Gena is the Coordinator of the Special Needs programme with Nos Petits Freres et Soeurs (NPFS), a home for orphaned and abandoned children in Port-au-Prince. Gena was named as Irish Red Cross’ Humanitarian of the Year in 2019.
When I was growing up in Ireland, we were well used to rain. In fact, it rained almost every day. We were used to the rain and I never associated it with tragedy. I remember seeing on the telly flooding in Bangladesh, so many houses submerged in water and to my young eyes it seemed so awful. It also seemed that every year there was flooding in Bangladesh. I suppose because it was far away it did not affect me too much and so growing up, I never ever associated rain with death and I could never have imagined that a heavy rain could be the cause of so many problems.
Fast forward to Haiti 2020 and the minute it starts raining here, my first thought is, ‘I hope to God no one dies this time’.
Tropical Storm Laura brought a full day of heavy rain and not only were some houses washed away, but sadly over 30 people died. One day of heavy rain and 30 people dead! Imagine if we had a week of heavy rain! Among the dead, a young Pediatrician and her 8 month old son- swept away by the torrents of rubbish filled floodwaters. It makes us shiver to imagine just how her last moments must have been as she tried to get her young son and herself to safety.
A vegetable seller was sheltering from the rain in a small storage shed – the waters gushed in and the only way out was through a window. She had a bad leg so could not get up to the window. Every death is a tragedy and every life lost worthy of recognition. Sadly, this is a regular occurrence here in Haiti.
To understand, you have to picture the reality. In Haiti, gullies/canals – I do not know what we call them – are not sitting empty, waiting to welcome the rain. They are filled with rubbish – plastic bottles, old sandals, old clothes, tyres, styrofoam plates – you name it and you will see it in the gullies. Some are filled with sand and gravel – washed down from previous rains. When it rains, there is no place for the run-off water to go. It tries to go into the gullies and in doing so it sets free all this rubbish. Off it goes, sailing down the roads in the rivers of rain waters – sandals, broken baskets, dirty diapers, old torn, Sunday shoes, old flowery skirts, fridge-freezers – all floating down the streets, on a tour of the city and happily dragging with them any poor person caught up in the raging torrents.
This is what happens when we have heavy rain in Haiti. Not only do people die but mud, dirty water and all kinds of rubbish end up in the homes of the poorest of the poor.
So, you can imagine the stress this creates for people. When people see the clouds gathering over Port-Au-Prince, there is a mass scrambling to get home before the rains. It can take hours to get home when it rains. Hour and hours. Our bus leaves our Rehab centre at 3pm. One day it got stuck in the rain, stuck in the mud brought by the rains. Traffic backed up everywhere. Our staff got home at 8.30 pm. A journey that should take maximum 1 hr. Others on public transport got home at midnight. A nightmare. A recurring nightmare.
Insecurity and Assassinations
While the world battles with Covid-19, here in Haiti, we have other things on our mind. Apart from the rain, we are all living in a Haiti that is very, very insecure. Brutal assassinations – in a space of 48 hrs four people were murdered by armed gunmen. One of them was Mr. Monferrier Dorval – a high-profile lawyer, constitutional scholar and Head of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association. There has been widespread outrage at his murder and the lawyers in Port-au-Prince have called for all lawyers in the country to go on strike, immediately, until the killers are found. They have also put the blame firmly on the current President as they feel he had the lawyer killed. Mr.Monferrier was killed as he was entering his home – in the same neighbourhood as the President of Haiti. Some days before this he had spoken on the radio about the need for change in Haiti – reform of the constitution, and reform of the way things are carried out by governments. He did not speak for or against anyone. He just spoke about the impossibility of Haiti moving forward unless the constitution is changed, because there are too many problems associated with it.
On top of all these brutal killings, people in the poorer areas are being terrorised by gangs. Last Monday night, a whole street load of people had to flee from their homes, in the middle of the night. Gangs with big guns and even a tank came in and started burning down houses and vehicles. Mothers ran with their kids and all sought refuge where they could. Many left older people behind as they could not run from the bullets. Harrowing stuff. The gangs are highly armed. All kinds of speculation as to who is supporting them financially. Young kids with machine guns. Terrible. When I chat with our staff, I come away feeling so sad because every day they live with the stress of insecurity. Every day they get up early, in the pitch dark as there has been no electricity for months in their neighbourhoods, and wait for the local public transport with thumping hearts, wary of every shadow they see. What a way to have to live!
As for Covid 19- well it is still present in Haiti, though very few people seem to be worried about it. In the streets, in the market places, in the public transport – people crowded together as always and few, if any, wearing a mask. Indeed, staff tell us they are ridiculed on the public transport because they wear masks. I think the official number of deaths is about 220 and I suppose in a population of over 10 million that is not bad. The reality of it is that few people go to get tested, even if they are sick. One way or another, we have not been as badly affected as other countries. We know several people that tested positive and thankfully were not very sick – they were young people in good health. We keep trying to do all we can to keep everyone safe and try and keep doing our work
Our therapy programme reopened in July and, despite problems in the country, it is going well. Children and adults were happy to be back receiving therapy. The big challenge with the stroke patients is to get them to understand the importance of taking their medicines.
Laughter and Dance
During June, July and August we worked on an individual basis with our students in our Special Needs school and we supported their families with food and hygiene kits. Right now, they have holidays and the new school year will start in October.
In Kay Christine we have kept busy all summer long and the children/young adults are doing well. As you know, music, laughter and dance are a huge part of everyday life in Kay Christine so this keeps all of us in good spirits. Our staff continue to do a super job and every now and then we drag them into the fun and daftness we get up to!! You will see from the photos just how much fun we have been having and also you will see work in action!
In a nutshell, this is where we are at during these challenging times. We know that life is difficult everywhere right now and many people are feeling overwhelmed. Hang in there!
Look out for each other and always let people know you care. If we have learned anything this year, it surely must be that very quickly, life as we know it can change. So, stay positive, never underestimate the value of a kind word or a big smile, and always look for ways to make life easier for someone else. We are all one big human family and we need to protect every member of the family. Don’t buy into the ‘us and them’ mentality being promoted all over the world. The day you focus on all that we all have in common with each other, will be the day you realise there is no ‘us and them’. In our house, we grew up on the motto – ‘Treat others as you would like them to treat you’. Nothing wrong with that motto. Nothing at all.
All the best and thanks to all of you for all your wonderful support.