Volunteer Experience in Haiti | “A feeling of teamwork and camaraderie kept our spirits and work ethic high”

Volunteer Jan Gottsche, who took part in our 2018 Volunteer Programme on behalf of BAM Ireland, shares his impression of the first few days in Haiti and some of the highlights which kept the volunteer group going through the challenging work.


As a country with the lowest Human Development Index in the Americas, Haiti is an extremely poor country. 77% of people do not have access to improved sanitation facilities, 40% are unemployed and 30% face difficulties in meeting their basic food needs. With an average life expectancy of 63, a literacy rate of 61%, a poverty rate of almost 59% and an average yearly income of around $400 per person, education is extremely important for the next generation of Haitians, as half of the population is under 20 years of age. Sadly, many of the schools in rural areas are not fit for purpose and require extensive refurbishment and upgrades. The earthquake of 2010 was another major setback for education reform in Haiti, as it diverted the limited education resources to survival.

One of these many schools is Jean Jean School, which lies in the village of Fayette. Leogâne, which is always referenced in mainstream media as the epicentre of the epic January 2010, magnitude 7.0 earthquake lies 25km west of Haiti’s capital of Port au Prince. The reality is that Leogâne was not the epicentre: the tiny village of Fayette is closest to the geographical epicentre, and this is the area where Jean Jean School is located, just a few kilometres from the epicentre. While areas such as Leogâne received a large amount of aid and help from NGOs, Fayette received almost no help. Nestled in fertile, natural surroundings along the Momance River, the local population is self-sufficient. They did not request any money, food or water from us during our visit, but it was also clear that they do not want to be forgotten, either.

Steep mountains surround the valley near the location of Jean Jean School, and the area is ripe with sugarcane, mango trees, and an edible plant that looks a bit like watercress. Cows, goats and donkeys wander along the riverbank and stay close to the homesteads, with no fencing necessary. The riverbed is both a blessing and a curse. During the dry months, the Momance looks more like a vast plain. We travelled to the site each day using the local roads, and then the river bed as a roadway on our approach to Jean Jean School. While April is traditionally the start of the rainy season in Haiti, the river bed has still remained dry, and only at one point does the water cover the hubcaps of the Tap Tap. When the tropical rains arrive, possibly at the end of this month, this peaceful setting will become a raging torrent of water that will overflow the steep banks and eventually cause flooding in the surrounding areas. For the villagers of Fayette, this has been an annual occurrence and something generations have learned to adapt to, while some stone gabions have also been installed in parts of the riverbank to prevent further erosion of the riverbank.

Jean Jean School is the key education centrepiece for over 160 students, who range in age from around five to 14. The school is set in a remote location which is difficult to access at the best of times and is in bad need of repair, having stood in its current state for over 20 years.

The school site comprises of a total of five buildings – two school buildings, a toilet block, a kitchen and a church building, which are all in various stages of disrepair. The work will involve a full overhaul to include reroofing, plastering, repair works, concrete paths, painting, landscaping, the installation of soccer goals and basketball hoops, re-flooring and the construction of new school furniture.

Jean Jean School in Gressier welcomes 160 students every day

Day one starts the same as all of our other work days in Haiti, with Frank ringing the bell at 6.15am, which signals that the breakfast of fresh fruit, porridge, bacon, fried eggs and freshly brewed Rebo coffee is ready. We stumble out of bed and make our way to the canteen in the dark, although, this close to the equator, it is bright before you have drank your first cup of coffee. Then, with our bellies full and spirits high, we load onto the Tap Tap for our first full working day at Jean Jean. The journey is slow and bumpy, but our spirits rise once again as locals give friendly waves and children run alongside the bus shouting ‘How are you’ or simply ‘Blanc’ (meaning white), which is the name all Haitians use for people of non-Haitian descent.

As we cross the Momance river bed once again, we know we are close and we soon arrive at Jean Jean. Again, foreman Warren, the early risers, and the local Haitian masons are already hard at work, and we soon file into our various groups and are assigned tasks for the day. Haiti’s tropical climate is hot and humid, and average daily temperatures in April are around 31 degrees Celsius, while we were generally working in heat of around 35 degrees. I think I felt this most on the first day, and the first few hours were definitely the most difficult as the body started to acclimatise. However, a combination of Berroca, Dioralyte and, above all else, a feeling of teamwork and camaraderie kept our spirits and work ethic high right up until the end of the day.

The end of the day was always very rewarding, not because the day’s work was done, but because some of the local kids and their parents would often pop over to see the day’s progress and, as the week progressed, you could see the excitement building for the children, as they knew that their school would soon be transformed into a beautiful new facility. We load back onto the Tap Tap and head back to Christianville, where there’s time for a refreshing cold shower, some dinner and a chance to Facetime home, before we all meet up again to head down to the local sheebeen for some much needed rest and a couple of ice cold Prestiges or a rum and coke. It doesn’t take long for the tiredness to kick in, and the walk home from the sheebeen was always a great chance to peer into the night sky to view the constellations with no light pollution.

A short five and a half hour sleep sees us repeat the same morning process each day, and the days start to blend into each other as we get into a structured routine. There are many highlights from the week, which included Johnny’s epic fall, karaoke night, the intensely competitive quiz night, Paudies’ raffle, taking some time out to play with the kids in the afternoons, the children lining up along the worksite to sing hymns to us, the craic and banter on site, the dancing at the unveiling party, and, of course, seeing it all come together on the final day.

There is one event, however, that summed up the week for me. We stayed late on the Thursday night, or maybe it was the Wednesday, to finish off some concrete flooring and, by the time we left, it was pitch black and everybody was exhausted and out on their feet. We loaded onto the Tap Tap once again, and it was looking like it was going to be a silent journey back to Christianville. As we pulled away from site, a lone voice started singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’ and it wasn’t long before the whole team joined in.

The singing didn’t stop until we reached our destination. We were tired, exhausted, sore, sweaty, and smelly and out on our feet, but 15 strangers came together that night to share a common bond and to raise each other’s spirits so that we could continue our mission to finish Jean Jean School the following day.
Want to know more about our volunteers’ last few days in Haiti? Check out Jan’s final post here.

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