Liz Jones: Nearly three years after the devastating Haitian earthquake, is anything being done to help?

Special report: Nearly three years after the devastating Haitian earthquake, is anything being done to help

This is six-year-old Dashka. She and her family are still homeless and, like many Haitians, have barely enough food to survive. Liz Jones travelled to the country to meet the people who are fighting to make a change

Liz Jones in Haiti

Liz Jones wraps Dashka Mervil in a PeaceQuilt. Dashka has lived in this dilapidated tent with her parents and five siblings since the earthquake destroyed their home

I am in what seems to me to be the worst place on earth. I’d been promised a voodoo temple, and I suppose I imagined a slightly gothic, sequin-strewn church. But, having parked our car in a crowded village and walked down a narrow alley with what looks like sewage running in rivulets alongside us, we emerge in a big space with an earth floor.

Above my head is a model of a ship, which signifies passage to the other side. There is an altar with skulls and crossbones. The skulls, I find out, are from the father, grandfather and grandmother of the man I am here to meet: Pierre Edner Junior, a 41-year-old voodoo priest. And I am really, really scared.

I wonder how on earth you become a voodoo priest, and he replies in Creole, which is a sort of simplified, phonetically spelled French, that his father and grandfather before him were priests. He tells me he is a ‘good’ priest, which means he talks to the spirits of the ancestors to put people who come to him with their problems ‘on the right path’.

There are practitioners of the dark side of voodoo, the sort we think we know from Hollywood movies, still at work on the island, but Pierre insists they are now a rarity. Voodoo is the national religion of Haiti, one which came over on ships with the African people who were forced here as slaves. It was depicted as devil worshipping and Satanism by the zealous missionaries, keen to convert the so-called savages to Christianity and justify their oppression.

I am still dubious of this man’s powers, mainly because I’m an atheist. But still, I ask if he can remove a curse that I feel has been placed on me, as everything always goes wrong. ‘Yes!’ he says. ‘We will have to have a feast, when all the villagers will come, and they dance and you are immersed in water. It goes on all night.’

Admiring the lace in Haiti

From left: lace-makers Jil Joseline and Olivna Pehina show their work to Liz, Canadian textile designer Rachel MacHenry and aid worker Cameron Brohman

Ah, but I only have half an hour before I have to leave, I say. ‘I can sell you some oil,’ he tells me, filling a tiny pot from a foul plastic container. ‘You rub it all over your body tonight, and when you wake up, the curse will be gone.’ The tiny pot costs about 60. I put it in the car.

I am in Haiti because its indigenous crafts are about to go on sale in Selfridges in London, as part of an initiative called Brand Aid, co-founded by an energetic 62-year-old called Cameron Brohman, who is my guide for my week-long visit, along with Tony Pigott, president and CEO of Canadian ad agency JWT. Cameron has been coming to Haiti from Canada since the 1970s, and has been involved in various projects, such as saving a parcel of rainforest by turning it into a national park. He decided to set up Brand Aid as a way of helping to get the people back on their feet after the devastating earthquake, which killed an estimated 300,000 and displaced one million more, back in January 2010. Today, two thirds of the population are unemployed.

Which brings me to a place that really is the worst on earth, far more frightening than the voodoo temple. I am now standing, a couple of days later, on an expanse of jagged rock. And all around me are tents, or what used to be tents, with the words ‘Gift of the American People’ and ‘Canada’ stencilled on the sides (first on the scene after the earthquake were relief workers from Cuba, although their presence went largely unmentioned in Western media reports). These now battered shelters stretch across the hillside as far as the eye can see. Two years and nine months after the earthquake, half a million people still live in this shanty town.

Lace making in Haiti

Liz Jones n Haiti

From left: Liz and textile designer Rachel MacHenry on a visit to the lace workshop; translator Isabel Morse, Rachel and Liz examine intricate pieces of lace

We walk around for a bit and finally find a small girl we think will look suitably photogenic for our picture. We ask her parents for permission to take her photo, and although we are clearly Westerners, they smile and nod their heads and do not ask for money. The girl’s name is Dashka Mervil and she is six years old. She lives in one tiny tent with her parents and her five brothers and sisters. The family lost everything in the earthquake and are too poor to even be able to buy a few trinkets, or a few pieces of charcoal, to sell on the roadside.

Dashka’s parents tell me they are completely on their own, that no one will help them. I wrap Dashka in one of the handmade quilts that are now on sale in Selfridges: trade, not aid, that will hopefully not only bring vital jobs, but will show the world that Haiti is not all about devastation and hand-outs, but also about beauty. I ask Dashka if she likes having her picture taken. ‘Ah, oui.’ And why is that ‘Because I know I will look nice.’

That is the first thing you learn when you meet people like Dashka and her family: they have pride; they want nice things. The hardship for them, living beneath leaking sacks and tin with no running water or sanitation, is exactly the same for them as it would be for you and me.

The heat is unrelenting, the smell unimaginable. Driving through the capital, Port-au-Prince, on the south side of the Caribbean island (the other half of which is taken up by the Dominican Republic), which took the full force of the earthquake, it is as though the disaster happened only yesterday. There is rubbish everywhere. Very little rebuilding has taken place. I wonder, out loud, to Cameron that people do not just take it into their own hands, and clear it all up themselves, imagining some sort of Amish barn-building exercise, and he laughs wryly. Any sort of activity would be frowned upon by the government: people have been shot for doing less.

Haiti is not all about devastation and hand-outs, but also about beauty

Later in the week, we set off on various expeditions to visit the artisans who are making the wares to sell in the UK. Our first foray is to a small village, La Valle de Jacmel, a four-hour drive, on mostly unmade, rock-strewn roads, from the capital. I am given my own armed bodyguard, as the region we are travelling to is deemed extremely dangerous. I had been feeling consequently rather diva-ish, until Cameron told me that the Canadian government, which has provided funds to help launch this new brand, were worried their armoured four-by-four would be stolen, and weren’t remotely concerned about me. Ah well.

Here we meet the women who work in a cooperative, Les Dix Doigts, or ten fingers, who make lace. Haitian women were taught the richelieu-style of lace-making 200 years ago by French nuns. To make a richelieu tablecloth involves a pattern being drawn on linen, the outline of which is embroidered. The linen is then washed, the centre of each design cut away, and the edges embroidered again.

A large tablecloth can take a month to make, which is why it will cost around 1,600. But it is a unique work of art, and can be handed down through generations as an heirloom. Smaller items are also on sale, such as a range of lace-trimmed childrenswear with the evocative name of Ti’ Moun (which means little world, the Creole term for children) and table runners.

I meet Olivna Pehina, who is 35, has four children, and has been lace-making for nine years, and Jil Joseline, who is 50, has seven children, and has 12 years’ experience. They tell me the work is very hard. The workshop is boiling, and the needlework makes their hands sore and strains their eyes. Both women are illiterate, but their work, and their share of every item sold, will mean all of their children will be able to go to school. It’s strange, but wherever you go in Haiti, you are always conscious that you are the luckiest person in the room.

Liz Jones with a PeaceQuilt in Haiti

One of the women who works for PeaceQuilts shows Liz the stunning patchwork

Earlier in the week we had travelled to Lilavois to visit the women who sew for PeaceQuilts, a women’s cooperative run by nuns of the order of Marie-Reine Immacule, which makes handmade quilts. I meet Mariel Lorge, who is 26, and has been making quilts for five years, and who tells me a large bedspread can take many women several months to make. Every piece is made by hand, as there is no electricity. Even the iron, used on every tiny square of fabric, is heated by charcoal. It’s as though I have travelled back in time.

Also here working is Denise Estava, who is 24, with a two-year-old child. Every woman I speak to has stories of the earthquake, of loved ones lost. The fabric has been donated by quilting guilds in America, and each quilt is signed by the women who make it. Denise tells me she is on about 1.80 a day, but that she too will get a share of every quilt sold. What will she do with the money when she gets it ‘I would like a home.’

Other artisanal labels on sale are Croix des Bouquets, which makes sculptures from oil drums; Carnival Jakmel, which makes papier-mch masks, sculptures and bowls; Caribbean Craft, which makes gorgeous bowls, and Axelle, which decorates bottles with sequins. Also in Selfridges are traditional voodoo flags, which are really paintings made from sequins and beads.

Even the carrier bags and totes that all these items are wrapped in are handmade and lined with Haitian proverbs, of which there are hundreds. My favourite is, ‘Woman is mahogany: the more she’s old, the more she’s good.’ The brands are being sold under the collective label of Vodu Nuvo, or the New Voodoo. Cameron explains the reason for the name: ‘We want to overturn the way Haiti is traditionally seen, as a haven of devil worshippers, a myth largely propagated so its giant neighbour, the United States, can portray the people as largely savages, to be exploited in whatever way it sees fit.’

But of course Haiti was not always so destitute. Relics of its French colonial past can still be seen in pockets: grand wooden houses that would not seem out of place in New Orleans. It was once considered the Paris of the southern hemisphere, the playground of the wealthy. The hotel where I stay, the late-19th-century Oloffson, is a case in point: it is all high ceilings and polished verandahs, and was once frequented by the likes of Graham Greene and Jackie Onassis.

It’s important to understand the history of Haiti to comprehend why it is so devastated. Its story is not purely one of an earthquake. It declared independence from France in 1804, but had to compensate its occupier for the future loss of its exports of sugar, indigo (a natural dye) and coffee. Which it did, to the tune of billions of dollars, up until the 1940s.

Tobacco vases

Cement bag bowl from Haiti

Tobacco vases, left, and old cement bags made into bowls, by Carnival Jakmel

PeaceQuilt

A oil drum made into a bowl

The proceeds from every PeaceQuilt sold go to the women who made them, left, and a recycled oil drum is transformed into a bowl by Croix des Bouquets

But there is more. Where once Haiti exported rice, avocados, mangos and coffee, America imposed free trade upon it, allowing its own cheap rice grown in Florida and elsewhere to flood the market, putting Haitian farmers out of business overnight. This policy was given the green light by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Now UN special envoy to Haiti, he has only recently apologised.

And is there anything, really, in the power of voodoo, apart from gloriously colourful symbols sewn on to flags and etched in wood and tin That evening, after my visit to see the priest, I did as I was bidden and slathered my body in the oil before slipping into my enormous bed, fans whirring above my head. During the night I was more violently ill than I have ever been in my life.

I threw up and by morning, my room and bathroom looked as though there had been another earthquake. I could not move, nor sip water. The hotel had to call an emergency physician to tend to my raging fever. It could have been the oil, it could have been the rice and veg I had eaten the night before.

I have, though, ever since (despite the arrival of Hurricane Isaac, which ripped through the palm trees and grounded all flights), felt slightly more positive and lucky. Or maybe it wasn’t the voodoo, but the memory of little Dashka, who is still living in that tent, which must have been flooded by the Biblical rains. Robbed by history, battered by nature, abandoned by everyone. It sounds crass to say this, but maybe, just maybe, Haiti will be saved by the simple act of us going shopping. It is always exciting to be in at the birth of a new brand. But Vodu Nuvo is more than that. It means the small guy, the little guy, can enter the global market. Above all else, it’s a lifeline.

All handmade Vodu Nuvo products are available at Selfridges in London, from 8.95. Tel: 0800 123400, selfridges.com, brandaidproject.com