Haiti: revisiting ACT projects and people

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In the days immediately after Haiti’s earthquake, a community group in north Haiti began a feeding programme for displaced people. In the southern coastal city of Jacmel, a group of disaster survivors banded together and moved onto the grounds of a local church. And in Port-au-Prince, a woman who gave birth to her infant son 12 days after the quake wondered what she would do next.

These were some of the Haitians ACT journalist Chris Herlinger met in January and February immediately after the disaster. On a recent visit to Haiti, he decided to try and find them and perhaps measure some of the changes in Haiti during the intervening months. How are they doing? What are they doing? What are their plans for the future?

By Chris Herlinger

We're in great need of food here
In Petite Riviere, in Haiti’s northern department of Artibonite, communities with ties to ACT members continue a feeding programme based at local radio stations. However, the programme was cut back because only a portion of the estimated 3000-8000 people who initially moved from Port-au-Prince now remain in Petite Riviere. Many have returned to the capital, where humanitarian aid such as cash-for-work programmes is easier to access and where many family members remained after the quake.

In February, about 500 meals were served daily at the community-based sites. Now the programme in Petite Riviere has been cut back to two or three times a week. On the day I recently revisited Radio Family, people involved in the programme said fewer beneficiaries was one reason the programme was scaled back. In addition, it was simply difficult to sustain support at the same level, especially given Petite Riviere's own long-term struggles with securing enough food for many of its residents.

"We're in great need of food here," said Sama Odmarc, a teacher and journalist. The region, a rice-growing area, has had problems for years, including the importation of rice from the United States which puts pressure on local producers. Farmers have also faced problems securing credit to buy basics such as fertilizer. And credit itself is too costly. "Before they (farmers) harvest, they have to pay back their loans," said retired agronomist Nicolas Altidor. Not enough has been done to diversify crops, something needed as the local diet of rice, corn meal, sweet potatoes and millet is not sufficient in protein.

Among the things farmers in Petite Riviere needed, Altidor said, was support to get fertilizer and credit at reasonable rates. Without these, pressure will continue to drive people out of rural areas and into already too crowded Port-au-Prince. “People don't really want to stay in Port-au-Prince,” he said. “But there's still a feeling that you can make money there, unlike here in the provinces.”

Some people prefer to go it alone
In the southern coastal city of Jacmel work by ACT member Diakonie Katastrophenhilfe and local partners has kept several displacement camps open and running, with noticeable efforts underway to repair and rebuild homes. Less noticeable: smaller, initial efforts to assist so-called members of Groupes Solidarités which did not want to move into displacement camps.

One of the solidarity groups had been staying in and around the grounds of Jacmel's Wesleyan Methodist Church with initial support from local ACT member partners. When I saw the grounds in February, the tarps and canvas being used was tattered and ragged. The area seemed disorderly, at least compared to the more formally organised displacement camps. But when I saw it recently, the church grounds looked more orderly. Classes were being held in a school tent. Nicer tents provided by Jacmel authorities had replaced the older, worn-out material to protect residents from the elements. Still, much remained unsettled.

Francilaire Jeudi, a community member, told me that the numbers of people staying at the site had dropped from 400 to 150, as some decided they would rather go it alone, returning to their homes or going to other areas.

“It's been hard to keep up,” he said about the solidarity group, in part because, as is often the case during relief operations, food assistance in the initial emergency phase had ended. A July 11 report by the Toronto-based Globe and Mail said the community had splintered into different factions, with some from the splinter group unhappy with leadership. Those dissatisfied eventually left the church grounds and are now living down the street at another site.

Jeudi stressed that the school classes were for the wider community and that 15 children from the solidarity group living on the church grounds were attending classes. Long-term concerns remained, including worries about food and the need for jobs. Some in the solidarity group had received cash-for-work assistance but others had not and were just barely getting by. Jeudi was among those still looking for a job. "I have to work," he said.

See the first ACT story about these projects here.

People move on but relationships remain
In the Belair neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, I tried to find Marie Sylsalve. In aftermath of the quake, she tried and failed to find her husband Andre. The couple's home was destroyed and Sylsalve presumed her husband was killed in the quake; she saw a wall fall on him. Twelve days after the quake, she gave birth to son McAnley.

When I met her in late January, Sylsalve, who had worked as a vendor and was living at a displacement site in the Belair neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, was thinking about how best to support herself, her infant son and three other children. The site, supported by ACT, had a long association with the Brazilian organization Viva Rio, which in turn was support by ACT members, including Norwegian Church Aid.

When I visited recently, the tent area where Sylsalve and others lived was gone. Viva Rio staff member Berdine Edmond said that 400 families, including presumably Sylsalve and her children, had stayed through to April 10, almost three months to the day after the quake. Then they left.

Viva Rio had told the families it needed to reclaim the space for other programmes, including its children’s programmes. “Most people have returned to where they lived before or have moved to other camps,” Edmond said, saying cooperation and trust between the temporary residents and Viva Rio was and remained, good. Viva Rio had always made it clear to residents that their stay was temporary. But the relationships that formed between residents and Viva Rio, however, were not merely temporary. Many of the one-time residents are still enrolled, for example, in Viva Rio's pediatric health programme, whose participants included Marie Sylsalve and her son, McAnley.

See the first ACT story about Sylsalve and McAnley here.

Haiti: after the earthquake