27 May 2014

"Are We Still in Haiti?"

Tango dancers dancing to the orchestra music, led by Andres Tolcachir

On Friday evening I was invited to the Karibe Convention Center in Pétion-Ville for a gala event held by the Argentinian embassy in celebration of Fête des Mères Haïti (Haitian Mothers' Day). The event took the form of a concert featuring Haitian orchestra L'Orchestre Philharmonique Sainte Trinité, founded in 1956, and Argentinian tango dancers Cynthia Vielzebergs and Facundo Barrionuevo. The orchestra was led in part by David Cesar, director and professor of the school, and Argentinian Andres Tolcachir, and the programme contained a great mix of both Haitian- and Argentian-composed pieces. It was a beautiful night filled with food, drink and great company deriving from Haiti, America and Europe, and I overheard variations of the phrase "I never knew about this side of Haiti before!" more than once.

On Saturday afternoon I went to the Observatoire, a mountaintop restaurant overlooking the island of Haiti. Again, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the view and confused as to why more places like the Observatoire in Haiti (despite its slightly "touristy" vibe") aren't acknowledged by more Westerners.

Being here has been an incredibly bittersweet experience, and I have come to learn so much about the country and people, past and present. I am now somewhat protective over the country of Haiti and get so frustrated when I hear comments about how helpless or scary the place is. Of course, a significant number of factors over the years (loss of revenue from sugar plantations, mass livestock slaughtering from 1978-1982, earthquake in 2010 and so on) have contributed to the socio-economic weakening of the country as a whole, but as is the case any country in the world there is wealth here just as much as there is poverty. Aid workers and missionaries undoubtably do a fantastic job of providing support to the areas of the country that need it the most, but what I find damaging is that in many instances these same aid workers and missionary groups make little effort to seek or appreciate the "other side" of Haiti: its beautiful climate and natural wonders, its wealth, its rising (although still minimal) middle class. As citizens of the West it is just as important to recognise and highlight Haiti's strengths as well as its weaknesses.

View of the Southern coast of Haiti

Original artwork sold by vendors outside the restaurant

A change in the perspective of Haiti by Westerners will help to reconstruct Haiti's tarnished image and could, in time, boost Haiti's tourism sector, providing more jobs for local workers and slowly rebuilding the country's economy in turn. I know that there are many more factors affecting the viability of these suggestions, but I strongly believe this would be the start Haiti needs. Just as there is poverty in certain parts of London, there is great wealth here in Haiti. And the gala on Friday was a perfect example of that.

25 May 2014

Eight Hours, Three Days and a Horse

"You must see the Citadelle."

These words or similar, have been issued to me on many an occasion both before I set off for Haiti and since I have been here. As I have come to learn that this iconic heritage site lies at the centre of much of Haiti's colonial history, I knew that I could not let my 28 days come to an end without paying it a visit.

On Monday morning (probably last Monday, if you are on Greenwich Mean Time) I set off with a small volunteering group to Cap-Haïtien, an area situated in the north of Haiti. It's an eight-hour drive up to the guest house there and so I wanted to make sure the journey would be as comfortable as possible; with a book (The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera - very well written), headphones, fully-charged camera, nibbles and plenty of fluids in tow, I was armed and ready to go.

We made it to the house, a homely building tucked behind Cap's main boulevard overlooking the sea, in just under eight hours which I was incredibly grateful for, despite spending most of that time fast asleep (an achievement in itself - I cannot begin to describe the roughness of some of the roads here). I am somewhat embarrassed to say that the very first thing I did once I had lumbered my bags up the stairs and into my new room was enquire about wifi (first world problems) - so that I could continue blogging and connect with friends and family back in England via Skype. The wonders of technology!

I had organised a tour of the Citadelle Laferrière and Sans Souci Palace for myself via Voyages Lumière for the next morning (excellent service - thanks to Jacqui and the team for being so great!) and so I got an early night. It was about a 45-minute drive from the guest house to the visitors' "pitstop" in Milot, a check-in point at the very bottom of the mountain. It would have been too dangerous to drive up to the fortress, I was told, as it had rained heavily the night before. This "dilemma", however, was no problem at all for me because the only other way up was by horse! I had never ridden a horse before and so I was incredibly excited. The first few seconds were slightly daunting but it was an absolute joy after that. I was even reluctant to let one of the guides take the reins on some of the steeper and narrower inclines because I was convinced I had mastered the art! The hour-and-a-half horse ride up the mountain provided some amazing views.

Once we had reached the top, I was given a great one-on-one tour by a friendly, chatty Haitian man (who for some reason reminded me of my dad!) named Johnny. His English, he told me, was completely self-taught by ear and "may therefore be hard to understand", but I told him that that was nonsense because he is pretty much fluent. The fortress was not affected by the earthquake, and I was surprised to discover that this was despite the fact that the walls have no foundation and were handmade by workers using stone, mud, limestone and animals' blood. The creation itself was very impressive, but what was perhaps more interesting to me was the fact that I was standing in one of the very fortresses that was used in combat against the French post-independence and thus relates to Haiti's slave rebellion pre-1804 (it was Henri Christophe, a key leader in the rebellion, who had commissioned for this fortress to be built and who previously lent his name to the Citadelle before it took the Laferrière title).

Unfortunately it was too dangerous for me to ride a horse for a significant portion of the way down, and so I donned some old trainers and walked down some pretty steep and winding pathways with Johnny to the half-way "pitstop". I was able to re-mount at this point, which I was pleased about. Once we had returned safely to the base of the mountain, I was then taken to Sans-Souci Palace - the infamous royal palace in which Henri Christophe committed suicide in 1820 following the paralysis of half of his body. Again, being amongst these ruins was greatly sobering, and I felt privileged to be in a space which played such a key role in Haiti's rich history.

A moment of down-time was necessary after a busy morning. I went up to the Mont Joli Hotel for a cold drink and a brief swim.

After dinner we took a walk up the boulevard and stopped at a nearby restaurant for coffee (milkshake for me - soursop and milk. Absolutely amazing.) and ice-cream.

The next morning was equally as busy as the morning before. I accompanied the volunteering group to some small farms and schools in Dondon, a more rural community in Cap-Haitien. As part of their agricultural works the farms and schools had been gifted with goats as a source of milk and the group wanted to monitor the effectiveness of this initiative.

I'm not sure I was quite dressed for the occasion (note to self: mud and espadrilles do not mix) but arriving at the school and having a group of wonderfully happy school kids sing songs to me (again! How lucky am I?) made me forget all about the possibility of falling head-first onto the floor and ruining my all-white get-up.

23 May 2014

The Malnutrition Clinic, or, The Education of the Heart

With the TWA group (photo credit: JZ)

On Saturday morning I went with a few members of the Canadian volunteering group to a children's malnutrition clinic located not too far away from our house in Port-au-Prince. When visiting schools and clinics as part of my own schedule I am usually lucky enough to have a driver and a well air-conditioned 4x4 to transport me directly from A to B. I was therefore interested to learn that I would be taking a tap-tap and then walking on the busy streets in order to reach our destination.

Colourful tap taps on Delmas

Tap-taps, as mentioned briefly in my very first post, are a common form of transport in Port-au-Prince. Usually taking the form of a small van or truck, the back is cut out and coloured decoratively and benches are placed so that passengers face each other. Young boys will call out the route of the bus for prospective passengers prior to boarding and, when enough people have taken their seat, will tap the side of the vehicle twice (hence the name) to signal to the driver that it is okay to set off. To alight, passengers shout "Merci!" through the metal grid separating driver and back seating area (or, on some tap-taps, press a button at the top or side of the grid), and the tap-tap will veer off into the nearest available parking space.

After a brief wait, we were finally let in to the clinic. There were a group of women sitting on the roadside opposite the building, looking at our group with hostility; I was later told that these were mothers of some of the malnourished children who would not be allowed in until midday and were scornful that we were allowed in before them. We were met with a chorus of high-pitched howling: the children, aged between 0 and 3/4 and around 24 in total, were hungry and hadn't yet been fed breakfast yet so we got to work immediately. The nurses didn't speak much French or any English and so communication was a struggle. Before I could get my bearings, a bowl of what appeared to be porridge oats was thrust into my hands and I was pointed in the direction of a cot which had been numbered ("Ou! vingt-deux!").

The first few seconds at the clinic were somewhat bewildering. I sheepishly made my way to a cot and met a small baby girl who couldn't have been more than six or seven months old, although I couldn't be sure. Some babies and children had tags on their feet with their name, age and other information. Some did not. I came to learn that many of the latter were orphaned, and so their vital details were unknown to the clinic and thus to us. As there were only four of us, it was difficult to be completely attentive or bond properly with the babies. I must have spent too much time with Twenty Two (unfortunately, she did not have a tag) because the porridge bowl was just as swiftly taken from my hands and I was issued a new bowl for a new baby. Thankfully a second volunteering group arrived and the children were attended to more efficiently.

Celebrating a birthday with the TWA group

The next stage of the morning consisted of what I can only describe as "holding time". The mothers who had been waiting outside were permitted entry and swiftly gathered up their children in their arms. I was invited to do the same. She didn't have a name tag either. She could have been a little over a year old, maybe even older, but her signifier flame orange curls meant that I would never be certain. She had hoisted herself up to the edge of her cot and was howling because she didn't have any parents to come for her, but the moment I picked her up she became completely calm. I can't quite put into words how a moment like that feels; it's something you either have to experience for yourself or watch someone in close proximity experiencing first-hand. The Canadian group - Third World Awareness or "TWA" - please go and check them out HERE - calls this type of experience and others which are similar in Haiti "the education of the heart", and I could not agree more. Watching a baby - someone else's baby! - cry for me as I finally placed her back into her cot because she didn't want me to stop holding her was so amazing to me. Although it was also rather heartbreaking, I use the word amazing because I was (and am) completely taken aback by how powerful human connection can be.

Being in Haiti doesn't allow a person to be passive. It doesn't allow you to not be present. It doesn't allow to to lack feeling. It tugs at your heart when you're not looking and can turn even the most resilient of people into the most nervous of wrecks. Slowly, Haiti is working this magic on me. That little girl helped me in a million more ways than I could have ever helped her, and that Saturday morning will remain etched in my memory for a very long time.

20 May 2014

On Voodoo, Black History and Childhood Memories

Standing underneath the red and blue drapeau on Haiti Flag Day, 18 May

It has just occurred to me, as I sit by the wifi dock at the guest house in Cap-Haitien (it's the only way that I can guarantee a solid Internet connection), that my writing has become a little more sporadic in its frequency. As was the case with last weekend's activities, I am almost certain that I will only be able to gloss over (and not consider in any  significant depth, unfortunately) the events occurring over the past few days.

Last week saw the arrival of a 14-strong Canadian volunteer group at the guest house in port-au-Prince. Before this, I had had the house to myself save for the staff and one Alaskan volunteer who was so introverted that he may well have not been there at all. What an initial shock! I knew I would have to share my room as it is the biggest and, thanks to the balcony overlooking the pool, arguably the most impressive. I do like to have my own space, and so adjusting to the four girls who were now sharing "my" amenities and adjusting the room to their own tastes (the weather, save for today, has been incredibly hot and sticky of late) was a slight challenge. 24 hours later, however, and it was as if I were 16 again and back at secondary school, giggling with housemates as we waited for the dinner bell to go off and filling each other in on our daily schedules after a long day. I had completely forgotten about the need for my own space and suddenly appreciated the soft hustle and bustle that had not previously existed, the shared memories that are often lost when travelling alone, and close ties of friendship that can only really be made when living alongside others.

RAM at the Hotel Oloffson

On Thursday night the group invited me to the Hotel Oloffson for live music from RAM (see a video of the band HERE), a group well known in the city for their upbeat performances. Twelve of us drove up in a battered people-carrier blaring reggae and craftily avoiding pot-holes, and I chatted to one of their hired Haitian guides about the politics of speaking French (and not Creole) to certain classes of Haitians. I was told at the end of the night that RAM was in fact a voudou (voodoo) music group, but the general Western perception of voodoo tradition is so narrow that I will have to expand on this point in a later post. The fact that it started a little later than scheduled (I have come to realise that "Haitian timing" and "African timing" are one and the same) was easily overlooked due to the sheer passion and skill of singers, dancers  and musicians rolling effortlessly from one song to another. The music was familiar - almost Sierra Leonean in its sound - and I felt as though I were back at home and at a family friend's birthday hall party. Unlike at family friends' hall parties, where I will routinely consume as many Supermalts as my bladder will allow and stand up only to collect and dispose of food, I was somehow conjured out of my seat and onto the dance floor. We stayed there until around 1.30am, when the band had ended their set, and reluctantly made our way home.

Celebrating Flag Day with a pupil at Frères School, Port-au-Prince

On Friday afternoon I wen down to the local school with a few friends to watch their Flag Day celebrations. Flag Day is a public holiday which celebrates May 18th, the first purely Haitian flag which distinguished the people of Haiti from their a French opposition (an omission of the white, representing the people, and an eventual shift from vertical to horizontal colours). The children were having so much fun, and it was nice to see some universal games (tag, musical chairs) being played against the quintessentially Haitian kompa which was being played loudly by a DJ placed at one side of the school playground. I managed to convince one of the kids to get me a flag, and we bobbed along to the music for a while before returning to the house.

Listening to a talk on the history of the Haitian Flag at Musée Ogier-Fombrun, an old sugar plantation

The museum's grounds

I ended the week with a trip to the Musée Ogier-Fombrun, a hotel resort and museum which was originally an old sugar plantation in the 18th century. Some of you will now that I am greatly interested in colonialism/post-colonialism (I wrote my final thesis on the interrelations between the West Indian plantation and the 19th century literary home in novels Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park) and so I was so excited to discover that I was standing on some of the very grounds that once lent Haiti its status as one of the richest countries in the western hemisphere. And on 18 May itself! Our guide was very knowledgeable and passionate about the history of his country, and I left the grounds (which were absolutely stunning, by the way) feeling a little more informed about what I now consider to be one of the most important pieces of black history to date.