May 23, 2009
Sunday May 17th, 2009
What a day. A huge day! I met up with Alex and Kate at the Miami airport this morning and we flew to Port-au-Prince. There, we were picked up by a driver from Fonkoze (the org that GF partners with in Haiti) and taken to the Hotel Montana where Anne Hastings, director extraordinaire of Fonkoze, met us for lunch. More on Anne in a minute.
The Port-au-Prince airport is small and painted that strange mint-green color inside that I’ve seen in other tropical countries. It’s a color that clashes so vividly with the foliage. Odd.
Ooof! It’s incredibly hot and humid here. Air conditioning is a luxury mostly reserved for hotel rooms and some businesses, it appears. But even then it’s iffy since the state turns off the electricity for several hours each day. Can’t keep up with demand, or can’t afford it? Unclear. So everybody has batteries, like car batteries, to run generators to power their appliances. The offices of Fonkoze have a whole wall of batteries, (fifty I think Anne said) so they can keep their computers and lights running during business hours. Fonkoze is also behind high walls (painted deep orange and purple) and there’s a man at the front gate with a rifle.
Yes, in case I’d somehow missed the fact that I was now in a Third World, that sealed the deal for me. Still I had to ask.
“Why does that man have a rifle?” I said to Anne, as she gave us a tour of Fonkoze’s offices.
“For protection,” she answered, and would have added “Duh,” if she weren’t so delightful and gracious.
Anne Hastings is a force of nature. She came to Haiti 13 years ago to help Father Joseph get his new NGO, Fonkoze, off the ground. At the time she said she’d stay for 6 months. She’s still here, and she’s a rock star in Haiti.
I totally get it. Every petite inch of her is dedicated to the work of helping Haitian women help themselves climb out of poverty. She is rigorous about checking and re-checking Fonkoze’s work to see that the system is functioning as well as it possibly can, and if it’s not, taking steps to fix it. I’m sure that’s why Alex holds her in such high esteem because he’s the same way. I’m telling you, if I were face to face with Anne and she said, “Yeardley, I want you to come to Haiti, learn Creole, get a motorcycle and become a loan officer for Fonkoze,” I’d seriously consider it. She’s that dynamic and persuasive. Not to mention stylish and incredibly funny. ☺
It’s late and I have to be up at 4:45 tomorrow morning because we’re going into the field for a full day of site visits in the Central Plateau, so I’ll wrap it up.
Anne took us by car through one of the slums of Port-au-Prince. Not the famous one called Cité Soleil, but another one, not far from it. Since today is Sunday we could actually drive through the streets, sort of. Apparently on a week day, it’s so crammed with people and cars that it can take two hours to go just two blocks. Not to mention the roads are barely fit for travel. Some are paved, but the pavement is eroding and there are axle-breaking potholes every few feet. Enormous piles of garbage burn in the streets, and there are swarms of people everywhere. Walking, loitering, trying to sell whatever they can: a few bottles of soda or beer, maybe water, sugar, a bit of fruit, odds and ends, and what looked like overstock of American clothes –t-shirts and jeans mostly.
Along the banks of an open city sewer are the shantytowns, or "bidonville," as they’re called here, where people live. All you see are rows and rows of shacks made of out discarded plywood with thin corrugated tin roofs, sometimes a piece of cloth or plastic for a door. There’s no electricity, of course, no outhouses (people have to defecate in the open sewer), and no privacy. Gangs and drug use are a huge problem here.
People in the slums look pissed, rather than pathetic. Whereas at our hotel, and in other parts of the city, I’d say I’ve encountered more indifference. But across the board it is as though a light has gone out inside the population. And who can blame them? Haiti is like a forgotten country. The problem child that just became too big of a problem so the world –even its own government—has given up.
Which is not to say that monetary aid hasn’t been sent to Haiti because it has. And there seems to be no shortage of NGO’s here trying to do good work. But what I learned from Anne, Alex and Kate today is that it takes a great deal more than money to bring a country like Haiti back from such a long, complicated history of neglect. You actually have to rehabilitate the people; bring the light back into their eyes by giving them something to live for.
That’s what we will see in the field tomorrow when we visit the first group of female clients on the Fonkoze ladder out of poverty. I can hardly wait!