From Haiti with thanks

Back in October, much of the Slugger O’Toole ‘community’ – Mick Fealty and Paul Evans, bloggers Alan in Belfast and Mark McGregor, politicians of all hues, public affairs company Stratagem, and of course readers / commenters – came together to support the Great Big Politics Pub Quiz, raising money for a house-building project in earthquake-stricken Haiti.

The event raised £1,225, all of which went to the Haven Partnership’s Build-it-Week initiative. Due to the cholera outbreak, the week itself was postponed until last month. Local journalist (and my father-in-law) Ciaran McKeown, in the first of a few guest contributions, now feeds back on how your money was spent …

I’m two weeks back from Build It Week in Haiti and I still have not digested the experience. Maybe I never will.

You’d think that at 68 years of age and having lived through some grim times in Northern Ireland, I would take six or so days in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere in my stride.

And I had basically only a few hours in which to observe the abject misery in which so many of its inhabitants subsist.

Perhaps that’s the key to my emotional confusion, for most of the time I was enjoying the extraordinary camaraderie, the work, the sunshine and the craic, and, at the end of the week, the great satisfaction of having made my small contribution to an amazing achievement.

There are a couple of things I am not remotely confused about: donors’ money was exceptionally well spent, and a real and significant difference was made to the lives of several hundred people.

The experience was also life-changing for the volunteers. Precisely how our daily existence may be altered is difficult to predict and will be different for each individual. But the radical shift in perspective is bound to have an intense effect and how each one of us sorts that out will be a challenge in itself.

At the time, of course, it was mostly pure joy. We got up each day pretty cheerfully at around 4.45am, had a light ‘dawn-breaker’ breakfast and got down to work. Breakfast proper was at 9.30, lunch at 1 and dinner at 6.

I have never experienced such enthusiastically motivated co-operation as that displayed throughout the week by the 347 volunteers.

It helped enormously that the advance preparation by the resident team under JP Simpson and the project’s overall organisation were also of a standard that I have never witnessed.

Every detail, from the well-being of volunteers, down to the last nail for the roofs had been considered, so that the maximum outcome could be achieved.

And it was. Originally billed as 60 houses by 300 volunteers, the target was spectacularly surpassed.

Not only were 80 houses completed, but a playground was created and fully equipped, including shaded areas for parents, a soccer pitch was laid out and a plant nursery was established. But by far the most amazing feat was the completion of a community centre.

As we saw from a nearby village created by Haven last year, the community centre is absolutely vital. It can function as a meeting place, a dance hall, a church, or a school.

One upside of the cholera-induced cancellation of last October’s Built It Week was that the locally recruited Haitian workers got on in the interim with much of the foundation and block work on the houses and latrines under Haven staff supervision.

That allowed head foreman John O’Connor to pull quite a few volunteers off house completion and on to the community centre with the seemingly impossible task of finishing it within the week.

From dawn to dusk, cement mixers churned, carpenters made roof trusses, blocklayers built pillars, plasterers finished inside and outside surfaces, roofers hammered away and electricians moved carefully around. Each day, when volunteers traipsed back to the dining area between 5 and 6pm, you could see amazing progress – and the centre builders working on.

Volunteers at work

Some – foolishly, perhaps, but luckily without serious damage – even worked through the siesta, which would more properly be called a heat-break, when temperatures rose between noon and 2pm to 46C on one day and threatened to top 50C on another.

But by the fifth day, everything was ready for the painters and decorators and on the sixth, the centre was ready for handing over to the Haitian community who will occupy the houses.

Throughout the week, small batches of volunteers were taken to the Latannerie area on the shorefront of Gonaives to meet some of those who would live in the houses Haven was building.

It was right that we should and it was right that the visits only lasted a couple of hours. They were billed as ‘Beneficiaries Tours’ but – hack to the last -­­­ I could not help dubbing them The Magical Misery Tour.

It was embarrassing to be well-fed and relatively comfortably off as we strolled through a “village” in which the accommodation for families was so dire. To call them shanties would be to glorify them. This area was more damaged by Hurricane Hannah than by last year’s earthquake, and a sea surge had wiped out the salt mine which was the principal source of income.

But even that in its heyday could not have been much. What little these people had was literally blown away and the makeshift cover of bits of wood and corrugated iron and plastic bespoke a terrible hopelessness.

I could see such dejection and weary gratitude in the eyes of parents that I usually had to nod and smile and move on. Mercifully, a more gifted member of our group, Bobby Lee, had brought his guitar and struck up a few impromptu sessions in which some local people joined in, to the delight of the children.

Ah, the children: such open, happy faces, with such beautiful smiles, usually so absent among older people. With a little encouragement for the camera, the latter too would smile, but it would be a faded image compared to the kids dancing around the group of white strangers from Ireland.

What a contrast, then, when some of these beneficiaries came to be allocated their houses. Tears of unalloyed joy flowed, with one woman declaring she would “live here for ever”.

Soon to be re-housed family

When I tell you that the “houses” consist of two rooms with two shaded porch areas and an individual latrine about 12 metres from the house, you might find it hard to credit the depth of delight for the recipients.

But these hurricane and earthquake resistant structures are relative palaces for people from Latannerie.

It brought to mind the tens of thousands of post-Famine Irish people who flooded into 19th-century industrialising Belfast in the hope of a job and a small “two-up, two-down” house.

From those modest beginnings, they reared large families, so many of whom went on to do very well indeed, including my own grandparents.

So there was still some magic in the misery tour. Hope that could drive community-building was being generated – and that might prove more important in the end than the blocks and mortar and timber and galvanised sheeting.

And therefore we could relax in the evenings and uninhibitedly enjoy the first-class musical talents of such volunteers as Siobhan O’Brien, Bobby Lee, Emmet Scanlan, Bobby Gillett and several others – enough to pack the O2 for a Haven’s Got Talent concert without the competitive bear-baiting  suspense element.

But at the back of it all, there is the realisation as I sit in comfort writing this that the daily horror goes on relentlessly for so many.

Cynics (who never actually do anything) may argue that the entire effort was just a spit in the wind. If it was, it was a highly focused and well-fertilised spit from which something will surely grow.

Newly-built community facility

And there is good reason to believe that Ireland too will benefit – maybe as much as Haiti. Because the thousands of young Irish volunteers (of all ages) must surely act like an antibiotic to the diseases of materialism which have afflicted the national consciousness and plunged us into depression.

We may not be the Island of Saints and Scholars of mythical hope. But there is extraordinary commitment, enthusiasm, skills and vibrant talent among us.

A concentrated effort such as Haven’s Build It Week brings the very best of that to the surface and will bring its own return in years to come.

My late father, a product of the two-up, two-down era who studied as a boy by candlelight, remarked towards the end of his days, “We are the servants of life.”

In the evening of my own life, I can amplify his dictum and declare that it is only in the service of life that we can be truly, deeply happy.

And perhaps that is why the exhausting Build It Week was above all else a joyous week which must positively affect the rest of the lives of the 347 volunteers – and bring the beginnings of hope to a comparable number of Haitians.

I am the Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International UK and an occasional human rights blogger at Amnesty Blogs: Belfast & Beyond.

I’m on Twitter at @PatrickCorrigan