It was confirmation day in Thurles on Saturday Morning April 2nd 2011 when both Padraig and I set out for our destination to Haiti.
Originally planned for October 2010 ,but due to the sudden cholera outbreak, a last minute decision taken by Haven on the grounds of health and safety for all volunteers, there was no alternative but to cancel the trip.
Our bus journey began at 5am when we were picked up by the Cork bus at the Horse and Jockey and onward to Dublin airport. After about an hours delay at the airport the charter flight departed for snowy Newfoundland, Canada where we had a stopover for an hour for refuelling and necessary cabin cleaning.
The excitement was already in the air, We could sense that a lot of people on the flight had been coming back to volunteer for at least a second time. It was our first time to travel on such a journey, initially worrying about the daily 45+ degree heat, Cholera, Malaria, etc were only a few of our concerns. However we continued onward on our journey and flew on to Port Au Prince, Haiti.
On our arrival 350 volunteers felt the sudden wave of heat in the air as we gathered our belonging and boarded the buses, and hit the road to Gonaives. This journey wasn’t without its stoppages, as a broken fan belt and engine trouble grounded the convoy of seven buses to a halt for another 2 hours.
Twenty five hours after originally leaving Thurles, we arrived on site at Morn Blanc at 2am local time, weary and tired to be greeted by loud cheers from Haven staff and some very welcome food. We soon found our sleeping arrangements for the week and fell into our tents, along with five other volunteers we hadn’t even met until then.
A few hours later we were back up at 5am, breakfast already eaten ready for the day’s work with temperatures already reaching a staggering 30 degrees.
Soon, all volunteers were in their designated teams, the gardening team took responsibility for assisting in the planting and planning of all the individual and communal gardens. The painting team, which I was a part of, took on the responsibility ensuring that all houses, community centre and artwork was completed by the end of Build it Week. The builders had a slightly tougher job of even having to screen the gravel to produce sand, while the roofing team (which Padraig was part of) were responsible for all the timberwork and sheeting on all houses and the community centre. Some of these teams were closest to the sun and absorbed most of the heat throughout the days. The water team ensured that each volunteer had bottles of water at their side at all times and forced us to constantly drink water. On the first day alone 4,000 bottles of water were consumed.
All the groups had interacted well with each other having settled into a steady routine and things were coming together with increasing ease. The uncertainty of the first day has been replaced by an air of confidence and familiarity that has moved the various projects on at pace.
Our normal day started at about 5:00 am, with most people having a very light breakfast and hot drink before presenting themselves to their team leader and being on site to start work by 6:00am. There were some eager workers who were on site well before that time to get a good start on the day. No such thing as a shower before breakfast, showering was only allowed -one per day - at evening time to conserve water.
From the moment you awoke, the rays of sun were already beaming against the walls of the tent, so much so, that you are quick to rise as it is uncomfortable to stay in the tent any longer than necessary.
The heat slowly increases throughout the day and by 9:30 you’re likely to be covered in sweat and may have already had 2/3 litres of water drank.
The cooked breakfast was a very welcome break at this stage. Returning to the site for 10:00am the temperature was really rising. The sun is high in the cloudless blue sky and the run-up to lunch was probably one of the hardest parts of the day. When it got too hot to work, the medics shut the site for an hour before lunch and we had no option but to retreat into the shade. The hour after lunch was also very hot, at about 3:15pm, it was as though the heat was slightly turned down and became a bit more bearably to work in, although at this stage you can begin to smell that fresh cool flowing water from the showers and imagine that the body odour that the sun and work has created will soon be replaced by the fresh fragrance from your local Irish retail shop.
Work continued right up to 6pm and been out in the sun was actually quite pleasant at that time. It’s like a glorious summers evening, when you can imagine yourself back home on a green lawn and a burger going on the outdoor grill. However, that was a far cry from the reality of the working conditions we were in, and a far-fetched idealism of what the local Haitians shall ever experience. The prospect of a cold drink, a chat with your fellow workers about the working day gone by, that lovely shower (when it worked) and the evening meal is a great way to unwind before we entertained ourselves for a few hours and then ended the day and retiring to our tents for a few hours well deserved sleep. The food was of a very high quality and credit really had to go to the catering team who had done such marvelous work to feed all the volunteers at all meal times. It didn’t seem right to be offered such portions and a choice of menu when people are starving not too far away from where we sat.
After the meal, all volunteers congregate in the open air in front of a makeshift stage. We quietly stole all the seats from the dining room and organised the furniture to suit our groups and the friends we had made. Shorts and t-shirt was generally the desired evening wear for all, and on the odd evening a light jumper to take that chill out of the air before retiring. Each evening was filled with chat, quizzes, many brought their own instruments and Haven had the sound system set up so all and anyone who wished to perform on stage and make their mark in the entertainment world could do so.
The diverse range of people that came together for one common good could be evidently seen as performers, poets, Irish dancers, singers and songwriters took to the stage to showcase their talents night after night. It was really here where we felt that everybody around us knew everybody else. The friendship and the laughter of those people made us realize the importance of this week which simply could not be put into words. Hard to believe it, but the time passed by nearly almost too quickly!!!!
During an eventful week there were many highs and lows, none other than the trip to see the conditions some of the beneficiaries were presently living in. Up to now, and apart from arriving at the airport in Haiti, where we had security guards looking after our every move to ensure our safety, the site we were working on was not far from a green field site protected by mesh wire with security guards at all entrances. Having viewed Haven material and read extensively all the literature possible, watched all the documentaries, absolutely nothing could have prepared us for the sights of absolute poverty and destitution that unveiled before our eyes in Port au Prince and Gonaives and the reactions of the local Haitians when we interacted with them, most of all the beneficiary visit. It was hard to keep emotions in check especially considering that we had only 80 houses to build, when indeed we watched and realized that a lot of families would not benefit from Build It Week.
We were shocked and horrified by what we saw. We were moved to tears. A village built on a rubbish tip with very dubious water flowing through the middle of it. Imagine trudging through mud whilst lots of children walk alongside you laughing and smiling – oblivious to their surroundings. Imagine a foul smell, no fitting words can actually describe what we saw. No emotion can describe what feeling was felt by all volunteers. Imagine then seeing a ‘room’ no bigger than something that would hold a king size bed. Imagine an average family of five people living, eating, sleeping, washing and existing in that room. No running water, no bathroom or toilet, no fitted kitchen, not even a couch, just a double bed. The roof on that room (house) was not waterproof and walls that were not wind or rain proof. The inside lined with brown card board boxes. The uprights and roof consisting of tree branch, rusty, broken and damaged sheets of galvanize. The house was built like a jigsaw, pieces just put together one by one, loosely held together
The few houses that we built will rescue some families. As each volunteer was given the space to react individually, most of us took the valuable time to engage with the other children through games and song and at least left us knowing we had brought a smile to their faces even if only for a short time. As we boarded the bus back, that eerie, silence was in existence until each volunteer had come to terms in their own mind with the sights, feelings and sincere strong emotion that stood in front and within them. The short journey back on the bus felt like an eternity as each volunteer gazed with their head against the window and watched and tried to comprehend the poverty that still was before them. Upon returning to site, our work was brought into sharp focus, everyone stepped up a gear and pushed even harder, ever more focused on the work that needed to be completed.
By Friday afternoon, standing back and walking on what was once a building site was now ready to become a community and the handing over of one of the houses. We felt a great sense of achievement and an overwhelming pride in all our fellow volunteers, now our friends, that we had worked with throughout the week.
To see that family go through their front door for the first time, to see the children playing together in the playground, watching volunteers interact with the children and to see everybody concerned, satisfied on a job well done will be images that shall never ever leave us.
The people we met each brought their own personality, some funny, some inspirational, from all walks of life, from all corners of Ireland, regardless of their own “strifes” back home, regardless of title, we were all the same, we were all unique, we were all there for the one common purpose, we were there to give.
Every single person we met and talked to, had confirmed that Haiti affected them deeply. We are no exception. Our lives has been very fortunate in the things we’ve been able to do and the places we’re been able to visit. However, for as long as we live, we will never forget the local Haitian who stood up in front of us as a group on the final night of our Build it Week. Through a translator, he said that when the hurricane hit in 2008, they asked for help and none came. They were left to fend for themselves. He said that they prayed and prayed for help and it was his firm belief that God sent over 300 Irish people across the oceans to help him and his community.
Whatever your convictions or views on life, that man will not be swayed. Haven and the Irish people haven’t forgotten the people of Gonaives. For our part, we are so very proud to be part of a group of amazingly varied individuals who have such big hearts.
On a personal note we would like to thank all of you who contributed to helping change the lives of some of the poorest people in the western hemisphere:
A very sincere “Thank You”.