Catherine Cowley, who has been working as a trainee in our Humanitarian team since April 2011, shares her impressions of Haiti.
As someone who had never been to Haiti, and freshly arrived from CAFOD’s London offices, the first thing that hit me when I exited the airport in Port-au-Prince wasn’t the crowd of drivers rushing up to grab the attention of the new batch of arrivals, or the heat and dust that are a complete contrast to the dreary November weather in London. It was the brightly coloured pickups, called tap-taps, which trawl up and down the roads looking for passengers.
They are a bit of a shock to the system because they are brightly painted, constantly hum with music, are always crowded, and seem to have a never-ending ability to just keep going, despite all the obvious repairs they have gone through. Anyone looking at a stationary tap-tap would have a hard time imagining them slogging up one of the many bumpy Port-au-Prince roads. And yet they do. And this pretty much reflects what it’s like in Haiti.
People have gone through incredibly painful and traumatic events since 12 January 2010. In around half a minute hundreds of thousands lost their loved ones, their homes and their businesses. Then months later the devastating outbreak of cholera hit. And yet this vibrant, overcrowded, damaged city has found the ability to pick itself up and get on with piecing itself back together.
I arrived in Haiti two months ago as part of my traineeship with CAFOD. I was sent to work for six months with one of our biggest partners, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), in Port-au-Prince. It’s safe to say that all my perceptions of how it would be here were pre-determined by the news reports and newspaper articles I had seen. I expected the tents, the temporary toilets and the rubble. But what I hadn’t expected is just how much has been achieved in what is, in reality, a very short amount of time.
Two years to build new houses and temporary shelters, clear roads, restart businesses and put in place hygiene systems, is a remarkable achievement. Because of all of this, the trickle of people from the crowded camps to their old neighborhoods is speeding up, but their return still requires a lot of preparation as these areas were so badly damaged.
We are supporting CRS to speed up this process by improving sanitation and hygiene systems in local neighbourhoods. This means building toilets, putting in place ways for people to get rid of their household rubbish safely, and providing education about how to stay safe from illnesses. Without this work, people would be returning in potentially dangerous circumstances. This is already a mammoth task but is just one part of the whole effort to move people back to their homes so they can get on with their lives.
I may have misjudged them when I first arrived but as I quickly learnt, never get in the way of a tap-tap. They may be battered but they are resilient and they are on very important mission – getting to the top of that hill.