Seeing the effects of Hurricane Matthew up close, and through a different lens

Reflections from Robi, translated by Sabina


robi mayard.jpg

Robi and Carlos Celestin in Mayard, not far from Les Cayes


Yesterday, I was standing on the banks of the Grey River in Vodrey, a rural community in the north of Cite Soleil who was badly affected by the flooding of that river in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. I hadn’t come alone – behind me were over 200 volunteers from urban Cite Soleil, where I grew up, the Caribbean’s largest ghetto. Konbit Soley Leve, a social movement in Cite Soleil, organized a day of Haitian solidarity, extracting Vodrey from the debris and muck that Matthew left behind, digging canals, and being there for whatever our neighbors in Vodrey needed. The day left me with a sore back, dirt on my hands, and a reaffirmation that the Haitian spirit of Konbit could be a key element in our country’s recovery from Matthew. And the question was: how far could this solidarity stretch before it breaks? Could it reach all the way to the affected areas in the Grand Sud?

So I hitched a ride south with Haiti Communitere (Samuel Alcide) and Global Groundwork (Mitch Lown) to find out. They were going to distribute rice, oil, and pasta to 110 families in a community that one of HC’s staff members comes from. I was going to listen.

We drove to the communal section of Torbeck outside of Les Cayes, to a small village called Mayard. At first glance, you could see everything that the media had been reporting for the past week: the remnants of houses, the trees on the ground like matches thrown out of a box. I had a chita pale with some local residents, who tried to paint the picture of the night Matthew hit: some crawling on the ground like snakes to get to the safety of the village’s two concrete houses, afraid that if they stood up, the wind would carry them away. And despite the fact that 90% of the houses were destroyed, people would shake their heads and click their tongues and say, “if you think this looks bad, keep going west – the communities around Port Salut are so much worse.” I spoke on the phone today with a young doctor named Blaise who went to Abricot to help a local organization (Association of Young Volunteers for the Advancement of Abricot) – he told me they are overwhelmed by the sheer scale of need, and I could hear him choking back tears as he described rain-soaked babies crying and cholera mounting. But I am not going to stay on these images – enough has been written about them already to give you an understanding of the scale of human need and suffering. I am here to give you a different view.

I see my country with a different lens than most: I’ve been trained in several approaches (asset-based community development, SEED-SCALE, community health) that have taught me to not look just at needs, but at resources. The needs and damage are so clear they can be seen from a helicopter, but I wanted to look deeper. As I walked around the village with 22-year-old Carlos Celestin, I saw opportunities growing in the spaces between the wreckage.

First, the youth of Mayard are an amazing source of energy and organization. Barely a week after the hurricane, they had already dug out most of the roads. They had an informal assessment of the destruction in the village and had evaluated local priorities. Anyone coming into the community would be able to build on the foundation that these young people have already built, if they figured out how to ask the right questions.

Second, the environmental devastation wrought by Matthew presents a serious threat to the region in the mid-term and long-term – as someone deeply disturbed by the deforestation in my country, a part of my soul died when I saw countless trees strewn like matchsticks on the ground.  The few coconut trees that remained standing seemed somehow ill and half-dead, like zombi. But looked at through a different lens, these trees are already dead, and the communities would be foolish not to make use of them as resources. These trees could provide planks for rebuilding their homes, or enough charcoal to sell not only locally but on the markets of Port au Prince. We can mourn the death of these trees, but this community is still alive, and has the right to salvage what it can from the disaster.

And I saw enormous space for solidarity. This community was thirsty for connection. They saw the vehicles driving around doing assessments, but it was an enormous comfort for them to see fellow Haitians reach out to see how they could help. What we brought was small: food for 110 households and a Solevolt solar system to allow this community to charge phones and flashlights. But there was so much more that could be done: I shared with Carlos that we had carpenters and others in Cite Soleil who were willing to come and help, if there was space, and we started to discuss possibilities. At the end of the conversation, he said a proverb I had mentioned in the last post I wrote about the hurricane: apre dans, tanbou a lou. After the dance, the drum is heavy. He knows the rebuilding is going to be a long, painful path, and wants reassurance that someone will stick by Mayard’s side until the end of the road.

As we drove back, it made me think about all of the potential around us. Disaster and opportunity are two sides of the same clichéd coin. Far too often, the opportunity that surrounds disaster is the opportunity to turn a profit or to pad a resumé. But Matthew has given Haitians a different kind of opportunity. It gives the state an opportunity to, for once, act like a state and mobilize all of its resources to support citizens in crisis. As we passed downed electrical poles, I wondered how many EDH electricians and technicians were sitting at home in Cap Haitian and Hinche and St Marc who could instead be here, reconnecting people to the power grid. As I passed canals overflowing with debris, I wondered how many tools from our Public Works departments were gathering dust in some warehouse in port au Prince. As I hear about limited resources, I think about all of the departmental governments that got “pre-Matthew” emergency grants and never used them, and wondered if they would ever send those funds to governments in the Grand Sud. I know it has only been nine days since the hurricane, less than a week since we understood the full extent of the damage, and that the logistical constraints are massive. But the people I met today deserve to know that their government is moving, mobilizing everything it can to meet their needs and dispel their doubts that they are on their own.

And Matthew presents an opportunity for all Haitians to step up and demonstrate what solidarity looks like. If people from Cite Soleil, who our society labels as being poor and dangerous, who perhaps suffered the most hurricane damage in Port au Prince, can give their time and energy and skills to their brothers and sisters in the south, almost anyone can. To everyone using their hands to pray and post sympathy on Facebook, at some point, your hands will be needed to replant trees, rebuild roofs, or simply to comfort a family that has lost too much.  I know there are questions of coordination and not adding to the resource burden in these tight times, but this is the beauty of being Haitian: we are not going anywhere. We can provide help in the minutes after a disaster or years afterwards. So it may not be now, but I want everyone to commit to going to Sud, Nippes, or Jeremie before the next year has passed. We should be inspired and humbled by the young Dr. Blaise and his friends who are right now in Abricot, volunteering and fighting to keep fellow Haitians alive, even when they have to hide tears of despair from their patients.

Three years ago, we carried the Kita Nago from Les Irois to Ouanaminthe. It took thousands of us to carry this heavy burden step by step for months. But we got to our destination because we worked together, everyone doing what little they could. Les Irois was not far from where Hurricane Matthew landed – let’s commit to helping the Grand Sud carry this burden, step by step, month by month.  

I haven’t seen this much destruction since the earthquake hit my country almost seven years ago, but since then, I have begun to see the world through a new set of lenses. I have to, because without these lenses, I would go blind from witnessing the struggles and pain of my country every day. And through these lenses, a fallen tree becomes the plank for a new roof.  A fallen electrical pole becomes a chance for a government to prove itself to its people. And a disaster becomes an opportunity for us to write a new social contract that binds us together, through solidarity in action, through Konbit.


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