Posted by: hettydec | November 26, 2012

Plan Haiti

I’ve been in Haiti for a week now. I thought this would be a good time to write my first post and describe my first impressions of this fascinating place where I will be for three months. It is difficult not to include more detail in this first blog as almost everything I have done this week has had some quirky or amusing element to it, so I will try and select a few of these experiences.

I arrived on Friday afternoon after a 43 hour trip, to what I was told was a ‘cool’ Haitian day, 33 degrees, and it was only 11am! That is not to mention the humidity level. The airport was as I had anticipated. “Makeshift” would be the word. The customs area was informal, a stamp in my passport and through I went to a small room where luggage checks can be completed if necessary (none were completed from our plane load of people) with a doorway guarded by two men to stop the hordes of taxi drivers at the ready for the newly arrived. I overheard one women say, ‘well, here we go – prepare for battle!’ as she and her family exited the shed.

I am living with the Country Director of Plan Haiti, John Chaloner. Originally from England, he has lived and worked all over the world for INGOs, including stays in Papua New Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Senegal, the Philippines and India! In two weeks time I will move to Plan’s Guest house with 2 other expatriates, both from West Africa; Guinea and Benin.

My first weekend was a great opportunity to get acquainted with life in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. This included a trip to the local supermarket, where I am strongly advised to shop, due to some security issues that may arise if I were to shop at the local markets. This is still taking some getting used to as I am always a keen market-goer, especially when travelling, for obvious reasons such as experiencing the local and seasonal produce and supporting local trade. The price of a weekly shop is around $US100 which is also a significant deterrent!

I am slowly finding ways around this. For example each week there is a lady who comes to the office selling local favourites such as coquignoles and mombard (Haitian doughnuts and peanut butter) which are delicious.

Unfortunately, since the earthquake in 2010, a severe drought in the last two years – and tropical storms Isaac and Sandy – have hit the agricultural sector hard, and it cannot support the local demand. Imported produce is heavily relied on and in some cases is cheaper than local produce, particularly rice at the moment, which perpetuates the problem.

Office days start at 8am and finish around 4pm to ensure staff are home before dark and to avoid the unbelievable traffic that starts around 4:30. The catastrophic state of the roads here leave much to be desired! What is essentially a 4km drive to work can take up to 40 minutes. Whilst there are a significant number of cars, the 20km average speed is largely caused by the strategic manoeuvring of vehicles (all 4WDs) all over the roads to avoid the craters and crevices that pervade the largely dirt tracks. The trip always passes quickly as I look on eagerly at the bustle of life that commences at sun up (05:30). School girls ride on the front of motorbikes with helmetless drivers, their tight hair bunches with white ribbons remaining perfectly intact as they casually hold on to the handles whilst clutching their school bag worn back to front. Other children proudly sport their school uniforms and walk hand in hand with an older sibling, parent or house worker, precariously close to the swerving cars and trucks sharing the road but apparently unphased by it. Women sit by their fruit, fried dough and vegetable markets which line the streets, as do men who more often sell electrical goods, shoes, perfumes and sunglasses.

My work in the office this week has consisted of familiarising myself with the gender department of Plan Haiti, my area of work for the internship, and the functions of Plan International more generally. This has meant reading a selection of internal reports, handbooks and policies from the plethora of documents that Plan produce. I am told copious report writing is a feature of most INGOs around the world!

I myself will help prepare a report during my internship here, which will focus on Plan’s compliance with Gender Equality standards within their internal operations. I will workalong side my supervisor, the Gender Equality Manager, to develop and execute a self-assessment of all of Plan’s offices; 3 program units and the country office here in Port-au-Prince. It will assess Plan’s internal structures and their compliance with internationally defined gender equality standards and uncover areas for improvement. To facilitate this, we will conduct a series of training days for all office staff from Human Resources to Accounting, Health and Sanitation, Water and Food Security, Grants and Sponsorship and everything in between. I will then help my supervisor write a report on the results of the training program, the progress or shortfalls of the organisation’s gender awareness program and any improvements that can be made in each sector. Next week I will be working with the gender advisers in the Croix des Bouquets office to finalise the plan of action for the training days. So my project will involve travelling to regional Haiti which I’m excited about!

Lunch at the office is provided by Mamma Sia and her team of cooks and kitchen hands. It is a fine sample of traditional Haitian food with the occasional international favourite such as lasagne! It’s a wonderful opportunity to sit with other colleagues and discuss local affairs and activities. That is, if the extremely hard working staff decide to take their lunch break away from their desks – which is not always the case.

This week’s conversations have focused on the riots in Jacmel, a habitually tranquil town located southwest of Port-au-Prince on the Southern coast. A not-uncommon kidnapping incident took place there on Tuesday, where one man was shot, a woman sexually abused, and a 4-year-old boy taken hostage. A ransom was eventually paid (nobody knew how much) and the 4 year old returned to his family. The riots have since died down, although an overarching protest remains against the electricity cuts that occur daily due to a deficiency of supply, which creates a less secure environment at night and increases the viability of such crimes.

Whilst incidents like these surely deter visitors, tourists and unnerve some locals, most NGO workers and locals I have spoken with do not feel directly threatened or in danger. The security conventions that exist for all organisations operating here certainly leave little room for the effects of malfeasance. The presence of expats and NGOs are beginning to subside, as the impact of the earthquake has receded from the spotlight of urgent global humanitarian objectives. Consequently, those that remain are often well adjusted to life in Haiti and tend to relax the limits of security more. Certainly more expats drive their own cars now and more are seen walking the streets, a rare occurrence pre-2010.

I have found it particularly satisfying to be in a developing country where the local population can understand me and the reverse (to some extent). Office work is conducted in French as are most governmental relations, so I have no language problems there. However, the majority of Haitians converse in Creole as the 10% who speak French do so only in a formal capacity. Whilst I am still adjusting my ear to the Creole tongue, its proximity to French will hopefully see me better understanding the quick-paced conversations before too long!

Just off for the second week’s worth of grocery shopping!

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