I wrote a lot of notes while in Haiti and sat down to write this blog maaany times, but I haven’t known where to start or how to make sense of it all. Now that I’m back in my igloo and have reflected on the experience ad nauseum, I think I’ve been able to put it into perspective. I think.
I’ve wanted to go to Haiti for years, specifically to volunteer. However, after the earthquake in 2010 which killed an estimated 200,000 people, it surprisingly seemed like the worst possible time to go. Much of the country was in shambles and the stampede of Western aid organizations purported to help seemed to worsen the already dire situation. So, I held off. And off. And off. Fast forward five years later, after vetting an organization there that I felt was a fit, and my ticket was booked.
My four-hour solo bus ride from Port au Prince (PAP) to Les Cayes seemed relatively easy enough; however, with the most recent spate of protests, it turned into a tiring and somewhat stressful seven. At first I didn’t even know we were at a standstill due to road blockades. I was dozing off and on and at one point thought, ‘man, we are in some seeerious traffic‘.
After hearing people on the bus bicker in an usually loud Creole, I looked up and saw the tips of the blue UN soldiers’ helmets on the road up ahead and realized we were right in the shiznit.
Most people see these manifestations on the news and are quick to criticize the Haitian protesters ostensibly causing mayhem, but I have grown to sympathize with them after reading everything that I could about its history and learning what they have endured as a people.
The legacy of repression in Haiti has lingered for centuries despite gaining independence in 1804. The crippling debt imposed by the French in 1825 and the neoliberal policies imposed by the US in the last century have greatly contributed to its inability to shed the title of poorest, most dependent country in the Western Hemisphere.
For as much good as the US has done trying to stabilize the government and maintain order in recent decades, it seems that it has been simultaneously sharpening its claws and strengthening its grip on Haiti with a plethora of structural adjustment policies and the dismantling of trade barriers and tariffs – all to Haiti’s detriment and the US’s gain. Throw in a repressive political regime of their own for almost three decades (the Duvalier psychos known as ‘Papa Doc’ and ‘Baby Doc’) and a military coup with the leader after that and you’ve got one seriously tumultuous country.
It comes as no shock then that the earthquake in 2010 opened an already ginormous can of worms. The epicentre of the earthquake was right smack in the middle of one of the most impoverished, densely-populated cities in the Western Hemisphere, worsened by poorly-constructed housing packed in like sardines. Chaos, indeed.
And since the need was great after the earthquake, when the NGO community descended upon Haiti, they came in droves. It is estimated that upwards of 10,000 NGOs were in Haiti after the earthquake – all with their own agendas. It soon became apparent that all major aid decisions were taken over by the international community without much local consultation. There were, however, plenty of local groups who were trying to mobilize in order to help, but it was tough for them to take any ownership of the reconstruction efforts since they were rarely invited to planning meetings, and when they were, the meetings were conducted in languages they didn’t understand.
Then right around the time that the camp evictions started, the NGOs blazed out of town as quick as they came in, and the communities most affected by the earthquake were on their own once again.
People were outraged and desperate and made noise to their (ineffectual) government, which perpetuated the media’s image of the angry and unruly Haitian. And what has changed over the last five years? Not a heck of a lot. A new political presence and a new set of promises, while many people still live in the same broken homes and under the same crappy tarps. So, protests? Yeah, I’d protest for change too.
So there I was on the bus tracing the magnitude of anger around me back to the magnitude 7.0 five years prior. And the epiphanies just kept on comin’…
My two weeks volunteering in Les Cayes were very rewarding but challenging all the same. The organization that I signed up with is about as grassroots as you can get, but one of the few organizations that I’ve seen actually put a dent in the need. The founder and full-time superwoman at the helm, along with her dedicated team, were so busy keeping a community alive and safe and healthy that it was a few days before I could see how I would fit into all of that without getting in the way. However, as soon as I went with the flow and embraced the organized chaos, I loved it.
The overarching goal of LFBS (littlefootprintsbigsteps.com) is to rescue children from corrupt orphanages and a life on the street. However, the incredible part is not even in the rescuing; it’s what they do for these children once in their care. They show them love and teach them how to build confidence and become kind and conscientious. And the absolute best thing is that they believe this can all be accomplished through education and acceptance.
I spent most of my days at the boys’ safehouse. It took them a few days to warm up to me as it would any teenager, but as soon as they did, that was it. Every day, I played soccer and volleyball with them, took them to nearby Gelee beach and played game after game and did activity after activity. And seeing them thrive, knowing what some of them have been through in their lives, was both remarkable and humbling.
I feel so fortunate that I got to know this special group of boys and experience firsthand, their kindness, and if you wait awhile, their gentleness. The ironic thing is that I didn’t speak the same language as them although I think I understood them much clearer than I do most people in my everyday life. And let me just say, I liked so much more of what they had to say.
Les Cayes itself took a bit longer for me to warm up to, but as soon as I embraced the moto system, incessant staring, piles of burning garbage, street dogs, roving electricity outages, language barrier, and daily mosquito convention in my airless room, it was all good.
Once out of town, you could see the beauty of the countryside, but Les Cayes itself was a bit underwhelming. It doesn’t mean the beauty wasn’t there, but you just had to dig a bit to find it. The downtown core did have a stunning old church that stuck out like a sore thumb and seemed to represent the hope of the town.
And the architecture of many of the buildings was beautiful – newer ones mixed in with the old and worn facades adding just as much character as the ones that gleamed.
Unfortunately, much of its potential charm was often drowned out by poverty, garbage and a crumbling infrastructure. I remember thinking it was as if everything the West throws away ends up there, buses, cars, clothes, you name it. As a result, there seemed to be no discernible culture, nothing that stood out as distinctively ‘Haitian’…at least not at first.
The real beauty was of course in the people. I was told that Haitians do not like any loud or attention-seeking behaviour, so I thought they were going to be this super reserved society. I found them anything but. They were generally out-going and boisterous, especially the men. Most seemed to yell everything to each other instead of speaking at the normal decibel level for conversation.
On more than one occasion, I thought I was overhearing some kind of dispute between men, but then a fit of laughter would tell me otherwise – bromance intact. And for a typically homophobic society they sure were a physical people, always slapping hands, hugging hello, and hanging on to each other for dear life.
Above all, the quality I found in ALL the people I met was resilience. Most of them lived in abject poverty with little opportunity for better, but they were generally happy and polite and kind. On my last day I visited the paediatrics ward of the local hospital and was horrified at the need. The nurses seemed totally indifferent and the parents of the hospitalized children, in a daze. However, for all the misery and sickness surrounding them, at one point, a number of the parents started singing. I assume it was a church song or anything to make them feel better and pass the time. Whatever it was, it sounded absolutely beautiful and what I knew at that point to be very Haitian. So I guess that was it. That was the Haitian culture I was looking for and the beauty of Les Cayes I didn’t see at first glance.
Once I got back to PAP, not much had changed, just amplified. The roads were a bit dirtier; there was a ton more garbage; I saw more poverty and street dogs, and I probably inhaled even more exhaust fumes. I stayed in Petion Ville, which I read was the ‘Beverly Hills’ of PAP. I can only assume that reviewer was a blind man because even though Petion Ville was the ‘nice’ area, it was anything but Beverly Hills.
I’ve been in quite a few developing counties but for some reason, I never quite felt safe walking around there, so I think I missed out on seeing the culture I now knew was there. Somewhere. It might have been partly because every time I went out, the security guards at the front gate of my hotel told me I shouldn’t or would interrogate me with a barrage of questions that brought me back to the high school days of trying to pull a fast one on my mother.
Despite it not being a very touristy city, there were some cool things I managed to do. I went waaaay up to the Observatoire to get a bird’s eye view of the whole city.
I also visited Papillion Enterprise and the ApParent Project, which is a community-run program that teaches people to make jewelry, handbags and metal structures out of recycled materials. There is a kiln on site and classes, and they offer tours so people can see the good that is done for the local community. Aside from the fact that my driver and I went on a wild goose chase to find it, it was a great little sanctuary in the middle of the mayhem and definitely worth a visit should you end up there.
On the way, in traffic as thick as thieves, we got side-swiped by a large truck. I figured nobody would call the police, but I wasn’t expecting what happened next. In true Haitian fashion it went down more like a wild screaming match between ‘friends’, right there in the middle of the road as the traffic behind us ballooned and the horn-honking reached an equally feverish pitch. And it all happened right in front of a fuller than full tap tap (a truck used as the local transport which looks like something George Clinton and P-Funk would stroll up in), so there was no shortage of commentary from them to add to the excitement.
And just as I thought a brawl was inevitable, and I might need to make a run for it, all of a sudden, it was over. My driver was back in the car, cheerful as ever and we were on our way. I was stunned – not because it happened but because it ended as soon as it started. I chalked it up as another dose of Haitian culture.
A few things didn’t go according to plan this trip and there was more that I wanted to see, but it was still Haiti in all its disorder and hidden beauty, and I’m so glad I went. And like a masochist, I will go back. As soon as I can, as a matter of fact. I’ll try to see Isle de Vache in the south and hopefully make my way up to Cap-Haitian in the north, but I will definitely go back to Les Cayes, for there’s something about the people that got under my skin and in my heart. Guess that’s Haitain culture for you….
And just like that, I was on a plane back home. I left with a mild sunburn, a million mosquito bites and even more thoughts swirling in my head about the country, its people, its needs. Organized chaos behind me and back home to my own. A magnitude of a different kind.