By Paula Worthington, Calgary Herald
Paul Brandt plays for kids in Repatriote.
Photograph by: Photo courtesy Paula Worthingto , Handout
HAITI — The narrow streets of Port-au-Prince are an array of sights, sounds and contrasts. Bunches of bold-coloured “tap tap” buses rattle past muted grey cinder walls, and a dusty haze hangs over Haiti’s green mountains. Cars, people and motorbikes weave in and out of traffic, barely avoiding one another while navigating gaping potholes that lay in wait, large enough to swallow entire vehicles.
It’s dizzying and exhilarating.
For a place that has encountered so much loss, this city is alive — raw, busy, loud, difficult, but so alive.
I’ve arrived in Haiti with country superstar Paul Brandt and his Build It Forward Foundation, which exists to raise money and awareness to help people in practical ways, both locally and globally. The trip included visits to recently completed projects funded by the foundation, while learning and listening first-hand about some of the daily challenges at hand.
Brandt’s relationship with Haiti began during a visit in 2011 to film a television series for CMT Canada. That was a year after a massive earthquake struck, devastating the already struggling nation, and killing an estimated (and often disputed) 100,000 to 300,000 people.
At that time, Brandt met Leon D’Orleans, executive director of Haiti Outreach Ministries. D’Orleans has made it his life mission to re-build Haiti in necessary and practical ways. Brick by brick, the agency is building schools, churches, clinics, clean water facilities, playgrounds and soccer fields to bring life, purpose and education to Haiti’s worst-hit areas.
Brandt knew that Haiti not only needed help, but Haitians needed the opportunity to help themselves.
Seeing our neighbours as ourselves
A few months after Brandt’s 2011 visit and several thousand kilometres away from Haiti, fires ravaged the town of Slave Lake, Alta. Brandt toured the area and was motivated to host a benefit concert, which raised more than $175,000 for the Slave Lake community. On stage, Brandt shared the stories of devastation in Haiti, and Slave Lake wholeheartedly decided to “build forward” 25 per cent of the concert proceeds to help Haiti.
Connecting two unlikely communities, the funds helped D’Orleans and his team install a new playground and soccer field, and re-build a church in Repatriote that had fallen in the earthquake.
Driving through Port-au-Prince now, nearly four years since the earthquake, the decor du jour is cinder block and exposed rebar. Re-built homes and patched-together structures zigzag up impossibly steep hills like mismatched Lego pieces. Cracks in walls and structures are everywhere. Are they simply age lines from decades of decay or are they newer, more unsettling fractures from the earthquake?
On the side of every road, people sell an endless variety of goods: remote controls, cellphones, clothing, books, food, tools, shoes, prescription pills, liquor, sugar cane. It’s chaotic, but seems to have its own order.
Life abounds in a country that has grown up through a series of trials and devastation. Like its tangled street scene, Haiti is complex and misunderstood, saddled with a turbulent history and an uncertain future.
Brandt says, “When offering help or support in any place, it’s about asking the right questions. If someone came over to my home and told me everything I was doing was wrong, and proceeded to re-arrange everything without my input, I would feel resentful, powerless, and suspicious.”
Brandt has applied this approach to Build It Forward’s wor: listening, asking questions, then empowering others to help themselves.
“Deye mon gen mon”
The Haitians have a Creole saying, “Deye mon gen mon” — “behind every mountain, there is another mountain.” Beyond the physical geography of the nation, which features impressive 2,440-metre elevations, it symbolizes centuries of adversity and resiliency.
Brandt says, “Haiti presents itself as a complicated place, with an extremely involved and varied history. I always leave with the sense that one could spend a lifetime there and not fully grasp everything about Haiti.”
By supporting local causes such as D’Orleans’ Haiti Outreach Ministries projects, the Build It Forward Foundation has helped create change while developing a relationship with the community. D’Orleans sees great results.
“Children are coming to school. Their parents can’t read or write, but these students are getting an education and building a better life for themselves. Without education, Haiti will not be able to change its situation.”
Higher up in the mountains, other opportunities are taking root. Canadian entrepreneur Rob Lehnert started Cafe Xaragua, which imports fair trade coffee beans picked by local farmers and processed in small-scale co-operative facilities. Build It Forward partnered with Cafe Xaragua for its like-minded approach.
“Cafe Xaragua is actively promoting and revitalizing the Haitian coffee industry, and have further committed to the community by planting a new coffee tree for each bag of coffee sold,” Brandt explains.
I’ll Fly Away
For me, a lasting memory of Haiti is Brandt singing for a large Sunday congregation. They jubilantly rose to their feet while joining in on I’ll Fly Away during a church service in the slum of Cite Soleil. On that sunny morning, smiles and a sense of gratitude filled the space.
The lyrics flowed in English, French and Creole, the familiar music transcending cultural and language barriers. It made me reflect on what D’Orleans had said to me days earlier, “When you come to Haiti, you will realize that Haiti will build you forward.”
People often comment that they receive more from Haiti than they give, whether it be a renewed sense of compassion, or a desire to better understand a place filled with perplexing contrasts. Perhaps it can best be articulated through Brandt’s song Risk:
Well I guess I could just play it safe
and forget about love hope and faith
with my eye on the shoreline
keeping my boat tied and stayin’ home
But I’ll never discover new land
by keeping my feet on the sand
No I’d rather set sail
And get carried away by the storm
I came to an understanding from my experiences in the crowded streets, the mountain coffee towns and the joyful church. Beyond the obvious struggles that ravage Haiti, hope abounds. By acting on our responsibility to willingly set sail and face the storms with compassion, there is hope for Haiti.
For more information about the Build It Forward Foundation, visit www.builditforward.ca.