The 200 rusted steps of the unfinished Bicentennial Monument in Port-au-Prince were meant to commemorate two centuries of independence. Now they offer a bird’s-eye view of a challenge with a sobering timeline. I climbed past the pigeons, clothes lines and tents nestled on its ground floor.
The presidential palace remains as it was in January 2010, spectacularly fractured. The squares are hemmed in by reeking portable toilets and filled with improvised tarpaulin and galvanise structures, set inches apart. Dirt dances past motorcycle taxis and taptaps, covering the city with grey. Cement dusts your lips. The people sell wheelbarrows of sugar cane, battered textbooks, basins of fried plantains balanced on heads, defiantly colourful paintings exhibited on stretches of city wall. The buyers aren’t nearly as visible.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by post-quake Port-au-Prince, but a group from Trinidad & Tobago has drawn resolve from their visits. Formed in March 2010, the HAIT&T Foundation is a collaboration of professionals and organisations that has decided on rebuilding and outfitting the Sisters of Cluny’s La Madeleine Orphanage. HAIT&T director Dr Paula Henry explains that the effort takes aims at multiple targets.
“This has the ability to contribute on many levels. We can address housing, nutrition, education, nurturing and spiritual values. Instead of offering transient help, we can actively nurture productive members of society…that’s something that will have impact through generations,” the upbeat Henry chirps.
How is it possible to be so buoyant about so daunting a task?
“We need to start somewhere. If everybody thought like us, we could really make an impact. During my medical career I’ve often encountered patients who might be dying. I still think: ‘I can do something. I will do something. It will be positive.’ You make an impact on one life and it’s concentric…it goes on,” Henry says.
That idea also fuels Erik Feely and the North Hall Student Development Programme, an outreach project he co-ordinates for the University of the West Indies, St Augustine. Last August, rather than build a house for a deserving family at home, 40 engineering and agriculture students decided on an expedition to the Haitian capital. They camped in tents at night and worked by day. Some students took measurements and readings for rebuilding the orphanage. Others painted buildings under repair.
Others still joined Feely, an art historian, in a novel project. With the help of a Haitian art teacher, students voted for pastels, paints or markers. Then, under the trees, they were invited to the kind of communal activity other Caribbean children probably take for granted: “Let’s do art.”
“A lot of our local art is decorative, frivolous, and meaningless,” says Feely, an “adopted” Trinidadian from Ireland. “The drawings of these children were more sincere. They were deeply expressive and deeply personal.” So while there are the universal sketches of triangle-topped houses and flowers, there are also depictions of camps with cookie-cutter tents, bloody stumps, missing limbs and a woman mopping blood.
Haiti’s children need something more than housing and hot meals. Before the 2010 earthquake primary-school enrolment stood at just 50 per cent. Endemic shortcomings with respect to education are part of the challenge. But as the children’s art illustrates, the trauma of so many tragedies must also be addressed.
The Madeleine effort bears a price tag of US$2 million. So far almost TT$100,000 has been raised through the sale of the children’s work online and in a Port of Spain art exhibition. Setting a three-year deadline, HAIT&T is hopeful that individuals and corporate entities will be inspired to help.
While there are many giving people, there’s an element of the relationship between the donor and the destitute that is skewed by news reports. Having visited the country, both Henry and Feely experienced the dignity and honour of Haitians.
“We asked where we could leave our valuables and were told that they would be perfectly safe in the tents,” Feely remembers. “Not a single thing was touched. The people were extraordinarily polite and very helpful. I felt safer in Port-au-Prince than I do in Port of Spain.”
As for me, while I sauntered through a muddy camp and back to the incongruous Le Plaza on the morning before I left, one thing came as a surprise: in a city that had lost almost everything, I’d only seen a couple of beggars.
For more information on the HAIT&T Foundation and how you can contribute to its efforts, visit www.haittfoundation.org