30 August 2012

Where Few 'Blan' Have Passed

Traversing the mountaintops
I could hear their voices in front of me before I could see their faces, as I marched down the small hilltop path:

'Kouman ou ye?'
'Pa pi mal!'

Greeting each other in the common way. My Haitian team continued walking, and the group returned to their normal chit-chat. 

I emerged from the tall grass alongside their front garden, only to be greeted with a large hoot and holler and laughter from the family members. 

Apparently, blans (white people) don't pass here often. 

I greeted them, as one should to be polite in Haiti, smiling to myself, while they joked down the path to my colleagues about the blan traipsing down the mountain. 

Yesterday, I went back out to the mountains to conduct another assessment on the situation left by TS Isaac, this time on the damage sustained to houses in the rural, mountainous villages my organisation works in. 

I ended up going on a 5-6 hour hike down the mountain. 
We were headed to that little peak on the left side of the photo.
and then just continued.
Sometimes its easier to just keep going forward.
We were dropped off at the top of the mountain, just where it crests and begins its descent down to the south coast of Haiti. We had every intention to take the car as far as it could go, which as it turned out, was maybe 2 minutes down the road leading to our targeted community. 

In previous days, we had been hearing lots of information from our governmental partners, from various team members, from key community partners about the amount of damage in the rural mountains and hillsides. We had heard of houses destroyed, crops damaged beyond repair, loss of livelihoods, animals killed, rivers flooded. The damage sounded massive and like it needed a dramatic, quick response. 

But, for a multitude of reasons, we didn't trust it - not that we don't trust our staff, but that we don't trust that we share the same definitions of what a word means. And in order to plan and implement a response, we first need to know exactly what the needs are. 

Assessment team - in action.
And, to be honest, part of that involves an unbiased, undramatic point-of-view, supplied by myself, and 2 other colleagues.  

Ok. We also wanted to just get out of the office and see for ourselves - our adventuresome streaks were kicking in. 

But really, it was just to make sure we understood what the situation was. 

So, when I found myself dragging along behind my team, huffing and puffing, stopping every few yards to observe (aka, catch my breath), as my self-assigned job was (non-Creole speaker here...), I did actually take the time to take in the full situation. 

We had heard that many homes were destroyed, many families were now homeless, some again. 

But I found this was not so. I had set the mandate that we were only to conduct our assessment at houses that were completely destroyed (to perchance end up targeting the person for emergency shelter), but after 5 hours of walking, we ended up with 3 questionnaires filled out. Only one was completely destroyed, in the terms of having to tear down the house and rebuild. The rest were missing roofing sheets, or their tin roofs had bent back. Terrible & damaged, yes. Destroyed, no. 

That is a pleasant thing to find, actually - that the storm was not too bad. 

We also found that people were living their lives as best they could to recover. To the man whose house was completely destroyed, I asked, what will he do to repair the house. He responded that he will just buy wood somewhere and rebuild. Matter-of-fact. That's just what you do. 

Back to work on the fields
Another family were so thankful to have a white person stop by their house, that one of the women kept hitting me and saying thank you for coming, and that they are so blessed by it, and that of course I will do something for them (non-Creole speaker, yes. Creole-understander, yes). 

We are so thankful that the damage to houses was not as bad as expected. The damage to crops, however, was. 

Damage to banana plantations, squash and bean plants
In the free moments I have, when not hiking over the mountains and fording through rivers, I am now sending our staff out to get their cars stuck in rivers, walking for hours upon end to conduct another more detailed assessment to look at what types of livelihoods were affected and the potential increase in food insecurity. 

Aren't I nice?

But based on this, we will now know what the true damage was, and how we can best respond. 

And that is just the beginning ...

26 August 2012

Sur la Terrain

Harvest in the Lowlands
To have a day like today, this is why I do the work I do. Adventure, experience, getting to see local culture, and gaining a better understanding of the needs of the communities we work in - this...this is what keeps me coming back. 

We went out today to do a rapid needs assessment in the communities we work in, looking at what happened during Tropical Storm Isaac. We had been receiving lots of information by phone yesterday, from our 'operations base,' also known as our kitchen table. And the information we were getting was showing that there was a great impact. But we wouldn't know for sure until we went out and verified it. 

We knew that need to verify would come soon, and come quickly, so I was prepped and ready to go with all the tools, the processes, the people we would use. All were aware it could happen at a moment's notice - the green light to go. So this morning when I was just chatting to friends on Skype, taking my time to get the day started, and I got the green light - well...we sprung into action. Our area coordinator had been at a meeting with other NGOs and the local governmental response body (the DPC) to see what needed to happen in our commune. So, when they said we need more information, we said, let's go. 

Within 45 minutes, we had the teams here, drivers here, vehicles waiting, questionnaires printed, areas assigned, and process to use communicated. I led a team going to the lowlands area of the Leogane commune, that which was accessible. 

Many of the communities we work in are only able to be accessed by driving (or walking) up the river, and with the amount of water that dumped on Haiti this weekend, some rivers are still impassable. The route taken by our driver today required the use of our sturdy Land Cruiser to manage the mud, crevices, rocks, and river traversing that was necessary to reach the two communities. 

Since I don't speak Creole, I was in charge of photographing (woo!), taking GPS coordinates and making observations in the area. The other 2 on my team went to houses to ask questions about what happened during the storm and what the need was. 

On a side note, I had free reign to walk around the communities, chatting with people, traipsing through mud, wandering through fields, petting goats, waving 'Bonswa' to children. Oh my. Just, maybe the best. I loved my job today.

At the first community we went to, I wandered, and we talked to 4 households and the local government representative. We found that overall, the damage had not been too bad in the community. There were trees felled, houses that were slightly damaged, and quite a few goats that got stressed and died (ok, there is a small part of me that finds that hilarious, but goats are a huge source of income in these communities, so the humour I find is just really really inappropriate. Bad thoughts, Ang), and there was a lot of mud. Local gardens were affected, but not many, and there were not really any that were completely destroyed. 

A good find. A relatively good outcome for the community. There will be affects, but walking around showed that the community was living life as normal - sitting on porches, braiding hair, gardening, taking care of animals, managing shops, and chatting with each other. 

We continued up the river to the next community. However, to get there, we had to drive up the river as far as the car would go safely, and then we continued the rest on foot. We removed our shoes, my team rolled up their jeans (damn skinny jeans and not being roll-up-able!), and we traversed the muddy, rocky water, joking about what a nice beach we were visiting! 

While this community was not devastated either, it still spoke the remnants of a massive storm. With all the rain, the river had swollen, taking down plantations and gardens, ruining harvests, and creating new cavernous water-ways on paths. Mud was present; more animals had died; and we heard of 5 houses that had been demolished by the wind. 

While my team questioned houses, I was shown around by various members of the community, all pointing out where the damage was. It was evident that this community would bear the brunt of the storm for much longer than the first. 

But still, the communities continued life as normal. Haitians are notoriously resilient, letting things like this storm come and go and just accepting that it is a part of life. Whether this is a good or bad thing, I cannot say, and that is another topic for another day. 

Life continues as normal - including Football!!!
The walk back up the river caused lots of laughter in the communities I think. It's definitely not every day that they see a 'blan' walking up a river in wet jeans and bare feet. I earned the term 'ou capable' (expressing shock at my ability to hike through mosquito-infested jungles, and traipse up a river in bare feet) by my team. 

The meeting upon my return to the office found that many of the other communities visited experienced the same sort of issues. We are so thankful that it is not worse than this. No deaths were reported; most houses survived. 

I woke up this morning bored at the thought of being stuck in the house another day. Instead, I am heading to bed with more mosquito bites than when the day started, dirty feet, sweaty skin, and a smile on my face. 

Isaac, thank you for not being as mean as you could have been, and for giving me a bit of adventure in the meantime. 

23 August 2012

And we wait...

Isaac over Puerto Rico - headed our way!
Until Tuesday, I was feeling exhausted. So tired, I could not sleep but it was all I wanted to do. It was hard to motivate myself; I was on edge; I wore my 'grumpy pants' way more times than I liked. 

Life was difficult and more than once, I thought, I just need to get out of here. My planned trip to the DR could not come soon enough. I want to walk around, sit at a restaurant, be by myself, shop, eat at Taco Bell, and just be more normal. And don't even get me started on all the dreams I was having about being in Europe. I was in the stages of burn-out. 

And then Tuesday afternoon came. I received an email in the middle of the day from my Dad, entitled 'Isaac', asking if my organisation would evacuate me. You see, Isaac was on his way. IS on his way still. At the time, he was a tropical storm, forecast to move right over Haiti, hitting hurricane strength around the time he breached the Port-au-Prince mountains. 

And we sprung into action. I began thinking about our response; our area coordinator planned our preparedness activities. We put our staff into place. Some were to fill up vehicles with gas; others were to board up windows or move items into more secure locations. 

We watched the movements, made decisions on an almost hourly basis as to what else needed to be done. Conversations were had with our HQ, we planned our money, our phone credit, packed our quick run bags, monitored the news again, made sure our staff were safe and knew how to respond. We know that we need to keep our slotted windows open 2 inches so they don't break. We bought food (ice cream and beer included!) and we have candles for when the electricity goes out. 

In response, we have organised teams who will phone and head out into the field to do assessments, to see what the impact is in the area we are working on. I am working on the questionnaire, our methodology, and making sure that we are getting the proper information about the needs in the communities here. I prepped our teams on the process, I am making sure they have the questions, they have the information. We are linking with the local government to make sure we are reaching all the communities in the area - we are taking the lead in much of the initial response. 

Our staff were enthusiastically available to come off annual leave to help, to stay later at the office to make sure we have everyone's contact information, no complaining about the chance to work on Sunday to respond. 

As we left the office, we pushed our desks together away from the wall. Tarps cover important documents that there is a chance for water to reach. Our staff know that the office is closed tomorrow in prep, and what we will do to respond. 

And now we wait. Wait for him to make up his mind as to what he will do. Wait for him to strike or not. Wait to see what happens. 

But Isaac woke me up. I am still exhausted, yes. But he brought my adrenaline back - enough to finish these next few weeks before my short holiday. 

Isaac, bring on what you will. We are ready.