Bonsoir Haiti, The Last Post

25 07 2010

“My time has come”, the relief worker said, “to talk of many things; of rushed goodbyes and check-in desks and what tomorrow brings”.

Our futures always come too soon – there is never enough time to collect our thoughts and hold on to the present; to understand it before it becomes our past. I have that odd sensation as if time is suspended, as if on 14 March I walked through a door to another world and when I return to the UK it will be as if nothing has changed. As if time has been reversed.

I was due to fly back yesterday but AA to JFK was cancelled. It felt like a stay of execution – an extra day to live in the shadow of my memories. I drove to the airport this morning without my glasses and I wondered if seeing the last of Haiti in soft focus made it any easier to leave. I saw in half-light what I had known face-to-face and it quietened the roar of separation.

Many people talk of their experiences in metaphors and one of the most used and weathered is to talk of aftershocks as a way to cleverly link the earthquake response with reverse culture shock for relief workers. Genius. I don’t what I feel. I’m not sure if I’m capable of feeling, or when I will be. For me it is easier to talk in terms of interruptions.

24/05/2010, Port-au-Prince Airport, Haiti. First draft of this blog post. Ironically, interrupted.

It’s been two months since the fact. 63 days, 14 hours, and 48 minutes to be precise (approximately…). The fact that was British soil, biting wind, familiar strangers, a relived memory – interrupting changed lives. 8.35am, Tuesday 25 May, 2010, Heathrow Airport.

Everyone gets their allotted time. For some it lasts longer than others. Some people get away with talking about their ‘Haiti’ for months or years. One story after another, one ‘magical’ experience after the next. But in this profession it’s shorter than most. You prepare levels of answer; the 20 second ‘elevator pitch’ (Haiti bad, experience good, Haiti improving slowly, me privileged to have been a part of it, me fine now). The most vacuous.

Then there’s the 5 minute brief: (Haiti bad (shelter worst problem), experience good (great team, good work, challenging, learning new things, getting real responsibility), Haiti improving slowly (yes, money is making a difference, yes things are getting done, and yes there are many odds against which it’s happening (no, I don’t list them)) me privileged to have been a part of it (no, I don’t know whether I’ll go into this work long term, yes, I would like to go to another emergency, yes, it’s been difficult adjusting, yes, I’m  fine now). Partial substance.

Then there’s the full interest (1 hour plus). I have to work hard at these. People usually want to talk about feelings. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t really ‘do’ feelings. I try to really make use of these though – people don’t often have hours to listen, and in our busy world setting one aside for you and yours is generous. I strive to honour that, and what I say tends to come from the heart. Well, the heartfelt side of the brain at least.

None of this is criticism. It’s life. I do the same. I love people’s experiences; the diversity, the ups, the downs, the life threatening situations, the life saving situations, the things they learned, the things they hated, the way it made them feel, the lives they live now. But after a time they land on my deaf ears. Bottom line: I was not there. I will never have been there. No amount of photo showing, story showing and ‘you just had to be there’ in-jokes will make their experience more alive to me. Or mine to them. So for the most part I smile and nod and have my occasional off day – where I concentrate on looking forward and not back, focus, focus – but generally even those closest to me have begun to say things like ‘you’re looking much better’, and ‘you seem more how you were before’, and even in some cases ‘you really seem back to normal’. Make of the last one what you will…

I have a thing against ‘life-changing experiences’. Generally speaking, I think they’re a load of self-indulgent wallowing. Many people experience things which change their lives (which, incidentally, you don’t need to paint an orphanage in Thailand to fully appreciate), but that is not the same as ‘Life-Changing’ in the style of ‘oh, I’ve had such a *Life-Changing* (hushed tones) experience’…I have seriously little time for people who believe they’ve gone through the latter. I also hate the words ‘change management’. It is usually corporate speak for dealing with things being different. To which my internal response is usually, ‘erm….deal with it’. Which is, on the whole, why it is so painful for me to admit that what I’m processing two months on is how to live with being changed. 24 May Phillida is a different one to 14 March Phillida. Not fundamentally. Not even noticeably it seems. But when I think, my echo does not sound the same. The flight from Miami to Heathrow was my limbo. It was a place where I inhabited neither Haiti nor the UK, where I was neither the old Phillida, nor the new Phillida and no-one much cared either way, shrouded as I was by precious anonymity and over 30,000 feet in the air. I could have simmered there happily – taken off but not yet grounded, neither coming from nor going to – but that’s probably just the side of my brain that refuses to land. (At school I was told off for talking and daydreaming in roughly equal measure).

One of the things I was looking forward to most about going to Haiti was the lease it gave me to legitimately obsess about Haiti all the time. It was my job. And the more I knew, the better I was going to be at it. Turned out I was pretty good at thinking about Haiti; cash-for-work rates, shelter dimensions, latrines per families, beneficiary numbers, grants funded, grants submitted, grants in process, grant allocations, sector plans, sector targets, numbers of displaced, numbers at immediate risk, numbers relocated, relocation sites, numbers fed, WFP budgets, sector budgets, grant budgets, staff numbers, advocacy reports, UN meetings, sub-cluster strategies….And if I had any spare time, I’d be doing everyone a favour if I could just figure out exactly what the hell early recovery is, and what the meetings I was attending actually do. Add in the 90-Day Report where I was given leave to obsess about all parts of the response all of the time, and you have the makings of a highly-trained professional obsesser.

That’s the hardest habit to kick. Granted, it has been successfully infiltrated by Zambia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Eastern DRC, the odd bit of Niger, strategy processes and other forms of ‘change management’. But the truth is that over the last two months a good chunk of my energy has been emotionally invested in obsessing Haiti and not in playing forward. And it’s drained me. Without good quantities of sleep, food, and an adequate supply of mindless rom-coms/thrillers/unrealistic dramas/football (delete as appropriate), it’s hard to break the habit.

So yesterday, at the end of a fortifying week off (finally taking my Haiti lieu time…), I resolutely deleted my internet start-up preferences, and removed the Haiti ‘one response’ website, our internal humanitarian affairs website (offering minutely updates of events ‘on the ground’), the Sphere/HAP/DEC websites. Gone reliefweb. Gone alertnet. Gone Government of Haiti Reconstruction Plans. Gone OCHA sitreps. I even sent an ‘unsubscribe me’ e-mail to the helpful man at the Met Office who has been supplying me with daily weather reports for Haiti (which, admittedly, I have never consulted – feeling it easier to just look out the window – but which felt comforting just in case I ever needed to). I feel like a new person.

The game is back on.


No virtue in poverty

5 05 2010

I don’t know who we have to blame for this phenomenon. If it was just the British, I would pin it on Dickens’  ‘deserving poor’ and Victorian righteousness. But it’s a genuinely international perception. I don’t know if it’s just ‘developed countries’ or middle-class armchair liberals across the board, but there is a deep form of quasi-paternalism which insists on portraying ‘the poor’ as  virtuous victims of the world’s inequity.

A prime example can be found in the CNN article released yesterday in promotion of a new documentary on Haiti’s children – ‘Rescued’ (the name says it all);  ‘Despite everything, Haiti’s children still dream and laugh’. The article starts with a description of poor children in Haiti, victims struggling to cope amid the devastation. Then it goes on to wax lyrical in depth about how amazing it is to still see the laughing, happy Haitians – at one point it even calls Haitian children ‘diamonds in the rough’, and ‘illuminated beings’. And it doesn’t stop there. Haitian children are respectful of their elders, they say ‘madame’ and ‘monsieur’, orphans are taken in by their neighbours, rainbows end in pots of gold, and at the end you can just about sum the whole thing up with a well known (?) Haitian proverb “Ti moun se richès, says the Haitian proverb. Our children are our treasures”.

If you can’t see anything wrong in the above,

Anyone remember how long and hard people fought to get rid of the deeply racist and paternalist  ‘Happy Negro’ myth? Anyone remember when the Solomon Islands were called the ‘Happy Isles’ because of the ‘happy natives’? Anyone remember the day when the world realised it was never ok to infantilise people who live in extreme poverty and deprivation? Much less those whose country we are guests in, where we should tread with light footsteps, not flags and firearms.

There is no virtue in poverty. There is no correlation between pureness of heart and level of income. The poor do not deserve a response because they are the innocents of this world. The do not deserve a response because all they long for is to plant trees and pay for their children’s school fees. They do not deserve it because they still laugh and smile amid disasters and teach us to confront our materialism. They do not deserve it because we learn so much from them and are humbled by their simple way of life.

They deserve it because they are human and we are human. Because we share only one world. Because it is the same blood in all our veins. Because we all deserve the dignity of being able to make choices, good or bad, about our lives. Because sometimes all of us do right and sometimes all of us do wrong. Because fundamentally there is not one single good reason why the world should go on being the way it is when everyone is equal but there is no equality.

And that’s the base line of what we’re talking about here: equality. The opportunity for each and every human to participate in their own lives.

A colleague of mine, who is usually very very smart, said to me the other day: ‘you know, why don’t we stop giving people tarpaulins and building shelters, and giving them hygiene kits and constructing latrines and showers and mobile clinics. Why don’t we just add us the total cash value of all our interventions per beneficiary and give every Haitian the monetary equivalent instead? Then everyone can just go and build their own house the way they want it’. That, right there, is virtue in poverty.

Because if we did that, we would no more get a collection of beautiful Haitian new-build neighbourhoods than we would get a row of neat white picket semis in the UK, or all-American communities of duplexes in the US if we did the same thing. First of all, not all people would choose to spend the money on housing. Second of all, it’s an entirely market-regulated solution with no safeguards for the vulnerable – the day after you distributed the cash the absolute minimum price of constructing a house would in all likelihood rise to the value of cash distributed. Because one group of people could charge that, and the other group of people would have no choice. Third, there is extortion, corruption, abuse, black markets, and inequality which would get in the way. Just like there is everywhere, to greater or lesser degrees. Because when one group of people realise they have the ability, the power, to do something to another group of people, they start to create reasons to do it.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not advocating tied aid. I’m not saying we need to give people tangible goods because we can’t trust them to make decisions. Quite the opposite. I am a big fan of cash transfers, cash for work and cash programming all in the right context. Many many times it is better to give people money and let them make their own decisions on how to spend it according to their individual needs. But it is dangerous to kid ourselves that they will make the decisions we would make for them. That they will spend that money in virtuous and humble ways as good, happy stewards should do. Situations and systems influence people’s behaviour. And the less control you have over the system, usually the more control it begins to exert over you. No-one makes choices in a vacuum.

What I’m saying is this. There is a balance. People need freedom, but realise that some will take advantage of others. No matter what the country or the context. And relief organisations are there, or damn well should be there, to try and safeguard the vulnerable. To do cash for work schemes which give people choices over their income. But also to recognise that in some contexts, for example, all the evidence might point to the fact that usually it is women who source and cook the food in a household, and make sure that the children are fed. So maybe we should do food distributions targeting women rather than hand out money to heads of households and hope it reaches the right places. For sure sometimes it will. But sometimes it won’t. That’s just life. That’s just humans.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me to learn that in some of my organisation’s child retracing activities, we come across parents who don’t want their children back. Not because they can’t afford it, or because they think their children will have a better life with another family (although there are plenty of cases where this is true), but because of neglect and because of abuse. And yet it did shock me. Why? Because it’s slightly uncomfortable to admit that poor people are just like us. Because that feels like kicking them when they’re down. Because it means recognising that we shouldn’t treat them as children and do things ‘for their own good’ because really we don’t want people making decisions for our ‘own good’.

We want to make our own decisions. And that means making mistakes. And that means letting others make mistakes. And let’s recognise that my mistake and your mistake and a disaster-affected Haitian’s mistake are not the same. That is what it means to have choices and respect people.

So let us recognise that poverty is ugly. It can bring pain and suffering and weariness and despair. And alongside it there is also hope and joy and family and community. But let us not lose sight of the fact that there is no virtue in poverty. Let us not infantilise ‘the poor’.  Let us allow them the dignity of making choices and getting it right and getting it wrong. Let us treat them as equals, and not be surprised when they act as we act. And not be surprised when they don’t. And then we will have a real starting point. And genuine commonality. And we will truly know what we mean when we say that we are all human.

Sensing Haiti

29 04 2010

As I enter my last few weeks here, I keep thinking about how to answer that inevitable question from people back home:

“So, tell me about Haiti. What’s it like?”

I came to the conclusion that it was impossible to answer, and I hold tightly onto the precious few weeks I have left not just because I utterly adore being here, but because they are all that is between me and facing going back.

I got into a conversation with a very experienced colleague here one night when we were both on the same page at the same time, preparing for that moment the plane lands back home and feeling it hit the ground, hard. She told me something she did was stopped trying to describe Haiti with sentences and long descriptions, and to feel it with the five senses. I thought I’d take a shot at it, with the disclaimer that this is a partial list since my senses are permanently on overload, so here goes.

Haiti is to me…

The sight of

Searing sunsets, half city lights on load-sharing, coloured markets, tap-tap scrambles, debris, flattened buildings, scars, sores and skin diseases weaving patterns like fingerprints on the bodies of the displaced, naked children, new school clothes, yesterday’s unwashed clothes, desert land, blue tarpaulins, twilight, yellow cash-for-work t-shirts, UN trucks, US military troops, washing on the line, torn clothes under rubble, red nail varnish, bolette booths, staring faces, trees, combats, relief vests, heavy boots, knock-off medicines, bare feet, kites, stars, concrete, dappled sunlight, traffic jams, dusty streets, empty eyes, food rations, spreadsheets, mud, brown rivers, blocked water channels, fractured houses, dirty cooking pots, white beaches, amputees, used condoms, bright billboards, crowded camps, children playing, water bottles, first aid kits, queues, port-a-cabins, bustling meetings, sunglasses, branded baseball caps, mountains, supermarkets, roadside stalls, pleading hands, people praying, building new from old.

The smell of

Heat, burning rubbish, fresh flowers, fresh fruit, dirty latrines, mashed potato and chicken, grapefruit juice and sugar, hot stale urine, recycled air, suntan lotion, sweat, unwashed clothes, hand sanitiser, coffee, mouldy showers, mud, grilled fish, Deet, cigarette smoke, petrol, washing powder, Babancourt, struck matches, lemongrass deodorant, cleaning fluid, people who didn’t quite make it out in time.

The sounds of

Gunshots, thunder, helicopters, generators, guards talking in low voices, car horns, dogs barking, noisy markets, voodoo drumming, cats fighting, films in the evening, laughing, snoring, pouring rain, crickets, chickens, street vendors, heated arguments, neighbours’ parties, Internet beeping, people packing, water on plastic showers, motorbikes, broken English, fluent French, excited colleagues, Empire State of Mind, cars on gravel, office roundup, feet shuffling, pens clicking, cockerels, keys jangling, incessant ring tones, coffee cups, fans, fingers on keyboards, coughing, broken telephone connections, lights out.

The tastes of

Salty sea water, buttery potatoes, bitter chloroquine, mango smoothies, chewing gum, ripe bananas, treated water, sweet fruit juice, vitamin supplements, melted and resolidified chocolate, barbecue Pringles, cigarette smoke,  rice and beans, cheap soft drinks, old cereal, untreated tank water, toothpaste, beer, UHT milk, dust in your throat, aspirin, reheated food, strong coffee, shampoo, grilled fish.

The feel of

Dusty feet, cotton, sticky palms, dry hair, laptop keys, fans, paper, tarpaulin sheets, bad headaches, freezing showers, scalding showers, freshly washed clothes, sandy beaches, mosquito nets, cold steps, leather car seats, overwhelming tiredness, potholes, a cool breeze, butterflies, dehydration, fever, warm plastic, insect bites, broken nails, aftershocks.

Worth knowing

21 04 2010

I’ve been absent for a while.  It gets harder to write as time goes on. The newness wanes. The work hits a steady rhythm. I get tired. I get tired of seeing too many people we can’t reach. I get tired of using a chisel to dent a mountain. I get tired of hearing the stories. The people who lost everything and then get raped in camps. The people who were scraping by, and don’t know how much longer they’ve got left in them. The ones who have always slipped through every crack and continue to get lost amongst the broken. And I get tired of seeing piles and piles of rubble on roadsides and hillsides and always thinking, without fail, every single time I pass by. Every. Single. Time.  I wonder how many people are under there?

I never even get close to giving up. There are far too many good people here. Far too much good growing stronger all the time. Far far too much hard work and commitment and dedication and passion to even come vaguely close. But we get weary on the days it hits us we’re not superhuman…that we can’t do it all. It just seems so unfair. For want of any other better word, it’s just downright, flat out, bottom line fundamentally unfair. Unfair that it’s always the people who are already down that get kicked. Unfair because for many people here the earthquake was just another heartbreaking thing that happened in an already heartbroken life.

And that’s when I get tired – because I wish there was more I could do. All the time.

Last week we hit the three month mark. And to celebrate this wonderful occasion we write a 90-Day Report chronicling every single little thing that we’ve done in the response over the period 12 January – 12 April. Somewhere in the back of my mind I was dimly aware I’d be here over this time. I may even have mentioned it to one or two people who asked what I’d be doing in Haiti – ‘Oh yes, and I’ll be there over the three month mark, so there might be some work around the 90-Day Report I’ll be doing’.

Some work turned out to be leading the project. Some work turned out to be 86 pages plus annexes. Some work turned out to be 5am starts and 1am bedtimes. Some work turned out to be a juggling marathon -0ne ball in the air at 7am, catch it at 9, throw up another two, catch them at 2pm and 5pm, throw up at 6pm, catch at 10 and so on and on and on. Some work turned out to be a 4.30am finish and a 6am start on publishing day.

Some work turned out to be just about one of the best damn experiences I’ve ever had. And the number one reason it got finished was the phenomenal team around me – supporting me right to the end line. People sat with me until the early hours just for company, people reviewed sections in an hour turnaround, people brought me dinner and fed me sugar when energy was waning. People told me jokes and made me laugh. And my manager was sitting with me at 4.30am as we crossed the finish line. Without them the report would still be some crumpled notes at the bottom of my bag and we would never have known

that we fed over 1.6 million people

that we gave more than 119,000 people basic supplies like tents and tarps, and hygiene kits and blankets and kitchen sets and flash lights

that we installed toilets and showers, hundreds of metres of drainage, thousands of litres of water supply capacity

that we took on the case of over 300 children to trace their families and give them back family to face the future

that over 40,000 people got access to medical supplies, and over 90,000 people got something between them and the rain each night

That is worth knowing. That is worth fighting for.

Sleepless in Haiti

8 04 2010

A more light-hearted post.

For anyone who has lived, worked or travelled abroad, I am fairly sure this will strike a chord.

Reasons why I get no sleep in Haiti:

Monday: The cats outside are shrieking a truly unholy noise. Then one of the cat gets into the kitchen. It shrieks madly and scratches at the work surface, the floor, the window and the door. Half the house is raised, only to find out the cat has eaten its way through the remains of dinner left on the side, which are now all over the floor. It escapes outside to join its motly crew who are now at their zenith with the excitement of competing for the salvaged remains of chicken. Shrieking wanes to a lull just as the sun is coming up.

Tuesday: The dogs puts in an appearance. By 3am  and hours of continuous yapping, barking and growling, you can no longer tell whether it’s a massive dog fight, dogs mauling cats, dogs mauling humans, humans mauling cats, or cats mauling dogs. Any which way, you really, truly no longer care.

Wednesday: Voodoo drumming gets a turn. It starts about 10pm and goes on throughout the night, occasionally accompanied by highly dubious singing. You resist the urge to smother yourself.

Thursday: You are awoken about 1am by the power dying. Everything plugged in switches to battery. Only the truly cruel inventors of the Internet router decide that it should emit a piercing beep every 4 seconds (I actually counted…) to inform you of this fact. It’s errs on the side of being only just insufficiently annoying  to merit getting out of bed and going downstairs to turn it off. Everyone lives in the delusional hope someone else will crack first. Eventually you put your ear-plugs in (or in my case noise-resistant iPod headphones). Unfortunately the rhythmic beeping is only slightly muffled. Eventually you drift off in the small hours when either the battery or your brain cells finally give up the ghost.

Friday: The NGO across the road decides to host the mother of all parties. It starts about 6pm and finishes about 6am. The talking, singing, shrieking, screaming, laughing, bellowing, bottle-clanging, shouting bunch of stressed-out aid workers are so loud you’re pretty sure they’ve actually moved the party into your bedroom just for the craic. You are close to weeping for the sake of one good solid hour of undisturbed slumber.

Saturday: Your roomate snores. It echoes around the whole upstairs landing. You get reverberated snoring waves bouncing back to you. For some reason there really is nothing more likely to stop you sleeping than a snorer. It has a particular way of worming into your ear drums until you are tempted to start snoring yourself. If you can’t beat ’em, you might as well join ’em.

Sunday: A day of rest. You go to bed in the vain hope that you will sleep blissfully through til morning. Not a sound can be heard outside – the dogs have retired for the day, the cats have disappeared, there is no voodoo drumming, your roomate is eerily silent, the power is on so there’s no beeping, and the NGO across the road is preparing for a hard day’s work tomorrow. What could go wrong….?

Except by this point your body clock is so out of synch, and frankly so completely mashed, that you find yourself waking up pretty much every hour on the hour in the expectation, led by painful experience, that something will find a way to wake you.

Even if its yourself.

In light of my new found level of sleep deprivation I have gained a healthy admiration for people who do this on a regular basis including aid workers, parents, people who work night shifts, doctors and other professions who are frequently on call, insomniacs, and anyone who sleeps outdoors. I share your pain.

‘Bolette, Haiti’s last hope…’

2 04 2010

We’ve been having a debate in the house over the past few days. It revolves around who  gets to be the lucky person that injects me with my final shot of the rabies vaccine. Having had the first two injections in the UK before I left, I am due my third to complete the course. I’ve had several enthusiastic offers from ex-military colleagues, eager to keep their hand in, offers from colleagues to drive me to a nearby field hospital, well-meaning offers  from colleagues with no medical training whatsoever and even the offer to teach me how to inject myself, the last of which I confess I politely declined.

Call me crazy but today, in the end, I settled today for an appointment with our team doctor. I say ‘appointment’ – it was more a ‘rolled-up-shirt-sleeves-in-the-middle-of-the-office ‘ kind of  affair.  Nobody even looked up from their e-mails. Except one girl, who got the wrong end of the stick and anxiously asked me if I was feeling the effects of being bitten. I explained this was in fact thankfully a preventative jab rather than a treatment. Although at times I’m sure my rushing around trying to do a million things at once, and having three coversations at the same time whilst talking to myself is more than sufficient to give rise to such an easy misunderstanding.

But this story is not about my vaccine. Rather, it is about how the vaccine introduced me to the doctor, and how the doctor introduced me to the world of Haitian ‘bolette’.

As I understand it, bolette is like the National Lottery. There are 99 numbers, and you can play as many numbers as you want for as much money as you want. The minimum rate is 1 Haitian gourd for 1 ball. That’s just under 2 British pence. There are two draws a day, one at midday and one in the evening. Each draw has 3 lots. On the first lot if your numbers come up you win 50 times your initial bet. On the second lot, you win 20 times and on the third lot you win 10 times. You can bet two balls to come up at once, and if that happens you make a ‘marriage’ and win 500 times your bet. If your married numbers are consecutive, you win 1,000 times your bet. The Haitian dream is a bet of US $1,000 that reaps US $10,000 on a consecutive marriage. Many a hopeful future has been built on less.

Right now, bolette stores are multiplying all over Haiti.  They are one of the most lucrative businesses around. Previously, Haiti used to draw its own national lottery numbers, until they were deemed too  ‘tricky tricky’  by the locals and were substituted for a combination of the New York draw at lunchtime and the Santo Domingo draw in the evening. People rate their chances more fairly and business picks up.

Bolette is gambling with your dreams. Quite literally. As the sun slopes down over Haitian hills, its people go to sleep and dream. And in the morning they consult the ‘tchala’ – the book of dreams. This book divines bolette numbers according to what you dream about. You can hear people sitting out on the steps of their houses or in the street bantering about the right number to attribute to an avocado, a mango, a snake. You can see the attraction. If 5 gourds can’t buy you enough food for sustenance today, you might as well  sleep on them tonight and see  if your dreams align with fortune to bring you 250 gourds by the morning. Then tomorrow night you might not go to sleep hungry.

The idea of life’s lottery extends, however, beyond the dozen or so stores on every street hanging boards of brightly painted numbers declaring the day’s good fortune. It reaches right into the lives of the nation’s children. For the Haitian education system boasts a fine array of  ‘ecoles bolettes’. Lottery schools.

50 per cent of Haitian children do not go to school.* Half of Haiti’s rural districts don’t even have schools. That was before the earthquake. Of those 50 percent that are lucky enough to attend an educational institution, 75 percent attend private schools because there aren’t enough government-funded schools. But private schools that educate most Haitian children are completely unlicensed, unregulated and unaccountable.  Kids take a chance. Maybe you’ll turn up and get an education worth having – desks, chairs, textbooks, pens, blackboard, notebooks, crayons, schoolrooms, teachers who care…Most don’t. The Haitian saying that describes these schools is ‘appuyer, pas frapper’ – there ‘to lean on, not to shake’.

So to finance any meaningful education, you have to look elsewhere. Like ‘les brassers’. Brasser literally means to mix or to stir. In other words, to bring together a disparate assortment of ingredients  and ‘make it work’. In Haiti,  les brassers are teenage girls who finance not only their schooling, but clothes, manicures, presents for their mothers, sisters, boyfriends, haircuts, trips to the cinema and a host of other necessities and diversions through transactional sex with solvent males. Most often married. The normal age for this to start is fourteen, but in recent years it has become common to see girls as young as twelve adopt these survival mechanisms. Twelve. The price these girls pay for their education is a like an unpleasant stain on humanity’s comfortable carpet. It’s unsightly and garish and frankly a downright nuisance. We don’t want to fork out for a new one because we’re saving up for the latest flat-screen, so best just to put the couch over it or that rug we once bought on holiday, and forget all about it.  At least that way we can get on with our lives without it staring up at us.

I have not yet seen enough of the world’s shame to become cyncical of it, and I am glad that the truth of these girls reality still outrages me. The doctor shakes his head sadly in agreement and murmurs ‘They have lost their youth. They have used it to pay school fees. I do not know the day when my country  will recover. It will not be in my lifetime. But, at least, when I die I can say I have seen everything. I have seen everything. Bolette, it is maybe Haiti’s last hope…’

Reluctant as I am to make a dent in my long-guarded and deeply-cherished idealism, it did strike me that a good chunk of well-intentioned development work is about waiting for the future to happen, and just praying that it will be better. Perhaps after all we have something in common with les brassers;  dreams may make our tomorrows lighter, but truly they weigh heavily on our present.

*Statistics on school attendance thanks to ‘The Brookings Institution’, ‘Disaster Response in Haiti’ Panel Discussion, January 2010. This post does not represent any of the institution’s views, merely its statistics.

Ordinary Haitians, Extraordinary Lives…

27 03 2010

At times I’ve found it hard to be inspired this week. The work has been tough, the days have been long, and I’m settling into that point in the deployment cycle where I’m feeling tired beyond the simple fact of not getting enough sleep. Simple things can bring a smile to my face; a big bunch of vibrant lilies one of our team housemates bought for the coffee table, an unexpected gift of chocolate, booking a trip to the field, a particularly funny joke around the dinner table, realising the lasagne for tonight’s dinner is vegetarian, seeing a couple of kids forgetting for a minute the disaster around them and playing like normal Friday evenings should be at their age.

And yet I feel like I’m missing the action. I’ve been in the office almost all week trying to close on a grant we might not even get with a particularly difficult donor. For lunch I walk down two flights of stairs to an air-conditioned cafe and bring my sandwich and smoothie back up to my desk. In the evenings we’re on lockdown so I get into the car, come home and don’t move outside these four walls until the following morning. Sometimes I catch myself thinking –  Where is Haiti? I haven’t seen it lately. Perhaps it got lost on my desk under that pile of notes I was sifting through. Perhaps it got trapped on my computer when I was replicating my e-mails. Perhaps it silently snuck away whilst I was answering that urgent phone-call. Perhaps I never really saw it at all…

Haiti is all around me and yet in my whirlwind of work I lose it, only to find it in a different place each week. This week it was with the drivers.

I have been driven around a lot in the last few days – meetings, working groups, workshops, cluster meetings, house to office, office to supermarket, supermarket to house. Truth be told, I like travelling. I like the act of being physically  ‘in transit’. It’s my thinking time. My breathing space. I never really noticed the drivers. They were simply part of my refuge from the madness of the office, and I was grateful for their collusion in the silence I so desperately needed for 5 minutes, 15 minutes, an hour.

So it was surprising to find myself restless this week in the car. Wanting to talk. Heck, wanting to talk in French if it came to it, eager to learn something new and ease the boredom of long traffic queues. I told myself it would improve my French, that it was good to get back into it after so long, that it was an important skill to develop.

I started with the man who drove me back from the dumpsite on Monday afternoon. After ten minutes of my laboured French and plenty of slow repetition on his part til I understood his answers, he suddenly asked me in fluent English why I was speaking French to him. That put me in my place. Smarting and slightly humiliated, I explained to him that I thought it would improve my language skills and insisted in continuing our conversation en francais. Turns out he’s got a great sense of humour and enjoys playing football at the weekend with his mates.

The man who drove me to the Cash Working Group – he was into football too. Spanish football. He likes listening to commentaries of the matches on the radio, and is a particular  fan of the Argentinian team. His favourite player is Messi. Mine too as it happens. I got a hi-five for that.

Now the man who drove me to the Early Recovery Cluster meeting was an innovator. He’s only been working for the organisation for 2 weeks, mainly because there are no other jobs going and he’s got to make a living somehow. He’s actually a computer scientist by trade – lives with his mum and 3 brothers and wants four children. We debated the merits of marrying young, marrying old, not marrying at all. Having 2 kids, having 4 kids, having no kids. Listening to music in your free time, playing sports, hanging out with your friends. Working in development, working in relief work, working in computer science. Travelling everywhere, travelling somewhere, travelling nowhere. My French has rarely improved so quickly in such a short space of time! He’s got this idea. He thinks the organisation I work for isn’t well known enough. He wants to write a short magazine telling people about the work we’re doing here in Haiti and distribute it around the city. Last time I spoke to him, he was putting the finishing touches to his proposal.

The man who drove me into work this morning sings solos and harmonies in an a capella group with his friends. They’ve made a CD and he put it on in the car this morning. The song that lasted us most of the short drive  from the house to the office was written specially to express some of their feelings in the aftermath of the earthquake. It was in Creole and I couldn’t understand a word of it, but I like to hope I picked up a sense of what they were feeling.

And to round off my language adventures, the man who drove me home tonight learnt English fluently from the Oxford English Dictionary. He recommended that I might like to try and learn Creole from a similar source. I couldn’t say for certain but I’m pretty sure there was more than a hint of good humoured sarcasm in his suggestion… He too had only been working for the organisation for two weeks. He was actually a university student training to be an accountant before the earthquake.

Ironically he’s now the regular driver for our finance team.

So this week I’ve been well and truly put in my place by a plethora of multi-lingual, intelligent, qualified, humorous, good-natured, experienced Haitian drivers.  Such rich experiences – such a poor country. Yet somehow, it completely adds up.