Traveling and working in the developing world, I’ve discovered that I’m a fairly positive person. In the cholera-ridden slums of Nairobi and the heroin-shooting galleries of Dhaka, Bangladesh, I’ve managed to find things that left me hopeful that solutions were more a matter of will than way. And then came Haiti.
I arrived in Port au Prince on a search for how The Nobelity Project – and anyone who wanted to join us – could make a real difference in the long-term rebuilding of Haiti. I was prepared for bad, but what I found was worse. In a city of six million people, one out of two buildings destroyed or seriously damaged. A million people living in tents. Major fuel shortages. Disaster pricing for essential commodities. Schools that remain closed many months after the quake. Hurricane seasons coming fast. And never far from anyone’s mind – the Haitian’s continuing shock and mourning over the loss of 300,000 friends and family members. 300,000 – what portion of your city or county would that be?
I was in the company of our partners, Architecture for Humanity, who have an office in the country and have emerged as one of the most-respected voices for understanding the long-term nature of this disaster. AfH’s knowledge has been hard won through multi-year perseverance after the Tsunami and Katrina, and they’re committed to a long-term school reconstruction effort here, and to providing advice, design and engineering services to help build it back better.
“Before the quake, there was only one seismic engineer in the whole country,” founder Cameron Sinclair told me as we tried to drive through the city’s rubble strewn streets. “That engineer reported that the only building in the country that could withstand a major quake was the Presidential Palace. And it fell down.”
Shortly after the quake, The Nobelity Project offered my film One Peace at a Time to Architecture for Humanity chapters around the world for Haiti fundraising screenings. The Austin screening at the Paramount Theatre raised well over $10k, with more funds coming from events across the country and as far away as Bangladesh. (That’s right, people in Bangladesh – one of the poorest nations on earth – are raising money for their brothers and sisters in Haiti. So there’s a little hope for you.)
Cam Sinclair had enlisted many other supporters. Ben Stiller’s foundation Stiller Strong and director Paul Haggis through the L.A. based Artists for Peace and Justice were partnering with AfH in Haiti. APJ has raised $6 million for Haiti, but I was equally impressed by their commitment to the idea that a star has to do more than just donate money to be a part of this work. Haggis, Stiller, Gerard Butler (of the amazing “300”) and House’s Olivia Wilde were on the ground working hard on APJ’s effort to build a new high school. And while visiting St. Julien’s Hospital, I discovered that Olivia has a real knack for producing smiles on kids who were very much in need of smiles.
The need for schools in Haiti is almost endless. One indication – there are only three high schools in the entire country which are certified to send a graduate on to college. With Cameron and Dan Shine of the 50×15 Foundation, we toured the nation’s top high school – St. Damien’s – where the library and computer library were completely destroyed, and 21 of 23 classrooms were severely damaged. There are 5,000 people living in tents on the campus, and kids were playing soccer in the class next to the rubble-strewn classroom on the left. Wandering through the damaged offices which looked as if they could collapse at any moment, the size of the challenge was overwhelming. The refugees would need new homes. Everything would have to be rebuilt. Where could you even begin. We were the first since the quake to go inside the teacher’s library – cinder blocks still laying on the piles of books and broken sports trophies and the clock frozen at ten minutes after five, the moment of the quake that changed everything. In Port au Prince, that moment seems to define everything.
“No one wants to go inside,” Cameron told me. “The Haitian people have a strong fear of buildings.”
In addition to endless rubble – and the crowds and shops set up in the streets, a sudden diesel shortage was complicating our school tour considerably. We had many more campuses to visit and evaluate, but found only long lines at the gas stations, and no fuel being pumped to those waiting. I’d brought a bottle of Patron Tequila from duty free in Ft. Lauderdale, so Cameron called Sean Penn – whose group JP HRO runs a refugee camp with 50,000 people and 5 clinics – and offered him my tequila in exchange for a few gallons of diesel. After months living in a tent, Sean was game for the tequila, but even his connections didn’t find any spare fuel. I finally contacted our friends at the World Food Program in Geneva (all the movie screenings I’d done were coming in handy), and was told about the U.S. military’s fuel depot at the airport. We weren’t on the approved NGO list for fuel and were told “No” by a series of armed Haitian and American soldiers guarding the fuel. Taking every “No” as a “Yes”, we eventually pushed our way past the guns to a giant tank and received the fuel that would change everything about my experience in Haiti.
The next day we headed far from the city to the Saut d’eau area of the central plateau to visit a series of schools run by the global relief organization, Concern Worldwide. Passing the mass graves where over 100,000 quake victims are buried, we turned off the main highway onto an excellent graded road that Concern has built from the coast to deep in the mountains. If your goal is create broad economic development in a vast, rural area, a good road is a really good start. A beautiful mountain area rich with water, Saut d’eau has almost no economic development and massive numbers of refugees from Port au Prince who have escaped the ruined city in favor of camping with rural family. How they are going to earn a living is anyone’s guess.
Concern has 40 primary schools scattered across these mountains. In a full day of travel, we managed to visit two. Both had 200+ kids jammed together in temporary pole and straw roof structures, each grade seated shoulder to shoulder with the next in the most cramped school conditions I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
But I found something much more important – for every kid was wearing spotlessly clean clothes, and paying rapt attention to teachers writing careful French, English and Math lessons on blackboards. I was particularly taken by the hand-stitching of the younger kids’ names across their tunics, like my man Clifindis below.
As much as I would like to be rebuilding the nation’s largest high school, in the steep hills of Sodo I found a task where the need and the path to fill it are both clearly defined. Plain and simple, these kids need earthquake- and hurricane-sturdy classrooms. Pulling that off in a country where building materials are hard to come by is going to be a challenge, but The Nobelity Project and Architecture for Humanity are both committed to partnering with Concern and these local communities to build something lasting here.
AfH’s working model is to embed resident architectural design fellows. AfH designer Greg Elsner has been living in Kenya for nearly a year to help The Nobelity Project build Mahiga Hope High School, and his skills and dedication have been one of our most critical elements of success. In Haiti, AfH is hoping to create a design diaspora, to entice dedicated Haitian-Americans to return to their home countries and use their skills to help build what Haiti has never had before – a national education system.
This is going to be a long journey. It’s not about tents and emergency health care – though those have been important too. This is about starting on a path from which you can’t even see the end. (If you haven’t read the magnificent Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, which chronicles the life of Dr. Paul Farmer and his work to bring health care to the people of Haiti, that’d be a good first step.) In the book as they climb a mountain path to offer medical care to a rural family, Farmer and Kidder walk on and on, reaching each peak only to discover another in the distance.
That story rode lightly on my mind as our group climbed a long path to a distant school. I had my camera gear and am still building strength from a bad leg break two years ago filming in the Grand Canyon, and I wasn’t positive I was going to make it (actually, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make it). As I climbed, I thought about the materials needed to build a school at the end of this path – steel rebar, heavy bags of cement, stone or cinder blocks, timbers and metal roofing – and knew that all of it would have to be carried by men like me (like me but stronger), by donkeys or both.
We’d raised some of the money it would take to build that school, but I also thought about the need to reach out to countless other people and enlist their support by sharing what I’d seen. Five dollars, five hundred, five thousand at a time – pretty soon you’re talking real education.
This is the school I found at the end of the path. A school that needs to rebuild a water system and classrooms destroyed in just a few moments. A school that may one day send these girls to St. Julien’s for Secondary School and – who knows – to the States perhaps to study architecture and design.
Not long after leaving Haiti, I was at the Clinton Global Initiative mid-year meeting in New York, and found myself seated next to my great hero, Dr. Paul Farmer. President Clinton asked Farmer to give us a report on Haiti, and he rose from his season, clearly tired from his work in Haiti, in Rwanda, and all the miles in between.
“Haiti’s never had a national health care system, or a national education system,” Farmer reminded us. “This is our chance.”
So that’s my two-person, joint report on Haiti. This is our chance. If you want to help build a classroom in Haiti, you can make a donation at architectureforhumanity.org or directly with the nobelity project – where I have to answer for every dime – at nobelity.org. Clifindis will be glad you did. I also recommend checking up on Farmer’s group Partner’s in Health at www.pih.org, and Concern Worldwide at www.concern.net
It’s called hope – pass it on.
turk pipkin, the nobelity project
Oh yeah – One Peace at a Time is now out on DVD – pick up at copy at nobelity.org, waterloo records, amazon or anywhere else you can find one.