First Person

In Haiti’s camps, finding space for compromise

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Oxfam America’s Coco McCabe is in Haiti this week, where she’s reporting on the latest from the rebuilding process in the wake of January’s devastating earthquake.

Oxfam's Kenny Rae discusses plans with the Rev. Jean Jacques Frederick. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America
Oxfam's Kenny Rae discusses plans with the Rev. Jean Jacques Frederick. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

For a moment, it looked like the family of five might have to move again.

Their shelter—a blue cube made of plastic sheeting—stood on the muddy ground where a team of engineers from Oxfam and Allied Recovery International was now considering installing a pair of septic tanks for a new bank of latrines. The old ones at the back of the camp were slowly filling, and having flush toilets would be a welcome amenity for many who have had so few creature comforts since the earthquake destroyed much of Port-au-Prince.

“Hmmm,” said church supporter Magda Pierre Paul, a worried look on her face. She shot the Rev. Jean Jacques Frederick a questioning look. The discussion concerned Delmas 75, a camp of 165 tents across the street from Our Lady of Perpetual Help, a church that had collapsed into a heap of rubble.

Rev. Frederick studied the plans: two 1,600-gallon septic tanks, eight flush toilets—four for men, four for women—and a well to provide water to make the whole enterprise work smoothly. In the small camps that have cropped up across the city, where shelters stand almost on top of each other, space for essentials such as latrines and bathing stalls is at a premium. Any patch of empty earth is also a place a displaced family could pitch a tent, pitting the critical need for protecting public health against the equal imperative of shelter. And now, the engineers were asking for a call to be made in the camp his church had organized.

“I know it’s inconvenient for this lady to move, but it’s more important for everyone to have toilets,” said one of them.

In this well-organized camp, where shelters were laid out in rows—almost like city blocks—surely there could be room for compromise?

Magda Pierre Paul seemed determined to make that happen.

Dressed elegantly in a crisp white skirt and flowered blouse, she trooped back to the camp with the engineers. Heavy rain a couple of nights earlier had left the bottom of the gently sloping camp awash in mud, now hardening in the sun. It was here, next to a couple of water tanks, that the shelter in question sat. The engineers whipped out a measuring tape and began doing calculations. Pierre Paul concentrated on the children that scampered about, some calling out to her with delight—Madame Magda!

And soon, it was decided.

“She can stay,” announced one of the engineers standing near an empty water tank. “We can put the toilets here.”

Work crews are set to start digging as soon as Thursday. And two weeks from then, the residents will still be living in a camp, but they’ll no longer have to squat over pit latrines. For the 875 residents of Delmas 75, life will inch just a little closer to normalcy. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+