Monthly Archives: January 2010

Seeking shelter from the coming rain

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At the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of people are camped, the hills undulate with bed sheets fastened to wooden poles—makeshift huts pitched on slopes so steep that no one inside could possibly get a good night's sleep. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
At the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of people are camped, the hills undulate with bed sheets fastened to wooden poles—makeshift huts pitched on slopes so steep that no one inside could possibly get a good night's sleep. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 28.

After the roar of the day–the grinding, clanking, honking, chopping, and wailing of all the machines required for an emergency response—it’s a relief to slip into my tent, zip up the mosquito net, and listen to the night.

What do I hear? I’m not completely sure, since this is my first time in Haiti. I recognize the rooster, who winds up way before dawn. And though I can’t decipher the words, I understand the anguish in the voice of the man who shouts the same phrase over and over into the dark beyond our compound walls. Like many people here in Port-au-Prince, he’s stunned by the earthquake’s wreckage of life and property.

There are softer sounds too. A rustling in the low plants. The pat-pat of dried leaves falling on my tent roof. And is that rain?

I’ve been worrying about the rain since I got here, not because I’m concerned about getting soaked—my tent has a rain fly above it and a sturdy plastic tarp beneath it—but because of what I imagine will happen to the hordes of people now living in shelters made out of bed sheets or whatever scraps of plastic, cardboard, corrugated metal, or clothing they can find. Yesterday, I was in a hut with one wall made of ragged women’s dresses.

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Haiti’s entrepreneurs keep life going, part 2

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 27; this is part two of a two-part series.

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A cell phone charging business at the Petionville Club. Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America
A cell phone charging business at the Petionville Club. Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

In December, about a month before the tragedy changed everybody’s lives, Janicia Dorval got a bank loan of 15,000 gourdes (about $370) to help her fund a used-clothing business. It was in full swing at the Petionville Club on Wednesday, with customers—mostly women—crowding around the shoes and purses heaped on plastic tarps next to the dusty road. There were the red patent leather slip-ons, shimmering in the sun, and green flip flops, and practical black loafers.

Dorval, leaning toward the practical in flat canvas shoes and a simple hat to keep the sun off her head, was driving a hard bargain with her customers. She wouldn’t budge on the price of a black bag with a zipper—35 gourdes (87 cents). But toss in a pair of sandals, and she’d let the whole catch go for 400 gourdes (about $10). Behind her stood her shelter, decked out in a tiered lace curtain, yellow with dust.

Asked what she needed to help her business grow, the answer came as no surprise.

Money, she said.

But for Pharisien Marcaise, a 45-year-old tailor, who had sent all four of his children to Catholic school, there’s something even more important for Haitians to have if they are going to move their country forward following this disaster.

“Education,” he said. “If the country doesn’t have education, it’s a dead country.”

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Haiti’s entrepreneurs keep life going

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 27; this blog is part one of a two-part series.

A quake survivor at the Petionville Club. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
A quake survivor at the Petionville Club. Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

Haircuts and pedicures. Red patent leather slip-ons and chunks of ice. Goat. Chicken. Salted herring. Spaghetti, batteries, pills. All of it can be had in the bustling market that has sprung up inside the camp at the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of Haitians have taken shelter since the earthquake.

The market is proof that resourcefulness and entrepreneurial drive, sharpened by years of high unemployment and an infrastructure that barely exists, are alive and well in this capital city—despite the devastation at every turn.

“Haitians, as long as they can find a place and have a little money to start a business, they’ll go forward with their lives,” says Edith Saintilus, a mother of four children, who began selling cold drinks from an ice-filled cooler and snacks from her sheet-draped shelter just four days ago.

Many of those who have set up shop along both sides of the road that runs through this teeming camp have lost everything—homes, small businesses, and worst of all, family members. But there is a tenacity and determination here that, with the right support, could be the foundation for a thriving economy as Haiti begins to rebuild itself.

 But what’s needed, said many, is money—money to rebuild homes, make communities stable, and invest in small enterprises so they can grow.

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What’s in a family kit?

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Photo: Dario Arthur / Oxfam
Photo: Dario Arthur / Oxfam

In the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, Oxfam is working to distribute a variety of relief materials for the comfort and health of those forced to live in camp conditions. Sometimes this aid takes the form of what’s called “family kits”—but, we were wondering, what exactly does one of those kits contain?

The answer just came via email from Kenny Rae, one of our Boston-based colleagues currently in Haiti to help with the relief effort.

“I have one in front of me,” Kenny wrote. Its contents:

2 towels

4 bowls

4 plates

4 knives

4 forks

4 spoons

8 bars laundry soap

4 large cups

2 tubes toothpaste

8 bars soap (personal)

4 toothbrushes

2 hairbrushes

12 packets shampoo

8 packets conditioner

40 sanitary napkins

“The contents are modified for family size where practical,” he wrote, adding that each kit costs US $55 “with costs of assembling and delivery.” Right now, Oxfam is working on delivering 10,000 of these kits to displaced families.

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Willing workers, few jobs

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 26.

“In Haiti, it’s about hustling.”

That’s Wilgens Jean-Baptiste’s summary of the job scene in the western hemisphere’s poorest nation: a constant scramble to do whatever you can to put food on the table for your family.

For Jean-Baptiste on Tuesday, that meant leaving his street-side camp at Rue Tirmasse and making his way to the Petionville Club, where tens of thousands of other homeless Port-au-Prince residents are now living in a sea of makeshift huts since the quake destroyed their houses. Jean-Baptiste’s mother and two sisters are still buried in the rubble of their family home.

 ”I came to look for a job,” he said in English. “They told me they were looking for translators.”

 But the competition was stiff. On a wall at the top of the club’s nine-hole golf course sat four other interpreters. Swatches of bright pink tape, scribbled with their names, stuck to their shirts. Branded for all to see, they were attaching themselves to visiting aid workers who might be struggling with French or Creole, the two languages spoken here.

 ”Here in Haiti, you can graduate from college. You come home. You sit down because there is no possible job,” said Jean-Baptiste.

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Haiti’s strength, captured in photos

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Every day for the past two weeks, I’ve been reviewing the photos sent from our colleagues on the ground in Haiti. Together, they form a document of the devastating earthquake and the recovery effort—some showing the grim reality of the aftermath, others capturing the humanity of the situation with increasing hope and hints of everyday life. From these images, I’ve gotten a good sense of the reality on the ground, despite being thousands of miles away.

Here are a few of the most notable images so far:

Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America
Photo: Liz Lucas / Oxfam America

Despite the magnitude of devastation and loss, images like this reveal a gentler and more intimate side of life on the ground. The beauty of the light, and the composition of a strong group of women surrounding a new mother and her baby, feels light and hopeful. The women are all making eye contact with the viewer through the lens, strengthening the direct connection.

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Many hands help to bring aid to those who need it

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Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America
Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 25.

This is the story of Belinda’s Boxes.

That’s my nickname for a load of cargo that was shipped from Canada to help with Oxfam’s relief effort in the battered capital of Port-au-Prince. Some of it, about 70 tons’ worth, arrived courtesy of the Belinda Stronach Foundation, an organization that works with humanitarian groups like Oxfam to deliver medical and other essential supplies.

It’s a story of dedication and urgency, and of the inevitable challenges that arise during an emergency when everything needs to happen at once—and can’t.

When the foundation’s shipment of bottled water, sacks of rice, disinfectant, and first-aid supplies arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport a few days after the disaster, it was turned away because there was no room for the plane to land. The cargo wound up at the Santo Domingo airport in the Dominican Republic instead, and a few days later, as soon as a warehouse could be located, Oxfam hauled it back—in three truckloads—across the length of Haiti to Port-au-Prince.

But how do you distribute tons of goods to small camps scattered across a city snarled by traffic, earthquake debris, and roads more pothole than pavement?  With human sweat. Lots of it.

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A day of rest in Port-au-Prince

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Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America
Photo: Kenny Rae / Oxfam America

Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is one of several Boston-based colleagues in Haiti to help with the relief effort. Here’s her latest update, dated January 24.

It’s Sunday in Port-au-Prince—the second Sunday in this deeply religious country since a devastating earthquake rocked the Haitian capital, killing more than 111,000 people and leaving about 600,000 homeless across the city and beyond.

Do we work or do we rest?

The city, it seems to me, has decided to rest—if only long enough for some of its inhabitants to snatch a few moments of normalcy in a place that promises peace for many: church. Snaking down the mountain road from the house where we’ve been staying, the morning is quieter than it has been all week. There are fewer trucks and aid vehicles hanging on each other’s tails. Fewer people striding along the road’s edge.

I see a small family, a father and three young boys, dressed in slacks and pressed shirts–impossibly neat given the circumstances–ready to cross the street near a church that’s still standing. Where is the mother? I wish the question hadn’t popped into my head, and I fear the answer in a country that has lost so many.

At the Oxfam office, I ask a colleague about the possibility of attending a service. I’m not a religious person, but I love the singing–all singing. I don’t know what I’m hoping to hear in it today. Hope? Resilience?

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What’s the best way to rebuild Haiti?

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Representatives from a dozen countries are meeting in Montreal today to start the discussion about how to rebuild Haiti. Oxfam released its recommendations in a briefing paper called “Reconstructing Haiti.” The main points are pretty similar to those made following other major disasters:

Let the UN play the main coordinating role, put the people of Haiti at the center of the process, and make certain the poor people of Haiti have a clear role, so their needs are prioritized.

A pro-poor reconstruction program in Haiti could help the country improve its environment, help farmers earn a decent living, build earthquake resistant homes and schools, and change millions of lives for the better. To succeed, these efforts must prioritize poor communities. 

Just a few days after the earthquake Tracy Kidder had an op-ed in the New York Times that recommended “The ultimate goal of all aid to Haiti ought to be the strengthening of Haitian institutions, infrastructure and expertise.” It is pretty good advice coming from the author of the excellent book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” about Dr. Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health organization. I would only add that strengthening institutions that represent the needs of poor people will help the reconstruction process deliver for all of Haiti.

Oxfam spends a lot of time and resources working to promote strong institutions. This is an essential part of our approach: Poverty will not end until an empowered citizenry can change power relations. In Haiti, however, many institutions and organizations were badly damaged or even destroyed, so the human institutions, infrastructure and expertise Kidder cites as essential may be the hardest to find right when they are needed the most.

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