Friday, February 18, 2011


This week has seen the beginning of two construction projects in Gros Morne: the first, is the much-mooted chicken coop, which has long since been on the minds of UCDVO alumni, since in the region of €10,000 was raised for the project over 2 years ago; the second is an extension to the Fon Ibo school - five classrooms and a block of latrines to be built on land adjacent to the existing school.

The chicken project itself has been under way in some form since 2007. To date, land has been purchased and fenced, a well has been dug, hens have been purchased in Jamaica, and the grain storage and guardian buildings have been constructed, both wooden structures. The final construction to be completed is the actual coop itself, which will consist of three brick rooms, each housing 50 chickens. The project is being overseen by Christie Newman, a volunteer and agronomy graduate from Washington D.C., who is here for 5 months, having previously spent a year living with the nuns in 2008. The coop will function as a co-operative (a coop-co-op?), enabling locals to buy eggs at a lower price, either for consumption by their families, or to sell on at the market. From looking on the internet, there are a number of other projects in Haiti, and globally, with similar goals of providing an economic ignition point for a small community. They seem like small projects relatively, but the work required from both the organisation responsible and the local labour make the simple task slightly more expansive, and as with all projects involving the purchase of land in Haiti, time-consuming. Aside from the planning and construction of the facilities, often there is also a transitional period required, to oversee the smooth and effective transfer of management of the project to a local body. It's all well and good building a chicken coop with 150 chickens, but if the community haven't been educated, and they're hungry today, two guesses as to where those chickens will end up. Having said that, chickens are a commonly-farmed animal here, and it won't be like throwing a load of Kangaroos into Dublin-west. They know how to look after chickens on a small scale, the transition in this case will involve training in the running of a larger business operation.

There has been a lot of press lately concerning the massive humanitarian effort ongoing in Haiti, concentrated primarily in Port-au-Prince. There seems to be a consensus that this effort, relative to its financial scope, is failing. Granted, the scope of such a humanitarian effort is unprecedented, especially in a country which was so poorly developed to begin with, so I for one think its relative success or failure might be unquantifiable. Having said this, a lot of money seems to have been pissed away. In an age where communication is ever cheaper, it would seem to me that the key to less money being squandered would be more communication between smaller organisations, or divisions of organisations even, with narrower, more direct goals. Maybe I'm wrong on this, but hopefully this small-scale chicken coop will become reliable source of income for the community.

The second project I mentioned was the ground-breaking for the Fon Ibo school extension. Fon Ibo is a primary school in the centre of a small community on the outskirts of Gros Morne. The school system in Haiti is similar to the Irish system, consisting of two infant years followed by six years in primary school, then an exam and transition to college, or secondary school. In secondary school, the first three years are capped by state exams, followed by another three years ending in another set of state exams. This year is then followed by the 'Philo' year, which acts as a preparatory year for University, and culminates in a third set of state exams. Similar to Ireland, children start at the age of 4 and complete second-level at the approximate age of 18. Or at least that's the ideal scenario. Not all schools are state-funded, in fact relatively few are. In Gros Morne, most of the schools, primary and secondary, are tied to a church or privately run. In schools such as these there is generally a charge, about an average of US$15 per year. Plus the costs for books, uniforms etc. Taking this into account, many families can't afford to send their kids to school, at least not at the age-appropriate times, and often children miss a year if parents can't afford to pay at the time. As a result, there are kids up to the age of fifteen still in primary school, and a considerable portion of secondary school graduates are well into their twenties.

Still, things are more than moving in the right direction, which can be seen by the increased enrolment rates in schools. With this, however, comes the problem of space. I know there are still schools in rural Ireland which might share a classroom between two or three classes of three or four pupils, but here, there are classrooms that house two or three classes of 25+ pupils each. Some classes hang curtains to divide them into two, or use the blackboard, or simply have the classes facing opposite directions, two blackboards on opposing walls.

This is the case in some of the classes in Fon Ibo school, so the expansion could not be more welcome. At the ground-breaking yesterday, pupils and their parents carried rocks from the banks of the nearby Troi Rivier that will be used to form the foundations of the new buildings, whilst the construction crew dug the trenches outlining the structure of the new school. This community involvement was an apt and encouraging accompaniment for the laying of the foundations of the classrooms.

Employment and education. Janey mac. As if you don't get enough of that kind of talk at home these days, eh? Say hi to Mary Hanafin for me.

The Ground-breakers: A representative from each class did their part.

Community Gathering: The rest of the school and a large group of parents gather to watch the ground-breaking ceremony, and help in the formation of the foundations.

Speech Time: Not short. 

Nice shovel.

Thursday, February 10, 2011


I realise now that maybe the previous two entries were a little removed from what exactly I personally am here to do, so I thought maybe I should address that for a change.

It’s been almost two weeks since I arrived in Gros Morne, and I’ve just about adapted to the dual culture shock of living in an American household in Haiti. For those who have been in Haiti with UCDVO before, I would say it is very different. Firstly, thus far, the pace has been far removed from the manic nature of the summer projects. When it’s a four-week project, you are on a very tight schedule, where every day is pretty precisely mapped out. You really have very little time to stop and smell whatever it is that’s burning at that time. Second, is the obvious lack of the Irish group’s presence. Having a group of people of a similar age and cultural background with whom you can contrast your life at home and life in this new environment is one of the best aspects of the summer projects. You know like, we’re sound like, aren’t we? Third, everyone in the house has a work schedule that they are already familiar with, so it’s a bit more along the lines of ‘what am I going to do today?’ and then making a list.

Currently, the item at the top of my agenda is to become as close to fluent in Haitian Creole as possible, my fluency being a rate-limiting factor for much of the other work.  Easier said than done, eh? I am, at the moment, the only one of seven in the household without sufficient Kreyol to have a phone conversation. This, I feel, may be an advantage, in that it puts more pressure on me to ‘up my game’. Jenny, one of the American volunteers, has very kindly offered to give me hour-long classes, and I can honestly say that I haven’t read anything other than the grammar book ‘Creole Made Easy’ since I arrived. But the biggest benefit is obviously talking to Haitian people. I never previously realised the eagerness of Haitians to teach their language to non-native speakers. A few of the people I’ve met who have had some English, have expressed how much of a bon bagay (‘good thing’) it is to learn Kreyol, and of them, most have offered to teach me. Prior to this excursion, I had no French, and just enough Kreyol to get by at the camps, and had considered learning the language a laborious task. Two weeks in, I am now of the opinion that the language itself is relatively very simple, featuring very little in the way of tenses, and many of the nouns and verbs relating easily to their English translations. This grammar book I found in the house comprehensively explains every aspect one would require in everyday speech in about 40 pages. I emailed the book out to this summer’s volunteers earlier today, and joked that if volunteers had had this book in previous years, there might not be any work left for the new group to do here. I’m giving myself another two weeks to get to a more independent stage, where I will hopefully be able to hold a conversation. Watch this space.

Another of the current day-to-day jobs is helping another of the American volunteers, Mitch, on his construction projects. This week he has just finished construction on a two-room house for a single mother of four. The house is located near the Fon Ibo school where the American summer volunteers run their summer camp, and it is a very good house, with a latrine and a water cistern for harvesting rainwater. There was a construction team of five Haitians working on the house, who were, again, very keen to help me out with my Kreyol, and also very keen to learn my wife’s name and all my childrens’ names. That one took some explaining. Mwen pa yon masisi. Having just completed the house, Mitch’s next project is to oversee the building of an additional five classrooms for the Fon Ibo School. This is due to start next week, so over the next few days, I’ll be helping him with some renovation work on the existing classrooms.

As the work is still in its planning stage, it’s a bit too early to say what the projects for this summer’s Irish volunteers will be for certain. Liam Doyle, from the board of UCDVO, was here for my first three days in Gros Morne, and we looked at some potential projects. One of these was the construction of latrines for the people living on a hillside area of Gros Morne known as Empas Kade. It appears as though there are some latrines in the area, though not nearly enough for the population there, and given the recent cholera epidemic in Haiti, there is certainly a direct need for sanitation facilities. Part of ongoing projects in the area also includes the construction of stone walls, to stem the flow of rain water on the hillside, and thus preventing houses being washed away. There is a Ravine Committee, consisting of seven locals, who decide where and when to build these walls. UCDVO has also been involved in the construction of these walls in the past, as evidenced by the wet cement handiwork of ‘Don, des Irlandais’ on 23/7/07, and one Conor Tonry, at some stage in 2010. Other projects will undoubtedly come to light over the coming months: having a reputation of doing work in the community, people are not shy about suggesting future projects to the nuns or their associates.

But, as they say, it’s not all work. In fact, rarely do a few days go by where the household does not have an event of some type. Last Wednesday was the Feast of Manman Lachandeleur, the patron saint of Gros Morne. This was quite a big deal in the town, both to those with religious inclination and those without. The streets were lined with stalls, selling religious paraphernalia such multicoloured rosary beads and commemorative tshirts, and others that were straight-up gambling. This included one table with a roulette-style rotating wheel, only instead of numbers, it bore toy animals attached to the top, and bets were placed on painted pictures of the animals on the table. The true religious aspect of the feast did not go uncelebrated, however. Pilgrims from as far away as Port-au-Prince came to the overnight vigil in the church, and following the mass on Wednesday, a procession of about sixty to eighty priests, nuns and pilgrims attended a lunch up here in the sisters’ house. I kid you not, it was like a scene from Father Ted. And lo and behold, like there is at every religious gathering worldwide, there was a nun from Ireland present. Blanchardstown, in fact. Just goes to show how far Irish nuns will go for a good mass.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


It seems a rather large topic to cover in one posting, so I'm not going to. My understanding of Hatian Politics is only a small scratch in the dirt of a much deeper quarry of history. Having said that, the situation here is in flux, so I can give a somewhat accurate account of the events of late. 'Somewhat accurate' is a running theme throughout Haitian politics apparently.

To summarise the background to the election, on November 28th, 2010, the Haitian people went to the polls, after a delay of 7 months, to elect a new president, ten departmental senators, and ninety-nine local deputies. The incumbent President, Rene Preval, was due to leave office by February 7th, 2011, and despite the January 12th Earthquake, and an outbreak of cholera, pressure to hold the election prevailed.

Of the 19 candidates on the ballot paper, a notable exception was a candidate from the Fanmi Lavalas party, lead by Jean-Bertrand Arisitide, the former president of Haiti, who had been in exile in South Africa since his ousting from power in a 2004 rebellion. Fanmi Lavalas had decided on a candidate, and the party leader, Arisitide, had signed the endorsement via fax. However, in the period of time leading up to the election, the electoral council (CEP) changed the requirements such that the endorsement should be signed in person - a feat impossible for Arisitide and his party.

Another potential candidate of note was musician Wyclef Jean. Jean had departed from Haiti when he was 9 years old for New York, and according to many, is fluent in neither Creole or French, the two official languages of Haiti. Jean was deemed ineligible to stand for election as he did not meet the requirements regarding residency within Haiti in the past 5 years.

Opinion polls prior to the election varied wildly. However, Mirlande Manigat, from the Rally of Progressive National Democrats, featured prominently. Manigat, a former First Lady, had long been a leader of the opposition, and was running her campaign with a large emphasis on combating corruption. Rene Preval's Party, Inite, was backing Jude Celestin, who had previously taken charge of Haiti's road-building efforts (see previous post).

Okay, before this turns into the Wikipedia page for the election, I'll cut to the chase with regards to events. Provisional election results released in early December placed Manigat in first place with 31.37%, incumbent-backed Celestin in second with 22.48 %, and pop singer Michel 'Sweet Mickey' Martelly in third with 21.84%. The voting system requires a candidate to obtain more than 50 % of the vote, so the top two candidates go to a run-off election. Obviously, there was uproar at the difference of 0.64% between second and third place, and claims that ballot boxes had been stuffed in Celestin's favour.

On December 10th, it was announced there would be a recount.

Debate went on throughout December concerning the elections. Most candidates who did not feature in the top three called to scrap the election, and argued that the international community was pressuring the CEP to push the election through, even though it was obviously not without some element of tampering. One of the counter-arguments to this was the cost of another election: $29 million, which Haiti cannot afford.

January was quite an interesting month in Haiti. On the 17th, former 'president-for-life', Jean-Claude 'Baby Doc' Duvalier returned to Haiti, to a mixed reaction. He was subsequently arrested for fraud during his term in office. It was announced that the revised election results would be released towards the end of the month. Rene Preval's party, Inite, announced that it was withdrawing it's support for Jude Celestin. This led most to the conclusion that the two candidates that would be named to contest the run-off election would be Manigat and Martelly. Most were right, and after the customary delay, the election results were announced on the morning of February 3rd, with Manigat and Martelly contesting the run off to be held on March 20th.

Amid the ongoing delays, the general public, up here in rural Gros Morne, have grown tired of the election. It's old news. People, like in Ireland, are beginning to recall back to 'The Good Old Days'. Only in Haiti's 'Good Old Days', the country was run by Papa Doc, a self appointed dictator, who ruled by fear.

For the candidates contesting the election, the issues to be raised seemed fairly obvious: rebuild the country after the earthquake, educate the young, etc. For the most, candidates did not vary significantly. However, an issue which does not appear to have been addressed head-on is security. A view that I have heard numerous times from Haitians, is that at least under Duvalier, one could walk in the streets at night. There was no fear, except fear of the regime. But if you complied with the regime, happy days. People had houses to live in, food to eat, and jobs. Approval of Duvalier's methods may seem dramatic, but for most people, it makes sense. They are not political ideologists. They just want 3 meals, a roof and a pair of shoes for their child.

Another element which has arisen in recent days is the potential return of Jean Bertrand Aristide. There is a level of desire for his return: only today there were Pro-Aristide supporters burning tyres in Port-au-Prince, calling for the return of 'their president-in-exile'. However, whether his return, if it happens, has any effect on the future of the country remains to be seen.

With regards to the elections however, all is quiet, for the time being. The two candidates do differ in the way they are being sold to the Haitian people. Manigat comes across as a calm older woman, seeking to restore order after turmoil. She is not a radical feminist, and has not raised any massively contentious issues. She is a mother, looking to nurse her injured child back to health. Martelly, however, is one of the strangest politicians I've come across. Bonkers, to be honest. Search for his music videos on youtube. Catchy, eh? Now search for his campaign images. It honestly looks like somebody photoshopped a bald head onto a photograph of Obama. Haiti is still going through Obamamania, so this is no wonder. I've passed at least two 'Hotel Obamas' since arriving here. Martelly, who as the nuns here put it 'is famous for showing his briefs in public' has an obvious draw to a country with a very young population, but his qualifications for running a country are about as hard to find as a hotel named after George Bush.

The lead up to the run-off elections should be interesting, and hopefully, peaceful.