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Paradise has pain and suffering too

I am writing this blog post sitting on a deck overhanging the calm warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is such a privilege to being able to visit this jewel and meet the people who live here. Abaka Bay was voted the 57th most beautiful beaches in the world and walking on the talcum powder like soft sand, I wonder why it’s only the 57th on the CNN ranking.

Ile-a-Vache is approximately twenty square miles off the southern coast of Haiti. It is mostly know for its two tourist resorts, Port Morgan and Abaka Bay, both located on gorgeous beaches and not without their own conflict. For those interested, just google “Abaka Bay ownership”. Seems greed is everywhere and the poor are the ones that suffer the most.

I was extremely fortunate to be exposed to the portion of the island hidden away from most tourisst. I understand that this might be the piece that most tourists don’t want to see; considering that that I am in Haiti to volunteer and leave the country better off after my visit, I ventured off the resort grounds to experience the real world. Everyone I encountered was very friendly. They were reserved and even if

Rutted trail

they didn’t ask what I was doing, the majority of people always greeted me with a smile and a “bonjour”. It is not uncommon to see children and relatives constantly greeting their family members and friends with big smiles and welcoming hugs. Walking around with one of the locals was truly an honor and would like to thank Jean for his trust in me to show me this other side of the resort world.

We took a motorcycle ride up and over the hill that is behind the resort. It is a simple single track that the majority of Abaka Bayemployees walk every day. They make the journey, get changed at work into work attire, work a full day before getting changed again and returning home. About four miles along the trail I recognized one of the wait staff from the hotel, sitting next to a palm-leaf / grass hut. He waved as we went by. The trail is deeply rutted and totally washed out in numerous places where we had to dismount and manouver the bike around or over the obstacles.

There are only a few 4×4’s on the island for official purposes such as law enforcement and emergency services. The very fortunate few have motorcycles, some have horses or donkeys but the majority folks, walk. Of the folks walking on the trails, a large percentage of them were barefooted, ouch!  The trails are littered with sharp rocks, especially were the water has eroded the trail.

About two miles into the ride, I worked out what was bothering me. One hundred percent of the houses that we had passed had boarded up windows. This trend continued; other than the resort, I’ve not seen a house with a window. The closest I’ve seen are air bricks or steel reinforcing mesh. When I retuned to the resort, I took a closer look at the windows in my room and all of them had been replaced.

As we manouvered further into the island, the evidence that some massive force of nature had thrown a temper tantrum on the island

Monster uprooted tree

what clearly visible. All of the large trees in that area had all been blown over. Even the normally wind resistant trees like palm trees had been uprooted and been moved two or three feet from their original locations. The trail in this area was now just a collection water forged ruts that in many place had exposed the bedrock under the fertile land.

We passed many hand tilled fields and one family was burning the brush back in order to prepare the soil for the coming growing season. The crop is most commonly beans and corn, mainly because that is the only seeds that they can get hold of. They measure the quantities of seeds by the handful.  The one person said that he only managed to get 300 seeds (one handful) for the coming growing season that he needed to plant. It seems that every thing is in short supply on the island.

We passed a number of the island inhabitants carrying buckets using whatever transport they had

Down Palm tree

available to them. This meant that the majority of people were carrying the buckets by hand.  There are only 22 boreholes on the island and when I asked the question, the nearest one was over two kilometers away. This meant that the two young kids, I think they were maybe ten, had carried their buckets 2 klicks. Wow, that’s tough! I doubt I could do it with the smile that they had. The family would then either use the water for bathing, which is basically a wipe on, wipe off type of procedure with many family members needing to get clean with ththe contents of the water bucket. Some of the water is used for cooking too.  A lot of the kitchens are still separate from the sleeping quarters and often very primitive. They are basically a wooden frame, with palm tree leaves for a roof. The oven resembles a big pizza oven with a single food prep area. As the families are able to upgrade and build new ones with the old kitchen converted into wood working shop as is the one in the photo.

It has now been three months since the hurricane wreaked havoc on the island community, there is not a single house that does not bear the scars. I would say in 25% of the cases, the temporary repairs are still in play. Some of the houses are really badly damaged with walls and roofs missing. The lucky ones that have the option to stay elsewhere, they have done so and many relatives now share accommodation. I counted more than ten houses where the people were occupying the significantly damaged structure. Walls were down and plastic sheeting being used as a make shift roofing. Jean explained to me, for these folks, it is all they have an some are not willing to move. Others just have nowhere else to go. The reason for the lack of repairs is mainly finances where the people are barely scraping by and the cost of building supplies are just beyond their means.

Rocks and course sand & crushed shell mixture is collected from the beaches using the ubiquitous 5 gallon bucket. The laborer will take the bucket out into the water until they are between waist and neck deep, bend down underwater and collect the sand/broken shell mixture up from the ocean floor. They will then pile the mixture up on the back of the beach out of reach of the high tide waves where they will leave it to stand. They will also recover rocks fro the depths and pile them up too. The material will then delivered to the client when purchased. More modern building supplies such as cement, beams and corrugated steel for roofing need to be brought in from Les Cayes by boat. This means that building supplies on the island are in short supply and expensive. Jean was telling me that engines are one of the most expensive item an islander can procure. That’s assuming that they can be found and when buying one, the availability and costs of spare parts is a major consideration. For the hard to find parts, a trip to the Dominican Republic may be required.

The majority of the families support each other and as the parents age, the kids support them. In a few of the cases, the older people who don’t have children now rely on the church, community or support

Trail washed away

from outside NPO organizations. On the topic of the NPO’s there much reticence from the folks in need. In the States we see some of the large NPO advertise how many people they’ve helped but the people who really need the help saw minimal benefit from organizations. To such a point that there were riots across the country from the people calling BS on these organizations. As the $ makes it’s way from the generous donors, across the globe, to those in need, it seems that each person that it passes through takes their cut leaving a pitence for the people whom the contributions originally made. I have heard a similar message from a number of NPO’s and numerous of the Haitians that trusted me enough to speak their minds. A lot of the Haitians don’t trust the NPO’s because they’ve been disappointed so many times and the help never seams to come.

This has gotten me thinking. How do those of us that are fortunate positions in life, help those in need without it being a handout, respect these people’s dignity but also empowerthem to help themselves. Maybe it is my strong views of empowering people, but I do believe that programs that provide education and then the means are key in situations such as this. The old adage is so true in my mind: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime

I support an organization called the Boma Project, that helps women in Kenya form partnerships with other women in their community and then enables the women through micro loans to start and run businesses.  Their approach of education and support has been very successful and is now starting to influence other organizations to follow suite. I wonder if Kathleen Colson might be interested in expanding her program to an island in Haiti or sharing her techniques with them?  I believe that this approach will do wanders for the grass roots movement. What about the next step up the economic ladder. What options are there for the people who want to start businesses or expand their businesses? Are there any international / finance geniuses ready my blog who have some wisdom to share? If memory serves me correctly there was a crowdfunding campaign directly after the hurricane specifically aimed at helping people on Ile-a-Vache the that raised in excess of £3,000.



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