Haiti and there was lots of preparation work to be done. Those two weeks leading up to the Volunteer Programme were busy ones in the office. I was mainly concentrating on proposals for upcoming projects and report-writing for existing projects, but it was all hands on deck preparing for the volunteers, so I found myself doing a bit of everything. The week before the volunteers arrived myself, John (Haven’s Country Director) and Damien (Soul of Haiti’s Country Director) headed down south to Île à Vache to walk the island and see where the bulk of the work needed be carried out. Those few days on the island were extremely helpful for me because I was able to get my bearings and really see where the work needed to be carried out.
After hearing so much about the programme from the Haven staff, I was excited when it finally arrived and 32 volunteers from across Ireland, America and Canada descended on the island to improve the lives of the community. The determination of the volunteers was like something that I had never seen before. Every one of them worked tirelessly all week, despite the torrential downpours and the blistering heat.
The work that the volunteers carried out throughout the week made a huge difference to the community as a whole. The path from the orphanage down to the main square in Madame Bernard means that the children in wheelchairs from the orphanage can now go down to the square without any difficulty, and the path is now lit by three new solar lights to make the journeys along the path at night more accessible and safer for all users. I n total, 15 houses were painted; 3 new solar lights installed; 7 wells across the island were resorted to a fully functioning capacity, providing clean water to the surrounding communities; the church in Madame Bernard was fitted with new tiles, and a new paved entrance and painted inside and out; the path was extended from Madame Bernard up to Saint François d’Assise orphanage; new shelves were made and installed in the orphanage; and a brand new mural was designed and painted by the volunteers. Trojan work all in all! Île à Vache is a much quieter place this week without them!
Overall, adapting from life in Cork to life in Haiti had been a relatively easy transition, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. One of the main things I’ve found difficult is how much my movements are restricted here. At home, I’m used to being able to leave the house whenever to go for a walk but it’s a different story here. Drivers are always on call to bring us to and from the apartment and to wherever we need to go. Walking on the streets is a rare occurrence, but it’s an experience when it does happen!
Another major change for me is the language. Haitians speak Creole, which is a language based on aspects of French. Having studied French in school and in college, I have found it relatively easy to understand and communicate with the people here. I have been picking up phrases from the locals but it goes without saying that my Creole definitely needs a bit of work! All in all, I absolutely love Haiti so far. The weather is always gorgeous (despite the odd brief downpour), the food is amazing and the people here are incredibly welcoming and friendly. I’m really looking forward to what the next few months has in store for me.