Greetings from Leogane, Haiti, the city that is closest to the epicenter of last year’s earthquake.
From the moment my plane landed, I knew Haiti was nothing like anyplace I’ve been before. At the capital city’s international airport, I arrived into a small room, with only the most basic of furnishings and equipment, and carts available for $2. The assault of people trying to carry my bags and get me into their cars when I exited was the most intense I’ve experienced anywhere, and I thought I’d seen it all when it comes to that.
In the van on the way to camp, I was instructed that as a “blanc,” or foreigner (you don’t have to be white to be a blanc), I should never say the word “cholera” in Haiti. Lacking widespread access to news media, information spreads mostly by rumor here, and the word is going around that foreigners have brought cholera to Haiti on purpose. Given the history of foreign abuse of Haiti, it’s not quite as preposterous an idea to Haitians as it is may be to us. Misunderstanding is so serious that internationals have been accosted and arrested by groups of misinformed Haitians for swimming, for fear that they were poisoning the creek. Since the word for cholera is the same in Creole as English, it might be the only word a Creole speaker understands of an English conversation, giving rise to suspicion. So we never say the words cholera; instead we use the code word, which, amusingly, is “unicorns.” Even more amusing is that the bleach foot baths we walk through whenever entering base are called “unicorn killers.”
Our base in Leogane was at one time intended to be a grand nightclub. Now it stands half-built, a big open-air concrete center area where we sometimes play basketball, surrounded by concrete pillars and roofed areas where our bunks stand in rows on one side, and wooden tables and chairs form our lounge on the other. Almost all the furniture was built by volunteers; buying furniture is prohibitively expensive in Haiti. On the roof most of the long-term volunteers have pitched tents. There’s no refrigeration, no real indoors except the staff office, no privacy, no flushing toilets, 1-bucket showers, usually terrible food, and it always feel like it’s about a hundred degree in the afternoon. Despite all that, I was immediately comfortable here. I like the diverse array of people, the creative ways people entertain themselves in the evenings, all the little things people have done to make it home, and of course the work we do together.
I had a great first few days. Another volunteer who arrived in the same van as me brought compost worms and seeds, so we got the fun task of redesigning the compost and garden set-up.
On my second day here I made my first trip to the market, which was a bit of a shock. Normally visiting markets is one of my favorite parts of traveling. But the market here is a hot, dusty conglomeration of tiny, flimsy kiosks held up by sticks lashed together (milled wood is a rarity), where stern-faced Haitians appeared to glare disagreeably at us.
I learned my first important cultural lesson that day. It Haitian custom, it’s considered rude to make eye contact with someone but not smile and say bonjou (or bonswa after noon). It is the responsibility of the person passing by, or the visitor, to initiate the interaction. That’s me. So, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to smile at these unfriendly faces and greet them in a language I don’t speak. But when I tried it, it was like magic. Most of the stern faces transformed into beautiful smiles, and the greeting was returned warmly. As I learned more, I found that a lot of foreigners don’t interact much with locals, and resentment is widespread about blancs who used money designated for Haitian relief to drive around in air-conditioned SUVs rather than taking the local tap-taps (ubiquitous colorful trucks stuffed with passengers, usually blaring music as loud as a nightclub), and who do their work without really becoming a part of the Haitian community they work in. Some NGOs don’t even allow their workers to go to the market or walk around town, and the degree of comfort they bestow upon themselves is insulting to locals. That, combined with a checkered history of destructive and parasitical foreign intervention, helped me understand the lukewarm reaction we often receive as we come here to try to help.
Even in little things, we have to watch how our actions are interpreted. I spent three days painting a mural at the school we just built, and made a habit of feeding part of my lunch to a sweet, skin-and-bones mother dog with nursing pups who walked straight up to me on my first day there and licked my foot. But when some school kids saw me do it one day, they walked away mumbling to themselves in disbelief about how they were hungry and I was giving food to the dog.
I had only been in Leogane three days when an epidemic of dysentery swept the camp. Well, we assume it was dysentery; it was never confirmed. At least 23 people landed in sick bay, which is almost one in three. With a fever, chills, exhaustion, and the runs, I began to question my decision to come here. I wondered if I would spend the next month sick. All Hands handled the situation well, tightening up hygiene practices, keeping track of each person’s symptoms, and getting people whatever care they needed. The wonderfully supportive Israeli doctors who run a clinic in town did preliminary tests on stool samples but lacked facilities for proper analysis, so they offered to send samples to Israel for further testing. I was amused by the idea of sending my shit to Israel, but a sudden storm flooded the clinic, followed by protests, and by the time it reopened we were mostly all healthy again. Such is life in Haiti.
As soon as I was up and about, I joined the biosand filter project, and learned how to make river water potable with nothing but a box, a tube, gravel and river sand. It’s a rather tedious process to make them, but once built, they’ll last for decades. I’ve posted photos of every step of the process at magicandchocolate.net, and I’ll describe it in detail at my slideshow (which may be March 14 in San Francisco).
After work we sometimes go to the “bar” down the street, which is more accurately a dusty kiosk that sells one type of beer, soda, and rum. A tarp covers the area in from of the kiosk, where we sit on tiny benches made of wooden planks set over cinder blocks, a typical setup for food vendors here. The owner handles the cash, and a precocious 9-year-old kid pulls our beer or soda out of the cooler. The other “bar” down the street actually has two hand-built tables, where we sometimes play board games, or just sit and talk.
Every other week we get a 2-day weekend, so for my first “long” weekend I went with a handful of other volunteers to the oceanside city of Jacmel, known for its thriving artistic community, to splurge for a night of mattresses and real showers. But when we arrived, we found that the only road into town had been blockaded by protesters, in relation to a shooting that had happened the week before. It was hard to get a straight story about exactly what happened. Sitting at a nearby beach (which was littered with trash and in a cloud of smoke from burning plastic), we talked about what to do. Next thing I knew we’d tracked down someone with a boat, helped him attach a motor, found fuel, amused all the local kids that gather whenever we do anything, and set off to reach our hotel by sea. Bailing out water all the way, we finally arrived, a little seasick, but happy. Our hotel was beautiful beyond my expectations, with a swimming pool and its own little private beach.
The next day the blockades were abandoned, and young and old poured into the streets for Jacmel’s famous Carnival celebration. Every year people throughout the city make amazing, ornately painted paper-maché costumes, and parade through the streets every Sunday for several weeks until Fat Tuesday. Group costumes are common, as are traditions such as the plastic jug fight, or the group of young men painted pitch black who paint everyone who doesn’t scurry quickly out of their way. At first I found the whole scene a bit intimidating, but by the end of the day I was greeting everyone with a smiling “bonswa,” and enjoying the chaotic festivity of it all.
Returning to base that night was odd. The stark contrast between our little bubble–with its curfew, guarded gates, clean order, and English speakers–verses the real Haiti was unsettling.
There are some things I definitely won’t miss when I leave here. The food. The afternoon heat. The overall dysfunction of Haiti. Dengue-fever carrying mosquitoes. Nine hours workdays without access to a toilet. But all in all I’m really happy to be here. All Hands works very closely with the local community, who clearly appreciate our labor, the programs they participate in, and the fact that we work hard without a lot of the comforts other NGOs display. I love the variety of people who land in a place like this to try to lend a hand. I love going to sleep to the drums and songs of vodou ceremonies on Friday nights.
Every day I learn a little more about this unique place, the first independent nation in Latin America, born of the first successful slave revolution, and in 1804 the first black-led republic in the world. Once pilfered by Europe as the “jewel of the Caribbean,” now the poorest country in the Americas, it’s almost unimaginable what Haiti has been through in these centuries of international abuse and natural catastrophes. The strength of the human will and the tenacity of the smile never cease to amaze me. Being here is humbling.
The first set of photos are up at magicandchocolate.net. Click on the word “photos” at the bottom of the page, not the photos themselves, to get them organized as sets.
It’s bedtime for me now. Last night an earthquake sent us all scrambling out of bed at 4am, so I’m hoping for a good long night of sleep tonight. Tomorrow I go to School 8 to build furniture.
Much love to you all,
- Albania & Kosovo, Aug 2010
- Haiti, March 2011