A Push For Safer Housing
The driving force behind one of MCC’s newest efforts to help Haitians build back better after a devastating 2010 earthquake is an eclectic crew — young men in striped tights, pink pants, shirts bright enough to stand out even against the colorful “tap-tap” minibuses that carry people and goods through the streets of Port-au-Prince.
On screen, the youth reel under the weight of tools, stumble into and shove each other, voices raised in screeching argument — the epitome of what you hope your home construction team is not.
And that’s the point.
Tucked between the physical humor and dramatic twists common to Haitian television, the professional comedy troupe in the MCC-funded video Sonje(meaning remember in Haitian Creole) offers a serious message — clear instructions in earthquake-resistant building techniques, an explanation of dos and don’ts that both workers and homeowners can follow.
“There’s this tendency for people to just pray to God for construction without doing the right techniques and methods they need to do,” says actor Ezaie Simon. “But the video is saying that’s not what makes a house strong — it’s understanding, knowledge about how to build well.”
That’s a message MCC has worked hard to spread over the past five years.
Less than two weeks after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, claiming more than 200,000 lives, destroying whole areas of the city and leaving some 180,000 more structures damaged, MCC had engineers on the ground checking the safety of public buildings.
Over the following months, MCC teams of short-term structural engineers inspected more than 660 buildings, including schools, medical clinics, churches, orphanages and some homes.
By August 2010, MCC began training masons in earthquake-resistant building techniques. Through MCC, James Mwangi of Paso Robles, Calif., a structural engineer and professor at California Polytechnic University, worked alongside masons, checking construction in progress and instructing scores of building crews in how to best carry out these principles with the materials and challenges they faced on actual job sites.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know,” says 42-year-old mason Arnel Telimont, who was part of one of Mwangi’s 2010 trainings at the MCC office in Port-au-Prince. “I’ve kept practicing what we learned there.”
That means changes in everything from how he dug a foundation to placing rebar through holes in concrete blocks and putting in horizontal beams after every few rows of cement blocks to help to hold a wall despite shaking and pressure.
Upholding these principles, though, is not simply a matter of course.
In Canada or the U.S., a web of regulations, enforced by regular inspections of construction and new buildings, governs everything from how deep a foundation must be to what kind of materials can be used. “So many things are decided for you,” says Kurt Hildebrand of Medford, Ore., MCC Haiti representative with his wife Wilda Mondestin.
In Haiti, though, safety is the result of hundreds of individual decisions made by masons and homeowners. “Here, everything is up for debate,” Hildebrand says. “You can decide how much sand you want to use, how much rebar.”
Telimont estimates that using earthquake-resistant principles can as much as double the price of construction, increasing both material and labor costs.
There are clients who question this approach, especially for materials that aren’t visible but buried deep in the structure of a building. “The owner will say, ‘I don’t see it. I don’t understand the need for it,’” he says.
In response, Telimont pulls out a book he received in the MCC-supported training, showing them what he learned.
So far, he says, he’s been able to convince clients to follow the principles.
Overall, though, MCC was concerned that the dedication of masons may not be enough. “The population at large has not been exposed to principles of hazard-resistant building in a way that has truly ‘stuck’ into the popular imagination,” summed up one MCC administrator in a 2013 report.
It’s not often that MCC progress report concerns lead to hiring a comedy troupe.
But in this case, the idea fit.
It was time for the tenets of safe construction to spread to the public, ideally leading more homeowners, family and friends to view it as their responsibility to ensure that building standards are followed.
And funding a video in the style of Haitian television echoed MCC’s desire for a message that fit Haitian culture and communicated to the most people in the most accessible language, Hildebrand says.
The video — a collaboration of Daniel Tillias, a Haitian producer who also is director of MCC partner organization Pax Christi Haiti, with Comedus, a comedy troupe from the impoverished neighborhood where he works, Cite Soleil — was shown on Haitian television on the 2014 anniversary of the earthquake.
Some 450 DVD copies have been printed so far. As MCC explores avenues to show the video more widely in Haiti, actors such as Ronald Jean Batiste say they’re seeing its popularity grow — hearing real construction workers compare each other to the characters to praise good building or call out sloppy work, and fielding requests for the DVD from builders and others.
It’s a message that masons like Telimont hope will spread more and more widely in Haiti.
“Everybody needs to know these principles,” he says, “not just the foremen, not just the masons but everybody involved in construction.”
Marla Pierson Lester is managing editor of A Common Place magazine. Silas Crews is photographer and multimedia producer for MCC U.S.