After two weeks on Île à Vache, it feels like the biggest lesson we have learnt so far is the flexible nature of time.
Scheduled appointments happen when you least expect them, or not at all. But then there is always someone else who is happy to talk with you and discuss what we are doing, and who knows where that could lead? And the time is flying by. The kids in the school are writing their Christmas party invitations, and it seems like the plans for the orphanage Christmas party next weekend are in full flow, with Santa even making a quick visit to the house in Île à Vache.
This week, I (Katy) have been getting to meet some of the local schools, and the women’s group over at La Fortune, and Dave has been travelling around to meet the people working in construction on the island. We’ve also been walking around Île à Vache, getting to speak to the locals and finding our bearings, and acquired an impressive collection of night time animal guests, having woken up to find puppies, chickens, spiders, mice, ghekkos and countless mossies in the house with us!
One of the first medical talks that I was asked to give here on Île à Vache was First Aid. Back in the UK, I remember having my first lesson in this at the age of eight, in Girl Guides! Since then there have been regular refreshers: at school, at after school clubs, at work. We are fairly confident at home, that if someone was to have an accident, there would be someone nearby who would know what to do, or at least to call an ambulance. That isn’t an option here, and, with only part time doctors on the island and hospital help a 45 minute boat ride away, teaching people how to respond if someone is sick could have a significant impact on their health.
It’s great that we started the teaching with the children. The hope is that they will take the information home and say ‘this is what I learned today!’. Then, when we move on to conducting community talks, mum and dad will already have heard about what we are doing and why it is important. We covered what to do if someone collapses, how to look after a wound, and how to recognise if a wound becomes infected. To date, not a single unconscious ‘victim’ has managed to play the part without getting the giggles, but it’s been really good to see everyone getting involved, even the teachers. Having taught eight classes of curious primary and secondary students, it was great to meet the teachers and go through the training with them too. Their questions and responses provided insight into some of the health concerns and beliefs on the island, where voodoo plays a prominent role in many people’s belief systems.
From a construction point of view the first full week on the island was spent getting out and about to see the work being carried out by Haven and the local contractors employed on Île à Vache. We visited a number of housing repair projects that were ongoing or recently finished. Haven has a target of 1,000 house refurbishment projects to complete by the end of the year. The projects all have a $600 dollar budget. The exact work is agreed between the home owner and Haven, but generally focuses on the most important repairs, such as replacing corroded roof panels to waterproof the house (very important in an area prone to hurricanes) and repairing cracked and damaged plaster-work.
It also became very apparent that looks are important. This is evident when waking around the island and seeing all the brightly coloured houses that have been recently finished. As a civil engineer, it is frustrating to see obvious repairs that need to be undertaken, such as large areas of concrete loss to columns supporting roofs, being ignored by the owners.
However, this shows the evident lack of money available to spend on housing. In Haiti, this can never really be a priority, and emphasises the importance of Haven’s work out here to improve the quality of houses and, as a result, the health and well-being of the local population. What I found most rewarding was the genuine warmth the locals have towards Haven and the guys undertaking the work. The appreciation was obvious, although each home owner could spend three times the budget given half a chance!
During the week, we also met with a representative from the tourism minister and discussed with her future work which was planned for Île à Vache. The ministry has a number of large development projects planned for the island, including an airport, new schools, public toilets and reservoirs. Haven and Soul of Haiti are in discussions about partnering with the government on some of the smaller schemes. It was evident that the ministry wanted to reduce the image of poverty on the island, with the ambition to develop tourism as a main industry. In order to do this effectively, they are rightly looking at improving facilities for the locals with public latrines and proving more water supplies. The plans for Île à Vache are ambitious and will need to be carefully implemented if they are to succeed without negatively impacting on the close communities and natural beauty of the island.