Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation

Oct 03rd
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Aid to Haiti

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Aid to Haiti
Tzu Chi gets involved
Republic of Haiti at a Glance
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Age-old political instability and frequent natural disasters have brought chronic poverty to Haiti, once the “Jewel of the Caribbean.” Dependent on foreign aid for decades, Haitians are barely able to take care of themselves, not to mention extend care to others. Therefore, the care and respect that Tzu Chi volunteers displayed at their aid distributions in Port-au-Prince early this year touched a chord in the hearts of many local people.

Eight thousand hectares (19,770 acres) of forest disappeared from Haiti in the past decade alone. Many of those trees were cut down for fuel. In the 1920s, more than 60 percent of Haiti was forested; now, less than two percent is.

With severe deforestation comes soil erosion. When four hurricanes in a row hit the nation in August and September 2008, bare hills profusely bled mud into the rainwater rushing down the slopes. Muddy water surrounded or even submerged farms and homes, plunging destitute families into even deeper financial straits.

Before that, skyrocketing food prices on the international markets had already hoisted domestic prices in Haiti to levels beyond the reach of many people. Rice had become so expensive that people were instead eating mud cakes made from a mixture of clay, salt, and a little vegetable oil or margarine.

These mud cakes have become a staple food for the poor. Sadly, however, even at just five U.S. cents apiece, the cakes are still too expensive for some people.

The slums
It is not surprising that some people cannot afford to eat meat. But even if they could afford to, some wouldn’t. Danel Georges said, “I wouldn’t eat pork because I know what pigs feed on here.” He should know. He has been a community activist for 29 years, and now he heads the Mouvement d’Unite de la Communaute per l’Integration.

Haitians dump their garbage into open ditches. Water takes their garbage out of their sight, and that’s good enough for them. However, soon there is nowhere for the garbage to go, and the ditches are clogged with trash.

Residents end up living with their own garbage day and night. So do their livestock and pets. Pigs, sheep, chickens, dogs, and cats graze the piles of garbage in the ditches and elsewhere. Owners leave their livestock out during the day to feed themselves. The animals, which are a source of income for some people in the country, spend the night indoors with people.

Our home visits revealed an amazing contrast. Despite the filthy surroundings on the outside, all the homes that we visited had spotlessly shiny floors, even though the residents cooked indoors with charcoal. Everything inside was also neat and orderly.

We learned that the government cannot afford to build landfills or garbage incinerators, and people have no better way to dispose of their garbage. The best that people can do under the circumstances is keep their own house clean inside.

Danel took us to visit nine-year-old Tonica Denis, who lived on a hill. We had to climb steep steps and walk narrow alleyways, some only wide enough for one person. In her neighborhood, a vendor had set up a table to sell such necessities as rice, sugar, salt, and laundry detergent. This table was the area’s grocery store. Everything was sold in small packages, each going for between 10 and 20 gourdes (25-50 U.S. cents), a substantial sum for many Haitians whose average daily income is about 73 gourdes (US$1.75). They have to pinch every penny.

Tonica’s home for seven people covers barely 107 square feet. With only one double bed, somebody has to sleep on the floor. They were cooking soybeans when we arrived. The cupboard was bare but for some sauce. Her sister took out a one-kilogram (2.2-pound) bag of rice. That was all the food the seven of them were going to get for the day. Tonica’s mother and older siblings sell things on the street. On a light day, they may pull in less than 100 gourdes (US$2.49). Though not a huge amount, it is better than no income at all.

When we got to her home, Tonica was wearing a one-piece swimsuit. A school uniform hung neatly on the wall. Public elementary schools are free of tuition, but they only admit students who wear uniforms. This prevents some children from attending school altogether. Many parents work hard to save money for their children’s uniforms. Unfortunately, children grow fast, and they soon outgrow their uniforms. This forces them to quit school and wait for their parents to save up for more uniforms. It is therefore not uncommon for a class to have age disparities of up to five years among its students.

Tonica has a suitable school uniform, so she can go to school to study and eat lunch. For her, school is a place of joy and hope, a place to improve her prospects for the future.

École Nationale Republique du l’Uruguay /Guatemala in Port-au-Prince is also a place of hope for its 1,200 students. The school was built in 1956 with the help of the governments of Uruguay and Guatemala. In the mornings the school goes by the name with “Guatemala” in it, and in the afternoons that is replaced with “Uruguay.”

After a half century of service, the school building is no longer safe. However, it remains in use because there is no budget for repair. It is a three-story building with ten classrooms. More than 20 students pack into each 107-square-foot classroom. The school doesn’t have a single lighting fixture—big holes in the walls admit sunlight into the rooms. When there isn’t enough natural lighting, they use candles.

The rest of the school is in no better shape, either. UNICEF built a water tank for the school, but it was never able to get a steady supply of water. One can tell when there is no water in the tank because toilet odors pervade the campus.

Compared with other schools in Haiti, this one is by no means in particularly bad repair. More than 150 schools in the nation are just as dilapidated. It can be dangerous attending classes in such unsafe structures. Indeed, a school building in the capital collapsed in November 2008, taking nearly a hundred lives.

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