I always thought that my trip to Haiti would be an adventure, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be as dramatic as it turned out to be. I went as a volunteer with the Good Samaritan Foundation of Haiti (GSF) (goodsamaritanofhaiti.com). The GSF has built a school which serves the three villages of La Hatte, Trou Milieu, and Soulette, which cover a north to south band of the island of Ile a Vache towards the western end. The island is about 8 miles south of the mainland of Haiti and is about 12 miles long (east to west) and about 2 miles wide at its widest. The total population of the three villages is approximately 4,000. I heard about the GSF earlier in 2016 and volunteered to help with financial matters, administration, carpentry (they have built hen houses and a rabbit house), or to teach swimming to the 270 students at the school, as I swam for N. Ireland and have taught hundreds of children to swim in the past. The GSF immediately asked me to teach the children to swim, as most children play in the water but do not learn to swim, and any transportation off the island is by a typically unseaworthy boat.
As I was only able to teach swimming for one week out of the two I was there, I am disappointed to say that nowhere near as many children as I hoped achieved the 10 meter level, but there is now a group of about 10 young adults to whom I gave instruction on how to teach, on improvement to their own swimming ability, and on water safety in general. This group has undertaken to continue the swimming lessons and I have charged them with the responsibility of teaching every child on Ile a Vache to swim. They seemed to be taking their responsibilities seriously.
I went to Haiti with the only paid administrator of the Good Samaritan Foundation of Haiti (GSF), Mandy Thody, who visits Haiti four times a year from her home in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands. We left Newark on Thursday, September 29 and made it to Ile a Vache in a single day, arriving well after dark. My first eye opener was the appalling slum conditions of Port au Prince, the capital of Haiti. After a four hour bus journey, we reached the bus station in the southern coast port of Les Cayes, from where we, our five 50 pound suitcases, our two carry-on bags, and two personal bags, were transported on five small motorcycles (their local taxis) to the quay. Then a one hour boat trip on an old wooden boat with an outboard that quit three times en route, and finally a quarter mile walk from where the boat was beached up to the “guest house”.
I can guarantee that nobody reading this has ever stayed in a guest house like it. The 8’ x 9’ bedroom had a bed in it – nothing else! There is no electrical grid in Ile a Vache but very limited electricity was available from 3 solar panels hooked up to car batteries - the generator broke a few months previously. Water had to be transported from the well a half mile away by mule, carrying 25 gallons per trip. To provide “running water” for a shower (trickle is a more appropriate description), 5 gallon containers have to be lifted up by one person on the ground and emptied into the cistern by another person on the roof. One becomes very conscious about not wasting water under such conditions.
Over the few months prior to my trip I had received donations of over 2,000 swimsuits which would provide incentives for the children to learn to swim. The day after our arrival we distributed swimsuits to all the children at the school. There was great excitement and the children were extremely happy with their gifts.
On the Saturday we were able to see around a small area of the island. The “main road” east to west is a dirt track about twenty feet wide. The other “roads” are most akin to cow paths through a field. I didn’t see a single vehicle in the whole two weeks, as there are gullies, tree roots, fallen trees, etc. and even the main road is impossible for a four wheel drive vehicle. There are some small motorcycles, but people are used to walking miles, with some owning a mule or horse for transportation of goods.
Sunday was spent battening down as much as possible in anticipation of hurricane Matthew. The first band of rain came through on Sunday night, and the winds increased in strength throughout Monday, but it wasn’t until Monday night that the eye of the hurricane passed directly over Ile a Vache. Winds were recorded at 230 kpm, with 14 inches of rain. The guest house has concrete block walls and there is a concrete roof over the bathroom. Mandy had a foam mattress in the shower stall and I had a very thin foam sheet on the tiled floor. The wind howled, there were loud crashes and banging of the corrugated tin roof. It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that we left the safety of the bathroom and discovered that about a quarter of the tin roof had blown off.
The guest house, being better built than most of the houses on the island suffered far less damage than the majority of them, though only one of the solar panels survived the hurricane. About 30% of the houses lost their roofs completely, or were completely destroyed – even some made of block, but with no re-bar and poor cement. At least another 60% lost part of their roofs. Even worse, virtually all fruit trees, banana plants, crops and nut trees were decimated, chickens, cows, pigs and goats died, and fish habitats were battered, as a result of which there will be food shortages for the next six months or so. The people of Ile a Vache rely heavily on subsistence farming and fishing. Many fishermen, who still use dug-out canoes, lost their nets and fish pots. School books in most houses were saturated. Beds, clothing, and everything else in the houses were soaked through.
For the next few days all electronic communication was down and we were not able to get word out that we were safe, much to the consternation of our families. Movement around the island was extremely difficult. The deep mud and fallen trees made it impossible for even trail motorcycles to get around. Nevertheless our host, Nestor, who is the head of the local area safety committee, and his team conducted damage assessments to report to the government. The government itself is broke, but hopefully foreign aid will be available for the people of Haiti. Just when that may happen is anybody’s guess. Teaching swimming was impossible during the rest of the week, so I spent some time helping the children of the house to read out loud in English. They learn to read English at school, but, as the teachers cannot speak it, they get no practice in pronunciation. Each night we sat on the porch and took turns singing songs. I even got them to learn and join in the chorus of “The Wild Rover”, a well-known Irish ballad recorded by both the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners.
Mandy authorized emergency spending on rice, machetes, rakes, shovels, axes, wheelbarrows and corrugated tin – the tin for the homes of the old, infirm, and widows (many fishermen drown) in the community, not for everyone. The GSF is a pretty small charity which was formed primarily to provide education to the children of the three villages, but, through Mandy’s exceptional management of its very limited finances, it serves the community far better than virtually any larger charity. Mandy actually became the temporary air-drop coordinator for a relief organization called Remote Area Medical, which dropped food packages from a Cessna at several locations on Ile a Vache.
By early November planting of crops should be able to commence, but virtually all food will have to be imported for the next few months. Since the “top tier” of the population of Ile a Vache live in poverty, many more live in extreme poverty, and the majority live in abject poverty, the ability to purchase food and repair homes is almost none existent. Those people need all the help they can get. Surprisingly, they are always cheerful, love to laugh, keep themselves and their clothes clean and fresh, and are very friendly.
I can honestly say that the people of Ile a Vache impressed me with their resilience, their warmth, their generosity and their hope for a better future, as evidenced by eagerness to achieve academic success by the children of the house in which I stayed. It was the most uncomfortable two weeks I have ever spent in my life, with 80 – 90 degree temperatures day and night, very high humidity, no fans for most of the time let alone a/c, being covered in perspiration two minutes after a water-saving-conscious shower, and immediately becoming sticky again by applying bug spray.
I am now back in the comfort of New Jersey, but I can still help the people of Ile a Vache by seeking support from friends, colleagues, clients, and Old Instonians. Attached is a memo from Mandy which outlines the items needed and their cost. You will see that this is “practical” aid not “feel good for the donor” aid, which is often what the big charities attract. The GSF is significantly more efficient and is seeking cash donations with which necessities can be purchased locally. This is a far, far more efficient form of aid than collecting such things as canned goods, which take time and money to transport, and often disappear in Port au Prince and never reach their destination.
If you are willing to make a donation to the GSF, 100% of which will be applied to aid as the expenses of normal operation are already covered by regular donations, your support will be greatly appreciated. The website is goodsamaritanofhaiti.com and donations can be made on line by accessing the “donate” box on the left hand side of the home page.