Dave and I left Birmingham for 4 months of working with Haven in Haiti, with mixed expectations – about the country, the work we would be doing and how we would be received by the people there.
We had done our best to prepare but we knew there were a lot of things that we could not discover or learn until we moved into the community of Madame Bernard on Île à Vache. One thing we were not expecting was the warm Irish welcome we got from the people out working with various organisations like Haven and Soul of Haiti.
After arriving in Port-au-Prince, we set off on what was to be a four-day tour of some of the many projects that Haven have been involved with and supported in various capacities across central and southern Haiti. We travelled up to Saut d’Eau for the prestigious opening ceremony of the 150th Digicel school. We were both blown away by the quality of the new school buildings and the facilities provided, including a library and bank of computers. Some of the teachers from Île à Vache were presented with their teaching certificates in front of the Minister for Education and Denis O’Brien, Chairman of Digicel. Whilst up there, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Saut d’Eau waterfalls, a stunning example of the natural beauty of Haiti.
The following day we travelled to Gonaïves to see the housing projects that Haven had been working on. Hundreds of families had been provided with safe and effective housing located on higher ground to try and avoid the devastating floods which had destroyed so much of the area in 2008.
Each village had a community centre, medical centre, school and a playground for the children. Dave joined John in inspecting the ongoing building work. As a civil engineer in the United Kingdom (UK), the condition of some of the existing infrastructure was a shock. In Port-au-Prince especially, the damage done to local infrastructure was still evident all around, with large cracks on many buildings.
Whilst we are in Haiti, one of the most important goals is to try and teach some basic good building practices. Much of the devastation done can be traced back to insufficient buildings, with no real design for earthquake resistance or concept of good construction practices. However, the construction we witnessed at Gonaïves was positive, with the new buildings following the principles laid out in the Haitian building codes produced following the earthquake.
We also visited Father John Henault, formerly the local parish priest on Île à Vache, at Haiti’s only leprosy outpatients clinic, and were told about some of the problems they have trying to identify and treat patients.
On Friday, back in Port-au-Prince, we visited Gladys Thomas at “Hopital Espoir” at Delmas 75, and heard about her plans to set up a vocational training college. Gladys was born and raised in Haiti, and moved to America to study nursing, before returning to Haiti to put her skills, training and passion to use to build one of the best hospitals and orphanages in the country. She told us they had just purchased a ventilator for the intensive care unit, which would make it the third ventilator in the country. I have nursed in intensive care in the UK for 5 years at a large teaching hospital, where we have nearly 100 ventilators, and we are just one of 5 hospitals in the city of Birmingham which can care for ventilated patients. This really bought it home how scarce some facilities and resources that we take for granted are, and I was more than happy to agree to return to Port-au-Prince in December to help train the staff at the hospital.
That weekend we set sail to Île à Vache which was to be our new home for the following month. First impressions were of white sand beaches and palm trees, but as we got closer, we saw some of the challenges faced by living on the island. Everything has to be imported, which means prices are high, and there are no tarmac or covered roads, which means transportation of goods is by donkey or motorbike only.
Despite this, Haven is set to complete its 1,000th home refurbishment by the end of December this year, a massive achievement ,which has seen financial and vocational investment in the communities on the island. Over the four months we will be spending here, Dave is going to continue this investment, working with local contractors to run training courses to improve the skills sets and quality of labour, and make sure that, with limited budget and resources, local builders have the knowledge to make the best decisions and best homes for their families.
Whilst out walking the island, there were abundant examples of people requiring medical attention, from chronic illnesses such as arthritis, rickets and AIDS, to acute injuries. As we get set up working with the local medical centres and out in the community, we will try and identify more of the people requiring help and track the common health problems. I will be working alongside the nurses and community leaders, as well as teaching directly to the community to try and improve health promotion and avoid ill health.
So we will keep you updated with how it’s all going as we settle in here. I think it’s fair to say we have both been blown away by our first week here and are really looking forward to how it develops.