A group portrait of the actors
MCC photo by Silas Crews

Through a new MCC-funded video, actors and comedians (from left) Luckmane Charles, Edoine Jean Marck, Josue Francois, Ronald Jean Batiste and Ezaie Simon use humor to share and promote earthquake-resistant building techniques. (See photo below from the video.)

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 colourful “tap-tap” minibuses that carry people and goods through the streets of Port-au-Prince.

A film clip of a group of men wearing hard hats, dressed in unusual clothing standing in a building site.

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 humour 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.

A smiling women sits surrounded by items for sale.MCC’s earthquake response also helped support opportunities outside the overcrowded capital, including a vocational school in Desarmes. The business skills Mylande Bozil learned at the school helped her better plan the inventory for her market stand and improve sales.

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, an MCC Haiti representative.

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 labour costs.

Telimont Arnel stands in a building site with someone working in the background. Arnel Telimont, who participated in MCC training, points out some of the earthquake-resistant building techniques in a Port-au-Prince project he is working on.

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.

A family group stand in front of doorway of a small concrete house with a tin roof.“When I came here, it was an enormous relief,” Verly Boulevard says of the house he and his family moved into in February 2011 through an MCC-supported project to repair or construct housing for people with disabilities. The family spent months in a tent camp, the children often sick and Boulevard’s fear for them growing as cholera spread. After losing his business in the earthquake, he built an extra room onto this house to rent out to help support his wife Bernadette Louis and children Jonathan, 11, Isabelle, 8, Francesca, 5, and Nodjina, 2 months. “I said, ‘If somebody can come and help me, I need to do what I can to take the next step,’” he recalls. See more photos of MCC's work in Haiti after the earthquake. 

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 neighbourhood 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.

MCC’s Haiti earthquake response

$16.9 million spent since 2010

$1.9 million dedicated for current and upcoming projects in areas including housing, education and agriculture

MCC’s earthquake response ranged from immediate relief after the quake to projects to help people rebuild homes and lives in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Projects are continuing to help people build more sustainable futures in rural areas rather than being forced to
move to the overcrowded capital for opportunity. In all:

45,528 people received food assistance

26,788 comforters distributed

6,680 water filters provided

6,344 people received cash transfers or were part of cash-for-work projects

2,981 participants gained skills in agriculture or livelihoods trainings

826​ homes repaired or constructed

1,616 people learned tools for trauma healing or conflict resolution

1,131 students benefited from school reconstruction or support

Learn more about MCC’s response through photos and video at mcccanada.ca/haitiearthquake.