Zak’s Story | Getting to know the community of Île à Vache

All of us here in Haven are delighted to welcome Zak Rapoport who has recently joined our team in Haiti. A third-year student in International Development at University College Cork (UCC), Zak has just started his student placement with our team and will stay with us until the end of the summer.

In his new blog series, Zak will be sharing his experience of living and working in Haiti, giving an insight into his journey over the next few months.

I’ve been on Ile a Vache for a little over a week now and have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. The island itself is beautiful. Whether walking through the centre’s dense Caribbean forests surrounded by mango and papaya trees as well as a litany of wildflowers wholly foreign to me, or along the pristine white beaches amongst the mangroves and palm trees, one can’t help but feel they’ve stumbled upon one of the world’s best kept secrets.

The villages through which the small paths wind are picturesque. Their small one or two room bungalows with their sun-cracked plaster and red corrugated iron roofing are painted in soft pinks, whites and blues. They’re often thicker at the base than near the roof, giving the impression that they’re slowly melting with the heat of the day. Families sit outside beneath the shade of the thick vegetation all around to escape the balmy midday heat. Passers by are met with smiles and surprise, as well as the odd ‘koman ou ye?’ (‘how are you’ in Creole).

The only thing that can be said to be more beautiful than the island’s surrounding are the people here and their island-like outlook on life.

People here of all ages are incredibly friendly and always willing to stop and talk. It’s also difficult to be here for any amount of time and not come away with plenty of new friends. 

All the while, the buzz of village life goes on all around as usual. Children play the equivalent of marbles, drawing a small circle in the sand and flicking rounded stones from a distance to see who can get theirs closest the centre. Younger guys ride motos, often three or four aboard, blaring Caribbean dancehall music from small speaker held off to one side. Men and women alike stop up outside friends’ houses and speak for a few leisurely minutes while in passing. One is reminded of the reason for the pace of life here, as any attempt to rush or be prompt results in a great deal of sweat and a severe lack of breath.

I was very fortunate to have arrived just before Easter weekend, when a certain energy rang about the place. From the house one could hear the local hymns coming from the church next door from early morning until late each night. Everyone was getting haircuts and their best clothes out for the festival that ran each night that weekend out at Reciffe, a large grassy area that juts out into the sea to the island’s south. We went out on the Friday night and the craic was already in full swing. If I’m not wrong near on a thousand people, from toddlers to the elderly were all there to enjoy the night. As if the event itself weren’t cool enough already, it just so happened to fall upon the same night as the full moon. Everyone was in form and I must have had to shake a hundred hands of people who I hadn’t met before. While some of the younger guys I had already met brought us around the large crowd to meet their other friends and relations. That night will forever mark my memory in that special kind of way.

I’ve also had the good fortune to have gone out with Sandra and Alienne on visits with some of the beneficiaries, stopping in to some of the smaller rural households. People were, as always, incredibly welcoming and we seemed to have amused the children along the way to no end. Even just while passing by we were met with shouting and waving from the wells along the roadside.

One can’t help but be struck by the levels of poverty amongst many rural households. The innately Haitian trait of sharing everything one owns becomes apparent. As families and neighbours alike help each other make it through both thick and thin. Haven’s microcredit projects fill a clear gap in financial services here. Its also difficult to miss how with a little bit of training and access to finance, Haitians are extremely good at finding creative ways of expanding their businesses and improving their livelihoods.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to sit in on a training day for MUSO, or Mutual Solidarity with some of the older heads of communities and associations here on the island. The training was led by both GOAL and Haven and the facilitators who had come down from Port-au-Prince were incredibly good at what they do. The day was full of energy and those attending the training were absolutely engaged. Constantly asking questions, taking notes and as always, the day entailed a great deal of laughter.

Mutual Solidarity consists of community led organising of groups of 15-30 individuals in order to think about shared problems strategically, in view of finding a way around that benefits all members and result in sustainable personal and communal development. I must admit I took notes on all aspects and found the information incredibly important, the majority of which I was unfamiliar with prior to the training. The enthusiasm and willingness to learn of all participants was very encouraging and shows the strong sense of duty felt by community leaders here.

Asides from the overwhelming beauty of Ile a Vache, one can’t help but notice the serious shortage of employment among all age groups here. Despite the incredible work ethos of all Haitians I’ve met so far, the current situation in the country is incredibly challenging. Violence and strong anti-government sentiment in many regions of this small nation are merely symptomatic of a cycle of sustained unemployment, hunger and lack of hope, particularly among today’s youth. With the departure of the United Nations this year, it is easy to see why Haitians both young and old feel abandoned by the international community. 

Urban populations in particular have noticed little change in their economic situation over the past ten years. If anything, one gets the impression that this year specifically has been extremely difficult for all Haitians. With the Gourd steadily dropping in value against the dollar against a backdrop of growing food prices, when times get tough Haitians don’t have the option of changing their diets. Instead they must tighten their belts. Even those with stable employment share what little they earn among family and friends, making professional and personal development unimaginably difficult. This coupled with massive fuel shortages nationwide has left a bitter taste and a tangible feeling of regression. One can’t help but notice the crowds that surround many fuel stations around the country, weather mototaxis or transporters of essential goods. Never have I had to deal with such regular scarcity of basic goods. With so many products imported from abroad fuel, shortages don’t just mean a lack of transport. Instead result in a visible drop in essential goods and services available to those who need them most.

For this reason, Haven’s commitment and longevity in their projects provide a refreshing sense of support and consistency to all beneficiaries here. In times such as these it would appear that Haven’s efforts have reminded people that some one is in fact listening and that they have not been forgotten. Regardless of the situation, Haven is here to stay and will continue to alleviate hardship wherever possible. The promotion of sustainable livelihoods and food security are as essential as ever, with permanence and a strong commitment being the only way that these will be achieved. In my view Haven’s projects are imperative and, in many senses, have highlighted several underlying flaws in international Humanitarian and Development practices, particularly in the brief project cycles of many organisations.

Due to unfortunate circumstances on the mainland, tourism all around Haiti has taken a serious dip this year. This however should not in my view reflect the situation here on Ile a Vache. With all the resources and facilities to accommodate an influx of visitors of all means and walks, not to mention with people so hospitable and helpful, I am more than confident that Ile a Vache and Haiti more generally could give the Bahamas or Barbados a run for their money in the coming years as a globally acclaimed travel destination. Until then I must admit I’ll thoroughly enjoy seeing the unshaken Haitian way of life in all its forms. I’d also like to thank all the Haven staff whether the girls in Dublin, Damo or Sandra here and all the Haitian staff I’ve met over the last week for being so supportive and making my stay the unparalleled experience it’s been up until now.

And thankfully, it’s only the second week!


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