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We began in September 2010 by traveling a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that leads to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago, Galicia, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The name of our blog is inspired by the camino, and we'll have many stories (cuentos) to tell! We spent 2010-2011 on an intentional international journey, living and working in Spanish-speaking countries. Since then, we are immersed back in our lives at home but will report on occasional openings and discoveries. Please join us!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Martha's first trip to Haiti, May 2012

They say that if you stay a week, you have lots to report. If you stay a month, less. And if you stay a year, you realize you cannot possibly summarize it all, so you say nothing. I stayed a week in Haiti. Some of my comments follow…
May 16
The journey continues, el camino sigue adelante. I find myself sitting in a quiet yard at night in Blanchard, one of the countless densely inhabited communities of Port au Prince, Haiti. There is no electricity tonight but the sky is providing plenty of it in the form of a heat lightning show. Every few seconds the fluffy clouds are lit up by lightning, after which the clouds recede into the dark night sky. It looks like a movie is about to begin. In the distance people are singing, part of a religious church service. Nearby, the other volunteers are laughing and chatting in the dark, planning their work for tomorrow.
I’m here to assist Partners in Development (PID), an NGO that provides child sponsorship, a medical clinic, and the program I’ll be helping with, a microfinance program that provides small loans to individuals to help them build a business and provide themselves a living. The programs are run out of a simple concrete compound in the residential neighborhood.  I arrived today, in time for dinner. So far, I have much to be thankful for. First, a clean bed with a mosquito net.  Second, running water in the building. Though it is the rainy season, the ground is dry with no mud. Gravel and grass coverage in the quiet courtyard promise escape from the mud, even if the rain comes as it probably will soon.
The team is a great mix of ages and abilities. A solar energy group who will put panels on the roof this week, a counseling group providing post-trauma counseling, a physical therapist and our microfinance group.
Over the wall comes the mellifluous sound of Haitian Creole being spoken. Besides the microfinance work, my other hope is to learn more of this beautiful language. It is like French with a twist, like a twist of tropical lime. Many French words just receive a little alteration to become Creole. The written form can be worked out like a puzzle by anyone with a good knowledge of French. Understanding the spoken language is a different story, however.  It is a very streamlined language, with short syllables each of which has a function. Past marker, subject pronoun, indirect pronoun, each quick sound has a role to play. I speak it haltingly as a result.
May 17
Yesterday we had a full day learning about the microfinance program here, meeting with the staff and brainstorming ideas. As expected, the progress was very slow and disjointed. But the staff were beyond kind in helping us with all our requests. We are trying to get a handle on what THEY think is wrong with the program and what could be changed, not just our own ideas. It’s very easy to jump to our own diagnosis and suggestions. Another challenge is that the Haitian staff are not experienced with summarizing their work, so that it appears that less is done than is actually the case. For example, Jean Ones summarized the loan processing for us but did not tell us right away that he gives all the clients receipts and  inputs all the borrower activity into Quickbooks the same or the next day. He keeps excellent records!
A family that benefited from a PID business loan and home
A business owner
At the end of the day we visited some of the 54 homes that have been built by PID and some of the microfinance clients. PID has made a tremendous impact on the neighborhood. Though people are incredibly poor, there are bright lights where people were assisted by PID: vendors with a full display of products, houses that provide clean and adequate shelter for families.
Pictures I did not take:  A woman organizing a wheelbarrow full of emerald green bananas and mangoes to sell. She was wearing a bright orange dress and her brown skin was shining bright in the late afternoon light against the fruit. Another picture: three little girls who had set up their front stairway as a pretend store, with miscellaneous old bottles standing in as items for sale. They sat quietly waiting for customers, staring straight ahead, as do their elders.
Some of the PID houses
Last night, I worked late into the evening on the reporting system for the small loan program.
May 19
Today was very gratifying. Early in the morning, we met with the entire microfinance team for the first time. We were able to tell them about the PPI program and explain how to use it. (PPI, Progress out of Poverty Index, is a very abbreviated questionnaire, adapted to specific countries by Grameen Foundation, that gives a quick and accurate estimate of the level of poverty of a household. Such an objective measurement is useful for measuring program impact and for determining which programs would be best for which households.) The staff connected right away with the possibilities of the PPI to compare groups and to measure improvement in a group over time. Then we went to visit some families who have received loans and we conducted a pilot of the PPI program with them. The team asked them the questions on the survey. It was great to interview some of the households who have received loans and to learn about the impact of the microfinance loans on their lives. When we came back to the office we tallied the results. They confirmed what we would expect from the visits – the households that seemed better off had higher scores on the survey. The staff got excited to see the results and were talking about how they could use the survey to improve the program.
In the afternoon we took a break. We hired a “tap tap” (local bus with benches) and drove to the center of Port au Prince where we saw the museum and visited a handicraft market. The museum was very touching with an excellent survey of Haitian political history. So sad to be reminded of the oppression that has followed Haitians during their entire history. One of the most moving displays was the list of heroes of the revolution. Many of the names were first names only, because they were people who were escaped slaves. Others were indigenous names, some of the few Taino people who had survived the European invasion. Then to see the stream of presidents from modern times, from the Duvaliers to Preval, to the current President, Martelly, and many others who lasted only a few months.  Martelly, a former popular singer, is generally well liked and is called “Tet Cale” or shaved head. Political hopes appear higher than they have been for some time. And yet, in the elegant reflecting pool outside the museum, a man was doing his laundry. Right behind the museum with its flags flapping in the warm breeze was a huge tent encampment, housing people who have not yet found homes, more than 2 years after the earthquake. Many of the tent camps have been dismantled home by home, as people find more appropriate dwellings.  

When we came back, two girls who live nearby went on a walk with me – we went to “flaner” or stroll around the neighborhood. They introduced me to lots of people and it was really fun. We laughed and talked a lot. They were so sweet and welcoming to me and helped me though my Creole is not very good.
May 21
Yesterday we went to church and then to the beach. The beach was as expected: not particularly refreshing or calming, but an interesting cultural experience. On the ride, I got to talk with Marcelline, one of the PID staff who would like to go to medical school. She is wonderful.
Later, I visited with the Oden family on the corner. They have five kids. They lost their house in the earthquake and had to live in the yard several months before they could rebuild. Mme. Oden wore a crisp sport shirt on the weekend, and her husband had clean pressed jeans. Their children were so polite and welcoming. They showed me their photo album and the children made their beautiful rooster dance for me.
May 23
I’m in the airport awaiting the plane home. It was a busy final two days. Each night I stayed up late putting together directions for the staff on some of the new systems, and writing a final report on what we visitors from the US and the Haitian staff came up with this week. As we wrote, ideas changed. We came up with a new program, micro-franchising, to help families who have no assets to begin a business. The staff will offer them a packet of products to sell and they will receive a commission. I look forward to returning later to see the progress .
As we fly out of Haiti and I see the raw, denuded hills with tiny roads snaking up them and the  little villages with their tiny tin roofed houses, I’m thinking about what I’ve learned since I last saw this view, a short week ago. First comes the notion that I have some small amount of first-hand experience of a place that I had thought of so often but was a complete unknown to me. Once you have been someplace – even though it may have been to visit only a few small urban neighborhoods – it is no longer a complete unknown. The map of Haiti makes some sense to me now.
The shocking pictures of Haiti after the earthquake – we saw nothing that looked like that at all, thankfully. There were some few buildings, including the symbolic Presidential Palace across its elegant front lawn, that have not been touched since the earthquake. We passed numerous large buildings that are in complete disrepair, and many that are closed. But much of the rubble from the earthquake has been carted away and land is being, if not rebuilt, at least re-used. Some building ruins serve as informal shelters to people who have set up tarps under them to sell merchandise. Private enterprise seemed to be very strong everywhere we went. The street markets are organized into departments: mattresses, then bed frames, then wooden furniture, then electronics. I tried to support the economy by buying some artwork to resell in the US to benefit PID.
Most overwhelming was the sheer scale of the city, and to my eyes, the lack of any defining features to make the scale understandable. I am not alone in this. I am traveling back to the US with a Haitian man who grew up in Port-au-Prince but says he no longer can find his way in the city at all. The population has grown from 100,000 to almost 5 million, about half the national population of 10 million. It is incredibly dense and for the most part, extremely poor. The city has grown very quickly, each new disaster bringing hungry people to the city to try to make a living or find help. There is no central organization, few major roads, and no government systems that I could see. NGO projects stand out: hospitals, clinics, solar lighting fixtures, and the like. The roads are mostly dirt, limiting speeds to 5 MPH.
What stays with me most strongly are the people I met. People with such fortitude to bear incredible hardship, yet with a sense of humor and compassion for others that is incredible. When we discussed program ideas, the staff frequently brought up the importance of the organization’s mission, helping the poorest of the poor. With frequent power outages and the incredible heat, it is hard to concentrate on one’s work. But they carry on and they have achieved so much. First thing every morning, there is a large crowd of people standing under the tree in the courtyard waiting to be seen in the free clinic. The dispensary is full, well organized, and the staff operate efficiently to see everyone. This morning we traveled around the neighborhood, visiting the families who have received a recent shipment of water filters. We visited them to see how they are faring with the filters and whether they are being used properly. Monsieur Genoit, an elegant older gentleman who is at the heart of the PID organization, led us to each house that had received a filter. Even without any street names, he knew exactly where to go. We were able to advise people on how to keep the tubing clean. Most were using the mechanism perfectly and were appreciating having clean water to drink.
What could I do that might be useful in Haiti? I am so glad to have been able to take this short trip, to experience Haiti and to be able to consider what I could do that might be of some value. One of my fellow visitors, a Christian student from Messiah College, remarked that it is so important to quit looking at the valley where we are but instead to look up at the hill that is our goal. Good advice, indeed.

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