HAITI The courage to save herself and others

 Emergency Response
 24th Sep 2008

Islande Bonne Joseph is sitting in front of me wearing a pretty checked dress, her hair carefully tied back. Her huge smile is warm and heartfelt. Dressed in her Sunday clothes Islande may look timid, but this young woman is anything but. When Hurricane Ike hit Gonaives in Haiti, Islande displayed great courage in leading her neighbours to safety on top of her house as floodwaters rose dangerously high. She could have chosen to protect herself and her possessions, but Islande chose instead to help those who simply didn't know where to turn. As the floodwaters sent inhabitants scrambling to higher ground, Islande called out from her rooftop to men, women and children in her area trapped by the rising water and guided them to the ladder so they could climb to the safety of her roof. She saved at least fifty people from the raging water and mudflows, which hit the city.

She is indeed a brave young woman. It is this same courage which led Islande to join the Mouvement Paysan Kongrès Papaye, a group which assists disadvantaged farmers, and in particular women, by, among other things, giving them work so that they can earn their own living. Islande needed to be independent of her husband. "I didn't want to keep on being undermined and beaten because I wasn't working and had to depend on someone else," says the young woman. She wanted to escape the oppression of marriage to an older man living on a pension. "At least now I can do what I want!" And so Islande is learning to earn her own living through the Mouvement Papaye which teaches women to make clothes, recycle paper and cardboard collected from the streets, make fruit jams, peanut butter or shredded coconut.

This newfound freedom has increased Islande's confidence and she is now setting up her own organisation, the ODHB (Organisation for the Development of Haut Byenak), to help women "think", as Islande puts it. It was in this context that she became aware of CARE's work, and specifically of its gender equality programme, which she decided to enrol in. The experience thrilled her and now she wants to share what she learned with other women so that they too can learn independence. Islande will be personally training more than three hundred women! "I love sharing. It gives me real pleasure and of course I want to help change other women's lives in the same way mine changed", explains Islande. Needless to say, it takes a certain kind of woman to raise the nine nieces and nephews she has living with her, as the oldest member of a large family. While Islande is very keen to help improve the lot of women in Haiti, she also wants to set up a business buying and selling goods purchased elsewhere. In the meantime she hopes to attend more CARE training courses, continue to fight for independence and share what she learns with other women.

Right now, however, she is dealing with the crisis, helping the families she fed and sheltered for ten days on her roof. A brave, generous and determined woman with a big heart, there is no doubt that Islande will achieve her ambitions.

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