The Mad Mad Mad Mad World

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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.

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Political Cacophony December 11, 2010

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.

 

Shmemocracy November 29, 2010

Haiti held its third ever “democratic” elections yesterday. No clear winner was established, and there were the score of usual problems that go along with holding elections in an environment like this. Leogane was relatively calm, as usual, but as a precautionary measure we spent yesterday on lockdown (no base residents allowed to leave, no visitors), and today we’re doing work around base instead of in the field. The Globe and Mail had some pretty good coverage online today if you’d like to read more about the election: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/americas/haitian-election-descends-into-crisis-as-candidates-declare-fraud/article1816449/page2/

Most of my Haitian friends (being for the most part young and not-so-politically inclined), as well as many other people I’ve talked to in the community, declined their right to vote. This was either because a) they figured all the candidates were theives and didn’t want to vote for any of them; b) they figured the elections were going to be bogus and didn’t want to waste their time; or c) they figured that it didn’t matter who won, because no matter who is running the country their daily lives are always the same. My few friends who intended to vote were for Michel Martelly, or “Sweet Micky”, a popular “kompa” singer with no political background, known for dropping his pants on stage. Why him, and not, say, Mirlande Manigat, an experienced politician with years of direct involvement in the Haitian government? “Michel Martelly is popular, he’s got money. Haiti has a lot of problems. When you have money, you can fix problems.” I feel like this answer speaks to a mentality that is widespread in this country, especially within the lower class.

Again, everything is OK here in Leogane and we remain, as usual, “cautiously optimistic” for the weeks to come.