Thursday, March 28

Haiti Revisited: Glimmers of Hope.

I was back filming in Haiti last month for Digicel again, having previously visited it in 2009. Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, but in having the western third, it often has the misfortune to face the fierce brunt of Caribbean hurricanes stirred up in the Gulf of Mexico, like the one that battered it in 2008. On January 24, 2010, it'd also been struck by a massive earthquake that killed perhaps 200,000 people and affected upwards of 3 million. The hotel we'd stayed in the previous year was destroyed and everyone in it lost.

When they eventually put the terrifying political heritage of the despotic Papa Doc behind them, one might have hoped for a better future the Haitian people, but its rank poverty exacerbated by this relentlessly unforgiving climate and geology has kept them on the back foot. It's the poorest country in the West and is ranked 168 countries on the Human Development Index. For all of that, the capital, Port au Prince, even recovering from the '08 hurricane had been an exciting, vibrant, colourful city in 2009 with a bustling street economy and a real sense of danger - and not just in the imagination. So what would face us in 2013?

Well, three years after the earthquake, the devastation is still monumentally evident. And this is despite much of the rubble having been cleared. Whole streets are simply empty lots of wasteland. The cathedral, a crumpled shell of concrete angles and cameos. Nothing is properly familiar as landmarks have been erased; the cityscape smudged.

Undiminished though, is the spirit of the people, who trade away furiously in front of what would be promoted as a "prime development site" in another western capital. And weaving through the throng, women carry everything on their heads, impossibly balanced, in an unmistakable African inheritance. Kids skip over the precariously ruptured pavements on their way to school, impeccably turned out, with gleaming white socks and shirts, the girls' hair in intricate braids.

It can seem though, that there's little escape though from the terse economic reality of the place. But there are surprises. As dusk slips off to darkness, we visit an isolated site far out of the city, down a track, off a track, off a road to God knows where. It's beyond the boonies. Digicel customers are so constrained here, although they've phones to run their lives and businesses, they've no electricity to charge them. Infrastructure is a luxury. (But why would they have mobiles at all you might reasonably ask: every 10% of mobile penetration in the developing world can boost GDP by .8%. Each phone is a catalyst for growth.)

At a clearing, there's a small gathering. A solar panel on a tall pylon feeds a junction box of recharging points managed by a local village woman. Everyone's coming miles on foot to pay a token fee to get powered up. Phones begin to glimmer in the half-light. And hope springs eternal.