Tomorrow morning we leave Haiti, having called Île à Vache home for the last six months.
We’ve been asked repeatedly this week if we are going to miss the place, and now that we’ve had a few days to sleep, wash and eat, it’s a very easy yes. It’s been a life-changing trip, challenging at times, depressing at times, but, ultimately, we are taking away so much more than the beautiful things we bought and memories we made. We have learnt so much about what we can do, personally and professionally, and experienced first-hand the amazing hospitality of the Haitians and the Irish! Before I get too soppy, we’ll tie up the work stuff quickly.
Everyone survived the 2015 Volunteer Programme, which I think is a testament to the amazing level of medical care and compassion provided by Haven’s onsite nurse! In just 5 days, the 35 volunteers transformed the orphanage kitchen and offices, created a library, fixed the leaking roof, laid a concrete path, re-roofed and painted the swimming shelter, refurbished the playground and planted 3,000 cherry trees! I feel like I’ve actually lived through Challenge Anneka now! They were an amazing group of people, and it was a wonderful high to finish our time here.
Whilst all the volunteers were here, work on the houses out at Point Est paused, as all the guys were working on the other projects. Looking back on all the houses we’ve seen, the quality and materials have varied a lot, and it’s probably not surprising that the houses that people have been building for years and years are sounder than a lot of the half-built houses using modern techniques.
During our trips to Caye L’Eau, we saw all the houses sat on sand and made from coconut leaves. Although these houses are obviously very basic, and need a fair bit of re-building after the hurricanes hit, they generally look like they’re in a good condition, more so than some of the stone and block houses on Île à Vache. This made me think a lot about development on Île à Vache and how best materials are being used.
In some ways, I can see a real advantage of sticking with local construction techniques, until the time is really right to introducing more modern methods of construction. The houses on Caye L’Eau are built well because the islanders have been constructing them this way for years and have the materials to do so. The houses are finished quickly and relatively cheaply. In contrast, the block and concrete new build houses on Île à Vache are taking a long time to build.
Myself and John Moore, Haven’s County Director in Haiti, visited one such house in Point Est. According to the owner, the house was started in 1999, and was only a shell with no roof, unfinished walls and no floors. The really upsetting part was that the work done was extremely poor quality. The walls bowed in and out, a number of blocks were completely blown out, the door and window frames were not straight, the blocks stepped up and down at roof level, and the steel in the columns was completely corroded in some areas. The lady was asking for help finishing a house which needed to be knocked down and started again from scratch. It is very sad when you consider how much money has been spent and wasted so far, and knowing our budget for repairs would not be able to touch the sides of this project. Even more worrying, in my opinion, is whether the next mason would build the structure any better.
The health programmes that I have been working on have all focused on health promotion and awareness – the first aid classes, the pre-natal courses, the hygiene and sanitation. We had approximately 30 pregnant women attending the 3 week courses, though by the end it was 29 pregnant women and one new mama! This lady walked 4 km on Wednesday morning to attend the class, then walked 4km home again before giving birth the same day! When women are that dedicated to trying to access healthcare, it’s hard not to feel responsible to make sure it’s worth their while.
In a survey completed in 2013, a staggering 56 % of the island said that they suffered with hypertension, a figure I didn’t believe to begin with. But I’ve been asked to check a lot of people’s blood pressures in the last 4 months, and it’s probably actually not far off! So, with little to offer in the way of medication, I focused on lifestyle advice, and as part of that, we organised the first ever Île à Vache 5 km race! The race was sponsored by Jenny Barrie (my mum), and medals and entrants wrist bands were all the motivation that was needed to get people running! We had an impressive turnout of about 40 participants, including some of the Irish volunteers, and great support along the whole course. I think everyone had fun, and the winning male and female both got genuine Manchester United jerseys, kindly donated by Aon. The next day, people were very proudly sporting their medals around the market place, and possibly we weren’t quite the crazy blancs we had been in November when we started running around the island!
Whilst working in the communities of Île à Vache, I have noticed that there is not always a clear route to access health care here. Having always had access to and worked within the NHS and the GP referral process, I struggled to get my head around who was responsible for public health, promoting good health and driving change when it was needed to make a more efficient, equitable healthcare service.
There are two medical centres on Île à Vache for a population of around 11,000 people, both of them partly supported by the government, the MSPP (the Haitian ministry of health), and partly supported by two different NGOs. There are two orphanages, both providing elements of healthcare, and again supported and run by two other NGOs. At least five different groups were bringing in teams of visiting medics, dentists and specialists from time to time, but there was no umbrella organisation to co-ordinate and communicate between these groups.
So, I was very happy when, with the help of Ailish from Soul of Haiti, we were able to set up a series of meetings between these groups to try and improve collaboration and, ultimately, improve the access that the people living on Île à Vache have to healthcare. To say they were a blinding success would be a bit of an over-exaggeration; like everywhere in the world, people are protective of their resources, and it will take a lot more than a couple of discussions for people to start trusting each other. But I really hope that this health committee will carry on meeting, and that maybe the distribution of health resources can be used more efficiently, especially as the development of Île à Vache continues.
We have been in the privileged position of spending our time on Île à Vache, and every day we were welcomed into people’s homes, either to look at their roofs, disabled children, doors or rashes! I still don’t feel we are in a position to be passing judgement or social commentary on what is and isn’t needed in Haiti. Yes, the country is poor, and there is a huge disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, but we have not missed having a washing machine or a hot shower (much), and were laughed at when I looked for a bagay to open a tin! When we asked the people who live on Île à Vache what they wanted or needed, they weren’t fussed about roads or airports; it’s the day to day issues, such as where they can get drinking water from and at what point they should spend the money to take their sick child to hospital.
We really hope that the work that we have been doing with Haven, and the work that John and the team in Ireland and Haiti will continue doing, will help to support these communities to thrive. And that, as they thrive, Haiti as a whole will start to thrive, and the international community will see what we have seen.
A beautiful, passionate, unique country, with pristine perfect beaches and towering mountains, busy markets, talented craftsmen and a generation of people that have suffered and lost, and fought to make a life for themselves in a country often written off as dangerous, dirty and broken.
We can’t thank John and Antonia enough for agreeing to Skype with us last autumn, even if Antonia did only stick around for 5 minutes! On the back of that one conversation,we rented our house out to strangers, took sabbaticals from work, and booked flights to the other side of the world. And we are so glad we did. Thank you John, Nadine and Farah for all the support in Haiti, and thank you to Antonia and Leslie and all the team at Haven in Ireland for giving us this opportunity; it was so fantastic meeting more of you and the other Haven volunteers last week. We also have to thank Ailish and Damien with Soul of Haiti who introduced us to so many people on Île à Vache and without whom we probably would have starved. And to everyone else that we met on Île à Vache and in Port-au-Prince and extended their hospitality and friendship – Jacinta, Banaz, Ian, Frank, Calise and family – thank you very much, and like we said, you’re always welcome in Birmingham!!