Design Junction on the Road in Haiti

We arrived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti Tuesday afternoon and were greeted by hot, hot weather and our joyful driver Joselene. Tuesday was a bit of a day of dualities for us as we went from the comfort of our homes to the unknown streets of Port-au-Prince. We went from the cold, crisp and dry air of Toronto to hot, humid and delicious air of Haiti. We left the tranquility of early morning Toronto to bare witness chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince and the desolate conditions of the tent camps that line the roads coming in from the airport and fill the parks and public spaces. Though the dualities of the day were plentiful, there were simultaneously similarities as well. The desire to see the Design Junction clothing project be successful is on both the Canadian and the Haitian end.

Those with whom we have already met-our warm meeting at long last with Hans, the garment sewers and project leads at INDEPCO, our gracious host Lionel, the family of Hans, and local designers-have all welcomed our visit. Hans openly allows us to tour to his production facilities. Nothing is hidden here, we have met and talked with sewers, seamstresses and those working on beading. Everyone seems happy to work here-even listening to their own music as they sew. This was a great relief to Sway and I. I think to be honest we were both a bit apprehensive and had a never verbalized fear that perhaps the working conditions would not be as equitable as we had hoped.

As we toured the facilities, Hans personally introduced us to sewers, both men and women. We had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting with Hans and a woman named Aramthe from Montreal working with companies in Haiti to incorporate women into business in an equitable way. Hans has many female sewers at INDEPCO and those who do the finances and administration are all women. At one point two women sat on the board of directors but both left to pursue other professions abroad. As Hans is currently working on a five year business plan, he is going to incorporate a portion of the plan to creating a place for women into the decision making process at INDEPCO.

We have seen much of Port-au-Prince via car. Let me tell you, if you think Toronto has some bad streets I beg of you to drive backseat throughout the streets of Port-au-Prince. I’m pretty sure we’re going to come back with six packs just from trying to hold ourselves together as we ride.

On our tours to and from INDPECO each day we have seen Pepe (second hand) everywhere. It’s all Pepe all the time, as the Haitians might say. From clothing, dishes, beauty supplies, tires to street side hardware stores you are sure to find anything and everything you may desire. What is unfortunate about all this Pepe is that it has all but wiped out the Haitian economy. What was once a self reliant country now imports almost everything, even sugar and cotton which were once Haitian staples. What has surprised us is that the food in the supermarket is about equivalant to what you would pay in Toronto. To buy cheaper foods you need to buy from street markets, we are cautiously avoiding said markets, a bright idea given the already tumultuous current state of our bellies.

As we told our host for the week, Lionel, a wonderful man who so generously gave us his guest room and free range of his sprawling house with beautiful grounds laden with flowers, about our project he presented us with some thought provoking questions and interesting anticdotes.

One thing that most stood out in our mind was the fact that he believes that by reworking Pepe, and selling it back to North America is beneficial as it acts as a sort of reclaiming of the market. While the Pepe market may have desperately hindered the design and seamstress economy, it is here to stay. If we can work with the clothing in a more economically beneficial way then everyone wins.

The high price of food, the lack of water sanitation, the terrible roads, the multitude of tent camps all only accentuate our desire to create another avenue of sustainable employment in Haiti. Currently 70% of Haitians are unemployed, an unimaginable number to both of us. We have witnessed the drastic differences in wealth, as well as the disconnect with which many international NGOs seem to go about their business here. UN-MINUSTAH, OXFAM, Medicins Sans Frontiers and many other NGOs parade the streets in brand new white SUVs. You can only imagine how this sight might be frustrating if you were living a tent or beneath tarps in what used to be a beautiful downtown park.

A protest  broke out just a few days ago in which 2 Haitian were killed. Further protests have ensued as the population is getting fed up with both their own government and the NGOs which take the self promoted role of government.

Overall the feeling in Port-au-Prince is rather apprehensive due to the upcoming elections and the tensions mounting between citizens and MINUSTAH.

Despite this, we continue to work at INDEPCO, we visited the Pepe market, where we stuck out like sore thumbs, but were able to purchase all the  material needed to create new vests and work on a man’s suit jacket designed by Mayan Rajadram. The clothing will be finished before we leave and we cannot wait to come home with new designs in hand!!

Photos to come next week!!

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