Friday 26 December 2014

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."

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.

Indo Review

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