Monday 19 February 2018

My hope for Haiti

This month, chef Clodagh McKenna took a life-changing trip to Haiti. As an ambassador with the charity Haven, she discovered a country and a people afflicted by poverty but filled with pride. Photography by Dora Kazmierak

Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in Île-à-Vache
Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in Île-à-Vache

I really didn't know what to expect on the boiling hot day we landed in the capital of Haiti, Port-au-Prince. It normally would take 20 minutes to get from the airport to the hotel, but it took our minivan nearly two hours because of the amount of people and traffic packed into arteries of the city. The poverty is overwhelming. And it's very hard to take it all in.

The roads are chaotic. Six years since the earthquake, you can still see rubble lying about. It is clear that the country was flattened. As our vehicle idled along, people were lining the streets, selling bric-a-brac, or banging on our windows trying to sell us bottled water, or plantain chips. The buses around us were overfilled, the people all squashed inside to be taken up the mountains to their homes, or back down to the city to their workplaces.

What was beautiful about these buses - basically pick-up trucks - were the bright paintings on the sides, with images of Jesus or 'We are Blessed', or 'Thank you, Christ' in thick paint. For a country so stricken with poverty and a terrible natural disaster, the local people have an incredible faith. They are positive and hopeful.

It was earlier this month when I travelled to Haiti with a group of Irish businesspeople. We were on what is called an Enterprise Trip, visiting different local projects and lending what support and mentorship we could give. I have been an ambassador with Haven Charity for four years and this was my first time seeing the country first hand. I could never have been prepared.

Haven was launched in 2008, an NGO aiming to help Haitian people build sustainable livelihoods. Two years later, the earthquake struck, and Haven's work quickly became focused on emergency relief. The catastrophe, which left more than 217,000 people dead and left 2.1 million homeless, has really shaped the work Haven does today. The charity aims to provide water and sanitation, training and housing solutions for Haitian people. Its work involves empowering local women to make better lives, and farmers to support themselves sustainably - projects which lie close to my heart.

The smells of Port-au-Prince are intense because there's no waste management system. All of the rubbish is lined up on the streets and people tread through it looking to find something of use. There is a canal running through Port-au-Prince which I would imagine was once very beautiful. Now it is completely filled with waste. In the evening, you see people sweeping the streets with bamboo and homemade brushes, then they burn the leftover rubbish on the street.

Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in an Ile a Vache, Haiti
Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in an Ile a Vache, Haiti

The temperature the day we arrived was in the mid-40s. It was intensely hot. I was lucky, walking into a Westernised pocket like the hotel we were staying in. The minute we got to our hotel rooms and felt the air conditioning I thought: "Oh, thank God!" But then I felt this terrible guilt. I'm sitting here in this air conditioning, and millions of people just a few miles away are sweltering in the heat.

Port-au-Prince is a lawless and violent city, and as a white person you aren't advised to walk around the street alone. Your chance of being shot is high. But I wanted to see the city, so the bodyguards took me out, hoping to find somewhere safe to get out of the car. Once more, chaos: what should be a 10-minute drive took an hour.

It seems like everybody is selling something in Port-au-Prince. Every inch of the streets is taken up with stalls, people trading anything from toothbrushes to avocados and mangoes to second-hand shoes and clothes. We soon found what I was looking for - a fruit and vegetable market.

The covered wooden market was run by women: they had set up all the stalls and were selling ripe produce from local farmers. These crowds of wonderful, spirited women instantly came towards me showing me their beautiful baskets of fruit. Every woman had a different fruit - one had the best pineapples, another the best avocados, another the best papayas - inviting me to smell and feel the fruit, opening pieces up so I could taste them.

In Haiti, every interaction is slower. You've really got to spend time chatting. Because you are so alien to their natural situation, it takes time to build up a conversation with a person. I'm lucky in that I was able to communicate directly with the women in French. I had the opportunity to speak to them about where the fruits were coming from, the time it took for them to arrive in my hands. They were so excited about the opportunity to sell this produce. I, of course, bought bags and bags and bags of it! I've never tasted anything quite like the mangoes in Haiti. Haiti should be famous for its mangoes in the way Amalfi is for its lemons.

The Christine Farm Project is three hours from Port-au-Prince - again, the journey would be a third of that if the roads were regulated. The next day, as soon as we got out of the city and started driving south to this farm, the chaos simply disappeared and we found ourselves in a rich tropical landscape. There were fields of mango trees, avocado trees, sugar cane. I understood how people fall in love with Haiti.

Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in Île-à-Vache
Clodagh McKenna at an orphanage in Île-à-Vache
Clodagh McKenna visits the Christine farm project, Haiti
A fisherman on Île-à-Vache repairs the nets which provide his livelihood and food source

We passed an enormous avocado farm, stretching on and on, with a young boy at the entrance at a wooden table selling fresh fruit. I called at the driver to stop the car and ran over quickly. I peeled the mango back like a banana and ate it - it was thirst-quenchingly juicy and so sweet, with a deep flavour. The most incredible mango I've had in my life!

As we drew near the farm, one of the group asked the driver what his favourite thing about Haiti is. "The rain," he said. I thought I had misheard him. "The rain," he repeated - "because the rain is our future. It gives us our fruits and plants for our farms, so that we can eat and look after our families." What he said was very apt, just as we were arriving at the Christine Farm.

In this place you really see hope for Haiti. The project was set up six years ago by Soul of Haiti, another Irish charity which has now joined forces with Haven. It is a model farm. Its aim is to create a centre of excellence for farming practices here. It has a commercial farm, research facility, training centre and seed bank. They teach how to do planting, crop rotation, irrigation and feeding. Students can also put their names down for funding to set up their own farm.

I was so excited by what I saw that I set up a fundraising page and raised €5,000 to enable three families to set up their own chicken farms. This will fund 360 chickens, three chicken coops and enough chicken feed for six weeks.

At the moment, Haiti imports more than a million eggs a day. This is madness, when producing eggs from their own chickens is something they could do for themselves. The more Haitian families that are able to sustain themselves and find their own source of income, the more Haiti can pull itself out of the past. They are good people, they want that.

That evening we travelled to Île-à-Vache, an island off the south-west coast of Haiti which was hit by flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We were picked up by local men on motorbikes to take us through the island because there are no proper roads. About 12,000 people live on the island, but there is no electricity or running water there either. It's like going back to the very beginning. Cholera is rife in Haiti - this year alone there have been 17,000 cases of the disease so far - and access to clean water and sanitation is a priority for charities working here.

I was keen to see Haven's boat-building project, which is part of its Income Generation Programme. This has supported fishermen by rebuilding boats that were damaged in floods, but also making boats from scratch. They've funded nearly 65 big fishing boats in this small island and repaired 51 more, benefiting some 350 fishermen.

The programme supplies all the tools and materials to build wooden boats that look a lot like Irish currachs. The new boats they have built, in tandem with the fishermen, are bigger and safer than the traditional model, allowing fishermen to go further from the shore and find bigger catch.

I sat with the fishermen on the waterfront and one man showed me how to mend the nets. He, and soon others, started telling me how this project had turned their lives around. They sell their fish mainly to Port-au-Prince, and keep enough to bring to their families. The fact that they have their own source of income, are able to look after their families, is very empowering. They were a happy community, and very proud.

Because it's the Caribbean, the fish are very oily. Luckily I was able to taste some beautiful red snapper from the grill.

The next day we put our bags on our backs and trekked across the island to see Haven's housing project. The charity gives $600 (€537) towards supplying what a family needs for their home. The family themselves then lead all the building work. Many of the houses I saw needed a roof, or plastering, or a couple of walls. When I arrived there was a guy attaching a roof on to his home - one given from Haven. The charity has upgraded over 2,000 houses throughout the country. And Haven's volunteers have helped build homes and shelters for over 21,500 people.

As we approached, people were coming straight up to say hello. The children wanted to touch my white skin. There was a very different atmosphere here to Port-au-Prince - the small community has been transformed and you can feel the hope. The houses, of course, are basic. Two rooms, no electricity, for families of four or five children, with wooden huts attached where people can cook on charcoal. However, the people are house-proud - putting up palm trees as hedging and painting the houses in beautiful, bright Caribbean colours.

Some of the houses have solar panels for light, and they have systems installed to collect rainwater from the roof. I saw one woman my age sitting at the side of her little two-bedroomed house, hand-washing her clothes. She told me how grateful she was to have a home.

From there, John Moore, Haven's country director in Haiti, took me to the orphanage on Île-à-Vache. I am in awe of people like John - living in an underdeveloped country like Haiti is a massive commitment, it involves giving up so much of the life you knew.

There are 80 children in this orphanage, and many of them were waiting for our visit with big smiles on their faces. They all knew John's name, and he knew all their names and all their stories. He had a little treat for everyone.

They're forgotten children from families who can't afford to look after them, or abusive situations, or who have been left parentless. Half of those we saw were critically ill. When we arrived, many were just sitting around, outside, or on the floor inside. They had nothing to play with, they had no playroom.

This was the most emotional experience for me. To see children, without a family to care for them, in such need - it's taking a while to process. I've been told that this was an OK orphanage; there are much worse ones. Yet what I saw was quite horrific.

It was very difficult to leave, and to say goodbye to all the hopeful little faces. I know that Soul of Haiti/Haven have supplied much-needed materials to the orphanage, and built a pharmacy. But there is so much more to do and I won't stop until that orphanage improves. I will make sure that the welfare of those children are looked after.

The next day I went to visit Cherprof in Port-au-Prince. The centre takes women off the streets and gives them skills and education that will enable them to work, and sets up work placements. It's run by 84-year-old Marie Carmel Lafontant.

In Haiti, where tired gender stereotypes prevail, the women have a lot less chance than the men. It's like the Ireland of 40 years ago. Amid this kind of poverty and neglect, child trafficking and prostitution is a serious concern. UNICEF estimates that approximately 300,000 Haitian children are restavèk (child slaves) and that 3,000 children are trafficked out of Haiti each year.

Marie Carmel opened up her home to create Cherprof 40 years ago. It was lovely to see a place that was run by a Haitian person, developing skills for women.

Cherprof had a learning centre on the second and third floors which was destroyed in the earthquake. Haven rebuilt the floors, and Digicel has sponsored new computers. Their kitchen is a very basic facility, so I'm looking to partner with a kitchen appliance company to improve the conditions for this fabulous centre.

I gave a talk to the girls and women there, and afterwards chatted about the prospect of going on to work in hotels or restaurants. Many told me: "We want to get out of Haiti and come to your country." But my talk was all about how they can make a difference in their own country.

This was how an intense four days came to an end. What most shocked me the most was the immense poverty I saw. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere - a quarter of its population live in what we would consider extreme poverty, existing on $1.25 per day.

A feeling of loss and neglect is apparent in the capital. You see kids rummaging through the waste, and naked toddlers walking around on their own. At the beginning it was haunting. It takes a few days to register the scale of the poverty. When I was doing my final video diary for, I started to cry, and I found it hard to stop. But Marie Carmel said to me: "You must be brave, stop the crying, you have an important job to do."

The locals couldn't stop thanking me for making people think about Haiti again. I got the sense that after the earthquake happened there was so much publicity and lots of charities working there. Now, so many of them have left and gone to different countries but Haven is stronger than ever.

Now I have to think of what can be done. I've learnt to take the experience I've had and, as Marie Carmel said, be brave about it. And I'm going to channel it positively. There is not an hour that passes that I don't think about Haiti. It's constantly on my mind. Being an ambassador for Haven has made me want to be a better person.

n Clodagh was in conversation with Maggie Armstrong

Irish Independent

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