U.N.-blue. You know instantly what color I’m talking about. It’s a real color. Just like you can visualize Tiffany-blue – also a certifiable color. Where I lived in Africa for several years as a child, we frequently saw U.N. Land Rovers with the U.N.-blue logo emblazoned on the sides and hood of the vehicle. Large blue tarps with the prominent logo also adorned small homes, used alone as a roof or under a protective layer of palm branches to shield the dwellers from the direct sun and rain. Years later, some shreds of tarp remain, pieces of which are used to bind firewood or patched together to make sacks for charcoal. In Haiti last month I became intimately reacquainted with the timeless tarp.
In the crowded “suburbs” of Port-au-Prince, a home with a tarp roof is a step up from the bottom-most rung on the ladder – a faded two-person camping tent. A family might share such a tent. Many people actually live in camping tents. I would say I’m shocked, but I’m not. Where I live in San Diego, every single day I drive by tent villages where “homeless” people actually live in camping tents. But in Haiti, these people aren’t called homeless. Many are born and raised in this environment, like many millions of people around the world living in poverty. The tragedy is that when disaster strikes, they are the most vulnerable. One heavy rain can wash away all their worldly possessions and leave them without their last cup of rice or a pot to cook it in. That’s what I witnessed in Port-au-Prince.
After spending several days tutoring children in an elementary school, inventorying drugs at a new clinic and doing whatever other tasks needed to be done to assist the organization Child Hope, Hurricane Sandy arrived. Dirt turned to thick, luscious mud. And it kept raining, flushing the streets of trash and flushing waste along the narrow paths between homes in the tent city. And it flushed away the small camping tent where a woman and her children had lived. Fortunately, some gracious Haitians, along with some members of my team from Project Reach, were able to provide resources and labor to build a new home for the woman. The frame of her new 15ftx15ft home was built of long, strong, stripped saplings. The walls and roof were comprised of four blue tarps. Neighbors who lived in homes three or four feet away watched the work in the intermittent rain.
At one point during the construction, I stepped under the overhang of a corrugated metal roof to escape the increasing drops of rain. The 8-inch overhang didn’t offer much relief. Thirty feet away, next to another home, a man stood under a swath of blue tarp, also sheltering himself from the downpour. Noticing that my overhang was not doing the trick, he beckoned me to join him in the empty space under the tarp. Without a second thought, I took him up on his kindness and ran through the mud to the shelter.
It was essentially the front porch of another tarp home. Just inside the dwelling sat a young woman, repairing her plastic sandal with needle and thread. A toddler sat next to her, watching the rain. One young many poked his head through an interior wall of the tent – a bed sheet hanging from the low ceiling – to see who the newcomer was. He offered a “bonswa” – good evening in Creole, but a greeting oftened used any time of day after 10am or so. Another gentlemen sat on a bench next to the sheet wall. To them, it was just another rainy afternoon in Port-au-Prince. I engaged in small talk in French. They insisted I sit down and offered me a covered five gallon bucket as a seat. I learned the kind man who invited me to the shelter of the tarp was a neighbor. He lived in the corrugated metal house an arm’s reach away. They all smiled and chuckled as we chatted. When the rain stopped after a few minutes, I thanked them for the oasis under their tarp and got back to work. Their exemplification of hospitality – sharing the patch of dry earth under the blue tarp and offering me a seat – is one of my most precious memories from in Haiti.
I have no photos of that experience. I am often uncomfortable whipping out a camera when spending time with local people. It doesn’t seem natural. For some visuals, take a look at this recent video of the tent cities in Port-au-Prince. Notice the narrow muddy paths and how close the homes are to one another. And notice the ubiquitous tarps.