How can you begin to find hope in Haiti: one of the poorest and most disaster-stricken countries in the world?
Haiti has never been an easy place to live. Just a few months ago, Hurricane Matthew slammed straight into a country still recovering from the 2010 earthquake. Each disaster brings further devastation to a country where 24% of the population still live in extreme poverty. Life here is tough enough without having to worry about your safety when the sun goes down.
Croix Deprez is a dense maze of tin-roof buildings, connected by narrow streets and alleys that twist down towards the curving bay. Further down the hill face, rubble from crumbling houses has tumbled into paths streaming with flood water. With no electricity lines for streetlights since the earthquake, walking through this part of town after sunset could feel uncertain, precarious and dangerous.
This is the place Adrienne calls home. She is a shopkeeper, so she has to set off for work from her place in Durcamel Alley early each day.
One morning, Adrienne left her home at 5.30am. The sun wasn’t up yet, and there hadn’t been any streetlights since the earthquake brought down the power lines. She was all too aware of the danger she was forced to face on these lonely walks in the dark. But when your very survival depends on your ability to trade, what choice do you have?
She went down the same set of steps she always took, but that morning two men on a motorcycle were hidden in the shadows. When she saw them, she tried to stay calm. One of them told her to hand over her purse. She tried to resist: “No, it’s mine. I can’t give it to you!”. But then one of the men pulled out a gun. He put it to Adrienne’s head.
Terrified, she let them take the purse – hoping and praying that they would leave her with her life. They didn’t shoot her, but all the money she had was in that purse. Now she had nothing.
Crimes like these are all too common in an area where so many struggle to survive. And sadly, Adrienne’s suffering was not at an end.
The lack of streetlights in these neighbourhoods can have a huge impact on women and girls. The effects can be far reaching – from the fear of walking alone at night and encountering violence to simply not being able to live any kind of life when the sun goes down.
Sephora is just 14 and lives in the village of Kano, high up on the hill top overlooking the bay. Young people her age can probably relate when she says she used to think her neighbourhood was “lame”. There was little to do. She and her friends couldn’t even meet to sit and tell jokes. It was too dark. “Too scary,” she says.
Studying for exams is hard enough. Not having the chance to take a break and meet with friends makes it all the more stressful. But the darkness threatened to have a huge impact on Sephora’s school work and her future.
Her dream is to become an agronomist: working with plants and studying their use for food, fuel and land reclamation. She wants to discover new ways to help people. To bring a change. To find solutions to the poverty she sees grinding everyone down around her.
She tried hard to study in the dark, holding a torch over her books, only stopping to rest her aching arm or rub her eyes after straining to see in the dim lamplight.
Sephora’s ambition burns bright – but there isn’t much time in the daylight in which to really learn, without interruption or interference. How long could Sephora really keep this up? How long before she lost hope?
Just a week after the first attack, Adrienne was robbed again. Again, it happened in the dark.
This time, she had nothing but a phone. This time, they demanded she emptied her pockets. Again, she tried in vain to hold on to what little she had. But they took the phone and ran.
“After that I felt really bad,” she says. “I really had a pain in my head. People told me to go to the doctor but at that time I did not have money for the doctor – the money was in my purse that was stolen.”
Adrienne needed something to change. This desperate cycle could have stopped her from going out to work, earning a living and looking after her health.
Oxfam has installed 50 solar-powered lamps in public spaces around Port au Prince. In some ways, they represent how so many people the world over help end poverty: They shine a light into the darkness. It might come in the form of buying something from an Oxfam shop. Signing a petition. Or giving a little when places like Haiti are hit by disaster.
We can’t stop an earthquake happening, but one small, simple change can make a huge difference to how a whole community deals with the difficulties it brings. And the solar lights worked in much the same way.
When darkness fell, sure enough the pockets of glowing light could be seen all around. Now, in Croix Deprez, strings of bright bulbs swing high above in the breeze. Their bright light dances and throws shadows of tables and chairs on the ground.
Here, all manner of people sit together, from traders to school children. You can hear the snip, snip as a barber works away, cutting his customer’s hair. Some are just enjoying an evening drink, laughing and chatting under the glow of the lamps.
This is a neighbourhood returning to life. Where people can feel safe, get to know each other – see the smile on a neighbour’s face. Or simply be able to go to work each day without fear.
“For me the solar panels have a really important impact,” Adrienne explains. “I can wake up early and go out in the street. When someone comes under the light I can see their face and they can see mine.
“I am safer, I feel much more comfortable. It’s really useful for my business. Sometimes we sell fresh drinks under the lamp and all the clients can see what they need to purchase, because it is not dark.”
Meanwhile, the new lights were creating a buzz in Sephora’s village, high up on the hill.
“The first day, when they installed the equipment, everybody was happy and started asking for more information. We were told there were solar panels that would give us light at night. Then everybody started to think about what could be done under these lamps.
“Automatically when there is light, more people come out.”
In some ways the solar lights are allowing Sephora to play, socialise and be the young person she is. In other ways, they’re helping her become the person she wants to be. Her dream of studying plants is one that she can work for all the more.
“The solar lamps are very useful because before, we did not have anything to study with. The devices we were using were bad for our eyes. Now we have these lamps, it is so good for us, we study, and we play and do many activities we could not do before.”
In the face of catastrophe, hope is easy to lose sight of. But you can find it in the places you least expect. You just need to look where the light shines.
Earthquakes and hurricanes have destroyed homes, contaminated water supplies and knocked out the power right across Haiti. Installing solar streetlights is just one way that Oxfam and our local partners are helping people to stay healthy, keep safe and build a more hopeful future for themselves and their communities.