The Irish who are building hope in Haiti
It is not everybody's idea of the perfect winter sunshine getaway. What could possibly motivate any sane person to fly across the world to build houses in one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world?
Last weekend, I went to Haiti with 100 Irish volunteers to live in the camp of former US President Carter in Christianville, south of the capital Port-au-Prince.
I was with the Irish charity Haven, which built 100 houses over seven days this week in collaboration with Jimmy Carter's vast voluntary organisation, Habitat for Humanity.
I watched Irish people from every walk of life – from high-powered lawyers to soldiers, gardai, architects, accountants to tradesmen – as they sweated in 35 degree heat, hammering in nails and carrying planks. Some had never set foot on a building site before.
We lived cheek-by-jowl in tents, and sat in on Jimmy Carter's Baptist Sunday School. By the end it was not unusual for the 88-year-old former American president to stroll by us with his wife Rosalynn and bid us 'good day' with his Georgian drawl.
In one of the most dangerous countries in the world, we stayed in a heavily fortified camp surrounded by a ring of steel, and we were transported in armed convoy to a vast building site half an hour away.
Nobody could leave the camp without an armed guard amid fears that they might be shot or kidnapped by one of the gangs that roam the streets of Port-au-Prince.
The threat is real. In the past few days we heard unconfirmed rumours that an expatriate businessman had been shot in a robbery, but survived, while his security guard was killed.
The head of a local kidnap gang was recently unmasked as a wealthy member of Haiti's business elite.
The danger and discomfort of the trip do not stop intrepid Irish volunteers coming back year after year, and most of the Irish sometime-builders I met said they would be delighted to return.
Ciamh McCrory, a Laois woman who works for a courier company, was excited to be there along with her dad, bank manager, Mark. Last year, six members of her family came over to Haiti to build.
She was delighted to see an apparently thriving community in the houses that she helped to put up last year. A local man, Andre, came to see her wearing a Donegal shirt presented to him by the Irish party 12 months ago.
Through a wire fence, Ciamh played a singing game, "heads, shoulders, knees and toes", with kids she met a year ago: Madeline, Porfat and Elvents. They have been housed thanks to Haven's work.
"It is absolutely devastating to see how people live in poverty here," said Ciamh. "But when you see a smile and a glimmer of hope on a Haitian's face, it is worth every drop of sweat."
This was the last Build-It-Week, organised by Haven, the charity set up by Leslie Buckley, chairman of Independent News and Media, and his wife Carmel. In future it will concentrate on training and employing Haitians on its construction and sanitation projects.
There was a slight Butlin's feel to the whole experience at Jimmy Carter's camp. At 5.45am each day we were awakened by the loud blast of a song on the PA system: on the first day it was Good Morning by The Beatles.
On Tuesday there was a talent show in the evening.
Jimmy Carter was not the only VIP in camp, as I discovered to my surprise on Monday in the supper tent.
I was served my dinner by a friendly round-faced gentleman. When I asked him to "throw on a few more spuds", I was taken aside and quietly informed that this humble server was none other than the country music legend Garth Brooks.
The presence of the affable country megastar helped to lighten the mood after one of the most shocking journeys many of us would have ever experienced in our lives on the coach trip from the airport in Port-au-Prince to the camp.
In the suburb of Carrefour, up to one million people live in medieval squalor.
Some of the better homes were shacks with corrugated roofs that would not keep the rain out. Families live in ramshackle tents and huts, surrounded by muck, and open rubbish-strewn drains run through the streets.
Goats, hens and pigs wander across heaps of trash, and a teeming mass of people gawp from the side of the street. These scenes go on for mile after mile.
Bernadette Costello, a teacher and Haven volunteer from Tralee, was surely correct in saying after this trip through an impoverished hell: "You become aware that we in Ireland are among the privileged few."
Although progress in Haiti is painfully slow, some volunteers noticed that conditions had improved somewhat since last year.
On a whistlestop tour of Port-au-Prince on a day when there had been riots, Haven's country director John Moore took us to a derelict football stadium that the Irish charity is restoring. Haven is also supporting the development of housing that can withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.
We also stepped into the Marche de Fer, a popular old covered market area selling a hotch-potch of bric-a-brac – everything from turtles and leeches to wooden shrines to Justin Bieber merchandise. Half a dozen stallholders offered to be our guide.
The market was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake, but then rebuilt with funding from Denis O'Brien, whose red Digicel logo can be seen everywhere in Port-au-Prince.
Mike Hogan, the former Dublin publisher and radio baron, is hoping to promote rock concerts in a stadium in the city.
"We want to do what Jim Aiken (the concert promoter) did for Belfast during the Troubles," he explained.
High up on the hills I came across the odd elegant home with a wide verandah that would not look out of place in The Comedians, Graham Greene's novel about ex-pat life in the era of the murderous dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, who changed the Lord's Prayer in order to feature himself in it.
Amid the squalor of the Haiti capital, it is easy to forget that Port-au-Prince was once the richest colony in the world, known as the "Pearl of the Antilles". Vast fortunes were made here from sugar and coffee on the backs of a half a million slaves who were imported from Africa.
Now it is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but there are small glimmers of hope for the future. The beneficiaries of Haven at least have a roof over their heads and that is a vital start.
If you would like to make a donation towards Haven's work in Haiti, log on to www.havenpartnership.com