An island nation of islands.
Identifying problems in Haiti is a national pastime. Numerous are the meetings and conversations which begin or end with the phrase “You see, the problem in Haiti is _________.” Fill in the blank. It’s the government, it’s corruption. It’s the mentality of the people, it’s the lack of competent human resources, it’s the power outages and in any event it’s all the damn President’s fault.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t.
When I first came to Haiti I was living in a small village at the same NGO I was working for. Imagine a mess hall doubling as dining room and conference centre surrounded by camping-style rooms with bunk beds with a couple of bathrooms at the extremities. We would grab chairs and laptops and sit in the spaces between – that was our office.
Then, my second time around, I was welcomed by my Haitian team and stayed with them in a big house (also out in the countryside). Finally, I moved to a small city (Fort-Liberté) and along with a Haitian colleague we rented the top floor of a house. That is when I really discovered what it means to keep house in Haiti.
For the most part, I was the one managing the house. My Creole was good enough, and in the beginning I was eager to learn the ropes. When necessary, my roommate would pitch in her half of the cost for water and gas…but I was the one organizing it. Wow, was I in for a headache. In Haiti, every house is its own kingdom. My kingdom had constant needs. A big basin, built under the two-storey house, contained the washing water. A huge truck would need to be ordered and paid for to fill this basin. Hopefully it arrived on time. Then, an electric pump would pump a small portion of this water to a reservoir sitting on the roof of the house, after which the water could be gravity fed through the pipes and faucets and toilets in the house. The pump being electric and electricity being scarce, we had our own gasoline powered generator to run this pump. The roof top reservoir was small so we would pump the water from the basin once every 3-4 days. The water in the basin itself generally lasted about 3-4 weeks. Electricity for the house was provided at times by a small solar panel, also on the roof, and at times by the EDH, public electricity provider, although their services were patchy at best and non-existent for the majority of my 5 months of Haitian house management. Drinking water was purchased separately. I also had a full-time housekeeper and the nephew of the house owner helping with everything from cleaning the floors to bicycle maintenance. So much time and energy invested into getting basic needs met! It was frustrating and fascinating. I had never dreamed it could take so much effort just to charge a phone battery, or take a shower or wash the dishes.
One day, while I was on the roof of the house, I had a good long look at the houses composing the small city that lay sprawled around me. There were water reservoirs perched on the various roofs, very similar to my own. There were solar panels, big and small, providing their homes with some electricity. Garbage was thrown wherever. There were marks all around me of every house fighting for its own survival, independent of the rest and connected to no global system. A few wispy electric cords of the EDH floated from home to home, here and there…
It struck me how un-integrated things really are. When I compare it to a modern and wealthy city like Calgary (Canada) where the municipality and private companies run everything from sewage and water systems to power and gas, not to mention postal service and street clean up…
I imagined stepping unto the roof of a Calgary building and looking out at the neatly integrated system of homes, buildings, businesses and services mapping out their stories below me. Water, power, gas, garbage, sewage, mail…each unit connected to the other, each one a node in a much larger system.
What a great contrast between what I remembered and what I saw before me.
Could I draw a nation-wide parallel here? What about the thousands and thousands of small organizations now working in Haiti? Why so many, why are they all so small? The accepted logic is that it’s difficult to trust and work with others, and so I’m better off as the president of my organization and you can go and be president of yours. Then of course comes the need to adapt ideas to local conditions, and indeed every little village and nook has something particular about it that no on other place has… of course it does! Every village is its own island.
So we may work for a similar goal or in the same area, but we’re different enough to justify the creation of two organizations instead of one. Take this concept and repeat it on the macro scale through all of the villages and departments and you have a Haiti that has earned its nickname as the “Republic of the NGOs” with something like 10,000 organizations today all fighting at once to prove their contribution is valid.
But really, considering how basic needs are met, how can one think of integrating with a neighbour when everywhere we look every person or family is fighting for their own survival independent of the others?
Many Haitians themselves will say that “Haiti’s one big problem” is a lack of teamwork. I can’t say that I’m surprised. When every house is its own kingdom and every village its own island… it’s only logical to assume that it’s every man for himself.