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Next step on our whirlwind trip around Haiti is Les Cayes, the country’s fourth-biggest city. While not impacted directly by the January earthquake, it has seen a surge of refugees from the worst-hit areas, especially Port-au-Prince.
We’re right next to the Caribbean here, on the site of an old rum port. Sister Marthe from the Missionaries of Charity, whom I met earlier told me, the city is colloquially known as ‘OK’ – and was responsible for spawning the popular worldwide saying that transcends virtually every language barrier.
Later I check her claim. She’s right – the term OK dates back to when rum was boxed for export to the US. The crates would be stamped with the words ‘Aux Cayes’. American stevedores who inspected the imports would know it was quality rum from the stamp and always let them pass without having to be opened for checking.
Thus, legend has it, the term ‘OK’ spread throughout the world via the merchant shipping network.
Les Cayes is a busy, bustling place, small stall holders and shop keepers lining every street. We’re here to visit the Mayor – once again to assess both the need for new school facilities and, crucially, the level of support for them.
The Board of Hand in Hand for Haiti has a tremendous responsibility to each and every donor to control the money wisely and to ensure it is all accounted for.
Good governance is absolutely pivotal to our vision and we’re only prepared to work with honest, reliable, sympathetic local partners who are prepared to return our support for their community by helping us in critical areas such as the procuring (i.e. donation) of land.
On our travels we hear well-sourced horror stories of hundreds of millions of Dollars in donations to well-known international organisations in recent weeks which have conspicuously failed to hit their target of helping the emergency relief effort.
We’re all about long-term reconstruction rather than short-term relief, and we will monitor the progress of every cent from every donor’s cheque.
Our band crowds into the Mayor’s office. He looks a little overwhelmed – not surprising considering how many of us are sitting opposite. Besides fellow Hand in Hand for Haiti Committee Board members Ed Brennan (DFS) and Olivier Bottrie (The Estée Lauder Companies Travel Retail Worldwide) and me, there’s The Estée Lauder Companies Executive Vice President, Global R&D and Innovation Harvey Gedeon, born in Haiti; Ed’s wife Deborah (a trained natal nurse); and local businesspeople Peter Frisch, Michel Applon and Alessandra (Alex) Carias.
The Mayor, Pierre Yvon Chery (above), is attentive and receptive enough, though his knowledge of local educational needs isn’t acute.
By now we have forged a consistent formula for these meetings with Olivier (usually in French) articulating our aims, closely supported by Ed, sometimes vice-versa. My key role is as chronicler of events to ensure we can keep our donors and the travel retail industry up to speed with developments. That’s important for we don’t want anyone who has donated to Hand in Hand for Haiti to feel that their donation is the end of the story. As a travel retail industry initiative, it is critical that we get long-term buy-in.
Olivier’s approach is a nice mix of the rational, the reasoned and the passionate, all delivered in a humble and often humorous way. Both he and Ed consistently make it clear to all those we meet that we are not here to impose our model or colonialise local education efforts.
But equally we’re adamant that we’ll be bringing first-class standards to everything we do. There will be some more testing moments on this point before the week is out.
Encouragingly the Mayor suggests there might be a large parcel of land available to us, around 2 miles out of town. That would necessitate us setting up a bus service though, an additional complexity to an already difficult project.
We agree nonetheless to take a look and later head out in a couple of pick-ups down a bumpy, rock-strewn rural road to a wide expanse of rural land. It’s an option, good to have – all alternatives must be considered.
We head to the coast a few minutes away and a scattering of modest bars and restaurants right on the sea. Lunch is set up at the Majuscule Bar and Grill, a budget place with a five-star view out over the beach towards the Île à Vache (‘Island of Cows’) , 15km south of Les Cayes.
It’s one of the key meetings of our trip, with the remarkable Dr Mousson Pierre-Finnigan (second from right below), the Director of the Organization for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (ORE), a non-profit body dedicated to introducing high value fruit trees as a permanent feature of the Haitian agricultural system. In short, as she describes it, “make money by keeping the trees in the ground instead of chopping them down” [Note: According to Wikipedia over 60% of Haiti’s land was forested in 1923; by 2006 that figure was down to less than 2%].
Just as she is interested in arresting deforestation to help eliminate one of the symptons of Haiti’s poverty, Dr Pierre-Finnigan sees education as a critical escape route from the vicious economic cycle in which so many of the country’s people are trapped.
She’d like us to consider bringing our school to the region of Camp Perrin, north of Les Cayes. The population of 38,000 has been swelled by an influx of around 8,700 refugees from the earthquake zone and she says the need to boost education facilities is urgent.
We all like Dr Pierre-Finnigan very much. She’s a woman who exudes honesty, intelligence and passion for her people. No wonder she was among 15 women selected for the first national award of ‘Femmes de Mérite’ (Women of Merit) in 2009.
The meeting concludes positively and it’s time to head back to Port-au-Prince via Les Cayes Airport. There to greet us are our friendly ‘Flying Nuns’ from earlier – the sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.
On the plane back to the capital, Ed Brennan (pictured without the habit, above), Chairman of Hand in Hand for Haiti and DFS, chats away to Sister Mary Prema (far right), the Superior General of the Missionaries of Charity – the role long held by the legendary Mother Teresa.
What a sight it is. I’d love to have a transcript – ‘Mother Teresa successor talks to DFS boss’ would be a great story – but it’s not that sort of meeting nor that sort of trip. We’re here to help the children of Haiti not make headlines. And Sister Mary Prema gives us plenty of informal insight as to how we should proceed.
She’s a delightful woman who, when we land, hands each of us a passport-sized picture of Mother Teresa. On the back is written:
Be only all for Jesus through Mary.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for us.
“Providence is without boundary,” she chuckles as we say a fond goodbye in the early evening darkness of Port-au-Prince. “You are our guardian angels.”
“No, you are our guardian angels,” replies Ed Brennan, summing up all our thoughts.
Our work is not done – we have to race into the central city for another meeting with the impressive Maryse Penette-Kedar, a former Minister of Tourism and a key player in the country’s efforts to reshape an education system that was effectively demolished in the earthquake zone. And it wasn’t great to start with.
It’s another positive meeting with another committed, knowledgeable and passionate Haitian.
Everyone we have met so far has given us critical advice and insight. Already the grand plan for Hand in Hand for Haiti, which may have looked like a naive dream two months ago, is fast gathering credence.