Volunteer Experience in Haiti | “It is clear that the week ahead will be a gargantuan task”

Galway-based Jan Gottsche took part in our 2018 Volunteer Programme, travelling to Haiti with 35 other volunteers to renovate the badly damaged Jean Jean School in Gressier. Jan participated in the programme on behalf of his employer, BAM Ireland, who kindly support our work in Haiti. Here, in the first of a series of posts, Jan shares his experience of arriving in Haiti for the first time and what the week had in store.

On 12 January 2010, at 4:53pm local time, Haiti was struck by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake and 52 aftershocks which was the country’s most severe earthquake in over 200 years. The earthquake was reported to have left between 220,000 and 300,000 people dead and up to 2.1 million homeless, something which the country has yet to fully recover from. On top of this a cholera outbreak was triggered when cholera infected waste contaminated the country’s main river the Artibonite which killed a further 10,000 people and infected a million more. Just two years later, Hurricane Sandy caused further devastation, and left over another 200,000 people without a home.

As the country once again began to find its feet, on 4 October 2016, Hurricane Matthew made landfall near Les Anglais, making it the worst hurricane to strike the nation since Hurricane Cleo in 1964. The devastation and damage that Hurricane Matthew caused was unpredictable and left Haiti in a state of emergency along with an estimated 3,000 deaths and a worsening cholera outbreak due to the flooding which followed the storm. Haiti received aid from the United Nations of around US$120 million and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) flocked to the country to help. The Irish charity Haven had been operating in the country since 2008. Since 2008, Haven has provided training to over 78,000 people in Haiti, built or upgraded homes and shelters for over 21,500 people, and directly employed over 1,200 local people in Haiti.

And so, in April 2018, I was fortunate enough to represent the company I work for, BAM Ireland, with Haven’s Volunteer Programme. I, along with 25 other volunteers from Ireland and a further ten from the United States (US), boarded a flight to Port au Prince via New York’s JFK Airport. My initial trepidation of being a solo traveller and meeting 35 volunteers for the first time to fly to the other side of the world was soon put to rest as the group, which included veterans of over ten years, welcomed me with open arms, and provided guidance and reassurance. The flight to JFK passed quickly and, as we landed, I sung the lyrics of the song made famous by the Wolfe Tones, ‘Streets of New York’, in my head, a song that would be repeated many times during the week, both on the journey home from site and at the infamous karaoke night in the Mango Bar.

Volunteers taking part in the 2018 Volunteer Programme arrived into Haiti on 14 April

The next day we flew to Toussaint Louverture International Airport, located 10 kilometres north/north-east of Port-au-Prince in the commune of Tabarre. Following the earthquake, the runway, the taxiways, and the apron of the airport remained operational, but radio communications were not possible because the control tower was extensively damaged. Nevertheless, air traffic control was taken over by the United States Air Force (USAF) and, within six days, almost 1,000 flights landed to begin relief operations, although overcrowding and chaos at the airport delayed the initial response. As we file through the airport and get our first glimpse of Haiti through the large glass windows, it is hard to imagine the scenes from eight years ago as we look out at a beautiful mountain landscape, shrouded in sunshine. It is also difficult to imagine the tent cities and camps that sprung up in the Tabarre area following the earthquake, as people flocked to the airfield in search of vital aid packages. This is a camp which still had 3,000 inhabitants in 2017, although the veteran volunteers remark to us how, every year as they fly in, they can see the camp getting smaller and smaller, a clear indication that vital work is still being carried out by NGOs in the area.

As we leave the airport and Port Au Prince behind, we follow the southern highway, Route Nationale No. 2, which winds through the coastal towns of Garde Cote, Carrefour and Grand Sallne, before turning left off the main road at Geffrarty onto a dirt track up to the compound at Christianville, the last we would see of a surfaced road for seven days. As we approached the compound, the veteran volunteers pointed out the fields where they once stayed in tent cities while working hard on disaster relief, which involved building shelters for people displaced by the natural disasters. We arrive at our destination and are greeted by the Christianville staff and their two dogs, Lucky and Squirrel, and settle into our new home for the week, but not before the veterans have some more fun and regale us with tales of tarantulas the size of dinner plates which occupy the voids under the main guesthouse. I’ll take the top bunk, thanks!

That afternoon, we all load onto our local mode of transport know as a ‘Tap Tap’ and squeeze together for the 40 minute journey to view the work site for the first time. Tap Tap buses are colourfully painted buses or pick-up trucks that serve as share taxis in Haiti. The Tap Tap name comes from the sound of passengers tapping on the metal bus body to indicate they want off, and these are often decorated with typical Haitian forms of art. As we bump and pitch our way along the road, I am reminded of a quote from the Washington Post which stated ‘Officials from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Saturday (23rd January 2010) that they assessed the damage from the (12th January) quake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and found that many of the roads aren’t any worse than they were before because they’ve always been in poor condition.’ In essence, not even an earthquake could make these roads any worse! We arrive on site and the local Haitian masons and our foreman Warren are already hard at work, preparing the work site and carrying out the initial repairs to one of the school buildings.

As we survey the work site, it is clear that the week ahead will be a gargantuan task but again the veterans reassure us newbies and tell us that it always comes together by the end of the week…

Stay tuned for the next post from Jan to see more of what the week entailed…

Volunteers were based at Jean Jean School in Gressier

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