Tuesday 21 October 2014

Kim Bielenberg: Warmth of the people at odds with impoverished squalor of Haiti slums

Published 26/11/2012 | 12:54

Haven Volunteer Dermot Heffernan with some new friends
Slums in Haiti

IT WAS a gentle and warm welcome to Port-au-Prince that seemed to run counter to the Haitian capital's dangerous and poverty-stricken reputation.

As we walked into the terminal building at the airport, a steel band played a calypso tune, with each member neatly decked out in a yellow Western Union T-shirt.



I was travelling with 67 Irish volunteers to Haiti, where they are building 100 houses for Haven in collaboration with Jimmy Carter's charity Habitat for Humanity.



I arrived with a certain trepidation at the airport, having read reports of regular kidnappings and robberies in the immediate area.



At first, as we got on a coach to set off for our camp, the mood was relaxed among the chattering and joking group of Irish volunteers.



But quickly, as the coach pulled out of the airport, the guffawing turned to awestruck silence.



No matter how many news reports you see and hear, the poverty seems beyond comprehension. Millions live cheek-by-jowl 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.





Admittedly, we must have made a spectacle: 11 identical yellow coach buses travelling in armed convoy with outriders through a shanty town.



President Jimmy Carter arrived on the same day to take part in the building project with 22 guards.



Because of security fears and the presence of President Carter, the tented compound where we are staying is surrounded by a ring of steel and volunteers are not allowed to leave without an armed guard.



Critics wonder why visitors from Europe and America are building houses when the work could be done by Haitians themselves.



It is a fair question, but it should be noted that charities such as Haven and Habitat employ hundreds of Haitian workers on their building and sanitation projects.



Haven is also planning to open a training academy to upskill the local workforce, and improve building standards.



On the first morning on the stroke of six, there was a slight Butlins touch in the camp when the volunteers were woken by a loud blast of The Beatles song, Good Morning, over the PA. It was time to go work.



* Haven is seeking donations. For more information: havenpartnership.com

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