Last week I had the privilege of visiting communities in Haiti where I saw firsthand the work being done there to construct wells, two of which are being funded by the Passports With Purpose travel blogging fundraiser.
This is the second of my posts about this trip; read about the first community meeting I attended in Belanjé and the process being used to establish wells in these communities here. Many thanks are due to Expedia for covering most of the costs of this trip and to Water.org and Haiti Outreach for organizing and hosting it.
Arriving in Niva
Our large caravan off officials and aid workers leaves Belanjé and after a quick stop for some fluids in downtown Mirebalais, drives about ten minutes to Niva. Realizing that it would be rude to drink in front of the Haitians who have no beverages of their own, I guilty slurp the last of my cold can of Coke, which after the hours-long meeting in the heat at Belanjé tastes like ambrosia.
As we have been all day, we are late for this meeting, but that doesn’t prevent the committee from encircling our van when we pull up. After a round of handshakes and friendly “bon soirs” we all congregate under a tarp where benches and chairs have been arranged around a small table covered with a yellow cloth and decorated with a vase of plastic flowers. We pray and sing a song about God’s goodness that all the Haitians seem to know. As there have been at each stop today, there are introductions, a few political speeches, and then it is time for the well committee to take over. Unlike Belanjé, this is the permanent, elected committee, not the provisional committee that has made the initial request for a well.
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We first meet Emmanuel, the president of the committee and an obvious elder in the community who tells us with great dignity that he was born in the very place where we have all congregated. But it is Melissa, the younger secretary of the committee, who seems to be in charge of this meeting (I’m operating on instinct and not information, but I have a feeling she is also responsible for the careful floral arrangement that decorates the table). Her manicured nails are each painted a different color and her manner is both fierce and humorous as she informs us that of the 61 houses in Niva, 30 have latrines and that the committee wants to encourage everyone – everyone! – to dig a hole for their poop.
Our already large entourage has been joined in Niva by Cèsar who works for DINEPA, Haiti’s governmental agency for water and sanitation. Because I speak some French, with careful attention I’ve been able to understand some of the Creole being spoken around me. But his thick accent and the speed with which he talks render him utterly incomprehensible to my ears. Yet his body language leaves little room for doubt – perpetually hunched shoulders, raised eyebrows and waving arms indicate absolute urgency. After the committee gives its sanitation report he leaps to his feet and urges those present to think about latrines, about how they are spreading disease and causing problems for themselves by not using proper sanitation.
Rogé Michel, the lead community aid worker from Haiti Outreach is more urgent here than he was in Belanjé as well – after all this is Niva’s second community meeting, and he wants to make sure that people understand the implications of poor sanitation. When he starts asking questions as he did at the meeting in Belanjé, the answers are incorrect – the first response is that the committee has said there are 60 houses and 60 latrines. With much use again of the word “caca” he launches into an explanation that piles of human excrement lead to flies, dust, disease that is tracked about everywhere. I lean over and ask our translator Ben if people here really don’t understand yet the problems caused by not having latrines. “Oh, no, they don’t know,” he says. “That is why Cèsar and Rogé are telling them and will keep telling them.”
A conversation begins. “Why can’t the committee help us dig latrines? Why can’t they give us money to build them?” asks a man with white hair. Melissa steps up and waves her manicured hands. Absolutely not! she says. You must help us get clean water, not the other way around.
Rogé decides this is a moment for illustration. He asks a young woman with a yellow knit cap who is sitting in the front row to stand up and lift the bench that is next to her. She does so, and is only able to lift one side. Then Rogé steps in, grabs the other side and together they smoothly lift the bench.
“What can you do to help us do this?” he says to the audience.
Next steps toward a well
Although there are still people who don’t seem to fully understand the finer points of sanitation, the meeting moves on. Because Niva is farther a long in the process of building a well than Belanjé, the community will actually be discussing costs, rules, and well hours. To raise money for well maintenance, Haiti Outreach requires that the people who use it pay an initial subscription fee as well as a monthly usage fee. Anyone who does not subscribe has to pay for water by the bucket and also has a more limited time to access the well. Thirty nine of the sixty one houses in Niva have paid for a subscription thus far.
It’s obvious that the notion of paying routinely to use the well is a bit of a tough sell, and so Rogé launches into a long list of all the costs associated with maintaining the well and making sure that it works properly, explaining that the initial subscription fee for each household does not come near to covering these costs.
Another important point that the committee and community must decide is what the well’s hours will be and who will be its guard. The well house and pump will be locked most of the time to prevent theft. The guard is paid according to the number of subscribers or the number of by-the-bucket refills and therefore (it is clearly hoped) has no motivation to give water away for free.
By the end of this meeting, it has been decided that the head teacher in the community’s school will serve as the well’s guard, daily hours have been established for well usage, and the monthly fee of 35 gourdes (there are 40 gourdes in a U.S. dollar) has been set. It has been made clear that if more people in the community subscribe to the well, the monthly fee will go down, and it has also been stated explicitly that the people in attendance need to make sure that as many people as possible dig latrines in their homes.
It is a lovely evening; the punishing heat of midday has given way to a more gentle warmth that is punctuated with a soft breeze. Golden light illuminates the landscape, rendering everything molten, beautiful. Nicole from Water.org tells me that school had to be ended early that day because there wasn’t enough water to give the children but that we are going to get to see the classroom. I look at the surrounding buildings and wonder which one is the school. It becomes clear a few minutes later when we are led not inside one of the structures, but into a tent that’s set up behind one of them.
We wander the area around the meeting space. We can see evidence here that people have some food: Bunches of bananas hang on one of the trees, a pig roots about in the undergrowth, and turkeys and chickens roam, pecking for insects and grubs. Nicole and I speculate as to whether a lean-to made of broad boards is a barn or someone’s house; later I will learn that it is neither, but houses a still where sugarcane liquor is produced. Our driver will bring a bottle of it to the table when we are finished with our dinner and Laura, Nicole, and I will each sample a small cup, the clean, sharp flavor burning our tongues.
There are homes, one with weathered sides and a cheerful yellow door, and I know that pictures of it will be gorgeous and artistic. But all I can think as I look at it is about the many cracks in walls and roof, its precarious perch on the side of a hill, the fact that all cooking has to happen out in front over a charcoal fire. (The next day I will ask Natasha, the Haitian woman working for Water.org, if mud slides are a problem during the rainy season and she will look at me as I were a fool and reply “Of course they are!”).
We head down the hill through trash-strewn fields. A small boy comes walking toward us balancing a large bucket on his head. He waits patiently while Kevin prepares to film him and then continues on his way, I’m sure eager to finish his evening chores.
Descending into a stand of trees, the air becomes cooler and pleasant. With the exception of the palm trees that line its banks, this creek looks almost exactly like the one in my suburban neighborhood in Delaware, the one where I send my children to play only to have them return thoroughly sandy, wet, and happy. In fact, when I go home Tommy will look at the pictures and say the same thing, before declaring “I wouldn’t want to have to drink that water though!” But the people of Niva do drink this water; they also wash their clothes and bathe in it.
Children splash next to the piling of an old bridge and are lathered by their mother. Another group of women works to gather water in various containers.
Melissa appears from behind us. I have mentally nicknamed her Miss Fabulous for her wide smile, sassy laugh, and passionate declarations to the community that they must subscribe to have a well and am therefore only this much surprised when she whips off her shirt and, wearing only her skirt and bra, does a little shimmy before strolling into the water, headed downstream away from the crowd of us gathered on the shore.
I feel suddenly as if I’m in someone’s bathroom while they are washing up and turn away from this peaceful place. In the lovely twilight, it would be easy to romanticize, but it occurs to me that despite the hard work of discussion and decision, no one at the meeting we attended had anything to eat or drink during the hours that we sat there. I think of how at a meeting like this in the United States, everyone would have their own personal water or soda bottle and that someone would surely have brought snacks to share. I think of how we have already made these hard decisions about collective good and hygiene. I think of how I can offer my children snacks and clean water every time they walk through the door.
And then I think of the contrast between this community and that in Belanjé – how far they have come, how much closer they are to having purified water and a process in place to care for it. And I understand all the more clearly just what Haiti Outreach and Water.org are trying to help people here do and why so much time must be spent in discussion at every stage of the process. On my way back up to the van, I pass an abandoned well house that was built for this community in the past by an NGO, presumably without the kind of work that we saw being done this afternoon. It sits locked and useless because someone stole the pump.
Although I’ve only been here for a day, so much has become clearer to me. I think of Rogé and Melissa and the lifted bench and how they only have two-thirds of the community subscribing to the well and how I had expected to come here and simply see people using the wells we had helped to fund. I’m utterly humbled and inspired by how hard these people are working to come together and change their circumstances – and I can also see why it is necessary to have faith and patience in the process.
In the next installment of the story, we visit the community of Jenbal for the inauguration of their well.