An Open Letter, to Do-Gooders

The Daily Life Text

No photos, no brain dump. Just a plea to those who want to help Hait.

I know your hearts are in the right place. And while this note isn’t intended to reflect the views of the wonderful organization I volunteer for, I’d like for you to know that it comes from good experience on the ground. For those who are late to the game, I’m a volunteer for a disaster-relief organization. We’ve been in Haiti since January 14th, and I’ve just recently returned from three weeks on the ground with my team.

I know everyone wants to do good. Giving is never wrong. But please, please consider the following:

1. HOW you can give.

When you demand that an organization earmark your money for Haiti, it doesn’t help the organization. In fact, it might hinder it, and your funds might never get used if that organization has done what it can in the field. Please consider that the organization you’re giving to likely has been operating in the field for some time, if you’ve done your research, and that they’ll know best how to use your generous donation. There is an interesting movement afoot to pool all funds earmarked for Haiti, and I’m for this cause.

2. WHAT you can give.

Folks, if you’re thinking of going to Haiti to offer emotional succor and nothing else, please consider that there is a lot of real, tangible work to be done. I’m not saying that religious services and prayer aren’t needed, it’s just that there are a lot of well meaning people on the ground already. This is not the place to clog up with wandering missionaries.

Also, if you are taking up a collection, please ensure that you have someone on the ground to receive and distribute the materials. A box of random FA goods addressed “To the People of Haiti” is not going to go anywhere. It is going to sit in the airport warehouse, blocking the way to the goods that can be delivered to actual populations that professional organizations have targeted. Likewise, the pros have the means to distribute.

Haiti’s airport and its shipping warehouses are stretched to the limit. They are not used to managing this much stuff. Part of the backlog has to do with inexperience and simple lack of space. Please don’t let my goods sit out on the tarmac because yours are going to be in the warehouse forever.

Likewise, if you are on the ground on behalf of an organization and planning to “beg and borrow” from organizations already on the ground, please don’t. Please come with either your own aid, ready to operate, or don’t come unless you can get all of your ducks lined up before you come. Orgs already on the ground are also likely already stretched to their limits.

3. WHO you can give.

This sounds weird, but it’s not. Folks with celebrity status: Please stay at home, unless you are planning to come WITHOUT your entourage of 5,000 people. If you really want to do good, please do so from the comfort of your homes, where you can host fundraisers for the organizations that are already cleaning out their coffers and closets for aid. You can do a massive PR push just as well from your couch or from your favorite restaurant.

Your PR people are in the way. Often, they make curious demands of organizations that we are just not in a position to fulfill while we are in the field.

If you are coming quietly, by yourself, and want to just get dirty and help, welcome. No one will recognize you anyway, and your hard work will be appreciated.

That’s it for now.


Your friendly local humanitarian volunteer

Some artistic license

The Daily Life Text

No, not really. There were some beautiful things going on in Haiti, though, and I think I’ll just post them here. There’s a lot going on here in our little household, not the least of which is the fact that, while I was gone in Haiti, my registration form for the MFA program I got accepted into was due. Oops. I think they’ll let me slip by; they’ve also generously given me a scholarship, so I’m hoping that they’ll excuse the fact that I was gone for a good reason.

I have some other thoughts about Haiti. I will post them tomorrow, if I haven’t ripped out unseemly clumps of my hair in one or two stressful movements.

Almost every wall in Haiti is painted in some way, shape, or form. Much of it is made for advertisements sake (more on that later) but this was on the side of a voudou church in Leogane. I thought it was beautiful, and although I don’t quite understand the connection between voudou and Christianity, I found this a beautiful example of native artwork.

I also found this eagle in Leogane, not far from a bar we went to called Masaye. I don’t know what it was for, but I liked the fierceness of the eagle and the aggressive way the wing and tail feathers are spread. I especially like the remnants of the lettering around the eagle.

One of the most beautiful things about Haiti is its coastline. Aside from the gorgeous beaches both sandy and rocky, the water is this deep, deep blue. From the sky you could see a boat that had been sunk. Its ribs were clearly visible and its mast stuck out of the water. I missed that photo. So you’ll have to settle for this one.

I was lucky enough to catch this girl on her mobile phone in front of a partly demolished National Palace. Aside from the fact that the palace itself is beautiful, I found everything about this particular composition to be interesting.

This is the Marron Inconnu, the tomb of the Unknown Slave. It was commissioned to commemorate the years that Haiti’s past as a slave nation, and future as the first black republic. Do you see the stuff behind it around it? Le Marron Inconnu sits in the midst of a shantytown, and an old woman lives underneath him now, having lost her home in an earthquake. Yes, my knees went wobbly when I realized, when she popped out to ask for help while I was pointing with my idiotic camera.

Oh. This is the National Palace without the bars and bits in front. With crane and big U.N. truck in front.

Open suitcase. Child’s toy. Rubble. ‘Nuff said.

I said before that everything is art here. It’s true, but I don’t think, based on these paintings, that I’d want to get my hair done here. Or my dentistry. Or any plastic surgery.

All of the public buses here are painted by hand. They are beautiful. This one happens to have an airplane hanging off the side of it.

Finally, there were a number of wooden buildings that were still standing. I thought this ornate Victorian-like building to be absolutely gorgeous.

Tomorrow, some more coherent thoughts, I hope.  For tonight, I hope that these photos convey, somewhat, just how beautiful Haiti is. I thought it was, anyway.

Mutty Malta Goes to Haiti

The Daily Life Text

ShelterBox deployments are funny. You might talk to your team lead once or twice before you arrive at your destination, but really, you don’t have any idea who the rest of your teammates are or what they’re like unless you’ve deployed with them before. Fortunately, you know a little bit about who they are already. You know that they went through the same training you did, so you have at least that in common.

I was very lucky. On this deployment, I had quite a few friends. John and Bill and I had done our 3-day courses together, and I’d done my 9-day with John. I’d deployed once before with Phil. When Bill rotated out, my friend Nicola, with whom I’d done the 9-day, rotated in from her post as logistics coordinator in Santo Domingo. With her came our team lead, Jens, who had such a mop of hair that he went quickly from being “Fearless” (my moniker) to “Phyllis” (Nic’s apt modification). I arrived as a fifth wheel, between rotations, and quickly became Mutty, the stray dog, following folks around and filling in where needed (and, obviously, yammering and yapping). When Steven rotated in mid-way through my trip to Leogane, he discovered my newly acquired taste for Malta H, and I became Malta Mutty. Steven himself will always be The Cabana Boy, mostly because he kindly undertook the task of washing Nic’s skivvies.

But all of that is the nice part of camp life.

nice, but not quotidien: "Phyllis" reverts back to "Fearless" with Nic's help

I arrived at noon on a muggy and lazy Easter Sunday, and, after a small miscommunique, got picked up by John, Bill, and Phil (“Billip!”) at the airport. I got there expecting to be accosted on all sides by folks wanting something from me, but I didn’t expect the random guy who pointed at the logo on my shirt and said, “ShelterBox. Does good things for Haiti. Gives a lot.” It was a nice way to start the trip.

We went to a very long lunch and I got marginally briefed on the situation, and then the team drove me around town to get my bearings. Camp was due east of the main airport.

Medishare camp, University of Miami

Fearless was on a much-needed break in SD with his girlfriend. Dinner that night and almost every night was at The Deck, on the Ministry of the UN in Haiti’s logistics base. Predictable and good, and I spotted this on the wall.

We've made our mark, apparently.

The following days were pretty good, and busy. I was John’s partner for awhile, and it was great to have someone who takes such meticulous notes fill me in on the situation. We were so busy taking a good hard look at sites and ensuring they were ready for tent occupation (a population truly in need of shelter; good community leadership; adequate planning for decent water and sanitation; clear sites for tents) that the days flew by. Often, John and I didn’t have time for lunch. We ate ration packs between sites and visits to our angel of a warehouse, the awesome space called Cluster 1 by everyone else and called Mathilda’s house by me. Mathilda works for an organization called Handicap International, and she is the queen of organization. She keeps meticulous track of all of our stuff and helps all that she can to distribute and ensure that our stuff makes it safely from airport warehouse to Cluster 1 warehouse and out again to our partners in a truly expeditious fashion. She and her staff are amazing.

I spent part of day 3 with Fearless, mucking around trying to figure out customs and get our stuff delivered and loaded, and I think, before I realized it, I was feeling a little bit like an old hand and slipping back quite easily into my French. We saw a lot of destruction, and a lot of good stuff, too, by the end of my first week:

In many cases, homes were flattened like this. I'm not sure if the chair and table were placed here after or before, but it was an eerie sight.
Kids are resilient. Everywhere we found them playing soccer, and they made kites out of plastic garbage bags.

Among my favorites, though, was this little place:

We were alerted to Eden Village early in the week, and John had fielded the call to go out and take a look at the place. When we got there, it was covered in temporary shelters and not nearly ready  for tents, but we were able to get the message across in the next few days, and, with new teammate Mark Butcher, we were able to set them up with four tents on Sunday, the one-week mark of my deployment. By the time I returned after a week-long sojourn to Leogane, Eden’s residents and their charismatic leader, Pierre, who really did bloom as a leader right in front of our eyes, had swelled to house most of the 150 families living there in tents donated by ShelterBox. It was a really good thing to watch them grow. I got to go back to see them either Monday or Tuesday (I can’t remember now), and it was great to see Pierre–he’d changed so much, even in the short week I’d been gone. Funny what leadership does to a body.

I was shipped off to Leogane with Phil 2 on Monday morning, and we met a lot of great people and cemented some good partnerships. One of my absolute favorites is with a group called Hands On Disaster Response. This group invites volunteers tow work in disasters all around the world. While I was there I met people from all over. Two of my favorites are Ashley and Simon.

We teamed up with Hands On to distribute and build 79 tents that were being given on a provisional basis to the congregation of  a small parish (Pastor Septimus!) in Gressier, a small town between Leogane and Port-au-Prince. (Provisional just means that if all of the tents were up and erected in a short period after they were distributed, the pastor would get enough to help the rest of his congregation, the people who had been designated as not among the most needy, but still in need of help.) The volunteers were incredible. Hands On collated all of the information taken down by the Pastor (how many in his congregation needed help; what priority they were based on how vulnerable; the numbers of people in their families, so on), and then they provided the volunteers to go out into the parish and help to distribute the tents.

Simon and I had a particularly bad start to the day: After setting up a few tents (23 of the 79 were going to be set u on church grounds), he, Phil, Ashley and I went out to go get snacks for the volunteers. Eventually left to ourselves, Simon and I got fleeced by some vendors and stalked back to the church grounds, feeling cranky, Simon giving apt voice to my foul mood by muttering eff-bombs and worse in his strong Scottish brogue. Later in the day, though, as we got near the end of our day and put up and distributed the last of the tents, Simon found me and flung an arm over my shoulders. “I tell you what, mate, this is the best thing I’ve experienced so far,” he said, grinning big. He noted that he’d been thanked profusely by so many people. Providing a tangible good has so much to do with how much good a volunteer can feel like he’s doing. For this I’ll always be grateful.

Hands On Disaster Response gives a demo at Pastor Septimus' church
One of the first families to receive a tent at Pastor Septimus'

The ride back to Hands On’s compound, with over 20 of us hanging off the back of a tap tap (one of Haiti’s home-made public buses), was hairy, but Ashley took both hands off the railing and lit a cigarette. Leave it to a girl from Halifax to look glam even at her grubbiest.

The Hands On compound, by the way, neighbored some open land. On the open land live a deranged bunch of 20 or roosters. How do I know they are deranged? I know this because they somehow found fit to start crowing, all together, at around 2:30 in the morning. They continued until around 4:30, when a late-comer to the party realized that he was missing out and decided to go bigger and louder than all the others. This sickness went on every night. I don’t know how the Hands On guys did it, but our first night there may account for the reason that Chris (with us for one night) looks like he’s about to shoot something here, and not with his camera.

Anyway, here’s a nice photo of the sun rising over Hands On. We think the building was meant to be a nightclub before the quake hit. The bar next door survived, though.

Phil and I stayed on in Leogane for the week, meeting with ACTED and staying on for four nights. If I thought life in the ACTED compound would be an any easier (“We have roosters,” they said, “but they don’t go off until 5:30 in the morning.”), I was sadly mistaken. There were five roosters for four hens. They are in the yard. Imagine having a rooster crowing in your ear at 5AM, because they are right outside your tent. Mmmhmmm. Lovely.

Here are the roosters. They are the reason I will never again pass up the chance to eat capon.

We also visited the lovely Camp Laska, which is the tent city that I hope all tent cities become. It’s sponsored by Bridge 2 Haiti with help from us. People here have made their camps into real homes here.

Inside this tent is another set of potted plants and some nice curtains. Home, indeed.

In some cases, a tent will do as a garage for some valuable equipment.

Don't worry, the other two rooms in this tent actually are living quarters.

If you’re wondering why there are so many different types of ShelterBox tents in this camp, it’s because we are really clearing out our stock on this deployment. We’re doing everything we can to get people housed.

We also met with some kind folks who had emptied their bank accounts to come to Haiti to help. They’ve done a remarkable amount in a very short period of time. Melanie and Josh took us on a tour of some of the areas that they’ve marked.

In our time in Leogane we also worked with Terre des Hommes, a group looking primarily after the needs and risks of children. We also went into the mountains to ensure that the work we’d done distributing to Pastor Septimus’ group was being followed up on. It was on this day that we got a glimpse of the real Haiti outside of cities and Port-au-Prince.

I remember driving by a particularly good stretch of ocean on our first day with Hands On, and remarking ont he beauty of the scenery. Berlin, one of Hands On’s Creole translators, said, grinning to beat the sun, “Of course it’s beautiful! This is Haiti!”

On that note, I’ll end by saying that my last few days in Haiti were taken up with customs, customs, and lots of loading of tents. My last day was remarkably busy and very very annoying. But it looks like I’m still smiling here.

Also, here’s what we got to see every night from our tent office. Not bad, as far as offices go:

Tomorrow, the art all over the streets of Haiti.