Children in Belanjé Haiti

Haiti Part One: More than wells

Highway 3 is in better shape than I had hoped after reading Tracy Kidder’s frightening descriptions of driving up it in Mountains Beyond Mountains. It’s the first thing that I’ve seen in Haiti that this is true of.  Driving out of the sprawling mass of humanity, rubble, garbage, broken cement, and billboards that is Port au Prince I’m grateful for the breeze entering through the van’s window, which disperses the hot, heavy air and offers a sudden sense of space and possibility as we pick up speed.

The city ends abruptly. It seems like one minute we are passing ramshackle rows of cinderblock buildings, women balancing baskets of dried plantains on their heads, and dogs sniffing at dirty puddles, and the next we are in the middle of a plain, headed toward mountains, with dump trucks lumbering up their sides toward Haiti’s Central Plateau. Arid, flat space stretches on either side of us, broken in the distance by a stand of roofless buildings painted bright tropical colors, yellow, pink, lime green.

“Those are meant to be homes for people displaced by the earthquake,” says Natasha, a Haitian woman who works for the charity Water.org. “They are being constructed by the government and were supposed to be finished last spring.” Although front loaders and bulldozers surround the buildings, there is no obvious movement. They look like children’s toys, abandoned in the middle of an otherwise lifeless landscape. I mention that these buildings seem like they are far from the city – and pretty much anything else. Natasha shrugs – who knows why they built them here? It is clear from her body language that she thinks little of her government’s efforts.

I am riding with Natasha and two of her American colleagues from Water.org Nicole and Laura as well as my fellow blogger and Passports With Purpose co-founder Beth Whitman. In addition to our driver, we are also accompanied by “the two Kevins” as we’ve already come to call the cameraman and director (both so named) who will be making a video about the inauguration of a well in water-poor Mirebalais about 65 kilometers from Port au Prince and the site of the two wells that the Passports With Purpose raised funds to build at the end of 2012. Our trip has been largely paid for by Passports With Purpose sponsor Expedia.

I’ve been in Haiti less than 24 hours and its contrasts have already confounded me. Women pick their way carefully through rubble and mud on the streets of Port au Prince wearing polished high-heeled shoes. Broken cement is piled everywhere but the lobby of our hotel was decorated with row after row of what I’ve come to think of as “Voodoo bottles” – artfully sequined containers meant to hold spirits or spells. And although we have been greeted most places with smiles, my phone was snatched from my hands in the street the previous afternoon as I went to take a photograph.

I am rattled, expectant, having difficulty imagining what comes next. I want to see one of the wells, to know that it is making a difference.

First things first

But our schedule for the day does not include the viewing of any wells. Instead, in a carefully drawn up agenda, it lists meetings – first at the Hotel Wozo Plaza where we will be staying in Mirabelais, then at a community named Belanjé, and finally at another community named Niva. There are words like “review of by-laws” in the agenda and it is obvious that we are operating on Haitian time, since we haven’t yet made it to the first meeting yet and are already several hours late. I look at the mountains and palm trees out the window, marvel at how open this part of the country is after the crowded chaos of the capital city.

The hotel is surrounded by a wall and guarded by men with guns. Low white bungalows have charming porches and are draped in hot pink flowers. We convene for breakfast next to an empty swimming pool. Peacocks roam the paths, adding their cries to the hot air.

After we have checked into our rooms and eaten breakfast we are introduced to a large group of people, including the mayor of Mirabelais, various other officials, and a large number of young men with backpacks and cell phones. These are the “animators.” This is the Haitian word for the aid workers who help the various communities as they seek to build and establish wells. This name for them seems doubly appropriate given the tendency here to say that “water is life.” A smiling young man named Ben who has trained as an animator will serve as our translator.

Ben was our translator in Haiti.

Please click on pictures for full-size versions

Leading the proceedings is Rogé Michel, a tall community development officer for Haiti Outreach, the local organization that Water.org partners with in Haiti. I will learn that Rogé is many things: orator, preacher, comedian, and activist, to say nothing of mentor to this generation of animators. A bottle of hand sanitizer is always clipped to his belt with a carabiner. He launches into a passionate description of the process Haiti Outreach uses to choose which communities will receive wells, a process, he repeatedly reminds us, that is driven by four key words: Transparency, responsibility, authority, and accountability. These four words are clearly Rogé’s personal mantra.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that there would have to be a selection process for the wells, but of course there is – Passports With Purpose raised enough to build two wells and Water.org is supporting the construction or rehabilitation of additional wells in 90 communities, but there are hundreds of communities in this area and the rest of the Central Plateau that need access to clean water. While peacocks squawk in the background, Rogé carefully details the first steps in what is a three-month process for a community to be eligible to receive a well. They must form a committee and write a letter of request. The letter doesn’t need to be written “on fancy paper with beautiful ink” as he puts it but must come from a variety of diverse people in the community (as opposed to one person or family). Then the officials from the various communities must meet with Haiti Outreach staff and review all the letters. Once communities have been selected, each must form a provisional committee of both men and women that is responsible for conducting a census and a sanitation survey to see how many households have latrines. An initial meeting is convened with Haiti Outreach to discuss these findings and for the organization to determine if the community is a good candidate for a well. We will be attending one of these meetings today in Belanjé.

“These communities will do whatever it takes to complete the technical aspects of the well,” Rogé says in his deliberate Creole. “The difficulty is getting the community to understand that this is just a start.”

Rogé Michel in front of the church in Belanjé, Haiti

Looking at Rogé’s serious face I realize how little I know about the work that is happening in Haiti, and I’m ashamed of my own impatience to see a well. I’m like the villagers that Rogé describes, focusing solely on the technical aspects of the water: We provide money, a well is built, the water problem is solved. The reality is that Water.org and Haiti Outreach are working not just to build wells but to change the communities the wells are built for so that they can start to elevate themselves above subsistence living. Over the next several days I will be repeatedly humbled by both the enormity of the task and the optimism and energy with which Rogé and his coworkers are undertaking it.

Belanjé: Seeking a well

We finally leave for Belanjé, our bus even more crowded now that Rogé and a number of his colleagues have joined us; others speed alongside two to a motorbike. After about ten minutes we pull up to a small stone building that turns out to be a church. About 30 people sit expectantly on narrow benches under a corrugated tin roof – with no phone to tell time on I’m not sure how long they’ve waited, but I believe we are several hours late. There are more introductions and a speech by the mayor that closely replicates the one he gave us back at the hotel expressing his gratitude to Haiti Outreach and reminding all present that he has been working with them closely.

We are presented with the committee’s simple report: The community of 254 people has 54 households, 21 of which do not have latrines. They seem to have little information beyond this.

I’m surprised when Rogé stands up and starts calling on people in the audience like a teacher of recalcitrant students. What have they learned? How many of their neighbors have latrines? Who washes their hands? Who uses soap? When one young woman starts to answer in a whisper, he interrupts her and imitates her low voice, cupping his hands to his ear as if in an exaggerated attempt to hear what she is saying. He seems dissatisfied with the answers he receives and starts talking about “caca” (Ben embarrassedly translate this as “poop”) and points out that in households with five people and no latrine there may be as many as ten piles of human excrement created each day. “Ten piles of poop on the ground!” he says. He talks about the need to wear shoes to the well house, to use clean buckets. He waves his arms, raises his eyebrows, now making the crowd laugh, now wagging his finger at them accusingly.

It turns out that this is as much part of the process as the geological survey and construction of the well house. Rogé asks questions and seeks answers to make sure that one person is not answering for the entire community, that the community as a whole has a vested interest in the construction of a well.

Children in Belanjé, Haiti

As Rogé continues his animated questions and jokes, I feel the need to seek a bit of air outside, although when I emerge I realize just how close we are to the equator and how little shade there is anywhere. A group of children surrounds me and I also remember that I have stickers in my bag for them. They crowd around, the older ones making sure that the little ones get their fair share.

Natasha talking to Jesila about carrying water in Belanjé

Natasha and I talk to one of the girls who, just as my children would have done, has plastered the stickers I handed out all over her face. Her name is Jesila and she is 14 years old. I tell Natasha to ask her if she is responsible for getting water for her family. She indicates that she, and her brother who is standing next to her must get water from a spring every day. How far is it for her to walk? Natasha asks. Two hours round trip is the reply. Ask her if she ever misses school we tell Natasha, and the response is dismaying: She is late for school, unless she leaves at four in the morning on her errand. It goes without saying that the water she brings home so painstakingly is not clean and will not even be boiled before it is consumed.

I go back inside where the meeting is wrapping up. Hours have certainly passed since our arrival, and the people sit patiently as Rogé expresses doubt about their readiness for a well. He tells them that they need to get the members of their community who have no latrines to come to the next meeting, that they must work on their neighbors to get them to dig latrines. No one looks surprised or dismayed by this.

One of the provisional committee members comes up to me and Nicole, smiling. She is wearing a black and white shirt and a white headscarf glows against her dark skin. She begins to speak and Ben translates, “I am so glad you have come and I will be praying for blessings for your safe journey from here to back to your home. I will be praying for you, for blessings to you and your family.” Her lined face is so open and kind, her posture so dignified, her smile so generous, that I almost begin to weep. She looks to be at least 60 if she is a day and she has been sitting in that hot room for hours with no drink or food, just the hope that her community will finally have access to clean water.

I feel like I have been turned inside out by this place, by the beauty of people who want such a simple and practical thing and must learn such basic skills and information to get it. My phone was taken from me, yes, but if I could at this moment I would hand out phones and food and water to everyone I see. I would invite them to stand on my lawn while I threw my belongings out the window for them to catch. Although, of course, that isn’t what Rogé wants. He doesn’t want to hand this community anything they aren’t prepared to own and care for. He wants to provide them not only with the gift of a well but also with the skills they need to maintain that well so that it will last “pour tous temps” – for all time. What a privilege to be shown just how water and education will be shared with these people so that both things are their own.

In the next installment of the story, I describe Niva, a community further along in the process of getting a well and also share what I saw of how people in these places live, drink, and bathe before the wells are built.

Reader Responses

3 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Amazing, Mara. Can’t wait to read more.

  2. Truly remarkable, Mara. Educational and terribly powerful account of a situation about which I should know more but that astonished me.

  3. This was a great travel experience. I once worked with a group that brought water technology to impoverished countries, but never got to go in and see any part of the process.

Join the Conversation