This last week has been one of contrasts. On Sunday I took the day off and a few of us went to a beach that is a couple of hours drive from the capital, Port au Prince, where I’m based. It was my first time getting out of the city and it felt really good to be in the fresh air and have a change of scene. The beach was beautiful – white sand, palm trees and Caribbean turquoise sea - and I had fresh grilled lobster for lunch followed by a coconut cut off the tree above my head for dessert.
It was a strange day as we had to drive through some really poor parts of the city to get to the beach and I saw some of the worst shanty town living conditions I have ever seen. There was mile after mile of extremely poor shelter (I don’t think it could be accurately classed as ‘housing’) – basically just corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. The shanty areas have no clean water or sanitation and rubbish and rubble piled is high everywhere with goats and pigs - and occasionally people - picking through it.
By and large you would not be able to gauge by their appearance that the people you see on the streets here are living in such extreme poverty. Religion is very important to most Haitian people and we saw lots of people on their way to or from church in their Sunday best and looking immaculate. I don’t know how people manage to do it.
Even before the earthquake, 80% of the population of Haiti was living on less than $2 per day and nearly 60% of the population was deemed under-nourished with one in four children stunted as a result. It seems so unfair that in a country where life is already so hard and the poverty is already so overwhelming, there should be a natural disaster as huge as the recent earthquake. I know life isn’t fair and disasters are indiscriminate but it does make me appreciate all that we have at home and the relative wealth and safety that we live in.
So the day was a little strange because of the juxtaposition between the luxurious beach resort where we relaxed and recuperated and the ordinary life for so many people here but it was good to get some time off and to get away from the city.
In general, there is a curious mix of hope and despair here. For every good news story we hear that demonstrates the courage and resilience of the Haitian people there seems to be an equally depressing one of violence or corruption. The colonial history and the legacy of the slave trade continue to be felt here in very real ways and make it both an extraordinarily interesting and an extremely challenging context to work in.
One of the good news stories recently was that on May 24 the Ministry of Culture and Communication signed a memorandum of understanding with the Smithsonian Museum to restore Haitian cultural property damaged by the earthquake and to train local people in restoration techniques. Countless works of precious art have been buried here and lost forever but it is comforting to know that there is some concrete international support to help the country salvage and restore what it can. We have also just sent a suggestion to the Oxfam Head Office that the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue also includes the opportunity for people to pledge direct support to the musicians and artists who create such a vibrant cultural scene here.
The other good news to report from Haiti this week is that the chickens who live in the yard where we work have had babies so there are 3 little fluffy chicklets running around during our meetings now. Definitely not like meetings in National Museums Liverpool!"