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.