'Building Hope' in Haiti: New radio soap opera connects displaced to services

Haiti's 2010 earthquake sent some 1.5 million Haitians to live in tent cities. A new radio series follows a family living in a camp, educating listeners on everything from health to housing services.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
In this June 13 photo, a child bathes before going to a makeshift school at a camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

After the ground stopped shaking and the dust settled, the most illustrative reminder of the January 2010 earthquake’s devastation – and its slow recovery – was the thousands of camps that housed survivors.

The earthquake sent some 1.5 million Haitians to live in tents or tarp-covered shacks crammed together in public parks, on private land, and even highway medians. The miserable conditions were made even worse by storms, a cholera epidemic, widespread domestic and sexual violence, and a daily struggle for food and water.

Now, life in an earthquake refugee camp is serving as the basis for a radio soap opera hitting Haitian airwaves.  In the style of the popular Latino television soap operas, or telenovelas (but without the steamy story lines), the radio series follows the life of one family that survived the earthquake only to find a drawn-out struggle in a camp.

The show is set to debut in August and air for the next six months in five-minute-long episodes broadcast on Haiti’s most popular radio stations. The family will encounter many of the problems that have plagued the residents of Haiti’s tent cities for the past two and half years, from illness to violence.

Local voice actors recorded the 72-part series, called “Bati Lespwa” (Building Hope), in Haitian Creole in a Port-au-Prince studio.

The storyline, however, is culled from dozens of interviews with camp residents. The result is a composite sketch of one family: parents, two children, and a grandmother, says Marina Pimental de Isa, representative for Spain-based Humanismo y Democracia, one of several nonprofit organizations that came together to produce the series.

“It is very much based on the reality of the situation within the camps,” Ms. Pimental says.

Pimental’s organization has success with radio soap operas. It previously broadcast a series on water – covering everything from sanitation to the importance of watershed management – in both Spanish and Creole along the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.

In “Building Hope,” each chapter, accompanied by original Haitian kompas music, ends with a message that aims to point residents toward government and social services.

In one episode, Nadine (the mother), and her mother-in-law visit the clinic because she thinks she is pregnant:  

Doctor: Dear ... You're pregnant! Congratulations!

Grandmother: Oh my daughter! Congratulations! We will have a new baby in the family!

Nadine: How wonderful doctor! Although conditions are not favorable! Raising a baby in the camp should be very hard.

Doctor: Yes, but you are you and your husband and you have a beautiful, responsible family. I'm sure everyone will help you to have the best pregnancy possible. … From now, you have to be careful. Don't work so hard, eat well and, of course, no drinking.

Nadine: Of course not, Doctor. I have experience with the other two pregnancies. I'll try to take care of myself and I'll come to see you every month to make sure all is well.

The episode ends with a message reminding pregnant women to eat well, and rely on the support of family and medical clinics.

“They go through frustrating days, and good days. … We tried to capture that. We also try to instill hope,” Pimental says of the radio program's target audience in the camps.

'All you hear are rumors'

The program is aimed at residents like Jean Cassandre, who came to live in a camp after her family’s home was destroyed, killing her aunt. Today, she shares a two-room plywood and corrugated metal home with five family members.

Beds, crammed together like Tetris pieces, leave a little space for a few shelves for pots and pans, a TV, and clothes. A charcoal fireplace sits out front next to a few scraggly banana trees and a makeshift bathroom behind a donated blue tarp.

“There’s no privacy. You get tired of living on top of each other,” says Ms. Cassandre, a rail-thin 21-year-old who rarely leaves the camp. She spends most of her day working as a babysitter at an aid agency program which provides activities for some 350 children living in the camp.

The home, built by the International Migration Organization (IOM), was supposed to be temporary. “I dream about leaving. Anywhere. I’d go anywhere,” she says. “But we don’t have anywhere else to go. We don’t have the money to rent a house.”

Cassandre says she has heard mention of government programs, such as relocation assistance and free schooling, but she has no idea where to look for help.

The radio program “is a good idea because any information it can provide will be useful. All you hear are rumors,” she says.

Leaving the camps

Aid worker Ludie Jean says he hopes the project will serve as a “sort of guide for residents.” Not just those living in the camp, “but anyone who needs assistance,” says Mr. Jean, whose organization, the Haitian Institute for Integral Development (IHDI), monitors the effectiveness of the broadcast.

Jean and a team of workers will provide free social services, including psychological assistance and theater programs for children, in conjunction with the radio program.

“We want to build on [the program’s messaging] to help people work through problems,” Jean says.

According to the IOM’s most recent count, the camp population has dropped to 421,000. The number of camps has fallen to 602 from 1,555 in July 2010. Many camp dwellers relocated to housing thanks to a rental subsidy of 20,000 gourdes (about $500). Others went to live with family members, and some just built shacks elsewhere.

On the radio, at least one Haitian family's ordeal ends well: They move into their own home.

With more than enough misery to go around, “we wanted this to be positive,” Pimental says.

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