Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Saturday, 13 March 2010

Tidy tents and pretty plaits in Haiti after the quake

Madam Elizabeth Pierre in her heels. Photo by Christine Finn
For Madame Elizabeth Pierre, wearing heels is a nod to normality

Thanks to the efforts of various charities, huge tented communities have been set up in Haiti. Survivors of the earthquake and tremors are making the most of their new life under canvas, which, as Christine Finn finds, could be home for a long time to come.

Madame Elizabeth Pierre is wearing heels.

In days touring tented villages in earthquake-hit Haiti she is the first person I have seen wearing anything other than sensible flat shoes or flip-flops to cope with this unstable terrain.

Madame Elizabeth is the community leader of a camp in Port au Prince. Her heels and a neat pink handbag, were "cadeaux - gifts," she tells me.

Of course, the people all around me are either wearing the clothes they had on when the earthquake hit, or donated ones.

Madame Elizabeth's turn-out was a nod to normality after the ordinariness of domestic life had been destroyed in less than a minute.

Until 12 January, Madame Elizabeth was a kindergarten teacher. Now she is living in a tent and overseeing her village of extended families, sharing their concerns over drinking water, latrines, and night-time raids by robbers.

Still smiling

I am touring the tented sites with Deidre Grant of the Irish NGO, Haven - shelter experts already working in Haiti when the earthquake struck.

There are improvised neighbourhoods everywhere you look. They range from shanty-towns grown out of salvaged wood and curtains, to lines of donated geodesic domes, as neat as a Scouts' jamboree.

Some people still have their old neighbours as neighbours under canvas. For others, it's a whole new community.

By day, the men go looking for work, or guard their ruined property. The women cook, mind the children, sweep out the tents. The children tend to those younger than them, carry water, and rice bags.

Braiding hair. Photo by Christine Finn
For Haitians, tended hair is a sign of retained dignity

We head deep into Port au Prince city to investigate an urgent call for latrines.

The owner of an ice factory has given up the space around his site, and facilities are needed for the hundreds of people staying there in abandoned cars, or in shelters made from sheets of plastic held down by rubble.

But children with tidy plaits - their hair reddened from malnutrition - are still smiling.

Retaining dignity

At a Turkish Red Crescent camp, we distribute hygiene kits, which include shampoo.

At every site, I see women braiding hair, and barbers trimming.

For Haitians, tended hair, rather than make-up, is a sign of retained dignity.

Kamel, the camp's organiser, was part of the relief team for the 1999 Turkish earthquake. He shows me around the neat streets of pristine cream tents.

His "five star" camp has four basketball teams. Kamel hopes his team - "Haitian 50 cents team" as he calls them - could play against other camps.

He proudly explains his site had once been a garbage dump. He had it cleared, constructed a wall for security, and pitched 166 tents.

Kamel introduces me to the psychologist on his team: "Women," he tells me, "are more seriously affected by the earthquake because when it happened, in late afternoon, so many of them were at home."

I look at the touching signs of domesticity - earthquake rubble fashioning a kind of front yard, boulders used to demarcate a wall, women proudly brushing their space with brooms.


A Haitian flag flying from a tent. Photo by Christine Finn
Tents are a safe haven from the many aftershocks

Kamel said many are calling their tent their house: "Now, I'd like to show you a special one," he said, stopping in front of an outdoor kitchen where Madame Faviola is cooking.

I am ushered inside. Madame has installed a carpet, and fashioned a bedroom space with deep pink netting, and a chain of paper hibiscus blooms. A wind-up radio is playing ballads.

Furniture, salvaged from the wreckage of her home, includes a sideboard on which are arranged precious things, gathered from the rubble, including framed baby photos, and tiny china ornaments.

Kitchen utensils are neatly arrayed underneath. Everything is spotless.

Tented villages are only meant to be temporary, but many of the people I meet say that with the continuing aftershocks they feel safer out in the open - as I found out over two nights of "mild" quakes - magnitude 4.7 or so - while staying with the Haven team at their "safe" house in the suburbs.

I lie rigid with fear as the building shudders, lurches, and sways. I had given away my tent but wish I, too, was out in the open. Indoors, 10 seconds seems an eternity.

People in the camps tell me the next day they had stirred at the new tremors, then slept on, safe in these brave, new communities formed out of disaster.

Where home-made kites fly alongside Haitian flags, washing dries on lines strung between tents, footballs are driven into makeshift goals, spaghetti bubbles in outside pots, and people gather for church services on Sundays, dressed in dazzling whites - and heels, if they have them.

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In pictures: Haiti quake aftermath
31 Jan 10 |  In Pictures
Help for Haiti two months on
12 Mar 10 |  Americas

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