By Lane Hartill
A lot of people around the world are asking the same question about Haiti: What’s taking so long for food to get out.
Spend a morning at the Petionville golf course, and you’ll have your answer.
The once-swanky country club in Port-au-Prince is now home to some 50,000 displaced Haitians. The camp is already taking on the trappings of a community: In one section of the camp, you can charge your cell phone, call Europe at a phone kiosk, buy vegetables, and get your haircut. Cardboard street signs are even popping up on some trash-strewn paths. The place is so packed you have to turn sideways to get to some tents.
Behind the flowered bedsheets that serve as walls, you see shadows moving, hear babies crying and smell the akra—the flat cakes made of flour and spices that Haitians love—sizzling in oil, . The sun feels like it’s closer here, and most people lay in the shade, fanning themselves, trying to figure out how to make it through another day.
Most people keep their eyes averted from one of the hills at the camp. That’s where some Haitians bathe in their underpants, hiding behind some scrawny trees that offer only a suggestion of privacy.
But when veteran CRS workers go to the camp, they see problems—and solutions. One of the biggest issues: Tens of thousands of people living in shelters made of bedsheets tied to sticks. In a country that has been denuded of trees, lumber is a valuable commodity. Residents have used machetes to hack off limbs of some of the trees lining the fairways. All that’s left are trunks that look chewed and frayed. The rolling fairways are balding, with the brittle yellow grass getting further ground into the dust every day.
When the rainy season starts in late March, the place is going to turn into a Haitian version of Woodstock: thousands of people living in mud. And that has a lot of people worried.
CRS has already ordered plastic sheeting to improve the shelter of thousands. There are plans to start cash-for-work programs. Haitians who lost their homes will start clearing rubble in their former neighborhoods to make space for new, longer-lasting temporary shelters.
But the urgent need right now is food. Close to 200 tons of food will be brought into the Petionville Club and stored on the tennis courts. The food, from U.S. Agency for International Development Food For Peace, is packed in 100-pound sacks. It’s offloaded from 10-ton trucks and boosted onto the heads of Haitians one sack at a time. From there, the food is divided up by volunteers sitting on the ground measuring out rations for each family. It’s then repackaged and prepared for distribution. But getting that food to all the people in the camp is the challenge.
When CRS distributed more than 1,000 food kits a few days ago at the golf course, thousands of Haitians thronged to the site, pushing against the rope cordon, wanting food. Thanks to Haitian volunteers, CRS staff and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne, order was maintained, but the frustration was palpable. It could have turned unruly quickly with that many hungry people. CRS knows from years of experience you can’t just back up a truck full of food and fling open the doors. There needs to be structure to keep people safe.
That’s why a group of CRS and Caritas staff and volunteers have fanned out in the camp. Some have cans of spray paint, others hold on to about 100 yards of blue rope. A handful of volunteers circles a collection of makeshift tents with the rope. Every shelter in that circle will receive a ticket. Then an X will be painted on the shelter.
There are so many shelters, so close together, the volunteers want to make sure they reach everyone.
Then the team goes tent to tent, pulling back curtains and asking who is the head of the house, then giving them a voucher for two weeks worth of food, stuff like vegetable oil, lentils and bulgur.
It’s a rudimentary method, but it works.
And at this point, that’s what’s most important: Finding something that works.
Lane Hartill is CRS regional information officer for central and western Africa, reporting from Haiti
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