Haiti, January 2012

Cholera for Christmas and Transitions into a New Year

When I left Léogâne in March, I can’t say I was optimistic about its future. Roads were still lined with rubble, the town square and the meridian of the main road were packed with makeshift shelters, and the task of rebuilding seemed too daunting to contemplate. The Haitian government was holding things like excavators and solar panels up for months in customs, waiting for bribes or wading through their own bureaucracy. NGO directors bought shiny white SUVs while people who lost their homes struggled to find enough to eat. Superstition and misinformation thwarted relief work, and most recipients of our biosand filters signed the paperwork with an X. Basic resources for rebuilding were often difficult to impossible to find.

I wasn’t expecting things to look too different when I came back. But they do look different. I didn’t notice at first. But the more I look, the more I see. Most of the rubble is gone from the roads, replaced by the occasional pile of limestone sand for mixing cement for new buildings. A new restaurant opened on our street, and a new grocery store down the block. In general, things seem more orderly (not that I would call anything here orderly, exactly). The tent camps are gone. Some people moved out, some were evicted. Almost all the schools in the Léogâne area have been rebuilt now, and most of the elementary school-age kids are back in classes, with the notable exception of those who can’t afford uniforms and books.

I asked some of the All Hands long-termers what they thought. “It’ the little things,” one woman said. “Like, today I saw a vendor selling toys. That’s a good sign.”

A staff member who has been here since immediately after the earthquake said, “People walk differently. Right after the quake, everyone seemed kind-of slunched over, hesitant. Now they walk tall and strong again.”

Haiti still has a long way to go. People are still very poor, and many foods and imported necessities are still very expensive. A can of vegetables costs twice what it would in San Francisco. When handed a pen and paper, most vendors at the market still have to call someone over who’s literate to write down the cost of what I’m trying to buy. Housing and education are inadequate, water is contaminated, and plastic burning in toxic trash fires spreads smoke over the decimated land every day. Things are far from fixed in Léogâne, but the progress did exceed my expectations, and that gives me hope.

All Hands, too, has changed since the spring. The first thing I noticed was the increase in integration between international and local volunteers and staff. More friendships seemed to cross the cultural divide. More internationals speak Creole, more Haitians speak English, and the numbers have evened out. In the spring internationals far outnumbered Haitians, but All Hands has been steadily increasing involvement from the local community through its volunteer program, and increasing the number of Haitians in staff positions, averaging 44 at any given time. The biosand filter program is primarily Haitian-run now, with 14 full-time, permanent Haitian staff. Two hundred residents of Léogâne, mostly young adults, have been through the local volunteer program over the past two years, and one of the most touching moments of my time here was at the local volunteer graduation—when volunteers are recognized and presented a certificate for completing the four-month program—hearing how much the experience has meant to them. Many talked about the construction, computer, and language skills they acquired, the friendships they formed, and how this time here has changed their lives.

I noticed a difference in the community, too. People seem friendlier when I walk down the street. That may be because I am more comfortable here now. But I also think it’s because so many people in the community know us. Either we built a school that their kids go to, or they were among the 507 worker beneficiaries in our Cash-For-Work program, or they know of our Plaza Playtime and work with the orphanages, or their house received one of the 513 water filters we made and distributed. I walked into a shop last week to look for some groceries, and the guy working said, “I know you. I’m with All Hands too. I build biosand filters.”

The changes will continue on into the New Year. All Hands is a disaster relief organization, not a development organization, and after two years in Léogâne, it is time for transition. The international volunteer program ended on December 28, and I am officially the last of the 1400 international volunteers who have contributed to Project Léogâne. Most all the schools in the area have been rebuilt, so the Schools program will end. BSF will continue, with a Haitian staff. The livelihoods program—which has provided business training and on-site mentoring for 29 local businesses, creating 35 new jobs and increasing wages for 20 more—will also continue, with a small international staff.

The lease expired at our Belval Plaza base, and we spent the last weeks moving into a new house and office, more suited to the scaled-down project. A week of cleaning, organizing, sorting, dismantling, and lifting lots of heavy furniture up stairs has been rewarded by the strange and welcome novelty of flushing toilets, bedrooms, a normal kitchen, and showers. I’ve gleaned mattresses and other goodies from departing volunteers, and I’m comfortable in a way I’ve never been in Haiti. I’m enjoying it to the fullest, because it won’t last long. A half dozen or so of us stayed on through the holidays, but the staff will be returning this week, and it’s time for me to move on.

Speaking of the holidays, you’re probably wondering about the subject line. On the afternoon of December 24, I started to get sick. I took antibiotics right away; I knew this was no ordinary stomach bug. I forced myself to join the crew for Christmas Eve dinner at the best restaurant in Leogane, a place I’ve always wanted to go to, but only managed to eat a few bites and barely kept myself sitting upright. Then I collapsed into bed and spent the next 18 hours between there and the bathroom. I spent Christmas morning in bed crying, while everyone went to brunch at the Arawak Hotel.

How’s that for a dramatically miserable Christmas? I had just resigned myself to go to the cholera ward at the Doctors Without Borders clinic, when my symptoms began to lift. I’m young and healthy, and took antibiotics at the onset, so my recovery was quick. By Christmas night I felt weak, but otherwise OK. What timing, eh?

Was it cholera? I’ll never know. The symptoms were largely congruent with a mild case, but it could have been lots of things. All I know is that I have been very grateful for my health since then. And I’m going to have a make-up Christmas party when I get back to San Francisco.

Happily, New Year’s was much better. A friend and I went to visit some acquaintances in the beautiful coastal town of Jakmel, where we learned all about an inspiring art collective called Jakmel Espresyon, and joined them for their New Year’s Eve party. We welcomed 2012 holding hands in a circle on the roof under the stars in the tropical night air, expressing our appreciation for each other and all that the coming year will offer.

Tomorrow I leave the comfortable nest of All Hands. My goal is to visit six different organizations that are doing inspiring work in Haiti, and write about their projects to publish in my Haiti journals. I had hesitations about traveling solo here. It’s a chaotic country with little intelligible infrastructure, and my Creole is still very basic. Travel is slow and uncomfortable, and roads are dangerous. But this writing project has been on my mind for a long time, and it wouldn’t feel right to leave without following through on it. So hopefully you’ll hear from me again soon, with stories of some of the many amazing people working against all obstacles to build a better future for Haiti.

Much love to you all and happy New Year,
asha