Gingerbread houses and the U.N. in Haiti

Gingerbreadhouses
(I was one of the people lucky enough to see Haiti just before the Jan 2010 earthquake struck, forever changing the fortune and landscape of much of the country, especially Port-au-Prince.  This is a record of the week I spent in capacity building workshops with local NGOs there. The hotel I stayed at, where I photographed the ironwork below, didn’t survive the quake).
M.I.N.U.S.T.A.H. That’s the acronym for the UN Peacekeeping force in Haiti. Everytime someone said the word I expected them to break out into a rap song about priests. They’re EVERYWHERE. UN Peacekeeping 101 – the force comprises volunteers from all country military or police forces. They are required to wear their country uniforms everywhere off-base with a flag and country name tag onto their left shoulders. I love seeing them congregate in a mixture of countries over breakfast at my hotel terrace, which they did almost every weekend. You also get very used to armed checkpoints and all and any peacekeeping personnel walking around at breakfast with holstered guns and tazers on the ready. Certainly makes coffee-time interesting! The other thing you see everywhere are UN vehicles in almost every car park or bumping around on the non-roads of Haiti. Here’s one.

Gingerbread houses

Imagine my surprise when I read on the front page of the Financial Times Sunday edition before even touching down in Haiti about Gingerbread houses that were going out of style in Haiti from lack of resources to update them. Gingerbread houses in Haiti! There’s a whole block of Haiti called Bois Verna that’s full of these run-down, dilapidated houses. Built in the 1900s to 1950s, no one seems quite sure why they were built. Theories are the influence of the World Trade fair that brought Art Nouveau design to the world (although I don’t see the connection between Art Nouveau and Gbread houses myself!) and the influence of US visitors to Haiti. The only other place I’ve ever had the joy of seeing such unique design is in Martha’s Vineyard at the Old Methodist Camp where 300 houses are now standing in Oak Bluffs. Once I read the article, I had to see it for myself. Here are some of my pics – rather bad because of the mid-day light and having to take shots from the street!

Haitian Art

Very popular with the tourists, there are colourful pictures lined up against road-sides in Port-au-Prince, waiting for a sale. The themes are all similar – Haitian landscape or crowds of people demonstrating some aspect of Haitian life. Also unique and beautifully haunting were the dark, flat-iron 2-D works mounted against white backdrops. My hotel had plenty of those – here are some pics.

Taptaps

The mode of transport in Haiti is a pick-up truck fitted with a curved roof at the back that can sit about 10 people in it. They’re called tap-taps and in most cases are scarred horrifically or are painted quite exquisitely. Most of them whizzed past too fast for me to catch a photo, but I got one of a parked, vacant tap-tap here.

The Workshop

Of course, the reason I was in Haiti was to train our partners there in advocacy. Here are some pictures from the last day of the workshop of 20 participants excluding translators and other assitants helping coordinate it all. This is the part of my job that I love the most – meeting the partners, getting to know their business and knwoing that I can add some value to improving the already fantastic work they are doing on the ground to help the poorest of communities. Most of our partners work in Education and health but some of them are starting to assist communities in disaster preparedness. Civil society in Haiti doesn’t have much of a history of activism or forming a collective voice to stand up for their rights. Three decades of hardened, command and control political regimes will do that to one of the poorest countries in the world. The fact that they were mined out of all their gold by colonials and have now stripped out 90% of their forest cover by the end of the last century hasn’t added to the solution for their economic recovery. The coffee industry, which is based on the Arabica bean, is able to meet national needs but Haiti imports most of its food.

As my workshop participants were more than happy to discuss in the most impassioned voices, its the free trade policies of Haiti that are killing any incentives for local production. The room swiftly divided itself into one side that was happy to stand by local production being able to supply existing demand with more government and consumer support and the others saying that there was no way rice production in Haiti could meet the needs of a quickly growing population. If I’d had the time I would have set up a debate and discussion of the two sides of the problem so that the group could decide how they would develop a position on the issue. But there we go – the irony of international development. Not enough money, not enough time and more than enough work to be done. More of that another time, but for now, some pictures of some of the people that made Haiti a real pleasure for me to visit, the workshop participants:

Pictures of Port-au-Prince from a height

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: