Ronan O'Gara: 'Haiti made me realise just how lucky I am'
Former rugby great Ronan O'Gara on a life-changing trip to Haiti last month where he witnessed the grinding poverty brought on by the 2010 earthquake and the unquenchable sense of hope of its people
Irish aid charity Haven has been working to relieve the devastation caused by the massive earthquake that hit Haiti five years ago. A long-time supporter of the charity, former Ireland and Munster rugby legend Ronan O'Gara got to see for himself the work being done on the ground to restore dignity to an embattled people.
When I landed at Haiti's capital, Port-Au-Prince, the airport was manic and the evening heat stifling. I was met by a member of the Haven team and as we drove out of the airport what struck me most was the deplorable conditions people are enduring there. Thousands of people living in what can only be described as stacked shanty houses mostly made from galvanized metal, with others just living under plastic sheeting. It looked unbearable. If I am honest, I expected poverty, but hadn't envisaged it to be on this scale. It certainly gave me an insight into the immense task Haven and Haiti are facing and what lay ahead on this, my first trip to the country.
The next morning we hit the road at 6am and headed straight to Île-à-Vache, a small island off the south-west coast. Here I was going to learn more about Haven's Income Generation Programmes. Our first stop was the Boat Building scheme where four boats had just been built by hand by the men involved in this particular programme. I had the honour of officially handing over the boats to their owners. Up until now, many of them have been fishing in simple hollowed out canoes. It was astonishing to see people canoeing in these tree trunks. The men I spoke to were really enthusiastic about the programme as it gives them an opportunity to earn a sustainable living.
It was wonderful to witness the whole community down at the beach working together to push the boats down the sand and into the sea. Since fishing is the primary economic activity on this island these new skills will allow the men involved to build and maintain their own boats. Haven has completed 70 boats to date in Île-à-Vache under this programme.
Once the boats were successfully launched, it was a short boat journey to our next stop on Île-à-Vache, Madam Bernard's. This community has been the home of the Haven Volunteer Programme for the last three years and the work the volunteers have put into the area was clear to see. The centre piece is a concrete roadway from the local market up the very steep hill to the orphanage and local school with solar lights illuminating the path.
The school, where the sewing and tailoring classes were in full progress, was our destination. The women and men here, more than 130 of them, showed me the clothes they had been learning to sew and I was thrilled with the opportunity to model a shirt or two! These men and women spoke of how they now had an opportunity to gain sound, practical skills which they can use to provide for their families. I was very impressed by the level of dedication and the attention to detail shown by these resourceful people as they carefully ran their garments through the sewing machines provided by Haven.
After the sewing programme we went to meet some of the families whose homes had been upgraded as part of Haven's Home Upgrade Programme. A year ago, a Haven survey found that some 2,000 of the 2,500 houses on the island were uninhabitable. To date , more than 1,500 have been upgraded with the rest scheduled to be finished by October of this year. I am told these upgrades are made possible by funds from Irish businesses and Haven's €500 from 500 Campaign. The campaign links each of the homes upgraded to the donation of €500 made by each of the 500 companies. The differences in the homes before and after are remarkable. Haven upgrades and repairs the roofs, doors, walls and also paints the exterior, making the houses secure and liveable once again. The sense of pride the home-owners had in their upgraded dwellings was inspiring. They threw open their doors and welcomed us in with open arms giving me the grand tour.
After Île-à-Vache we travelled to Gonaives, north-west of Port-Au-Prince, where Haven worked in partnership with local people to build a small community of 225 homes for families who had lost everything in the devastating floods of 2011. Here Haven also runs a very successful Income Generation and Livelihoods Programme, the Sewing Women of Gonaives, in partnership with Irish Aid. I met with these wonderful women who have completed the sewing course and are now selling their garments to tourists at the local markets. Before their training these women were living off a mere $1.50 a day, now some are earning up to $30 a day. This is an incredible achievement and a remarkable turnaround in their fortunes. The lives of their entire families have changed thanks to their newly acquired skills.
As my time in Haiti began to draw to a close, I was delighted we were able to find the time to make it up the mountains to Gros Morne. Here we met with two volunteers from the UCD Volunteers Organisation who were working in the community with two inspirational nuns from the US - Sister Pat and Sister Jackie. The kids gave a warm Haitian welcome, singing songs and dancing, and it was here I witnessed just how important education is for the children. While they are living in unthinkable conditions their school uniforms were in impeccable condition, the girl's hair neatly braided, the boys in their school shorts with shirts neatly tucked in. You wouldn't see it in some schools back home in Cork! They took great pride in attending school and obviously their parents feel the same.
While in Gros Morne I got a chance to visit Alma Mater Hospital where they are building a new facility to accommodate patient numbers which have grown quite substantially as a result of people relocating after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Sr Jackie and Sr Pat have dedicated their time, energy and resources to building and maintaining this much-needed hospital but they are working against the backdrop of never-ending challenges in Haiti.
Though I was there for only a short time, the experiences I had in Haiti had a tremendous impact on me. I witnessed deep sadness at the realities of extreme poverty hand-in-hand with the wonderful zest for life that the people of Haiti have. I saw first-hand the fantastic work that Haven is doing on the ground through their Income Generation Programmes. They are working in partnership to give people a second chance at life by providing them with adaptable skills and it is inspiring to see how motivated the locals are to improve the quality of life for not only themselves, but their whole family. As a father-of-five young children, it was the children of Haiti that struck me the most. I could not begin to imagine raising my own children in such poverty, with only a rusty metal shed to call home and no prospects or income to provide for their future.
The families I met gave me a new appreciation and perspective on life. Some have no access to basic running water or sanitation facilities, things we all take for granted. I cannot begin to put into words the conditions some Haitians are facing every day. Thankfully Haven is giving hope to the people they work with, offering them a chance to lift themselves out of the depths of poverty and I can personally say a donation to Haven, however small, will make a big difference.
Haven is recruiting volunteers for their April 2016 Volunteer Programme to Haiti. Visit the Haven website for further information. Haven is an Irish NGO working solely in Haiti to help build sustainable communities. To find out more about Haven's work in Haiti, or to donate, visit www.havenpartnership.com.