NB Preword. We decided to interview the head of the pharmaceutical company Sanofi in Kazakhstan. During the process, it turned out that this CEO is unusual, and that’s why. When the earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, he went there to dismantle the ruins instead of having a rest in Provence. This article is his story, written by him personally, immediately after his return from the island. We decided that it should be published again. There is much to learn. Interview will be published later. Now you can read it here.
As flight AF 3958 drops out of the clouds I get my first glimpse of where I’ll be spending my summer holidays — pristine sandy white beaches, crystal clear waters, and further inland the summit of Pic La Selle, part of the Chaine de la Selle mountain range. As I lose myself in the scenery below I am rudely interrupted by the French air hostess over the intercom, it’s time to buckle up and put the seat back upright. Out of the window I can no longer see the coastline as we descend towards Mais Gate Airport, and a few seconds later I feel the landing gear touch down. The rumbling noise is the same as usual but either the pilot likes rough landings or we are not rolling on a very flat surface. With that bumpy landing the 14 hour flight is over and I have finally arrived at my summer holiday destination.
As I get off the plane there is no hydraulic air bridge, but rather five locals wheeling a rickety old mobile ramp up to the plane that now connects the passengers to the ground. Just like the old days. It is a very balmy 37 degrees Celsius, a truly sweltering afternoon. As I make my way to the arrival lounge there are no longer the granite floors of Charles de Gaulle Airport or the marble walls of JFK, but rather I am guided towards a dusty shed where men in hard hats and dirty clothes seem to be loitering.
The first point of concern is my bag; what are the odds of it being ‘lost’? To my surprise after a nervous half hour wait all the luggage is delivered by a ‘tap tap’ (an old double cab with two benches on the back) to a place where once upon a time there had been a carousel. After picking up my bag I make my way out of the ‘terminal’ to be greeted by a man holding a shoebox with my name scribbled on it. As I follow my unlikely pied piper with his shoebox out of the airport my mind is scrambling to make sense of what am I seeing — and it is in a rather dizzy state that I hop into a Suzuki jeep, eighties vintage, and Mr Shoebox drives me out of the airport.
As I try to adjust to my new reality the jeep makes a left turn onto a road, and it’s only now that I truly realize where I have arrived.
It seems like what I have always imagined the ‘Day after apocalypse’ to be like in my mind’s eye. Stretching into the distance my vision is saturated with thousands of tarpaulin ‘tent’ filled IDP camps which have red and blue writing stating ‘USAID’. Then to my right thousands of tin sheds. It is beginning to get dark but there is no electricity and whole place is quickly getting covered by the tropical sunset. Ironically, out of this gloom I see a sandy colored billboard shattered on the ground proclaiming ‘Bienvenue en Haiti’.
Late afternoon (around 5pm) on January 12th, 2010 a devastating earth quake hit the island of Haiti. It measured force seven on the Richter scale. Recent government figures indicate that approximately 230,000 men, women and children were buried under the rubble that day, another 300,000 were badly injured, and it left over million people homeless. Over 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings were obliterated. The quake lasted for 39 seconds and by the time the earth stopped trembling US$8 billion worth of assets had been wiped out.
According to UN figures the total Haitian GDP was only US$7 billion in 2009. So the quake literally destroyed over 115% of the Haitian economy. Before the quake 2009 figures) Haiti was ranked 149 (out of 182) on the United Nations human development index and it had an average literacy rate of 45% and average life expectancy of 50 years. In summary Haiti was already an impoverished nation with nothing, and on that fateful day they went from nothing to less than nothing. According to a journalist, «even in good times, Haiti is an economic wreck, balancing precariously on the razor’s edge of calamity.» On that day they were pushed over the edge by Mother Nature.
Back in Europe, the winter of 2009/2010 had been a biting one for me — some called it the big freeze. I don’t know about that but I was waiting for it to be over from the first day it dropped below zero. So you can understand my delight to see the first spring flowers popping up out of the ground in April. It might seem a bit premature to think about summer holidays at that time, but in France people start booking their next summer holidays just after getting back from the current ones. And so I started my research by looking at the usual prospects — South of France, maybe Italy or even further off in the Caribbean. The more I researched, the more it dawned on me that I could barely remember much of my previous summers, apart from having a large credit card bill to prove it and some strange stamp in my passport.
However, I found that I still remembered the most intricate details of charity work I had done while at university. These memories were vivid, colourful, intense, and filled with a sense of satisfaction. Moreover, I couldn’t help feeling that I had achieved something worthwhile that made me feel proud at the end of it. Some people say charity work is a selfless act – it is true to a certain extent; but at the same time I felt very selfish as I was deriving an immense amount of self-satisfaction myself. So with this in mind I set about finding something different for my summer vacation 2010, something that would make me feel good and at the same time do some good in return.
So I started my research and Googled ‘Recent Disaster Zones’. Voilà — hundreds of pages linked to Haiti. I emailed a dozen of those organizations working in Haiti for more information and got a very positive response from Hands on Disaster Response (www.hands.org), working in Léogâne near the epicenter of the earthquake.
Once I got that response I was hooked and I knew my summer 2010 destination was Léogâne, Haiti.
It is about 20km from Port Au Prince Airport to the Hands on Disaster Response HODR) base camp in Leogane. But it took my ‘chauffeur’ just over two and half hours to get there. Unless you have been to this place it’s beyond normal comprehension as to how a modern vehicle could take that long to go just 20km, especially if you consider the world record for a marathon is just 2 hours and 4 minutes to cover 42.2km. You’ll have to take my word for it unless you dare to make the trip yourself. This is not your ordinary highway – potholes the size of houses, rubble and broken concrete everywhere, stripped of tarmac – you wonder whether it’s a war-torn zone or a surreal reconstruction of Emmental cheese. There are shops and huts seemingly in the middle of the road at times where people can be seen flitting in and out. At the end of a long 20km you very quickly realize that this is indeed a place where they have nothing, I stand corrected they have less than nothing.
I arrive in Léogâne just after 9 p.m. With no electricity the place is dark and menacing with the hum of a generator somewhere out there in the darkness, relieved only by the odd glow of a few kerosene lamps dotted around. The HODR camp is in the middle of the town, and as I enter the shadowy base camp my eyes gradually adjust to the gloom and I begin to make out some weary looking people of all descriptions: young, old, male, female, eating, chatting and a few reading books with their head lamps.
I am a bit disappointed as I do not get a welcome from anyone as they all seem to be focused on their own business.
Somebody near my bag looks up from his book and mumbles, «newcomer?» and I politely reply «yes». He informs me that someone will be with me soon and gets back to his book.
I look around and I realize this is one of very few buildings still standing in the whole of Léogâne.
The base is an open building with a partial flat roof. Under the moonlight I see dozens of multicolored tents set up on top and in one corner there’s a covered area with bunk beds. I’m overcome with tiredness as I have been traveling for over 24 hours. Sweat is flowing liberally down my temples and I’m encountering the welcome guard of the first mosquito squadron. As I feel the uneasiness within me rising I am startled by the quiet ‘Hello’ from the day base manager. After a quick chit-chat she starts going though the rules of the base. My befuddled brain tries to absorb a few crucial things that will get me by until morning.
Firstly, the working hours; we start at 7.30 am and finish at 4.30 pm. Lights at the base come on at 6.30pm and go off at 10 sharp. There is a strict curfew from then on. If you are not inside the base by 10 (and hopefully bedded down in your tent or bunk) you will be kicked out. No alcohol allowed on the base. If you are found with an open bottle of alcohol in the base, ‘you will be kicked out immediately’. She then walks me over to the washrooms. The facilities are basic to say the least and water conservation is taken to rare heights! «Number 1’s, we don’t flush. Number 2’s, we use a quarter bucket of rain water» she intones. Then to the showers. «At the end of the day you get half bucket of water for a quick shower».
She rambles on for another 15 minutes but by now nothing much is sinking in. Too tired. A few bunks were available and I was also offered a spot to pitch a tent if I wanted more privacy. Even though I had brought a tent, I was content to take the bunk. I just needed to rest, at least for tonight. It is now around half nine. Torch in hand I find an empty bunk and set up my sleeping bag and the compulsory mosquito net. When the lights go out at ten I’m already heading for dreamland.
This place is anything but what I expected, but then again I did not know what to expect when I signed on, but it definitely wasn’t this. Would I last 17 days?
For the next seventeen mornings I am woken pre-dawn by a rooster’s cock-a-doodle-do at 5am.
In fact, to my sleep addled ears it sounded like a thousand roosters were engaged in a free-for-all every morning. On that first morning I set off for my first base camp breakfast. The coffee feels great but on the menu for breakfast is a concoction of cereal, milk powder, sugar and water. Never had that combo before and I admit, I felt quite queasy eating this the first time. But I was sure that this was far better than what the locals were sustaining themselves with and there’s no choice about eating it as there’s a hard day’s work ahead.
Working teams are ready and out of the base to their respective jobs by 7.30 every morning. On my first day I decided to go out with the rubble team. Being a newbie I figured that the work would require very little skill and I would be hanging with the hardcore crew. Basically the rubble team goes to a house which has been destroyed by the quake with a bunch of sledgehammers, rebar cutters, shovels, picks and wheel barrows. You then try to clear the rubble from what used to be someone’s house and render the land suitable either for temporary shelters or so that a house can be rebuilt.
In Léogâne there are very few buildings left standing, and most have been condemned as unsafe for habitation due to the destruction wrought. But such heavy manual labor is slow — nine months after the quake and 98% of the rubble is still there. I guess it just meant more work for us. I was right that the rubble team was hardcore but what completely surprised me was my apparent lack of fitness. I consider myself quite fit given that I recently ran the London marathon, but by 10am it was 42°C and an oppressive 90% humidity. I thought I was going to collapse. This was partially also my fault because instead of pacing myself and getting used to the conditions I was trying to compete with some girls from New York who were very adept with the sledgehammers. By the end of the first morning I was convinced that I wasn’t going to make it to the end of the day – in the end sheer determination carried me through. By the end of the day I was getting the hang of wielding a sledgehammer and I decided that this would be my vocation. I ended up doing rubble most of my stay in Léogâne.
There is a lot of camaraderie among the teams and all the men and women, young and old are trying very hard to get the job done as quickly as possible — some even run with barrows full of rubble under that oppressive heat (for that matter I have never seen any paid worker putting in this kind of superhuman effort). This made for extraordinary bonds developing between the co-workers and in my time in Léogâne I made some extraordinary friends – a teacher from New York; a student from Manchester, UK; a civil engineer from Wellington, New Zealand; a pediatrician from Melbourne, Australia; an environmentalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. We shared in everything – tiredness, hunger, books, first aid kits, beers.
There were the moments of happiness and satisfaction with what we were achieving, but surprisingly overwhelming moments of sadness at the recognition of a country unable to stand on its own two feet. For most of the time when clearing rubble I was concentrated on the task in hand more or less oblivious to the fact that this place used to be someone’s home, someone’s life. It’s just another pile of rubble to be cleared. But nevertheless, the swipe of the sledgehammer would sometimes unveil a wardrobe, clothes, a bicycle, a photo frame or a kid’s doll. Often the family who lived there would be watching the removal process and at times such as these they would rush in to salvage something of their former home.
We would just stand back silent and somber, almost embarrassed to be there watching them try to piece back together their former life.
One team was assigned to building transitional shelters for people to live. This team averaged four to six shelters per day. This is usually comprised of an 12’ by 12’ shelter with a bed in it. Usually the family is present while the shelter is built. Even though it is a transitional shelter it is immensely satisfying to see a family moving from the street to having a roof over their heads.
During my stay there was no permanent, structured school to be seen. Along with everything else in Léogâne most of the schools had been shaken back down to their foundations during the quake. The few operational ‘schools’ that there were functioned under a tree or a tent. I managed to find time in between rubble smashing to work in the schools’ project where we built transitional schools for the kids. It was a great feeling to build a school, to help in a small way to building a better future for the kids. It was also valuable on-the-job training.
Before this trip if anybody had asked me build anything the mere thought of it would give me imaginary splinters. But I was allowed to use and got fairly competent with all sorts of machinery from power tools, bobcats and the like. No health and safety inspectors here. The core of voluntary builders who were with the project was exceptionally talented and their training skills were even more admirable.
During my first 16 days I thought I had risen to the occasion exceptionally well and felt rather proud of how I was handling the work and lifestyle conditions. I had worked on the demolition sites, rubble removing sites, building sites, every hard labor that was there to be done on a disaster zone, you name it I did it. I lost several kilos, felt fitter than ever and had even accumulated a passable beard from not having shaved for three weeks. But my most challenging day was my last day when I thought I would take it easy and go to work at the children’s orphanage.
I could not have been any more wrong. Through the course of my life I have visited a few orphanages but this place was entirely different. There were 40 kids with only a couple of people to look after them. They lived in tents. As we came in all the kids rushed to the perimeter and surrounded us asking to be lifted and held, so I obliged. They were sick, malnourished and hungry for food and attention. The ages ranged from as little as few months old to as old as 12. As I see these kids the first words that come to mind is ‘Oh my God’ and then I say to myself God has left this place a long time ago.
I was apprehensive at first but as I got used to the kids I started to play with them and hold them without any trouble. As I got acquainted with the little babies I found myself holding one, a year and half old, malnourished.
He barely had the strength to walk, but found the strength not to let go of me.
So I held him till lunch time. When the food was served I felt very nervous — I have never fed a baby in my life, and I was a bit over-awed with the responsibility. But as I fed him my nerves disappeared, and he must have felt comfortable with me – enough to start peeing on me. That was my second ‘first’ of the day. After the initial shock and horror I decided just to keep right on feeding him.
The small fellow ate a whole plate full without any trouble and once he had finished I put the plate on the floor beside where I was sitting. Then came the next big shock.
Three older kids came running over and fought for the plate and started to vigorously lick it clean.
I had never seen anything like that before and I am sure I do not ever want to see that again. What had these kids done to deserve this? At that point I could have been covered with pee all day and it wouldn’t have mattered — I did not want to let go of them until I was obliged to leave at the end of the day. I had only been there a few hours, but those kids taught me a lifetime of lessons. I left that place thinking God had not had not forsaken this place because his spirit was alive in these kids.
The group worked on so many projects on any given day. It was not possible for me to be involved in all of them due to my short stay. As well as rubble clearing, building shelters, building schools, teaching kids, there were also groups constructing toilets, water purification plants, working at the hospital, at the Mayor’s office and helping at the orphanage to name a few of the ‘activities’ on offer. There was always work which was a fit for your particular aspirations and set of skills. If you ever got bored with one project it was always possible to get assigned to another, and with each project there was always something new to learn about yourself.
The group of volunteers was a diverse and fascinating group of individuals. There were people there who have been there for six months and some were there just for a week. They were as young as eighteen and old as sixty. There were men and women. There were students and there were teachers, there were corporate executives and there were laborers, there were builders and there were architects, doctors, engineers, but they all had one task in mind and that was to help rebuild Haiti. When you are immersed in the existence you do not really feel it but retrospectively, I can say it was fantastic, life affirming to be around them.
The local volunteers have to be mentioned too. There were about twenty or so young Haitian men and women who worked alongside us. No matter how bad it had been for them they all had a smile on their face and they worked on every site as if it were their own. There was a lot of banter and the relationship between the international volunteers and the locals was mostly joyous. At the same time due to the many diverse backgrounds of everyone on site some things got lost in translation and created friction, but at the end of the day we all went to get our rice and beans for dinner and sorted out our differences.
One particular day a well built twenty year old local volunteer was using the sledge hammer to break a concrete structure. He was incredibly powerful and put us international volunteers to shame. One impressed volunteer said ‘man, you are crazy with that sledge hammer’ by way of paying him a compliment. To our surprise the guy blurted out ‘I am not crazy’ in anger and disgust. He thought he was being branded a lunatic and promptly stopped work for the rest of the afternoon. It wasn’t until the end of the day that things cooled down and we were able to laugh together about it, when a proper Creole translator explained to him what it had really meant.
My point is, what would normally pass off as a minor misunderstanding in everyday life sometimes had a tendency to blow up into a full scale international crisis, given the conditions we were working under and the melting pot of cultures. We quickly became aware of such sensitivities and became ourselves diplomats for peace and tranquility. Moreover, it was fantastic to see so many cultures and ages united together and sharing the same goal, working side by side with the Haitians and international volunteers.
It was not all work and no play; there was a lighter side too. Sunday was a well deserved day off. Groups of us would organize an excursion for the day and I was fortunate to have participated on three such occasions. Paradise Beach and Jacmel Waterfall were the two favorite locations for such outings. Paradise Beach deserves its name to the last letter. It is one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. The water is warm, crystal clear, and laps onto the pristine white sand of the beach. To say we loved this place is an understatement. We would hit the beach in the morning and bargain for freshly barbequed lobsters for lunch.
Jacmel Waterfall is a little farther afield at two hours’ drive from Léogâne, followed by a 30 minute trek though the bush before arriving at a beautiful pond at the foot of 40ft waterfall. My adrenalin was pumping as I leapt from the top into the blue waters below.
Then there were the local bars around our base camp – three in total; Joe’s, Jackson’s and Little Venice. My favorite was Jackson’s. Despite being a shack, it had its charm — an old fridge on its side kept cool by an ice block requisitioned from I don’t know (in the absence of electricity). Two coconut tree slats for benches, which after a hard day’s work made this watering hole a fabulous distraction.
At the end of my seventeen days I could definitively say that it had been one of my best, if not the best, summer holiday ever. I returned home and I proudly posted my return from Haiti on Facebook — all with photos of myself under the sweaty working conditions. I had an overwhelming response from friends admiring what I had done and the unique nature of the experience — just more positive experiences emanating from my holiday. Admittedly they did make me feel good about myself and I thank my friends, but I soon learned that this kind of self-gratification is not what I’m about. I’m not a member of the Peace Corps or the UN and I don’t even have any particular skill to help others in such situations.
I went to Haiti and just did what I was asked to. It was hard to adjust to normal life again after what I had seen and done, but as with everything I have eventually got back into my normal routine. I can’t say that Haiti has changed me. Rather, that it has had a profound effect on my perspective on life. Who can’t relate to worrying about what outfit to wear out, who to invite round for dinner, what size TV to get next, what color iPod to choose? Haitians don’t have to worry about these things because they have nothing, they have less than nothing. Their worries are the more basic of all, like where their next meal is coming from, what’s going to happen to the tent when the next hurricane comes along and what time the UN tanker is coming to fill the communal water tank?
Haiti is a long way from recovery and after the initial outpouring of shock and pop songs, the world seems to have forgotten this fact as our own lives move on. There are good people out there helping Haiti to stand back on its own feet, but it is a mammoth task that will take years before Haiti’s population has the basics for decent human life again. Haiti is still bleeding and she needs help. You don’t need to be philanthropist or a doctor or UN personnel to help; I am not, but I have seen that every single volunteer makes a dent towards reaching this objective. Every effort, every drop of sweat, every blistered hand will help make Haiti a better place tomorrow, eventually, and for having made a dent myself, tiny as it may be, I am happy. In the end volunteering is not so much a selfless act, but a confirmation of the joy that giving brings — if anything, I got more than I gave.
NB Afterword. Ranga Welaratne. A native of Sri Lanka, he left his homeland at age 18 and went to study in Australia, where he began his career in international business. Later he lived in the USA, Mexico and China. Works in the pharmaceutical group of companies «Sanofi» since 2003. At present, he is the General Director of Sanofi Central Asia and the Chairman of the Board of Sanofi Kazakhstan.