At a very sweet farewell party the office threw on my last week in Haiti, it was insisted I make a speech after the customary thankyous from every employee in the office. I stood there and tried my very best but I find impromptu thank-you speeches difficult even in English, let alone French. Even now I can’t find words that could aptly express how grateful I am to all of Plan for my remarkable experience or what a privilege it was to have been welcomed into the Plan family as we called it.
In the challenging first few weeks especially, my colleagues included me, helped explain my tasks and were constant points of reference and sources of support. I was working with the team in charge of developing Plan Haiti’s gender equality training program for the next two years.
This involved an introductory session of trainings on Plan’s Global Gender Equality Policy, with a total of 151 participants from the 4 offices in the country. This was also part of the Gender Equality Self-Analysis I conducted over my three months in country.
(Gender Equality Seminar, Fort-Liberté, Haiti)
I was also in charge of writing a report discussing the extent to which Plan’s Global Gender Equality Principles were integrated into their office culture as well as their planning and execution of their programs in the field. My report was based on seminar training results and a set of interviews with over 65 employees from diverse sectors of Plan Haiti.
The results revealed the presence of gender champions amongst managerial staff who have adopted their own measures of gender mainstreaming and promotion. This has often seen the implementation of proactive strategies such as: setting quotas for participation that reflect the endemic gender divide amongst school children, increasing the diversity of life-skills training sessions and ensuring 60% of the micro-financing loans are given to women.
Every employee interviewed identified cultural norms as the number one obstacle to gender equality in Haiti. What we were promoting in some instances conflicted with deep-rooted beliefs that were both religious and cultural. A pertinent example was when during a training session a participant objected, stating that what I was preaching was not in the bible. This was an insight into the complexity of the issue at hand. As a young, privileged white woman who has been taught to question her own cultural norms, without consequence, it was no easy task to answer him. In order for these principles of equality to be realized, certain ‘norms’ will require adaptation… and, of course, immediate adoption of these gender rights may in some circumstances have ramifications, particularly for women.
Whilst responses like this were clearly alarming and frustrating, they were becoming less common, I was told. Interviewees identified that things were certainly improving, albeit slowly. Projects like micro-financing for women target the key issue: “That women do not have the means to combat these stereotypes because they don’t have economic autonomy in their homes,” expressed a Plan financial officer.
I was lucky to make some strong friendships with other young expats working in the field and often found myself privy to the same conversation: the sector is changing, there’s a new participatory approach to development and that’s the future.
New projects that older actors in the sector were undertaking was evidence of this. For Plan, 75 years in the making, their implementation of the AK1000 nutrition project was testimony to this new age development approach. It consisted of producing a healthy food product in factories in Haiti from local wheat, beans, rice and corn crops, manufactured by women in a production unit who would then sell the product to local markets at an affordable price.
Programs like this have been supported by a new generation of highly motivated graduates moving into the sector. As a whole this is seeing new strides being made in terms of sustainable macro-economic growth and private enterprise in developing countries. This kind of self-supporting economic development is beginning to empower women and men in Haiti, and it is this new movement that gives me Hope For Haiti.
I would also like to thank the Castan Centre and Monash Law for this enriching experience. Interning in Haiti gave me an invaluable insight into the world of the International Non-Governmental Development Organisation sector. It has affirmed by belief in the importance and true potential to realise the human rights of all people.
Writing from a heated apartment building in -4 Connecticut, looking out the window at the 3 feet of snow covering the roads, it is hard to believe that on Tuesday I was in 35 degrees heat farewelling my colleagues in Haiti. Here’s a little summary of my final month in the Caribbean.
Mid-January saw the concept note for a new project finalised and sent off to the regional office for approval. Central to the project was the strengthening of school systems to help prevent incidents of gender-based violence and generating a safer school environment to improve girls’ attendance levels. This includes teacher-training programs that focus on amending school curriculum to include gender equality and reproductive health modules, afterschool mentoring and leadership sessions, life skills sessions for schoolgirls and a scholarship program for the final 3 years of high school for top achievers.
Local schools in Plan’s areas of operation will be the first target beneficiaries of the program, with the idea of expanding the program after the first 12-month pilot project to other partner local community and youth groups. One potential beneficiary that the participation program manager and I looked into was the young women in the female prison in Petionville. Our security manager, a former Police Unit trainer at the Police Academy, swiftly facilitated a visit to the cells.
Nothing could quite prepare me for what I saw. The cells were filthy and overcrowded: with around 12 women per 3 x 3m cell, meaning not enough space for each person to comfortably lie flat (there are no beds). All of the cells were open to allow the delegated inmate to fetch water from nearby containers (bidons) as there was not enough space in the cell for these.
My colleague and I felt incongruous to the extreme. Faces looked up from behind the bars and stared blankly through us. Most were silent, except for one lady who screamed out in Creole, “You whites keep visiting, you see our suffering and yet nothing changes for us” which struck a chord.
The cell for pregnant women, babies and also, shockingly, sick women, was most confronting. There were 3 beds for 9 women and 4 babies; the other 5 were heavily pregnant. The babies were no older than 2 months, the maximum time they will spend with their mothers before mandatorily being taken to an orphanage. I attempted in my best Creole to ask the mothers how long they had been in prison, to ascertain whether they had fallen pregnant in prison, but responses were difficult to follow. My security manager assured me that this occurs.
Deeply affected and struck for words we headed for the car and agreed that the couple of cells of girls under 18 would be good potential program participants in the new project.
Wrapping up my final couple of weeks in Haiti: a total of 151 participants attended the Gender Equality Training day representing each of our 3 program unit offices. Many interviews with managerial, field and support staff provided me with ample data to analyse and include in my final report, Gender Equality Self-Assessment Synthesis for Plan Haiti. This gave me the wonderful opportunity to see much of the country, including a trip on a small 15-seater plane across the barren mountain ranges that divide Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitian. My colleagues and I ate fresh lobster on the side of a beach near a Plan supported community and visited the old fort used to defend foreign invaders in the north during the 19th Century.
(Off to work for two days in the North East of Haiti, Fort-Liberté)
(Plan-sponsored community review of post-Sandy farming equipment handed out, near Jacmel).
Last hurrah would be the carnival in Jacmel. Two days of indulging the senses with sounds, smells, tastes, and sights of the masks, costumes and bands combined in a street parade to celebrate Haitian culture and history. It was somewhat of a contrast with the prior week’s visit to the prison and the destitute state of the inmates and a struggling rural community.
That’s probably the best way to describe Haiti: A country of contrasts. Where the immaculately dressed wealthy drive around in Porsches and control what little capital the country produces, whilst the majority live in makeshift housing with crumbling concrete sides, lucky to control a paltry $5, the average daily income.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Castan Centre for providing me with the most incredible experience and opportunity to spend this time in Haiti.
It has been truly unforgettable.
As they say in Haiti, “Mesi ampil”, (literally: thankyou amply).
(Carnival Costumes: Traditional Taino people, a race of people entirely extinct following Spanish invasion in Hispaniola)
(Jacmel Carnival women’s dance group take to the street)
Almost 2 months in and I’m at the stage where I accidentally refer to Haiti as home and my internship as work and (delightfully) have been referred to as a local by some colleagues!
The last few weeks have been a great opportunity to get to know some of my colleagues better and gain a more thorough insight into Plan’s current projects. I’ve been conducting interviews with the country office management staff and project managers on their knowledge of gender equality and it’s impact throughout their projects. Preceding the interview process my supervisor and I conducted a seminar on Plan’s global policy on gender equality that I have been working on for the last month.
(Presenting the seminar on Gender Equality at Plan)
The depth of knowledge and commitment to gender equality has been impressive. It is the presence of such passion, particularly among the younger generation, that is beginning to change the status quo for women in Haiti. However, staff identified that the national culture remains the biggest barrier to bringing about systematic change in Haiti.
The recent introduction of stronger legislative measures to combat the endemic discrimination and violence experienced by many women in Haiti has formally improved the position of women. However, access to the judicial system is another matter entirely and renders legislative advances somewhat futile.
Today I had the opportunity to visit the district and appeal court in downtown Port-au-Prince. It’s currently operating out of the same building as the DPP (separation of powers?) as the Palais de Justice was destroyed in the earthquake. It was a fascinating and very helpful visit for my research paper I’ll be writing in the next couple of months. We found the main courtroom after weaving through several corridors bustling with guards (nonchalantly sporting a rifle on their hip), civilians and lawyers, immediately recognisable by their familiar wad of paper under arm. Proceedings are slow-paced in Haiti as prosecutors and lawyers read slowly enabling the longhand scribe to keep up. Court formalities were nominal and I had to fight the urge to bow to the judge upon entering.
It was hard to hear the fine details of the hearing, largely because the building abuts a busy industrial area. As there was no air-conditioning in the room, the hole in the wall serving as a window (the size of a container ship door) let the sounds of life wander in along with the intended ventilation (in amongst mobile phones going off and people talking in the ‘public gallery’). I was not alone in my struggle to follow the proceedings: the judicial and political system is conducted entirely in French which is spoken by the more educated and wealthier middle to upper classes. Hence, the non-French-speaking majority are essentially excluded from active participation.
I had the privilege to talk to the Public Prosecutor representative at the conclusion of the case. We discussed conditions in prisons, the improvement of which he actively advocates. He expressed frustration at the over crowding and illegally prolonged detention of suspects and often wrongly accused persons. He explained that some detainees spend indefinite periods in prison even after a judge has ordered their release because ‘an enforcement order must first be registered with the prosecutor’ which is not easily tracked due to poor case management. I hesitantly asked whether there was a system whereby damages are awarded for cases of false imprisonment and he wearily smiled, “Ah no. No, unfortunately we have nothing like this in Haiti.” Despite this, national and international NGOs are involved in rigorous work to improve the system.
Next week I will be working at the three regional offices where, over a two-day period, I will conduct the seminar and the interviews – it will be busy indeed! However, after a relaxing break in the Dominican Republic over the Christmas holidays (a great chance to first hand compare the other, more developed half of Hispaniola to Haiti), it is nice to get back to it.
Also added to the agenda has been the conception of a new proposal for a pilot project for our education sector, specifically focusing on girls. It will be part of Plan’s Global campaign, ‘Because I am a Girl’, and I’m lucky enough to be writing the concept note under the supervision of my colleague!
(School girls in a Plan-sponsored school in Croix-des-Bouquets listen to a seminar on gender equality)
Around the 20th of December a mass exodus of expatriates occurred here as almost everyone returned to their families for the festive season. So I too planned a trip to the Dominican Republic to learn how to dive and delightfully, to be welcomed by a local family. Inevitably, in the forefront of my mind for most of the trip was the fascinating contrast between these two countries, in culture, language, music and of course, development.
Just over 300km is the distance between the two capitals of Port-au-Prince and Santo Domingo, which translates into a 10 hour bus journey (mainly due to the Haitian leg of the trip). The first contrast and probably the most well known one was the stark divergence in the landscape that becomes visible as soon as you cross into the border. Below is a bird’s eye view of what you cannot help but notice: the devastatingly deforested Haiti, totalling 95 % of the country and the less-deforested DR, still totalling 60% deforestation.
(courtesy of National Geographic)
I am currently reading a historical account of Haiti since European landing in Hispaniola and one theme is current throughout the book: how the country’s various foreign presences have ravaged both the social and environmental structures. The deforestation of this tropical landscape began with the lucrative sugar plantations that were operative here throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Writers such as Jared Diamond attribute the current state of Haiti’s economy to these early environmental impacts and it is hard to dissociate the two, especially when visiting the greener half of the island. Sadly deforestation still occurs, as I mentioned earlier for the production of charcoal for fuel.
As we entered the Spanish-speaking Republic the road immediately smoothed out and the pervasive distinctions to its poorer neighbour were obvious even to an untrained eye. Pavements are ostensibly clear of rubbish and sewage, unfinished concrete block housing is replaced with rendered and colourfully painted houses with floral balconies, street vendors are few and far between, clean paper peso notes leave the faces of their forefathers discernible (mostly), newspapers are printed in colour past the front page, bridges have traffic rail guards, roads have traffic lights, the presence of armed guards is uncommon… et cetera. A more trivial indices of development became apparent, McDonalds has reached the Eastern side of the Island, 6 times over (if google maps is correct).
I thought this was an interesting number: the average income in the Dominican Republic is 6 times higher than in Haiti.
Halve that and you get the amount of days (3) I spent with Alex, a wonderful old Swiss man who taught me how to dive in the bustling beach town of Boca Chica. White sand with turquoise water lapping at the edge, it is a prospective tour operator’s paradise: and yet there are scarcely any tourist towns of the same proportion in Haiti, and no diving instructors that I’ve heard of. Of course there is an equally azure sea and sky however the beaches in Haiti are largely unmaintained, which sounds peculiar to an Australian (as our beaches generally need no maintaining) but to find a patch of beach that isn’t strewed with rubbish (and is reachable by the Haitian roads) you have to pay $US20 to pass the patrol point at the barriers of a hotel.
Playa Boca Chica
But differences aside, Dominicans are benefiting hugely from the influx of tourists into the Carribean seaside towns. Tourism is the fastest growing export sector and the primary source of employment for Dominicans. The economical benefits were blatantly obvious in Santo Domingo: the Zona Colonial, where (surprise, surprise) the majority of the old Spanish Colonial buildings are found, was neat and tidy and busy with visitors. Massive shopping centres dwarfing Melbourne’s Chadstone are popping up annually and high rise apartment buildings are common and multiplying (apart from the sole telecom operator in Haiti, Digicel, I haven’t seen a building more than 4 stories high in Port-au-Prince!).
It’s no great secret that the Caribbean is an area known for it’s key drug transit point from South America to countries such as the USA and Canada and ultimately Europe. So there’s a lot of drug money present in la capital that, obviously, cannot be banked. So investment in giant shopping malls is, apparently, the next best thing for these money laundering ‘investors’. Little thought is given to the economic viability of such projects… and this became clear. During what is usually an active time for the consumer market, post Christmas sales and such, the malls we visited were eerily empty, excepting the food courts where, as Alexei told me, the prices of Burger King and Pizza Hut provide the only affordable products for consumption. With the non-perishable items being almost entirely out of reach for your average Dominican, ultimately these centres have a short life span. Stores that still have the economic capacity to function shut up shop and move to the next great consumer terrain where the process starts again. Meanwhile the (non clothing) consumers are probably getting fatter and fatter and are more perturbed from walking around the vast areas anyway! I concede, I did enjoy my french fries…
Another 10 hour bus ride and a 3 hour wait for the security key to the house and it was home to Haiti. Funny word that, ‘home’. It is astonishing how places that at first seem so foreign to us that ever feeling at home is quite unimaginable. I am looking forward to the return of my new friends for the second phase of the internship to recommence in full swing.
My Christmas present to self, some Haitian art.
There is one book that you will read if you ever visit Haiti for more than a fleeting moment, Graham Greene’s ‘The Comedians’. Set in Port au Prince in the late 1940s under the rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his secret police, the Tonton Macoute, it is the only Penguin Classic about Haiti. The narrator and protagonist owns the Hotel Oloffson in Pétionville, which along with the Hotel Kinam is one of the few gingerbread vestiges of a former Haiti where American tourists filled their rooms instead of foreign aid workers and diplomats.
Last Thursday night after a day in the office finalising a training day that I conducted this week; it was there I spent an irresponsibly-late-for-a-week-night out. Angela, a half Canadian half Belgian public health officer of Kenyan and Ugandan descent, and Julian, a half Irish, half Chinese civil engineer have both welcomed me into their circle of friends here, a complex web of inter-connections and nuances of similarly diverse NGO workers. No questions asked, they told me the place to be on Thursday nights in Port au Prince is the Oloffson.
Famous not only for its literary prominence, the place comes to life every Thursday night when RAM takes to the stage. A ‘mizik rasin’ band that combines traditional Haitian voodoo ceremonial and folkloric music with rock and roll, they are unlike anything I have ever heard or seen before. Anticipating their arrival we sat under the majestic white verandah equipped with Portuguese tiles, French shutters and a very active bar whilst animated chat in Creole, French, Spanish, English and German filled the humid night air. Some English friends of Julian’s, one of whom was soon leaving Haiti for good, joined us. Saying goodbye becomes second nature to seasoned expats used to the transient nature of this line of work. “Jamais aurevoir mais à la prochaine” they tend to say. Relationships and friendships form very quickly in response to the brevity of people’s contracts, something I am very grateful of in my short stint here.
Several rum sours later and into the early hours of Friday morning RAM’s set was well underway and the place was alive with the pulses of the 300 or so alcohol-filled and shiny-faced fans swaying to the Caribbean rhythms of the trumpets and trombones, drums and vocals, guitars and keys. Remaining still was next to impossible for the several hours they played, each song a completely different expression of passion and exuberance, a reflection of the spirit of the Haitian people. I am beginning to understand better how levels of fitness are maintained here (apart from the obvious manual labour that inescapably coincides with developing nations) dancing is Haiti’s national sport!
Physically exhausted and in want of a shower I got a ride home with some new American friends through the dark streets of Port-au-Prince, rap blaring from the mono-genre local radio station ‘sky fm’. I delighted in the ease with which we drove, as the usual chaos of pedestrians, livestock and traffic lay dormant. It is a strange place at night; scarcely lit by the odd kerosene lamp and the security lights of the few bourgeoisie houses on the sides of the hills, the city resembled a sleepy country town. The darkness combined with the silence that falls in the first hours of the morning made it hard to believe that this is home to three million people.
The hillsides by day: Anything but a quiet country town!
Home with a couple of hours left before the alarm for work would ring I told myself I must go again before I leave.
Another two weeks have gone by very quickly. Life is beginning to resume it’s usual rhythm and regularity that comes with the familiarity of a place, although each day presents itself with some kind of captivating encounter worth noting. I shall try and be more diligent at this.
Week two in the Caribbean and I was rostered to Croix des Bouquets, a one hour (but 20km) journey to one of Plan’s regional offices. Here I was to work with Frédérique and Joujoue on our Gender Equality Awareness training program. The thrill of the drive to work is yet to subside and I am still amazed that we arrive each morning sans accident, everyone else completely unfazed by this mundane proceeding. Unfortunately, taking pictures on the drive is not advised, not only does it attract potential bandits (who are known to open doors and snatch bags/people), but it is also widely disapproved of by many locals and particularly the police. What I wish I could capture better is the organised chaos of the public transport system here that is the tap tap system.
Grand Taptap: Victoire au nom de Jesus – victory in the name of Jesus
This was the best I could do, it is a large tap tap, the most common method of transport for all Haitians. No designated stopping places. Just a tap on the roof or a wave of your hand, and the hop on hop off journey continues after the exchange of a floppy (and filthy) 50 gourde note (US$1). Business is good if you have a well-decorated vehicle, I am told by my driver (this also includes large sound systems, streamers and bells). It is probably the most colourful aspect of the Haitian streets. Apart from the hand-painted shop signs, lotto numbers (gambling is rife in the city), advertising banners and plastic ware over-filled with produce and perched atop the heads of pedestrians, the city sports a kind of drab grey ambiance. Buildings remain largely unpainted, due to the cost of imported American paint, and rubble still surrounds houses and roads after the earthquake in 2010. Tap taps hence stand against this drab backdrop.
There is always a religious element to every painted people mover which also entices prospective travellers. Today I was talking to a national who gave me a simple insight into the popularity of both Christianity and the west-African voodoo that is also practiced by many. “People in Haiti think that their poverty is a punishment from god, so they pray more, they pray that Haiti will no longer be punished by Him.” I have since moved from the house with John, the country director, and am now living in a guest house that is more amongst the people you could say (directly below the house is a shanty town). It is also a stone’s throw from the Catholic Church, so every Sunday I wake to the passionate voices of a packed congregation singing traditional hymns imbued with rhythmic bongo drums and other percussion instruments. Religion features frequently in daily speech, as often tacked on to the end of a sentence will be, “dieu voulant” (god willing) ou “grâce à dieue” (thanks be to god). It is a remarkably ardent faith in Haiti, an interesting contrast to the steep decline in religion in Australia and most other developing nations.
Each Saturday morning at 7:30 I meet with an energetic group of expats at the Hotel Kinam; one of the few gingerbread style buildings that survived the earthquake in 2010, a relic of an era when Haiti had a bustling tourism industry. Wealthy politicians, foreign aid workers comprise the majority of guests to the tired and wistful establishment. We head up the mountains that Port-au-Prince sits at the foot of. This is the safest place for us to run; as all of us work for NGOs we are subject to very strict security measures. Walking along in the streets of Port au Prince is forbidden, unless you are directly heading to your compound or chosen restaurant, where your driver will always wait to see you have gone inside and met your company before leaving. So it is a fabulous feeling to get out into the open air and move my cramped-up office limbs.
The mountains behind Port au Prince are spectacular. The country is largely mountainous, the highest peaks reaching around 2000km. Affectionately named ‘La Swisse d’Haïti’ (The Switzerland of Haiti), the view certainly does resemble the European Alps. The weekend before last I had the privilege to be taken beyond the sprawl of the city to a rural picnic with some friends I have met through a wine and cheese book club. Every Friday I go to ‘T wine’ (petit wine, in Creole) in a quaint little library at the Petionville Club: another establishment failing to mask it’s nostalgia, but with such character the likes of which could fill a Graham Green novel (both the people and the place!). 30 or so of us drove the 2 and a bit hours up the winding track (which looked more like a river bed at times!) to spectacular views and cooler weather. Sadly, upon close inspection, a melancholic hue exuded itself as the devastating environmental impacts of a land poorly managed for nearly 200 years became apparent. The steep valleys and ridges are stripped bare of the once large pines and tropical jungles as they were deforested for use (as continue to be) as fuel. There are naked swathes of earth where land slides occur on the unprotected soil after high rainfall. Underfed live stock are few and far between, and the legumes and grains produced do not nearly support Haiti’s 8 million inhabitants.
That aside, it was stirring to be welcomed with such optimism and enthusiasm by some rural Haitians I was lucky to meet, a favourite amongst them, Saint Juste and his trusty steed Caramel.
The past two weeks at work have been busy. We have finalised the dates for our training days for our staff in all of the offices which will take place in January and February. The training days are interactive sessions for all members of the office staff and provide a valuable service to the community through the trickle down effect of their teachings. Last week I attended a Child Protection Training seminar for two days which was a valuable insight into how the sessions run and the extent to which staff are familiar with Plan’s Human Rights focused Development work. It was certainly an eye opener when the instructor was asked to explain to one olderman what a condom was and it’s use. Gender Stereotyping will certainly be an interesting topic for our training – with no doubt many heated discussions to come! A dose of cultural relativism helped when I laughed to myself at the instructor’s need to use a whistle to diffuse the vehement group discussions in response to oen of his questions! A sports whistle is on my shopping list!
As part of the roles of many Program Unit directors for health, sanitation and gender based violence, they frequently go to local schools, church groups and villages to give short presentations on these topics. Plan’s global campaign on gender equality, Because I am a Girl, is the topic of one of these presentations that the Children at the Croix-des-Bouquets school are familiar with. The children’s enthusiasm to my colleague’s questions on the difference between gender and sex was remarkable as I imagined asking the same group of 10 year olds the same question back in Melbourne…
Mama Sia continues to provide wonders en masse at the office kitchen, always with plenty of rice (and beans), served up with a delightful cheer and the response “je t’en prie ma cherie” – my pleasure, darling, to a thankyou from a hungry Plan employee!
I’ve been in Haiti for a week now. I thought this would be a good time to write my first post and describe my first impressions of this fascinating place where I will be for three months. It is difficult not to include more detail in this first blog as almost everything I have done this week has some quirky or amusing element to it, so I will try and select a few of these experiences.
I arrived on Friday afternoon after a 43 hour trip, to what I was told was a ‘cool’ Haitian day, 33 degrees, and it was only 11am! That is not to mention the humidity level. The airport was as I had anticipated, makeshift would be the word. The customs area was informal, a stamp in my passport and through I went to a small room where luggage checks can be completed if necessary (none were completed from our plane load of people) with a door way guarded by two men to stop the hordes of taxi drivers at the ready for the newly arrived. I overheard one women say, ‘well, here we go – prepare for battle!’ as she and her family exited the shed.
As John tells me, the weather has been terrible:
I am living with the Country Director of Plan Haiti, John Chaloner, originally from England, he has lived and worked all over the world for INGOs, including stays in Papua New Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Senegal, the Phillipeans and India! The house is beautifully situated in a large compound filled with tropical plants and shaded by a canope of trees and creepers. My childhood self would be expecting Tarzan to swoop through the trees and land neatly on the balcony where we eat most meals. In two weeks time I will move to Plan’s Guest house with 2 other expatriates, both from West Africa; Guinea and Benin.
My first weekend was a great opportunity to get acquainted with life in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. This included a trip to the local supermarket, where I am strongly advised to shop, due to some security issues that may arise if I were to shop at the local markets. This is still taking some getting used to as I am always a keen market-goer, especially when travelling, for obvious reasons such as experiencing the local and seasonal produce and supporting local trade. The price of a weekly shop is around $US100 which is also a significant deterrent!
I am slowly finding ways around this. For example each week there is a lady who comes to the office selling local favourites such as coquignoles and mombard (Haitian doughnuts and peanut butter) which are delicious.
Unfortunately, in Haiti, since the earthquake in 2010, a severe drought in the last two years and tropical storms Isaac and Sandy, the agricultural sector has been hit hard, and it cannot support the local demand. Imported produce is heavily relied on and in some cases is cheaper than local produce, particularly rice at the moment, which perpetuates the problem.
Office days start at 8am and finish around 4pm to ensure staff are home before dark and to avoid the unbelievable traffic that starts around 4:30. The catastrophic state of the roads here leave much to be desired! What is essentially a 4km drive to work can take up to 40 minutes. Whilst there are a significant number of cars, the 20km average speed is largely caused by the strategic manoeuvring of vehicles (all 4WDs) all over the roads to avoid the craters and crevices that pervade the largely dirt tracks. The trip always passes quickly as I look on eagerly at the bustle of life that commences at sunup (05:30). School girls ride on the front of motorbikes with helmetless drivers, their tight hair bunches with white ribbons remaining perfectly intact as they casually hold on to the handles whilst clutching their school bag worn back to front to their chest. Other children proudly sport their school uniforms and walk hand in hand with an older sibling, parent or house worker, precariously close to the swerving cars and trucks sharing the road but apparantly unphased. Women sit idly by their fruit, fried dough and vegetable markets which line the streets, as do men who more often sell electrical goods, shoes, perfumes and sunglasses. This is beginning to imbue in me a sense of guilt as I endeavour to feel energised at 06:30…
My work in the office this week has consisted of familiarising myself with the gender department of Plan Haiti, my area of work for the internship, and the functions of Plan International more generally. This has meant reading a selection of internal reports, handbooks and policies from the plethora of documents that Plan produce. I am told copious report writing is a feature of most INGOs around the world!
I myself will be writing a report in weeks to come as we develop and execute a “formation” throughout the 4 offices in Haiti. In short, we will conduct a series of training days for all office staff from Human Resources to Accounting, Health and Sanitation, Water and Food Security, Grants and Sponsorship and everything inbetween. I will then write a report on the results of the training program, the progress or shortfallings of the organisation’s gender awareness program and a proposal of any improvements that can be made in each sector. Next week I will be working with the gender advisers in the Croix des Bouquets office to finalise the plan of action for the training days.
Lunch at the office is provided by Mamma Sia (photo pending) and her team of cooks and kitchen hands. It is a fine sample of traditional Haitian food with the occasional international favourite such as lasagne! It’s a wonderful opportunity to sit with other colleagues and discuss local affairs and activities. That is, if the extremely hard working staff decide to take their lunch break away from their desks – which is not always the case.
This week’s conversations have focused on the riots in Jacmel, a habitually tranquil town located southwest of Port-au-Prince on the Southern coast. A not-uncommon kidnapping incident took place there on Tuesday, where one man was shot, a woman sexually abused, and a 4-year-old boy taken hostage. A ransom was eventually paid (nobody knew how much) and the 4 year old returned to his family. The riots have since died down, although an overarching protest remains against the electricity cuts that occur daily due to a deficiency of supply, which creates a less secure environment at night and increases the viability of such crimes.
Whilst incidents like these surely deter visitors, tourists and unnerve some locals, most NGO workers and locals I have spoken with do not feel directly threatened or in danger. The security conventions that exist for all organisations operating here certainly leave little room for the effects of malfeasance. The presence of expats and NGOs are beginning to subside, as the impact of the earthquake has receded from the spotlight of urgent global humanitarian objectives. Consequently, those that remain are often well adjusted to life in Haiti and tend to relax the limits of security more. Certainly more expats drive their own cars now and more are seen walking the streets, a rare occurrence pre-2010.
I have fount it particularly satisfying to be in a developing country where the local population can understand me and the reverse (to some extent). Office work is conducted in French as are most governmental relations, so I have no language problems there. However, the majority of Haitians converse in Creole as the 10% who speak French do so only in a formal capacity. Whilst I am still adjusting my ear to the Creole tongue, its proximity to French will hopefully see me better understanding the quick-paced conversations before too long!
Just off for the second week’s worth of grocery shopping!