Dealing with household waste in the camps for people left homeless by the earthquake that hit Haiti in January can be a big problem. Oxfam’s public health teams are working with locals on ways to manage it, including with children who are doing some creative recycling. Oxfam’s Jane Beesley, a photographer and story-gatherer, reports how in one camp, a young participant has taken that creativity to a whole new level.
Recently I gave a talk about Oxfam’s work in Haiti. It was the fourth or fifth I’ve done since returning to the UK. Among the many stories was one that seems to capture everyone’s attention—the story of Jeanot Dossus, a 15-year-old boy in Don Bosco camp. The public health tent there was filled with children absorbed in a variety of activities. In the middle of the tent sat Jeanot, totally focused on what he was doing. With meticulous care, he was folding strips of cardboard wrapped with pieces from empty crisp packets then weaving them into what is obviously a bag–a glorious green basket-weave bag.
He was making a variety of items from empty crisp bags, which people were collecting from around the camp. He had worked out how many he had to make and what he could charge for them, to help pay for his school fees and supplies.
“I want to improve the quality,” he told me, adding that he played the drums and guitar and his dream was to be a musician.
When I left, as a present, he gave me one of the bags he had made earlier and mentioned he also made shoes. I replied it was a shame I’d missed seeing them.
A short while later he came looking for me, and waited patiently while I finished talking with a group of women with whom Oxfam was working. When I was done, Jeanot quietly came up and said, if I wanted, he could make me a pair of shoes if I could give him some money for the shoe soles. After I agreed and gave him $10, he took out some strips made from a plastic bag and carefully measured one of my feet, knotting the strips at the appropriate point before folding them and putting them back into his pocket. Throughout the process I was struck by his professionalism. Two days later the shoes arrived at the Oxfam office.
During my talks I show the picture of Jeanot making one of the bags and a close up of the detail. Then I tell the story of him measuring my foot, pulling out of my pocket similar strips of plastic bag,knotting them and putting them back in just like Jeanot did. It captures everyone’s attention. Then at the end of the story I reveal the bag and shoes, which I have kept hidden. The reaction is always the same: a small gasp of surprise and genuine admiration. My accessories are coveted wherever I go, and everyone is surprised that Jeanot is not happy with the quality.
It’s a “nice story.” But what’s more, it shows the entrepreneurial and creative spirit that is so common among many of the Haitians I met—and their ability to spot business opportunities, like Jeanot did in coming to measure my feet.
As Haiti tries to recover from the devastating earthquake, the need people have to re-establish and find ways to earn a living continues to be one of the pressing challenges. Many people are working out ways for themselves: They know what they can do, they know their markets, and they know what needs to happen next. Oxfam is supporting people with business grants and resupplying them with the tools they need to restart their trades.
Hopefully I will return to Haiti in September. And hopefully I will meet Jeanot again