Merry Christmas everyone!
Merry Christmas everyone!
It was definitely a holiday I will never forget. As I’ve said before, Haiti is pretty much the opposite of Canada in every way, so it was quite the location for my first ever Christmas away from home. It was a wonderful weekend, full of food, dancing, hilarious presents, and the strange comfort and feeling of “family” that comes in the form of a group of random people all in a similar situation, making the most of things. I celebrated with my Haitian family on the 24th, my international volunteer family on the 25th, and tomorrow afternoon marks the first of three days of celebration with my biological family, when the entire Watson clan lands in Port-au-Prince!
I’m definitely someone who loves her traditional family Christmas. I’ve done pretty much the exact same thing every holiday season for the past 20-odd years and enjoyed it fully every time. Every December 25th I get a wake-up call in the form of a whack on the head with a pillow from one of my 4 siblings. We jump out of bed like little kids to go open our stockings with Mom and Dad. This year I woke up to the sound of English Christmas carols on a nearby radio, sharing a single mattress with my friend Rose Daphney in a tent in her back courtyard (her 3-room house has about 8 other people living in it), feeling a bit shaky from the rum and kompa street dancing that we’d taken part in the night before. I sauntered my way over to the coffee lady to have a chat and exchange holiday greetings with my neighbours before they headed off to work for the day.
Although it didn’t look much like home, spending the day with the international volunteers had the same sort of warm, happy feeling that goes along with a traditional family Christmas. Being away from home for the holidays isn’t something I’ve ever aspired to do, but I’m glad that I did it here, with these amazing people.
After an eventful week of riots and political turmoil, I’m happy to report that it’s business as usual here in Leogane, Haiti. It’s nice to not feel like I have to write just to reassure everyone that I haven’t been shot or stoned by political protesters, drained of life by cholera, run out of town for being a potential health threat, swept away in a flood, or been set back by any of the other unhappy fates that seem to creep around these parts. For once, everything is OK!
23 of our 60-some odd volunteers left the base last Sunday, the first day we were allowed out after lockdown. All Hands decided to cancel all incoming volunteers until December 24th. That means that our little family got quite a bit smaller, and stayed that way. We have had some new people sneak in this week, but it hasn’t been the deluge of Christmas holiday-ers that we were expecting. It’s been strangely quiet around here with so few people on base, but it’s also been a nice change of pace after spending 5 days locked up with the same group of people.
Not that lockdown was a horrible experience. When you put a group of creative, adventurous, highly social “doers” in a confined space for long enough, interesting things start to happen. My money was on everyone getting all “Lord of the Flies” on each other, with my delicious and not-so-useful self getting Piggy-d fairly early on. Instead, much to my delight, people were sweet and did awesome stuff! What was to be our last day of lockdown was especially impressive. A group of volunteers organized a “Lockdown Olympics”, with events such as wife-carrying, tai chi, juggling, and theme song writing (including a clever lockdown-themed take on that Mariah Carey disaster that somehow got status as a “Christmas classic”). People busied themselves building Adirondack furniture out of scrap wood and finding creative ways to beautify our living space. At the end of the day we were allowed out to Joe’s, the bar next door to our base, where we held a “Lockdown Prom” in honour of the people who were leaving the next day. It was a nice way to re-introduce ourselves to the outside world, all shiny and new after a brief hibernation.
I was really proud of the way that everyone came together and made the best of a not-so-awesome situation. Even though we weren’t doing any work (out of respect for the unofficial general strike that went on all over Haiti after the election results were announced), it was a pretty stressful week. We had very little idea of what was going on outside our gates, relying on what we’d hear from our friends and on the radio. Our supply situation was questionable, and with the airport shut down, the people who were scheduled to leave were unsure as to when they would be able to get back home. We had no clue as to when or how the situation was going to improve. Multiply everyone’s individual stresses and concerns by 60, cram them all into one space, and you have the potential for one hot mess. But it takes a certain kind of person to voluntarily be in a place where a situation like this could arise, and everyone pulled it off with style. I feel blessed to be part of this group of incredible people, and want to be like all of them when I grow up.
Sleeping in a tent on the roof of base, I’ve become pretty accustomed to the “unusual” sounds that go on in Leogane after our 10pm curfew – the voodoo ceremonies that get rowdy late into the night, the Jesus-loving evangelicals who have sing-along concerts that can be heard all over town, a “rara” passing by our base on special occasions (roaming dance parties, complete with brass bands and drumming), the barnyard symphony of noisy dogs and roosters, and even the occasional gunshot from our backyard guards scaring off thieves. When I first arrived in May and would hear these noises, I would lie in my tent rigid with fear, trying to talk myself down from the adrenaline rush of the unknown. Now that I’m a bit more familiar with Haitian culture and how people here party, pray, and react, some of these noises have become quotidian and even somewhat comforting…they indicate that people are carrying on with their lives as they normally would, no matter what recent calamity has affected them during the day.
The election results from the first round of voting were announced at 9pm on Tuesday night, and by the time our generator was shut off an hour later we could hear that the soundtrack to our night was to be anything but soothing. People were demonstrating until almost dawn, and continued on for the next 3 days. Burning tires, road blockades, and massive protests went off all over Haiti, shutting down most businesses and halting all inter-city travel. The people believe that the elections were rigged – Jude Celestin, the current president’s son-in-law, made it through to the next round of voting over Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who (as I mentioned in my post last week) was considered a heavy favourite. Celestin’s campaign headquarters were burned down in Port-au-Prince, municipal buildings were torched in around the country, and most of the 19 presidential candidates are calling for the elections to be considered null and void.
As for us here on base, today is Day 4 of Lockdown. No one has been allowed to leave or enter the base since Tuesday, except for our Haitian staff who have been an invaluable source of information and supplies. We are safe, albeit rapidly approaching cabin fever. Adding to the tension of the political situation, a French epidemiological study has shown that Nepalese UN soldiers are responsible for bringing cholera to Haiti in the first place (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-11949181). Given the UN’s rocky relationship with the Haitian people, and the tendency of the people to lump all foreign organizations under the same umbrella, this is not good news for Blancs. There had been some rumours and suspicion about Blancs bringing cholera, and now that it’s basically been confirmed, we’re being very careful about everything we say and do.
Getting back to my original train of thought, there is good news. Last night after a day of office-type busy work, marathon yoga sessions, lots of reading, and a game of All Hands-themed Clue, I lay in my tent and listened to Leogane. After 3 long nights of either noisy protests or eerie silence, I heard the joyful songs of the evangelicals coming over our gates. In the middle of the night, I could hear the voodoo drums off in the distance. It’s been a rough week for everyone, least of all for those of us who have been locked in on base. We all took last night’s musical offerings as a sign that things are looking up. It is important for the protests to happen, but it’s a relief to hear that at some point life must go on. Tomorrow we’re anticipating to be allowed out (restricted to our small corner of town) and we should be able to get back to work sooner rather than later.
True to my word, I’ve been doing a lot more rubbling since I’ve been back from break. In the past week I had my first experience as a rubble team leader, on what has been referred to by newcomers and veterans alike as “The Best Rubble Site Ever.”
One of the biggest problems with the aid work that’s going on around these parts is the lack of co-ordination between actors. For example, All Hands has been clearing residential rubble sites since the project started up in February. The idea was that once the slab where their home got cleared, families could safely move back onto their property. At first the immediate goal was to get tents to the people who’d lost their homes (they were still working on this when I arrived in May), then they moved on to transitional shelters (or “T-shelters” as they’re called in NGO speak – we’ll take any chance we can get to condense terminology into acronyms), which are basic one-room houses with metal frames covered in plastic sheeting to make it weatherproof. The next step will be the safe reconstruction of homes, and there’s no word on a plan for that so far. Coming back in October, it was disheartening to see rubble sites that we cleared in the Spring still sitting empty, tropical weeds overtaking the concrete slab, with no family and no form of shelter. There is an endless list of reasons why and excuses that we’ve heard from all sides, most of which have to do with the bureaucracy that goes along with issues related to land ownership and giving away something as large as a home for free. Still, it’s hard to see the hours of work we put in seemingly going to waste.
But wait, this is a happy story! In the past few months All Hands has been partnering with the Red Cross (the Canadian sector of which has a small T-shelter factory in our backyard) in an effort to expediate the process of getting families out of temporary living situations, such as IDP camps and living in cramped quarters with extended family and neighbours, and into a shelter on their own land. The Red Cross gives the family tools to clear their slab, and we send a small team of volunteers to help them with the smashing and the shovelling. The work usually goes pretty quickly, as the families are motivated to move the rubble that’s been keeping them off their land for the past 10 months. After the slab is clear, the Red Cross sets up a T-shelter for the family and they can move in right away. Brilliant! Why weren’t we doing it this way all along?
The site I was on was a bit unconventional (yes, there is a full spectrum of rubble sites, ranging from “classic” to “epic” to “f***ing insane!!”). The first storey of the house remained structurally sound, but the second floor was badly damaged and threatened the integrity of the rest of the house. Our awesome demolition team came in first to tear down the most dangerous part, then the rubblers came in to help the family clear off what is now the roof of their one-storey house. Charlie, an amazing carpenter and all-around great guy from northern California, MacGuyver-ed up a “rubble chute” to (somewhat) safely get the rubble to ground level, where we used it to build a new road for the neighbourhood.
The family was great to work with, especially the lady of the house. She worked non-stop, running giant wheelbarrow loads out to the street and eventually taking charge of the actual construction of the road. A neighbour passing by stopped to gawk at her, and commented that she shouldn’t be doing hard labour like this. Without missing a beat with her shovel, Madam answered “Apre douz janvye, tout moun travay,” – After January 12th, everybody works.
Happy International Volunteer Day, everyone!