I’m in Haiti, typing away on a dusty keyboard in an internet cafe in Pernier, a suburb of Port-au-Prince. The Caribbean music coming from different angles and the cool late-afternoon tropical breeze help soothe the smells of city waste, the sticky feeling of perspiration dripping down my body and the images of poverty lingering in my mind.
I’m part of a 3-person delegation of the Africa for Haiti campaign, an initiative of Graça Machel to demonstrate Africa’s solidarity with the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the 12 January earthquake. I represent Global Relief, a South African volunteer organisation which is a partner of Africa for Haiti. Small scale reconstruction activities are underway around every corner but the majority of the work still has to be done. Seven months after the disaster, hundreds of thousands of people are still living in tents. Life is hard for those who have moved into the plywood-and-plastic temporary shelters. There is the heat, the rain and the knowledge that it’s now the middle of the hurricane season.
Haitians say the devestation of the earthquake was caused by a history of bad policy. One example is the centralisation and concentration of everything in Port-au-Prince. Everything is in “the republic of Port-au-Prince”, as locals refer to it: roads, shops, markets, hospitals, factories, state offices… and of course, jobs. We’re talking hyper-urbanisation combined with a very weak state, resulting in a lack of social services and poorly constructed buildings – which killed many who would otherwise have lived in the rural areas.
Ironically, it is there, in the rural areas that we saw pockets of hope for a future Haiti. This past week we visited rural communities in the departments (provinces) of Artibonite and Northwest. We were hosted by indigenous, Haitian led civil society organisations Emmaus Haiti and Tet Kole Ti Peyizan Ayisyen (Heads together peasants of Haiti).
High up in the mountainous village of Treuil, only accessible by mule or by foot, Emmaus Haiti showed us a school that was built by the community themselves as well as a half-built clinic that could not be completed due to a lack of funds. We met in the majestic blue Catholic church building, listening to community members explaining how their government has forgotten about them, and about their plans to develop their village.
Tet Kole received us in Jean-Rabel, a remarkable place where peasants are producing beans, tomatoes, onions, kasava, maize and other vegetables which are stored in a special barn. A simple cement canal serves as an effective irrigation system in this dry area and they have errected a number of buildings for training and mobilisation of their members.
Food security was a major issue in Haiti before the earthquake but it became even worse after disaster struck as people fled the cities, resulting in a rural family of 6 typically growing overnight to about 25. This caused some other rammifications e.g. that the seeds earmarked for planting had to be eaten to keep people alive. But more about the seed issue in a next post…
I am learning so much about alternative development, about local communities taking their futures into their own hands, communities who are not asking for aid but for solidarity. It is an amazing new world that is opening up to me, a process that began more or less in March when I started researching the situation in Haiti and came accross a few interesting documents and websites, e.g. www.papda.org and www.grassrootsonline.org which ultimately led me to make contact with some of the leaders who are now hosting us. More about PAPDA and some other civil society groups later.
Saturday is our last full day in Haiti. We’re flying back to South Africa on Sunday but I believe this is just the beginning of a journey. You can follow our progress on twitter here: http://twitter.com/africa4haiti. Click here to follow our trip on GivenGain and to support Africa for Haiti.
Here is my travel companion, Bernard Likalimba (AfricanMonitor) and Ricot Jean Pierre (PAPDA) in Port-au-Prince last week: http://twitpic.com/2f87of
I would love to hear your thoughts on alternative development, i.e. development that is not driven and managed by outsiders but rather by grassroots leaders who take responsibility for their own communities.