It was the headline news all over the world as it approached and violently struck in September 2015. Hurricane Matthew, a category 5 hurricane with wind speeds reaching 150mph affected approximately 1.4 million people, killed nearly 1,000 and caused 2 billion US dollars worth of damage. Crops and farm animals were destroyed, homes flattened, communication systems downed and Cholera spread as fresh water systems were contaminated.
Like many, I had watched the swirling white clouds of Hurricane Matthew hovering over Haiti on my TV screen, unable to fully imagine its destruction from my sofa on the other side of the world. The death toll and destruction resulting from Hurricane Matthew was well publicised in the media for a couple of days, then completely disappeared from our TV screens, replaced by the acidic American presidential race.
I knew very little about the disaster prone country. I knew it was very poor, had rotten luck with natural disasters and that it was geographically located in the Caribbean, but that was it. By travelling all the way from the UK to volunteer with the clean up and aid distribution, I was hoping to reassure the Haitians I met that the world outside does care.
Haiti gained independence from France in 1804 in the mist of the French revolution. Lead by the salves, the Haitian revolution of 1791-1804 culminated in the abolition of slavery and the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte's army in the battle of Vertieres. The sovereign nation of Haiti was proudly the first independent nation of the Caribbean, the only nation in the western hemisphere to have defeated the three European superpowers of the time (Britain, France and Spain) and the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful Slave revolt.
Haiti’s 10.6 million, mostly French and Creole speaking population is the poorest in the western Hemisphere, blighted by its massive debt to the France in exchange for independence, political instability, one of the worlds highest corruption rankings and frequent natural disasters.
As our plane from America flew over sunny Haiti with its tall peaks, wildly zigzagging chocolate brown coloured rivers, dazzling turquoise sea and deserted beaches, I knew Haiti was so much more than the broken country portrayed in the media. It looked like paradise from 10,000 feet.
But then the plane began to descend towards the capital, Port Au Prince, and I got a closer view of the reality and destruction. It struck me that the main port was nearly empty of boats, there were no trees on the hills, just dozens of scattered plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. It was almost impossible to look out of the plane window as we landed, the tightly packed tin roofed shacks reflected the sun causing me to squint my eyes almost closed until I was forced to put my sunglasses on to continue viewing.
The 6 hour drive from the capital to Les Caye, Haiti’s second largest city in the south and the most affected by the hurricane, was a bumpy one. By now the main road had been cleared of debris which now formed a foul smelling 2 meter high mound by the side of the road, so high that it blocked the view out of the 4x4 vehicle. We had to keep the windows closed as we drove along, not for safety, we were largely un noticed, we were just desperate to try and shut out the smell. Children, goats and chickens scoured the repulsive smelling mountain looking for food and useful items to sell.
The streets were chaotic. Crowds of people dodged the cars that were all over the road, angry car horns constantly beeping. There was no order to the traffic, it was a haphazard mass of un-road worthy trucks with flat tires, pedestrians, goats and sellers hawking their toiletries and fruit. Seeing two live goats strapped to the back of a dirt bike in the middle of the traffic became a normal sight. There was still widespread flooding that had been recently topped up by further rain since the hurricane. Signs of erosion by the flooding were everywhere, the remaining trees had their roots exposed and anything concrete appeared to sit on top of, not in the ground, as the soil it once sat in had been washed away.
Groups of women gossiped as they wash themselves and their clothes in the rivers whilst the children played naked and backflipped into the rubbish filled water. The bare trees, rocks and cacti hedges surrounding them were full, not of green leaves, they had been stripped in the hurricane, they were full of colourful clothes hung to dry in the sun. Despite living in the still flooded ground in tiny muddy wooden shacks with no roofs, the school children were immaculately dressed in their colourful uniforms. The red trousers, ties, perfectly ironed white shirts, smart yellow dresses for the girls with matching hair ribbons all demonstrates the pride Haitian people have and was an uplifting sight among the devastation. Suddenly I felt ashamed to be wearing the same clothes for the 3rd day.
Throughout my time in Haiti I never saw any birds in the sky, the locals said the hadn't yet returned since the hurricane. For now, the birds of the sky were the aid helicopters. Not an hour went by without hearing the hum of a helicopter, delivering aid to some of the more remote villages inaccessible by road.
On the streets my ears were overwhelmed from the enthusiastic church singing and clapping which fought with the blaring reggae music played by street vendors, angry car horns on the roads and arguing trades people.
The noise volume went down with the sun at 5:30 pm, the darkness forcing the roads to be cleared and the crowds to go home. At night the sky was dark black, scattered with brightly twinkling stars. With no electricity anywhere there was no illumination, except for the dozen or so fires I could see in the hills from our camp, providing some light for people as they burnt their rubbish. Smoke from these fires constantly filled the air, burning my eyes and made me cough.