Friday, 16 April 2010


Haitians have come up with a new word for 'earthquake'.

Goudougoudou they say, which to me seems to capture both the infernal noise of crumbling buildings and that something is chasing after you. It certainly takes some of the clinical menace away from words like “seismic” and “tectonic plates” and almost turns it into some sort of yeti or some other lumbering rough beast, slouching towards you. I inquire about the word in Camp Obama on the Northern outskirts of Port-au-Prince, where I have gone to visit on an afternoon outing. SOS Children's Villages does not have any activities here, but I have passed the camp in a car enough times to be curious about what life is like here.

Goudougoudou I just say and all five young adults sitting on the wood plank bench laugh out loud of my knowledge of the word - or was it my pronunciation?

It is good to hear laughter here, amongst cardboard covered homes and bare feet children. Camp Obama is an extremely destitute place on the foot of a mountain slope where 4000 people have set up home after the quake. There is little sign of international aid, normally visible on the logo-imprinted tents or in the form of food aid packages littering the ground.
There are no 'child-friendly spaces, no schools, and no clinics with banners from medical aid organizations or water in tanks. A row of five toilets in solid plywood looks too well constructed to not be a donation, but that is all I manage to come across during my walk around. A small truck with canned food arrives and people immediately form a queue. It is not a formalized food distribution with coupons and aid workers managing the process and again, there are no logos. Where the food comes from no one really tells me.

'Life here is terrible' says a 17-year old girl who has taken it upon herself to show me around. Her name is Lovely and that is what she is indeed. Still, at the background of all this destitution, boys are flying kites and men and women say 'bon soir' in a polite manner. For better and worse the place actually has a homely feel.

Homely is a word that does not describe the other camp I saw that afternoon. Placed outside of town in a moon-like landscape of bare mountains, rocks and same-shaped bubble tents, the UN and Haitian authorities have established a new site and begun moving some of the most vulnerable inhabitants from the overcrowded Petionville Golf Club settlement into mid-town. In the first few busloads, many families with children were moved. I am happy to see that they all wear bracelets, because it is a well-established fact that children are often at risk of being separated form their families in the normal chaos that accompanies such events. With no colors, nothing but straight lines and many men in uniform - there to provide security from surrounding mountain side camps such as the Obama Camp inhabitants who have not received much - it is hard to imagine a more child un-friendly environment. Hopefully that will get priority too, as it becomes a more established camp.

I understand the urgency behind the movement. It is raining almost every evening now and as I am writing this, a rhythmic drumming of drops on roof accompany my typing. I try to imagine the conditions in which young Lovely will be tugging herself in. I also think about the 8-month pregnant woman in Camp Obama, whose husband had died during the quake. Her belly button was poking out from a big bump and her camp shelter barely big enough for her to lye fully stretched - not on the bed because there was none - but on the ground.

As sterile as white bubble tents on a row might look, it still keep you dry at night.

Back to School

The calendar said late February and I had been in and out of that particular classroom many times, before I noticed that the date of the earthquake was still written on top of the blackboard. It was partly covered behind a tall pile of kidney beans in boxes.

'12 January' it said in white chalk. In the right hand top corner a small matrix showed the roll call: 2 absent boys and 43 present boys and girls. "I wonder how many of them will return to this school - if ever - and when?" I thought to myself. That answer came Monday when the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Santo reopened.

In fact, it has been just a few days since most classrooms contained boxes with food donations and medical supplies.

Following the earthquake and the massive destruction of education facilities, classes were suspended on a national level and the SOS school was used as storage facility and office for the emergency relief programme of SOS Children's Villages.

When I saw the two lines of students filing up in the courtyard shortly before 7am I felt we were passing an important milestone on the road to recovery. School is back in. Life is starting again and is hopefully going to give children and parents a feeling of normality and security.

After observing a minute of silence in memory of those who perished during the earthquake, school principal Myrtil Jean welcomed all returning and new pupils.

"Education is an obligation and a chance you get - so take it and work hard," he advised.

"Class 9 is now in this room, class 6 in that one," he then said and pointed to the very room where I had seen the date of the earthquake on the blackboard. I followed the students inside and was pleased to see the change in date. But I was even more pleased when I saw the roll call with the headcount: no absentees.