Thursday, 4 March 2010

Unbureaucratic help

18°35'44.30"N 72°15'6.69"W. These are the coordinates of the SOS Children's Village in Santo. That's pretty important, because there are virtually no street names anywhere, so help organizations locate each other by using coordinates. It took me a while to get used to that, but by now I automatically ask for coordinates, not for addresses. Among other tasks, I am in charge of coordinating relief work with other organisations. Every Friday, all the German relief organisations working here in Haiti meet at the German Embassy. The meetings, at which we decide on matters of cooperation, are moderated by the German organisation THW (Technisches Hilfswerk, the Federal Agency for Technical Relief). Whenever we receive donations in kind that are of no use to us at the moment, I offer them to other NGOs or, when the donations consist of medicine, to hospitals. We are grateful for everything we receive, and there is good use to be made of everything, but it's still most helpful when people donate money, since that allows us to buy everything we need right here while simultaneously stimulating the Haitian economy.

My days are always different, since there are so many different things to do. I'm often at the UN airport, where help is organised into different clusters. For me, the most relevant are the food cluster and the logisitics cluster. I go to the food cluster when our supplies are low and then to the logistics cluster, where two dispatchers arrange for trucks to deliver the food or other supplies to the SOS Children's Village in Santo. What makes all this so efficient is the complete absence of bureaucratical paper-pushing. Just today, I went to the food cluster, asked for some food and promptly had 15 tonnes of ready-made dinners put at my disposal. I went over to the logistics cluster, and was promised two trucks for delivery of the goods tomorrow morning. Without all the bureaucracy, so common in everyday life, working here is so much more efficient. It never ceases to surprise me how even huge organisations like the United Nations work in such an uncomplicated and swift way.

I'll tell you more on that tomorrow.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The next rain will bring the next disaster

Most people here in Haiti have been literally living in trash ever since the earthquake. Thousands live cramped in improvised tents, the stench downtown is unbearable and there are hardly any toilets to be found anywhere. Up to ten people sleep under small tarpaulins, the heaps of trash are scavenging grounds for food. Living conditions are unhygienic beyond imagination. It rained again last night, even though the rainy season isn't supposed to begin until April, but it seems as though we might expect it to start raining very heavily indeed as early as mid-March.

The earthquake only lasted a few seconds, but the consequences are overwhelming. Now, there is a new threat, not as visible, but just as dangerous. The rickety tents will offer no real protection against the torrential downpours; epidemics of all sorts will be unavoidable in the countless tent cities. This is why our chief engineer and architect Francisco spends his days and nights pouring over the plans for temporary houses. None are here yet, but as soon as they arrive, Francisco and his team will put them up on already prepared foundations. In other words, the plans are here - all we need now are the actual houses.

Francisco is incredibly busy anyway. In theory, there is a school building annexed to the village, but it can't be used at the moment due to the fact that it is currently being used both as a warehouse for emergency supplies for the children and as an office for the emergency relief team. Francisco and his team are currently constructing a large warehouse to store the goods. Once it is completed, we will move our office to a group of tents, so that we can continue lessons for at least some of the children.

Will they see each other again?

In our SOS Children's Village there is a kindergarten that is invaded by 250 children every morning. The children paint, sing, play and learn there. As I have to pass it on the way from my sleeping quarters to the kindergarten office, I often pop in briefly in the morning. By way of greeting, the children always shout out "White", because my hair and skin are so white. Then I let them touch my hair and my big nose. The children here learn to read and write through playing. Yesterday's task was to "paint a picture showing what you wish for most of all". Some painted horses, others big sweeties, but as you might expect, most of them painted pictures to do with the disaster in some way. Viola is eight years old, and she painted a pile of stones with a little stick man beside it. When I asked her who the stick man was, she told me it was her brother.

"My brother is sleeping just now under this pile of stones, and I call him every day but he doesn't come out. My brother is very stubborn!" Viola's big sister (13 years old), who I went to the kindergarten with, says in an exasperated voice, "Viola, I've told you a hundred times already, that he's dead and isn't coming back." I actually knew what had happened to her brother, but hearing it said aloud and so definitely by her sister produced quite a different effect on me. My heart began to pound and I didn't know what to say to Viola, as she looked at me questioningly. Luckily she spoke first, and said "But that doesn't mean that I'll not see him again, does it?" I replied "Of course you'll see him again, just not here and not for a while." This answer obviously didn't satisfy her, so she stood up and went over to one of the psychologists, saying "I'll only speak to Tharun about my brother." Tharun is a girl here in the SOS Children's Village who works with the children on a daily basis and is currently being trained by the five psychologists who work here. How exactly this works and what the young people do with the children - more of that another time. Today I am too tired and really have to get to bed now, so that I can be fit for getting up at 6 a.m. again tomorrow.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Saving Marevie

On my first day in Haiti I tagged along with a group of social workers who were going to a community centre to distribute food. All the children, about a hundred of them, seemed happy and sang a welcome song. One child, however, was barely moving and lying in the lap of another child. I went over to the two and saw immediately that this child was much, much too thin. Marevie is about a year old and weighs about four kilos. I took her, jumped in my car and took her to the hospital as quickly as I could. Marevie didn;t even have the strength to cry anymore or even keep her eyes open. It took doctors two full hours before they finally found a vein they insert the IV in. By this time, my nerves were wrecked. In the meantime, the team that had stayed at the community centre had found the mother, so I picked her up and brought her to the hospital. The next day, I received a call from the doctor, who said "Louis, that is not Marevie's mother". It turns out that she was not, in fact, the girl's mother, who had died giving birth to her, she was the vanished father's girlfriend. She never fed Marevie, since she never considered it her own responsibility to take care of someone else's child.

While the other children, who were the girlfriend's biological children all received planty to eat, Marevie went hungry. I was infuriated. I have yet to understand how a mother can give food to all the children in her home except one. Marevie is doing a bit better by now. The most important thing, according to the doctors, is that someone be with her and take care of her. Since I can't be with her all the time, a Haitian girl, the girlfriend of one the interpreters has taken her in. By now, I have taken Marevie to a different hospital, where she is in the care of specialists. I told the doctor what had happened to Marevie and he said "this girl is your daughter now, at least for as long as she is here with us. We have put down your name as the father on the registration form - that means you're responsible for her"! I gently placed Marevie in the doctor's hands asked for hundredth time if the Central Hospital was the right place for her. Whereas in the beginning I was very concerned about Marevie's future, I am now confident that she will be alright. Once she's feeling better, she will be admitted to the SOS Children's Village in Santo, where her future family is already eagerly awaiting her arrival. I know she will be well looked after and never neglected again.