The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

Be sweet, and do awesome stuff all the time

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? January 22, 2011

Filed under: Haiti,Opinions — themadmadmadmadworld @ 11:56 am
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Despite Haiti’s best efforts to keep me there, including the suprise arrival of former dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier, I arrived back home Wednesday night. This morning Louis and I are driving back to Ottawa with a bunch of my stuff, to start the slow process of “settling in” to my new old life.

Every time I come home from an adventure, people ask “How was it?” Depedning on who’s asking and how much they actually care about my experience, I’ll usually have a few stock answers ready and a maybe a couple of entertaining anecdotes (of varying degrees of PG-ratings) to give an idea of what I got up to while I was away. But with Haiti it’s a different kind of answer. How was it? Well…

Spending time volunteering in Haiti didn’t exactly lend itself to the tidy adventure stories or cute cultural mixups that everyone likes hearing about from other people’s travels. When people ask me how Haiti was, I feel like there are several scenarios that play out:

1. “It was crazy, I really enjoyed my time there, I met some amazing people and got to see and do some interesting things.” Done in under 30 seconds. Not exactly representative of how it really was, but perfect for casual acquaintances or people just asking to be polite.

2. We talk at length about what I did, who I met, and how I felt about things. This is usually reserved for people who know me well and are genuinely interested in my experience. The downside to this conversation is that it can take up to 3 days and often ends in Creole hip-hop on YouTube and tears.

3. We have the “Solution For Haiti” converstaion. I completely understand why people want to talk about this, and it’s probably the conversation I would want to have if it hadn’t been me that had gone there. This usually happens with people who are somewhat knowledgeable about development issues and the situation in Haiti, or who are just genuinely interested in learning more. It’s also the conversation I most dread having. I feel like since I spent half a year in the thick of the “development issues” facing Haiti, I should be in the know and have well-formed opinions about how things are going and how we can help things go better. The truth is, I feel like I know much less now than I did before I went. I could tell you lots about Leogane, my friends there, some of the ways that “The Issues” affect their daily lives, and some of the ways that various actors are trying to “fix” these things. I could tell you a bit about NGO stuff, but mostly just what was going on around me. I could tell you a bit about the local government situation, but again, only what directly affected what we were doing in Leogane. As far as the grand scheme of things, you probably know just as much as I do. We got a lot of our Haiti information from international news sources like the BBC just like everyone back at home. And as far as “The Solution For Haiti”, your guess is as good as mine. I figure if there was A Solution and I knew what it was, I’d be down there implementing it. Wouldn’t I?

I always feel like a jerk having these talks, but I figure the more time I have to process my experience the better I’ll get at it. I don’t want to make people feel like they shouldn’t ask me about Haiti, because I do want to talk about it and I do want to answer everyone’s questions if I can. I’m glad that people are interested in what’s going on in Haiti and want to know what can be done to improve things. I apologize in advance if you’re not happy with how I respond, but give me time and hopefully I’ll come up with something that will satisfy both of us and make me feel like I’m doing justice to an experience that I really can’t describe. In the meantime, I’m going to get reacquainted with my friends, family, my matress and my old friend cheddar cheese.

 

A Year We Can Never Forget January 17, 2011

Filed under: Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 2:29 pm
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Today is my second to last day in Haiti. The sun is shining, the motos are honking, and from the perspective of this shady hammock it’s hard to believe that in just over 48 hours I’ll be dealing with snowbanks, black ice and fozen nose hairs all over again.

That’s right, I’m leaving Leogane. All Hands temporarily shut down operations this week to allow the staff and volunteers to take a much needed break before ramping up operations for 2011 starting on January 24th. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with everyone working like crazy to get everything in order before the break. There are only about 12 of us on base right now, with a laundry list of optional chores to take care of but no real obligations. It’s a weird way to wrap up 3 months of serious communal living and extreme hard work.

My last week of work was intense, for lack of a better word. Last Wednesday was January 12th, which marked the one-year anniversary of the reason why I’m here in the first place. The City of Leogane decided that they needed to do something to commemorate the occasion, but didn’t have the means to make it happen on their own. One of the biggest issues that they had was the mass grave site, just outside the cemetery. There were over a thousand people buried there after the earthquake, with nothing to mark their place but a simple iron cross and a sign explaining that the site would be renovated in the near future. The bus station is across the street, and it wasn’t rare to see vendors setting up shop next to the cross or moto taxis cutting through the grave site. The Director General of the City, with whom I worked closely during my time on the Mayor’s Office project, approached All Hands and asked if there was anything we could do. All it took was 3 architects, 40 local and international volunteers, 2 weeks of hard labour, and 1 whole year gone by since the disaster, and now Leogane has a dignified place to remember those they lost to the 2010 earthquake. One of our volunteers who worked on the grave site writes for AOL Travel, and her story and photos are worth checking out here.

Because of my familiarity with the mayor’s office operations and staff, our project director asked me to help out with the planning and preparation for the events of the day itself. (For my involvement I made my hometown paper again, if you’d like to read the story here.) All Hands offered to provide logistical and financial support for whatever Leogane wanted to do to commemorate the anniversary. I’ll spare the City my rant about their usual lack of organization, planning, proactivity and vision…let’s just say it was an uphill battle to have everything in order by January 12th. What matters is the end result, and it all came across quite nicely. There was a mass early in the day at the Catholic church, which had been destroyed by the earthquake and rebuilt by the Canadian Army last January. In the afternoon, a funeral procession started at the mayor’s office, wound its way through town collecting supporters along the way, and made its way to the mass grave site. A brass band (called a “fanfa”) played Haitian funeral songs, and there was some singing and chanting by the vodouisants. Mirlande Manigat, the supposed front runner in the  ongoing extreme confusion of the presidential elections, made a surprise appearance to pay her respects at the mass grave. The Sri Lankan army, who make up the security portion of the UN mission in Leogane, joined the community in their march, trading their assault rifles for bouquets of white flowers.

The march ended at a soundstage set up on the main road, with music and speeches from local officials. Chris, one of our project coordinators, and I were unexpectedly called to the stage to sit with the city officials to thank us for our help in preparing for the day. When I was done panickedly composing a speech in Creole in my head in case I was called on the speak (I wasn’t, thank God), I surveyed the crowd in front of me.  I was surprised to see that our volunteers made up the majority of the international participants. There were rumours of security concerns leading up to the 12th, with some NGO’s worried that there would be protests about how little had been accomplished over the past year. It seems that those concerns kept most of the international actors in Leogane from attending the day’s ceremonies. I felt like it was one more nail in the coffin of NGO relationships with this community; proof that they habitually keep the people they’re helping at arm’s length. It was nice to see our international staff and volunteers standing side by side with the people directly affected by the earthquake, and to know that they were glad we were there.

At the end of the day, all of our volunteers came back to our base to commemorate the anniversary privately. Thomas, one of our local volunteers, put together an emotionally charged slideshow of photos of the past year. Many of the local volunteers stood up and shared their stories of where they were on January 12th 2010, and how the disaster affected them. We heard about people’s friends, relatives, lovers, and colleagues crushed under concrete. They told us about nights spent huddled in cow fields, living like animals, feeling like this had to be the end of the world. We heard about the rumours, about not knowing who was dead or alive for weeks and months, of hearing screaming and crying that seemed like it would never end. Most of them spoke about it almost subjectively, as though it were something that had happened to someone else. It’s crazy to think that every pile of rubble in this city has a family attached to it, and that each member of that family has a story similar to what our friends shared with us. We’ve all known someone who has suffered through the tragedy of losing a loved one or losing their home, and can all empathize with that individual or family’s pain. But I can’t even begin to fathom that  pain on the massive scale of these millions of people who experienced those life-altering losses all at the same time. It was hard to hear, but we all knew how important it was that we at least get an idea of what the Haitian people experienced this time last year.

At the end of the day I was exhausted. I went up to the roof to look at the stars and digest everything I’d seen, heard, and experienced. I called my sister Mallory back home in Canada, because I felt like I couldn’t end the day without telling my family how grateful I am that we are all still alive, and to know that we are safe, and how lucky we are to have never had to experience the kind of loss that was all around me on that day. It was a hard day, it’s been a hard year, but at the end of it all life has to go on. The next day we were back at work building schools and clearing rubble. Lavi pa fini.

 

Life, Love, and the Pursuit of the Haitian Dream January 9, 2011

Filed under: Awesome!,Haiti — themadmadmadmadworld @ 4:45 pm
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I’ve gone longer than usual without posting of late, and not for lack of interesting things to write about. The past 2 weeks have been among the busiest, and best, that I’ve had in all of my time in Haiti. Welcome back to The Mad Mad Mad Mad World. Let me tell you about life, love, and the pursuit of the Haitian dream.

Life – Public transportation in Haiti comes in the form of colourfully painted trucks called “tap-taps” (because you tap the ceiling twice when you need to get off…clever, right?), most of which have slogans painted on them that are reminders of how to best carry on, loving God and country. Today as my child-bearing hips were locked in a vice-grip between the other human sardines on the way home from church, I looked up and saw my favourite piece of tap-tap wisdom painted above me: “Lavi pa fasil.” Life is not easy.  Very true, for some more so than others. Seeing this on the back of a dilapidated truck crammed with people, as I whip past roadside shacks filled with those left homeless or worse by natural and human disasters, makes me think twice about ever using those words again back home. Heavy thinking for a Sunday morning hangover…

Love – On a much more upbeat note, I love my family! The now-world-famous Watsons of Phelpston made a brief but memorable appearance on a rubble site near me last week, and man was it fun. (To see the front-page article in our hometown newspaper click here!) It was amazing to have all 7 members of my immediate family sledgehammering in sync to smash up the better part of a collapsed roof in just one day. Our team leader called us “the Von Trapp’s of rubble” (stay tuned for an awkward family photo or 2…). Considering that everyone in my family falls more on the “nerd” side of the high-school yearbook spectrum (no matter how hard I try to argue my rightful “jock” status), I was pretty impressed with how naturally they all took to rubbling. Junior, one of our strongest and longest-serving local volunteers, took my 17-year old sister Mallory under his wing and within the hour they were an unstoppable team. By the end of their visit I didn’t see much of Mallory, as she seemed to be always covered in a pile of adoring Haitian children who wanted her to stay and play with them forever. It seems that whatever it is that I have that makes me do what I do is genetic, and I don’t think Haiti’s seen the last of the Watson sisters. Having my family come volunteer with me was a really special experience, and it meant a lot to me that they would put themselves so far out of their element to come and see firsthand what the work I’m doing is all about.

The Pursuit of the Haitian Dream – Although it’s hard to define what “The Dream” is for any country (except for Canada, where it is clearly finding attractive winter footwear), last night I felt like we were as close as we’ve ever been to seeing it for Haiti. After coming back from my break(down) in November, I switched from working with the mayor’s office project to assisting the coordinator of our local volunteer program (see my November 27th post for more on that). Since last April, All Hands has welcomed young men and women from Leogane and the surrounding area who want to volunteer to help their community in whatever way they can (see November 18th’s “Interview with the Volunteer” for more on the program). I was involved in the initial restructuring of the local volunteer program that happened back in June, when we created a mentoring program to make sure that our volunteers got the best possible learning experience out of their time at All Hands. The program has grown and developed since then, thanks to the volunteers themselves and the amazing project coordination of my friend Jess. Our original group of volunteers, which has grown to about 30 over 9 months, celebrated their “graduation” from the local volunteer program last night. The ceremony was great, with valedictory speeches and a slide-show put together by Emmanuel, an incredible 17-year old kid who has gone from a shy rubbler to head of our Bobcat operator program, over the course of the past 9 months. Everyone looked extra “fresh” (the adjective of choice for a well-dressed Haitian), and it was a beautiful way to celebrate an inspiring group of people. I’m proud to be a part of something that connects people with a genuine desire to help with the means and materials to do so. Every day I’m amazed by the energy and passion of our local volunteers, and the more I’ve gotten to know about them as individuals and about their circumstances, the more I’m blown away by everything they do. Lavi pa fasil, but my friends here in Haiti are proving that no matter who you are, there’s always something you can do to better it.