Irish rugby hero Ronan O’Gara travelled to Haiti with Haven in June 2015. Read his experiences here.
Arriving in Haiti and First Impressions
On landing in Haiti’s capital Port-Au-Prince, the airport was manic and the evening heat was stifling. I was met by a member of the Haven team and as we drove out of the airport the thing that struck me most was the deplorable conditions people are enduring: thousands of people living in what can only be described as stacked shanty houses, mostly made from galvanized metal, and others just living under plastic sheeting. It looked unbearable.
If I am honest, I expected a level of poverty, but had never envisaged it would be on this scale. It certainly gave me an insight into the immense task that Haven and Haiti are facing, and what lay ahead on this, my first trip to Haiti.
The next morning, we hit the road at 6.00am and headed straight to Île à Vache, a small island off the south-west coast of Haiti. Here, I was going to learn more about Haven’s Income Generation Programme.
Our first stop was the Boat Building scheme, where four boats had just been built by hand by the men involved in this particular programme. I had the honour of officially handing over the boats to their owners. Up until now, many of them have been fishing in simple, hollowed-out canoes. It was astonishing to see people canoeing in these tree trunks. The men I spoke to were really enthusiastic about the programme, as it gives them an opportunity to earn a sustainable living.
It was great to witness the whole community down at the beach, working together to push the boats down the sand and into the sea. Since fishing is the primary economic activity on this island, these new skills will allow the men involved to build and maintain their own boats. Haven has completed 70 boats to date in Île à Vache under this programme.
Sewing and Tailoring Programme
Once the boats were successfully launched, it was a short boat journey to our next stop, Madam Bernard’s, still on the island of Île à Vache. This community has been the home of the Haven Volunteer Programme for the last three years and the work that the volunteers have put into the area was clear to see.
The centrepiece is a concrete roadway from the local market up the very steep hill to the orphanage and local school, with solar lights illuminating the path. The local school was our destination, where the sewing and tailoring classes were in full progress. The women and men here, over 130 strong, showed me the clothes they have been learning to sew, and I was thrilled with the opportunity to model a shirt or two!
These men and women spoke of how they now have an opportunity to gain sound practical skills which they can use to provide for their families. I was very impressed by the level of dedication and the attention to detail shown by the men and women as they carefully ran their garments through the sewing machines provided by Haven.
After the sewing programme, we went to meet some of the families whose homes had been upgraded as part of Haven’s Home Upgrade Programme. A year ago, Haven had completed a survey of houses, finding that 2,000 of the 2,500 houses on the island were uninhabitable. To date over 1,500 have been upgraded, with the rest scheduled to be finished by October of this year.
I am told these upgrades are made possible by funds from Irish businesses and Haven’s €500 from 500 Campaign. The campaign links each of the homes upgraded to the donation of €500 made by each of the 500 companies.
The differences in the homes before and after are remarkable. Haven upgrades and repairs the roofs, doors, walls and also paints the exterior, making the homes secure and liveable once again. The sense of pride the home-owners had in their upgraded dwellings was inspiring. They threw open their doors and welcomed us in with open arms giving me the grand tour.
After Île à Vache, we travelled to Gonaïves, north-west of Port-au-Prince, where Haven worked in partnership with local people to build a small community of 225 homes for families who lost everything in the devastating floods of 2011.
Here Haven also runs a very successful Income Generation and Livelihoods Programme– the Sewing Women of Gonaïves – in partnership with Irish Aid. I met with these wonderful women who have completed the sewing course and are now selling their garments to tourists at the local markets. Before their training, these women were living off a mere $1.50 a day; now, some are earning up to $30 a day. This is an incredible achievement and a remarkable outcome for these women. The lives of their entire families have changed thanks to their newly acquired skills.
As my time in Haiti began to draw to a close, I was delighted we were able to find the time to make it up the mountains to Gros Morne. Here we met with two volunteers from the UCD Volunteers Organisation who were working in the community with two inspirational nuns from the States, Sr Pat and Sr Jackie.
The kids greeted us with a warm Haitian welcome, singing songs and dancing, and it was here I witnessed just how important education is for the children. While they are living in unthinkable conditions, their school uniforms were in impeccable condition; the girl’s hair neatly braided; the boys in their school shorts with shirts neatly tucked in. You wouldn’t see it in some schools in Cork! They took great pride in attending school, and obviously their parents feel the same.
While in Gros Morne, we also got a chance to visit the Alma Mater Hospital, where they are building a new facility to accommodate patient numbers, which have grown quite substantially as a result of people relocating after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Sr Jackie and Sr Pat have dedicated their time, energy and resources to building and maintaining this much-needed hospital, but they are working against the backdrop of never-ending challenges in Haiti.
Leaving and Personal Impact
Though I was there for only a short time, the experiences I had in Haiti have made a tremendous impact on me. I witnessed deep sadness at the realities of extreme poverty in Haiti, hand in hand with the wonderful zest for life that the people of Haiti have.
I saw first-hand the fantastic work that Haven is doing on the ground through their Income Generation Programmes. They are working in partnership to give people a second chance at life, by providing them with adaptable skills, and it is inspiring to see how motivated the locals are to improve their quality of life for not only themselves but their whole family. As a father of five young children, it was the children of Haiti who struck me the most. I could not begin to imagine raising my own children in such poverty, with only a rusty metal shed to call home and no prospects or income to provide for their future.
The families I met gave me a new appreciation and perspective on life. Some have no access to basic running water or sanitation facilities, things we all take for granted each day. I cannot begin to put into words the conditions some Haitians are facing every day.
Thankfully, Haven is giving hope to the people they work with, offering them a chance to lift themselves out of the depths of poverty, and I can personally say a donation to Haven, however small, will make a big difference.