Hand in Hand for Haiti – Jérémie, City of Poets

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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We’re all emotionally moved and humbled by our visit to shanty town Cité Soleil as we make our way back to the domestic terminal at Port-au-Prince’s Toussaint  Louverture International Airport. If ever there was a case of people crying out for help, it is those we met this morning. The humility we saw and the warmth with which we were met will stay with us forever.

But we don’t plan to build our school in Port-au-Prince. All the advice we have received to date is to locate it outside the stricken capital in a safer place with intact infrastructure. There’s no shortage of quality land in Haiti; in fact much of this beautiful country is under-populated. The problem, as so often in poor nations, is that the rural communities have flooded into the capital in a desperate search for work.

That, in turn, compounds pressure on already strained and sub-standard housing facilities, creating giant slums such as Cité Soleil and others on the hillsides that ring Port-au-Prince. Overlay such a vulnerable social structure with a catastrophic earthquake and you have a humanitarian disaster on a terrible scale.

Education is one critical escape route out of poverty for the young people of Haiti. Employment is another. Both are critical (and mutually related) issues that need urgent addressing in a country that has seen over 4,000 schools destroyed by the earthquake and a chronic lack of employment outside Port-au-Prince. Virtually every expert we speak to says that much of the new Haiti, from factories to schools to hospitals, must be focused outside the capital.

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[Martin Moodie, Ed Brennan and Olivier Bottrie keep up with their respective day jobs while awaiting the flight to Jérémie]

Flight conditions, thankfully, are much better than for our visit to Les Cayes yesterday. I don’t think my nerves could have taken another flight through the fog. We’re back on our familiar Tortug’ Air 16-seater and the pilot and co-pilot greet us like old friends.

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[Left to right: Ed Brennan, Olivier Bottrie, Harvey Gedeon, Martin Moodie and Michel Apollon]

We’re headed for Jérémie, capital city of the department of Grand’Anse, said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Unlike yesterday, visibility is superb and we’re treated to a bird’s eye panorama of Haiti’s spectacular coastline. White sand beaches, dramatic cliff faces and palm trees – apart from the deforested hills this could be any other tourism-driven, vibrant Caribbean island.

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Instead it’s the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The tragedy (and yet the opportunity) of Haiti is that it is simply crying out for responsible development in areas such as tourism, light industry and modern agriculture, which would transform its fortunes dramatically.

Lonely Planet describes Jérémie as “about as close to the end of the road as you can get in Haiti”. Actually it’s not – Les Abricots, which we will visit later in the day, takes that honour – but it’s certainly a distant and isolated point on the northern side of the west coast strip that juts out from central Haiti.

Jérémie oozes history: in 1793 it was the landing point for Britain’s short-lived, unsuccessful invasion of Haiti. In 1964 it was the centre of an attempt to overthrow the country’s legendary dictator ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, who responded by slaughtering the town’s entire mulatto population. Jérémie is also known as the ‘City of Poets’ and we are quickly to discover that it cares greatly about all forms of education.

Our aircraft touches down at the tiny rural airport on a dirt runway. ‘Bienvenue a Jérémie – La Cite des Poetes’ says the sign above the entrance.

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The view as we make the short drive to our accommodation, the Auberge Inn, is a profound contrast with the streets of Port-au-Prince. Donkeys carry heavy bags of charcoal for cooking (the key cause of Haiti’s mass deforestation) along the road while teenage girls with impeccable posture rest huge baskets of bananas on their heads. This is a different Haiti, one the world, ensnared by perceptions and prejudices about Port-au-Prince’s slums, does not even know exists.

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The Auberge Inn is a lovely, colourful little wooden guesthouse, with a porch that doubles as the restaurant and a balcony above. There are books, maps and handicrafts on sale and all the bedrooms have elegant mosquito nets above the bed (several of us will discover why later that night). At the front of the Inn, exquisite little hummingbirds dart in and out of the flowers that hang from a vine-laden canopy, drinking the nectar inside.

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The owner, Juliette Nicolas Tardieu, has lain on a pleasant lunch for our meeting with local community leaders.

They include Maurice (second from right, below), the town’s 89 year-old school football coach, who is splendidly dressed in a red shirt, blue jacket, white shoes and a tie that seems to feature a giant winged insect. The following morning Maurice, formerly a top footballer, shows us a few of his moves, including a soft shoe shuffle that Pelé (Maurice’s hero) in his prime would have been proud of.

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This is a tough, serious and at times bruising meeting. Among the delegation are lawyers, professors and other academics, a magazine editor and the head of the local society of elders. After the pleasantries are over and Olivier has introduced the Hand in Hand for Haiti project, they get straight to the point.

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Their collective concern is that we may be seeking to impose some kind of “pet project” on the local community, and that because of our focus on educational excellence it may be perceived (and intended) as “elitist”.

Why not simply support the existing school facilities here, we are asked, ones that lack facilities such as a medical clinic? There’s also a not unreasonable fear that we will build something and then disappear, like casual do-gooders, from the scene in a few years.

It’s robust but refreshing stuff and no-one takes any prisoners. We know these people care deeply about education and about their community. They impress us at every turn.

We’re also told, movingly, how Jérémie, though physically unaffected, was traumatized by the earthquake. “12/01 changed everything for us,” says one. Not only has there been an influx of refugees from Port-au-Prince but many local young people had been studying at university when the quake struck. “Jérémie lost many of its children,” he says.

Hand in Hand for Haiti Chairman Ed Brennan steps in to assure those present that we believe strongly in partnership with the local community; that our strategy is flexible and sympathetic to their needs; and that we will take onboard all their concerns. It’s precisely the right move and the mood warms noticeably. We part with an encouraging feeling of mutual respect.

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A stimulating lunch over, we are invited to take a quick visit to a local girls’ school, Lycee de Jeunes Filles, a splendid institution that functions in two sessions daily (from 08:00 to 13:00 and from 13:00 p.m. to 18:00). We’re given a quick tour, including a preview of a workshop that celebrates womanhood. It’s being led by a young woman (below) of incredible energy, passion and articulateness who wants to become a lawyer but who is frustrated by the lack of career opportunities. Just a couple of minutes in her company tells us she will somehow find them and go far.

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We’ve already had a packed day. But it’s actually just begun. Next stop is Les Abricots, a tiny principality to the far west of the country. There we have a meeting with one of the world’s most legendary educational figures, the extraordinary Michaelle (Mica) Moravia de Verteuil. But first we have to cope with the road that will take us there…

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  • Martin
    your writing is so captive that i do not want it to end . i am constantly updating and wishing to find a long story… congratulation , it makes me feel proud!!!

    michel

  • Martin your writing is so infused with color and feeling…it is truely like living it all over again….with fewer mosquitoes…Ha…

    Keep up the great work…