Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Creating Christmas


Come in your power
and come in your weakness
in any case
and make all things new.

- from prayer of Walter Brueggemann, 1994

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whatta Month!

So far my tranquil plans for December - meditative reflections on advent, watching the tomatoes and greens grow to the soundtrack of Handel's Messiah, a new flower bed (flowers only - no veggies allowed), Christmas baking, actually going to my yoga class in Pelerin, crafts and some romantic time in the mountains... all, of course, squeezed into our respective work schedules in Port-Au-Prince and the Central Plateau - have been upstaged by:
  • a feral cat that broke into our house 3 nights in a row. The first time it attacked Luna IN OUR BED at 2:00 in the morning, resulting in cat sh** on our sheets, mosquito net and Ben's pillow.
  • a week with stuffy, snotty all-consuming colds followed by:
  • Ben's severe bout of dengue.
  • the rats that have eaten most of the tomato, kale and mustard green seedlings. (Oh well, I lost my copy of Handel's Messiah anyway).
  • fatigue as I try to work full-time, commute by tap tap, care for my sick husband, feed a kitten, feed myself (thankfully for him, Ben hasn't been real hungry this week), keep a litter box clean and water the seedlings that haven't been eaten by rats. Clearly I don't have what it takes to be anything more than one half of one couple with an equal household division of labor! My kudos to all of you amazing men and women out there that juggle so much more.
In spite of the madness, we have both been able to enjoy some pre-Christmas serenity through advent celebrations on hope, peace, joy and love with our MCC community and other friends. We managed to decorate our home with a too-expensive string of lights and a few DIY eucalyptus wreaths (turns out Ben is an amazing wreath-maker). Saturday I spent the day baking Christmas goodies with the Hoffmans while Ben lent moral support from the couch; Sunday I pulled out the trowel and got dirt under my nails while Ben lent moral support from the hammock.

And now, its time to fight the rush-hour masses for a bench seat on a tap tap.

'Tis the Season to Have Dengue

Fa la la la OW. They say dengue fever, also called breakbone fever, occurs in epidemics. A number of friends (Haitians excluded because apparently they have immunity) have had dengue recently including, as you may recall, myself. Now is Ben's turn and he's been in bed for a week now feeling "very ill, weak and miserable". That quote is from this excellent website on dengue (forwarded to us by our new friend Doctor Kim, who has been an incredible source of reassurance over the past week). Not only is there no prophylaxis for dengue, but there's no treatment! There is virtually nothing worse than being ill, weak and miserable with an illness that is untreatable.

We're pretty sure that Ben is currently between stage 2 ("a period of 1 - 3 days of feeling a bit better with or without a low grade fever") and stage 3 ("the fever and symptoms reoccur and a rash develops starting with the bottoms of the feet and palms of the hands. The rash is red and may be very itchy like hives. The rash spreads up the legs and arms to the rest of the body, not the face. The rash may appear like petechia or small hemorrhages in the skin"). No rash yet, but although he was actually up and about Saturday and Sunday, he woke up this morning feeling miserable and with severe pain in his right shoulder. Dengue can cause "pain or soreness everywhere especially in areas where old injuries had occurred" and the bane of Ben's dengue experience has been nauseating pain in the shoulder where he injured his rotator cuff a few years ago.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Shoes for Haiti?

Re-thinking shoes for Haiti this Christmas

There's a cobbler at the end of our street. Lukner Clernier sells beautiful handmade sandals for men, women and children for a little over $7.00. He has five children, two of whom help him cut out, glue and sew together soles and straps. Business has been pretty slow lately - Lukner tells me he has a fraction of the sales he had this time last year.

Part of my job as MCC's advocacy coordinator and educator in Haiti is to analyze how actions and policy in North America affect the lives of Haitians. In order to do that, I read a lot of newspaper articles that reference Haiti. Recently, an increase in the number of North American shoe drives, requests for shoes to shod Haiti's barefoot children, has been bothering me.

For Lukner’s sake, I am asking you not to send shoes to Haiti. Here's why: sending your used shoes (or, alternatively, new shoes mass-produced by cheap labor in a country like Haiti) makes it really hard for Haitians like Lukner to stay in business.

Although well intended, this kind of international assistance works a lot like food dumping. When subsidized agricultural goods produced in North America are “dumped” on overseas markets they disrupt local markets, depress crop prices, and discourage local food production. In this case, shoes are being sent to Haiti for free and Lukner can't begin to compete with free. Many donated shoes also end up being resold on the street at prices that, compared to the cost of Lukner’s materials and labor, may as well be free.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't be trying to put shoes on the feet of Haiti's barefoot children and I'm not trying to single anyone out for criticism. I know that the intentions behind shoe drives are loving and good and the children on the receiving end of these shoes are ecstatic to receive them. It’s just that when I talk to Lukner, I realize how desperately we need to rethink the way we do aid, not only on a macro level but on a personal, church and/or community level. When people send anything free to Haiti - shoes, blankets, soap - that Haitians are trying to produce for themselves, it doesn't address the deeper, structural reasons for the fact that many Haitians don't have shoes, blankets and soap. What it does do is constantly put Haiti on the receiving end of our leftovers and cheaply produced goods. Instead, let's encourage entrepreneurial and visionary Haitians like Lukner who in turn will reinvest the profit from his business into his local economy.

Especially now at Christmastime, if you're thinking about ways to give shoes to children in Haiti, I challenge you to go about it in a new way: raise money, get in touch with someone here that can order locally-made shoes from a Haitian cobbler with a business to run and a family to feed and know that you'll be making a creative and sustainable difference in someone’s life.

Alexis Erkert Depp is the Advocacy Coordinator for MCC Haiti and is based in Port-Au-Prince.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Program I Swear I Don't Run

Phone rings.

Me: Allo?
Stranger: Allo. [Waiting for me to offer to help him]
Me: Allo? [Waiting for stranger to state purpose in calling me]
Stranger: Allo?
Me: (Sigh) Can I help you?*
Stranger: May I speak to Alexis [garbling my last name beyond recognition] Depp ?
Me: Speaking.
Stranger: Hi, I'm calling about the deportee program.
Me: What deportee program?
Stranger: The program that you run for deportees.
Me: I don't run a program for deportees.
Stranger: Yes you do. The one where you give financial assistance to deportees.
Me: I have no idea what you're talking about. I don't run a program for deportees.
Stranger: Is this Alexis Depp?
Me: Yes.
Stranger: Where do you work?
Me: I work for a small organization called the Mennonite Central Committee and I coordinate MCC's advocacy efforts. I did carry out research on the effects of US deportation policy towards Haiti, but I don't run a program for deportees.
Stranger: So what do you do to help deportees?
Me: Um. [Thinking: should I try to explain the long-term benefits to deportees of advocacy for structural change? Decision: No. I am wasting this guy's phone credit]. Nothing. I don't run a program for deportees and I don't have any money available to help you. I'm sorry. I hope you have a nice day.
Stranger: [Hangs up, usually without saying anything].

*this conversation has been translated into English for your benefit. Since many deportees speak far worse Creole than I do, they would probably get the point faster if I did switch to English.

So, the first time I received a call like this (about 2 weeks ago), I thought, "That's funny. I wonder where they got my number." Finally yesterday, after receiving calls from deportees looking for money or assistance on an almost daily basis, I finally asked the voice on the other end of the line where they got my number. His response? The DCPJ. (Central Headquarters of the Judicial Police). This only leaves me with more questions.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Loony Luna

Um, what is that thing you're pointing at me?

A camera? Well, hello world!

Don't be fooled by my cuddly looks. I'm a ferocious puma. And I bite.

Okay, go away now.

Monday, November 30, 2009

And we gave thanks for

  • each other
  • you, and having you be a part of our lives
  • being able to spend Thanksgiving Day together (last year Ben was in the Central Plateau for Thanksgiving and almost had to be again this year)
  • not being freezing cold in North America
  • the bounty of Haitian produce available this time of year
  • the new friend(s) that ate our experimental meleton pie (called vegetable pear in English and similarly to green mango can be used to mimic apple pie. Sort of).
  • a great hike in the mountains on Saturday
  • gardening space at our new house
  • LOTS of other stuff
- B & A

How to Build a Cargo Bike in Haiti

How to Build a Longtail Cargo Bike - More DIY How To Projects

Bryan and I recently finished this bike. We've showed it off (in other words, ridden it around) and a lot of people seem to really like it. The idea is to make a couple and hopefully people will replicate them to carry goods to and from the market or whatever else they need to carry (like a half a dozen kids to school).

I just bought a beat up BMX bike to build another type of cargo bike. It's going to be even sweeter.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Mouvman Peyizan Papay (MPP)

Pull out yer maps 'cuz we went somewhere new! Last week Ben and I ventured way up into the Central Plateau with MCC's environmental education team to visit the Papay Peasant Movement outside of Hinche. They were scouting it out for their annual teacher's excursion (a learning tour of sorts for the teachers that are in the environmental ed program). I tagged along (a) as MCC's advocacy coordinator because MPP is a grassroots organization that is addressing Haiti's food security issue in a practical way (in addition to a number of grassroots coalitions, MPP is connected to the La Via Campesina movement and the International Movement for Catholic Agricutural and Rural Youth) and (b) because I love to garden and to see cool appropriate tech projects in action.

We got a whirlwind tour of MPP's experimental gardens, visited a community irrigation system and bought red worms for our compost pile at home. Since B&S have already blogged about the cool things we saw, I'll refer you over to their blog for more.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

How To Candy Grapefruit Peel in Haiti

1 grapefruit tree
1 friend to spend hours slicing and scraping grapefruit peel with you
3 large aluminum pots made from recycled cans
300 gourdes worth of sugar (or one large Digicel bag full)
8 steel cups and plates to keep ants away while the candy dries overnight
Enough electricity to watch two movies while you:

Pick, Slice, Boil, and Dry

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What we have and what we don't

1. Electricity: We don't have it. Or at least not enough to keep our inverter charged and the food in our refrigerator from rotting. We're told - and last year's experience confirms, that EDH (Électricité d’Haiti) starts withholding electricity at about this time of year so that they can provide the city with lights full-time for the week of Christmas and Haitian Independence Day (January 1st).

2. Luna: I never thought that I would own a cat, but our new 5-week old kitten (and future mouser) is just too cute. We have rats. Thankfully they have stayed in our compost pile and out of the house so far, but they're there nonetheless. So, when one of MCC's cats had kittens, only one survived and then happened to be looking for a home - did I mention how darn cute she is? - we gave in and bought a bag of kitty litter. I will post pictures soon so that you check out her insane-looking white eyelashes!

p.s. I am NOT going to become a crazy cat lady like my sister.

3.Work: Work has been a little slow for Ben lately, but that changed when the CLM program got funding for 84 new participants. Remember this? This week I’m in the countryside with him. We’re staying in Desarmes, I’m working from the MCC reforestation program office (where the internet is faster and more reliable than our internet in Port-Au-Prince) and Ben is commuting back and forth to Boukan Kare. A cat-loving friend in Port (and owner of Luna’s mother, Noche) is keeping little Luna for us. Incidentally, today is a holiday but Ben still had to work. It is Fèt Batay Vètyè, in which we honor the final battle of the Haitian Revolution - the Battle of Vertiers. I’m celebrating Fèt Batay Vètyè by making candied grapefruit peel with Sharon (see #6). Do we get extra credit for picking the grapefruit ourselves?

4. Sunshine: Although this may seem like a ridiculous problem to have in sunny Haiti, our new house has too much shade. Our nasturiums won't bloom, our radishes are getting leggy, and our parsley just straight-up rotted in the ground. Also, our laundry is taking two days too long to dry, leaving our towels and jeans with that stinky, took-to-long-to-dry smell. Our landlord will be cutting down one of our trees (whose roots are growing into our water cistern) and hopefully that will help.

5. Intestinal Trouble, which is a nice euphamism for diarrhea. I recently mentioned having spent a week + with dengue fever (read the bit about the rash - I've never itched so much in my life!). Well, no sooner had I recovered from the dengue, the "intestinal trouble" started and has persisted for almost two weeks. I'm open to advice for cures from you medical types (Tim? Caleb?).

6: Festive Spirits: Christmas lights and Santa Claus have already started making an appearance here. The funny thing about these lights and Santas is that most Haitians only celebrate Christmas for what it is: a church holiday that commemorates Jesus’ birth. We don’t have malls and greeting card companies, so Christmas ornamentation is pretty much limited to grocery stores and gas stations. Last year, the Texaco station near where we live now outdid the rest with a G-I-A-N-T inflatable Santa on the roof, not to mention a (fake) tree, lights, greenery and a snowman (also fake. Obviously.)

Last year was our first Christmas in Haiti. On Christmas Eve we put some candles on a cactus and on Christmas Day had a nice, low-key time with other friends that weren’t able to be with their families. But this year - and please keep in mind that it’s only November 18th - I am already sorting through Christmas cookie recipes and trying to figure out where to score a pine tree branch (I couldn’t possibly justify using an entire pine tree in Haiti, could I?). The reason? MY PARENTS ARE COMING TO VISIT! Ben and I have only spent two of the last five or six Christmases with family.* But, as Christmas in the Erkert tradition (along with birthdays, Easter, Mother’s Day and any other excuse to eat a lot and give and receive gifts**) is a really big deal, just knowing that we’ll be with my folks on Christmas makes me want to do it up right. CHRISTMAS 2009, WOOOT!

* It caused great alarm among Erkerts that Ben does not appreciate Christmas music.

** So as not to offend any family, I should add that the Erkerts have many meaningful family traditions surrounding these and other holidays. (We sure do love holidays).

Friday, November 13, 2009

National Immigration Call, November 18th

U.S. immigration policy often has an untoward affect on Haiti, so I would encourage you to participate in this event. It's an issue relevant to my work (I just finished writing a briefing paper for MCC's Washington advocacy office on the destabilizing affect that the deportation of Haitians living in the States has here, especially as Haiti attempts to recover from last year's hurricanes) and relevant to our belief that as Christians, we should be welcoming of strangers. If you're interested, click here to view MCC's Immigration Policy Principles and here for MCC's immigration reform guide (view the "detention and deportation" part which refers specifically to Haiti).

On Wednesday, November 18th, at 8 PM Eastern for English speakers (and 9 PM Eastern for Spanish speakers), the Reform Immigration FOR America Campaign will host a national call for thousands of community leaders across the nation to build the base and strength necessary to press forward in the struggle for just and humane immigration reform. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force, and the Reform Immigration FOR America Campaign will share information about next steps for reform as we build toward the critical early months of 2010. Click here to register for the call.

Background: Reform Immigration For America works towards policy changes that acknowledge the wide scope of benefits that are to be derived from comprehensive immigration reform. This means a common sense approach to healing our broken immigration system, restoring equality under the Rule of Law, and providing dignity and respect for hardworking immigrants; this means moving all Americans forward, together. This reform works towards whole, united families, fairer and better wages, less exploitation in the workplace, greater economic and workplace stability, and safer borders.

Action: On Wednesday, November 18th, at 8 PM Eastern for English speakers and 9 PM Eastern for Spanish speakers, the Reform Immigration FOR America Campaign will host a national call for thousands of community leaders across the nation to build the base and strength necessary to press forward in the struggle for just and humane immigration reform. Click here to register for the call. Click here to register a house party in your community.

The following related excerpt from a Third Way Cafe article titled "Welcoming the Stranger" challenges and encourages me when I think about immigration policy:

"When Jesus was asked about the commandment to ‘love your neighbor as yourself’, he chose to illustrate his point with a parable about a Samaritan - a despised and feared foreigner. This story probably shocked Jesus’ listeners, but it evoked the scriptural call to welcome strangers and treat them with respect. The theme of hospitality and tolerance is central to the biblical vision of justice, and is reflected in God’s command for authorities to “treat [resident foreigners] as well as you treat citizens” (Leviticus 19:34).

As we consider how our country will deal with immigration issues, we must keep this biblical perspective in mind. Are we mistreating migrant workers when we label them as criminals and deny them the means to a legal livelihood? Is it just to separate families through deportations and bureaucratic barriers?

Using dehumanizing language, walling off border communities, and separating families will create division and fear, not security. Instead, we need creative policies that support family unity, create pathways for citizenship, address the root causes of immigration, strengthen local communities, and protect workers’ rights. We need solutions built upon hope and mutual respect."

Monday, November 9, 2009

Playing Fall

We may miss fall, but this month we've had the pleasure of spending TWO weekends in Kenscoff where, complete with cold weather and pumpkin pie, we got to pretend that we weren't missing out on our favorite season.

Our friends M and E rent this great house in the mountains above the city (at almost 5,000 ft), and have generously invited us to stay there when we want to:

Two weekends ago, Ben and I went up for a night:
And met up with friends for one of the best Haitian meals we've ever had (more sauteed swiss chard and watercress, please!)
This weekend MCC gave us Friday off, so Ben, Bryan, Sharon and I headed back into the mountains for a perfect long weekend. Ben and Bryan went biking and Sharon and I went to the market and worked on a craft project. We explored Janey Wynn's magical garden. We wore jeans and long sleeves and baked bread, made pie, drank hot chocolate and watched movies and I (mostly) recovered from a week at home with dengue fever. Ah, fall.

Le House

p.s. We have a bed in our guestroom now...

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pending Political & Parliamentary Pandemonium?

Yesterday the Miami Herald ran the following headline: "Haiti's Prime Minister Targeted for Ouster by Lawmakers". It's ironic that it was via my google news alerts that I learned that the Haitian government may disintegrate this week (although to my credit - or discredit- I've been attending a Tear Fund seminar on advocacy and haven't bothered to turn the car radio on on the way). There is apparently a small group of senators calling for Prime Minister Michelle Pierre-Louis to resign because she "has moved too slowly to solve Haiti's problems." She has been summoned to appear before parliament this week, which is usually indicative of a no-confidence vote. that It's a tricky (or maybe calculated) time for this kind of political maneuvering with hundreds of foreign investors set to invest in the country's burgeoning textile industry and Bill Clinton touting the wonders of Haiti's tourist attractions. See Matt's note here.

p.s. Parallel to Haiti's political system, my digestive system is experiencing upheaval after I ordered lambi (conch) at the Hotel Oloffson for dinner last night. After thoroughly emptying my stomach in the middle of the night, I burned my thigh on a kerosene lamp and fell asleep on the bathroom floor. I'll leave the political analogy at that.

Monday, October 26, 2009

in the car

I spent most of the last week driving the width and breadth of Haiti and I came back with a few blurry photos, four pineapples, a huge pumpkin, tangerines, avocados, and a bag of oranges.

Martha's blog

My sister Martha has ovarian cancer and has just started a blog about what she is dealing with.

Friday, October 23, 2009


you prey on us when we sleep
you chase after the tired, the poor, the weak
you know you mean only harm
you reach out with your long arm
but oppression
I won't let you near me...

you may have the dollar on your side
from the gospel truth you cannot hide
and oppression
I won't let you near me, oh no no
you shall learn to fear me, yes you will -Ben Harper

When we were home in August a number of people asked us about the spiritual oppression in Haiti, about vodou. Before we moved here we heard Christians say you can cross the border from the Dominican Republic into Haiti and literally feel the spiritual oppressiveness of this place. Not too long ago, I overheard a missionary telling a group of highschool students on a mission trip that the country of Haiti has actually been consecrated to Satan. This perception of Haiti, especially by people who live here, makes me really uncomfortable. I grew up in Africa and very much believe in the presence of spirits (or whatever you want to call the forces of good and evil). And while I believe that Haiti IS oppressed, I think that we too easily confuse spiritual and economic oppression. To say that the situation in Haiti is a result of some relationship that the country has with Satan (when by the way, virtually every Haitian I know considers themselves to be a Christian) lets us ignore the role that we play in keeping Haitians economically oppressed.

In the context of this discussion it’s also interesting to look a little bit at Haiti’s history. The Haitian revolution took place in 1804, a time when the development and wealth of the United States and Europe was very much dependent on slave labor. The Haitian revolution provided hope for slaves throughout the Americas, which in turn scared the poo out of plantation owners and slave masters. Because it was (and is still) rumored that the revolution was sparked by a vodou ceremony, many argue that those trying to suppress slave uprisings in the States intentionally used the word “voodoo” as a pejorative word associated with worshiping the devil and other derogatory images. In his essay, “Haiti’s Impact on the United States,” Greg Dunkel writes: “The historical context of [the word voodoo’s] introduction into US society was the uprising that began in the French colony of St. Domingue… The US, which was in large part a slavocracy, was completely shocked that the enslaved Africans of Haiti could organize themselves, rise up, smash the old order, kill their masters, and set up a new state that was able to maintain its independence. This rebellion was such a threat to the existence of the slavocracy if its example spread, and so inconceivable in a politccal framework totally saturated with racism and the denigration of people whose ancestors came from Africa, that the only explanation that they could see for enslaved people participating in it was that they were ‘deluded.’”

A Haitian activist friend of ours (a Christian) believes that vodou is a cultural tradition that stems from exclusion. Because slaves and after them, the poor majority, were excluded from church because they didn’t speak French and from access to social services because they didn’t have money, the combination of their traditional understanding of herbal medicine and African cultural backgrounds became vodou. He argues that vodou was above all a way for the majority to valorize themselves as people.

Regardless of whether or not there’s any truth to his theory, it’s actually amazing to me that so many Haitians have been able to embrace the God of their ancestor’s colonial masters. My experience here is that Haitians believe more openly and more fully than we do. We wake up every morning (or did before we moved) to the sound of hundreds of people participating in a 4 AM prayer service (whereas my own faith is admittedly not activated until about 7 AM); and knowledge that God is in control seems to underlie almost everything about Haitian culture.

I am not making the claim that vodou is never used as an oppressive force or used to exploit people. I do, however, believe that it’s no more spiritually oppressive than the worship of materialism. Before we judge the syncretism in other cultures, I think we need to look hard at the syncretism in our own. To be honest, I feel more spiritually uncomfortable in a shopping mall in North Carolina than I do when I hear vodou drums beating in the night or see a clay pot tied to a tree. I know that I’m not exempt from any kind of idolatry and I believe it’s important for me to think about the ways in which my lifestyle, built on centuries-old systems of colonialism and neocolonialism, might be an agent of oppression in other parts of the globe (and in the United States, too).

Monday, October 19, 2009

Is being rich your good luck?

Because of the grinding poverty here and because of my relative wealth, I've been thinking about this. In a bible study the other day it came up how blessed we are compared to many of our Haitian neighbors... And it made me wonder, is this really just how the world works or does God actually choose who can eat everyday and who cannot? I think it's probably just luck. I put "why god makes some people poor and some rich" (maybe the wrong question) into google and came up with an interesting thread that doesn't have any good answers.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I wish I had discovered this website a few years ago. Hopefully in the future I will have the good fortune to live in a van once again.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Go Figure

Somehow our blogspot user accounts got switched, so that all of the posts I (Lexi) have written over the course of this blog's life now say that they were posted by Ben and vice versa. We hope that this won't cause too much confusion.

Here's a general rule of thumb for trying to figure this out: If the blogpost (a) mentions bicycles (b) talks about being in the Central Plateau (c) is funny or (d) features stunning photography, it was posted by Ben. If the blogpost (a) is a political, social or religious tirade (b) displays mediocre pictures the likes of which Ben would never post (c) links to others people's blogs or (d) quotes extensively from other people and/or articles, it was unfortunately posted by me.

Sorry, folks.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Things

Lots of changes around here. Not only am I still settling into my new job, which by the way I absolutely love, but we're also enjoying all sorts of other new things:

1. New House
Pictures coming soon...

2. New MCCers
September brought more diversity to our MCC team here with Joel and Rachel Colbourne-Hoffman. Joel will be working at RNDDH, one of MCC's human rights partner organizations. Rachel, who is Australian and wowing us with her awesome accent and Aussie slang, will be working part-time at RNDDH and part-time in my former position at POHDH.

3. New Niko
Congratulations to Matt, Esther and Gabriela De Groot - Van Geest for a new addition to their family! Most of those congratulations, though, go to Esther who gave birth at home over the weekend to 9-lb Niko Dieufèl. (Dieufèl means "God made him" in Kreyol). If you think you're tough, read Esther's blogpost on The Birth and think again.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

When in North Carolina,

Bike Maintenance, Haiti style

I pack car grease into the bearing race and one by one push the bearings into the grease until they disappear beneath the black mess. A bearing slips out of my fingers, bounces off my toe and is gone forever. I crawl around for fifteen minutes before giving up the search. My front wheel had 20 ball bearings in it. Now I’m one bearing short of a good wheel but it still spins decently.

Disassemble the bottom bracket and find lots of loose metal debris, rust, and no grease. The piece that holds the ball bearings in place has been mostly ground away because it’s probably been without grease for the last 30 years. I clean it, pack it with grease, reassemble it and it spins great.

I add a link to the chain, which allows me to loosen the rear wheel and slide it forward to move the chain onto a larger cog giving me an easier gear for climbing mountains. Now I have a two-speed! I had broken the rear derailleur mountain biking, which encouraged the bike’s transition into a single speed. Tonight my knees are grateful that it has re-evolved into a two-speed.

A couple weeks ago, my brother Matt gave me a mountain bike handle bar so I put that on to give me a more upright posture for more comfort and control. I pulled a set of brake levers out of my parent’s garage while we were in North Carolina. When I put them on I figured out I was missing a plastic washer so a friend and I made a washer out of the cap of a specimen bottle. We also rigged the brake cables because they aren’t the proper cables for these levers.

There was a L-shaped bracket on the stem for holding a reflector that I bent horizontally and now it works as a camera mount. The bolt that formerly held a reflector is the perfect size to screw into the bottom of my camera - a minor sort of miracle.

Gerry rigging reminds of a proverb that we often hear, degaje pa peche (“to get by is not a sin”). I’ve mostly heard this expression used in reference to someone sleeping around or stealing to survive. As I type this, Alexis is sleeping on the couch and I hope she doesn’t wake up to see the rat that is eating a pile of rat poison on the other side of the room. A larger rat runs out and attacks it, then they both run in opposite directions. Now the smaller rat is back. I hope my brakes stay together.

-posted by Ben from Lexi's account

Thursday, September 24, 2009


We were peacefully eating breakfast when we heard loud banging on the roof and aliens in Haitian construction worker disguises peeled off a chunk of our roof. The above picture shows Alexis yelling at them as they drop debris into our kitchen. They looked around inside our house and then put the roof back on and left. I'm sure they were aliens and not construction workers because our roof leaks much worse than it did before.

After the aliens' reconnaissance mission we went and found a new place to live. It's a little house a few miles up the hill that is Port-Au-Prince and we hope to move next week.

-posted by Ben from Lexi's account

Monday, September 14, 2009

Love and Haiti

by Amy Willentz

This is a love song. It's a Haitian love song, played on three drums and an electric slide guitar that never sounds quite on key. No question, you can dance to it.

I'm writing this song not just for me but on behalf of the thousands who have come to Haiti over the centuries and been touched by it, moved by it, even changed forever: the writer Zora Neale Hurston and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who was the first U.S. ambassador to Haiti. The actors John Gielgud, John Barrymore, Richard Burton, and, more recently, Danny Glover, Julia Roberts, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie. I'm writing for rock stars Mick Jagger and David Byrne and for rapper Wyclef Jean (who's actually Haitian-American, and who introduced some of the aforementioned to his homeland), and for the great anthropologist, physician, and author Paul Farmer.

I'm also writing this love song for Maya Deren and Katherine Dunham, both of whom documented traditional Haitian dance and were bitten by the Haiti bug. This song goes out, too, to director Jonathan Demme, whose son was named after a Haitian shantytown, whose walls are covered with Haitian art, and whose films always have a Haitian touch. In this eclectic group are other writers, also: William Styron, Lillian Hellman, and Haiti's greatest foreign fictionalizer, Graham Greene.

Let's not forget eternally optimistic Congressman Dick Durbin, longtime lover of Haiti, or Bill Clinton (the third U.S. president ever to visit—and now the UN's special envoy to the country), or Jimmy Carter, who came to monitor elections, or possibly the grandest of foreign dignitaries who fell for Haiti, Franklin Roosevelt, who drafted one of the country's many constitutions (that's how we conducted foreign policy back then) and was the first U.S. president to visit—in 1934. Hats off, too, to the late pontiff Jen-Pol Dè, as we write his name in Creole; he came to Haiti during the time of the dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier and said that things had to change.

Not to be too arrogant, but I am also writing this song on behalf of Christopher Columbus.

Haiti is not a place you just visit, as Columbus would surely have told you (he shipwrecked there in 1492). It's not a stream into which you just dip a toe. Here, you dive in headlong. It drives you crazy—with love, with anxiety, with desire. You fall into its arms as if it's been waiting forever to receive you.

It hasn't. And as with any great unrequited love, Haiti's indifference only makes you crazier for the place.

Haiti is the Cleopatra of countries, a destination unparalleled on so many levels. It has eccentric history and a tri-continental culture. Its syncretic art is singular and explosive, tender and transcendent. In Haiti, even a pile of garlic for sale, a row of plastic bowls from Taiwan, a display of brassieres (locally manufactured), black bags of charcoal standing at drunken angles cheek by jowl, can be a delicate, devilish masterpiece. There is an ethos of making do with what you have that leads to an ability to make much out of little, to make magisterial statements out of the least materials: With two or three beans, a chicken feather, an old rag of worn-out satin, and a hollowed-out gourd, a voodoo priest can make a whimsical charm that wards off evil.

For sheer unspoiled physical beauty, no place can beat Haiti—from white cliffs that rival Dover's to untouched islets, from the fertile Artibonite Valley to cresting emerald mountains like brawny-shouldered Herculean brothers one after another, and from long white beaches to blue pools set improbably in a crackling-dry forest. To say nothing of its handy location: The Pearl of the Antilles, as travel agents called Haiti in its tourist heyday back in the 1940s, is just a dropkick off the coast of Florida. Yes, of course there is deforestation, and desertification, and all sorts of problems, both ecological and man-made and often both. But if you travel to the magical, transforming heights of the piney forests of the mountain above Port-au-Prince—the capital city that's speckled with slums and racked by occasional unrest&madsh; even it looks like a sparkling fairyland.

Which it's not. Downtown is like this: You can't tell what's old or new because everything is crumbling, and—as in other developing nations—new two- or three-story buildings sometimes get only halfway constructed before the workers leave because the builders ran out of money. Low buildings often have hopeful rebar sticking out toward the sky like exposed bone. Overnight, it seems, entire new slums receive people moving into town from the countryside. Here's one climbing up a crevasse like a Cubist canvas being painted before your very eyes. Like guardian angels, two inflatable Santas stand in a broken corner of a new wall—for sale, of course—and look out impassively at the standstill traffic.

On another corner, two African officers from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (known as minustah) stand a different kind of watch. It is minustah's job to keep the peace, although Haitians complain that the UN officers have come down selectively on certain political elements. The two officers peer inside cars as the traffic inches by. Formed in 2004, after the rough ouster of the democratically elected but controversial president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, ­minustah has been begrudgingly tolerated by some as a bulwark against crime. minustah soldiers can also be seen tootling around Port-au-Prince in pickup trucks—two guys in the bed pointing a very serious piece of artillery out at the Haitian population. This, as many have noted, makes it hard to distinguish whether you're being threatened or protected. In Haiti, this kind of ambiguity is pervasive.

The best-kept and most beautiful wall, gate, and garden belong to Haiti-Securité Assurances, a company that provides vehicles, drivers, and armed bodyguards for visitors and locals, from dignitaries to just plain Haitians who come back for vacation. Not everyone hires protection: I did not—I hired a driver who knows the place well and left it at that. Wyclef does use security, of course. Clinton does. Ban Ki-moon does. For a normal trip to Haiti, Wyclef hired 120 security people.

Pétionville, just a few thousand feet above the bewilderment of downtown, is a traveler's dream in many ways. Although this wealthy suburb seems cut from another cloth, it retains enough that's authentic to keep it interesting. Here's where the fancy restaurants are and the good boutiques. The dazzling art galleries are strung out in the blocks around the central intersection, Place Boyer, named after the president who signed Haiti into debt for a century. There are electronics stores, big supermarkets, and small specialty shops, as well as crafts stores like Gingerbread and Men Nou, which do business with Haitian artists who create the most beautiful things, among them radiant sequined voodoo flags big enough to fill a wall, featuring the gods of marriage, the seas, agriculture, love, and the cemetery, and detailed like a Hieronymous ­Bosch, as well as baroque found-object sculptures from a school of Dickensian sculptors—both grown-ups and children—who live and work in crowded conditions down on Grande-Rue, next to the old market and the slums.

One day I go to lunch at La Coquille, in Pétionville, with Jean Cyril Pressoir, who runs Tour Haiti, a small company he founded in 2004. La Coquille is so Haitian that it's almost too much. As Cyril says with a shrug, "It's very typical." The chairs are wooden and painted blue. On the tables are bright cloths, the walls are pink and blue, the windows framed with shutters. Lunch, served buffet style, might be riz nationale, which is rice cooked with red beans, tchaka soup (with corn, beans, and pork or oxtail), poulet kréyol, poisson gros sel (fish with onions, herbs, and salt), griot (super-fried marinated pork bits), and many other traditional dishes. The crowd is plump, local, prosperous. The hot spices make you a little warm, but a nice breeze is wafting in, and Prestige beer is flowing. It's all trés Caribbean.

Cyril is running tours around Haiti. He's setting up his own fleet of tap-taps, the colorful Haitian buses, and has hired local artists to decorate the vehicles. He wants everything very real. On one tour, he'll take you and your group in his tap-taps down to the southern town of Aquin. You'll stay at a small hotel ("Clean and basic," he says, "not fancy") and eat marinated oysters, then go down to the town square to a place where you can drink and dance. The next day, the tour will take you to Morisot Beach, and you'll go island-hopping by boat.

"We do a major stop at a deserted beach," Cyril says. "We bring a cooler and water, and we have a totally local lunch on a fishermen's cay, with plantains and boiled or grilled fish or lobster. Then we go to a bird-watching cay. At the end of the day, we look back from a high point down onto the cays we've visited." He takes people to nightclubs in the provinces and to play cards and dominoes, and then to a cemetery to see a voodoo ceremony, or to a cockfight or a bassin, one of the inland pools that dot the island. "Then we walk back to a creek and have a picnic under the mango trees." He sounds as if he's fantasizing, but it's all real.

I find myself longing for a trip like this—all pleasure, sand, and sun. The problem is that the hard life of Haitians interferes with my enjoyment of the country's beauty. When I'm having a dish of poulet kréyol in Jacmel, or a big bowl of tchaka with Cyril, I can't help but be disturbed by the idea of all the Haitians who are not having this meal. Who are not having a meal. Who maybe haven't had a meal in twelve hours.

But as Cyril points out, one of the fastest ways to create jobs and help people in Haiti is to spur tourism, especially the non-exploitative, socially friendly tourism that Tour Haiti envisions.

There's a stop on a Royal Caribbean cruise that's called simply Labadee®. The real name of the place is Labadie, a fishing village on the northeast coast of Haiti, but the cruise line has registered the name in the Anglicized form. Although Royal Caribbean now acknowledges that Labadee® is actually in Haiti, when they describe it in their literature and on the cruise, they say only that it is on Hispaniola, the cartographic name Columbus gave to the island that includes both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. At Labadee®, everyone gets off the ship and spreads out over a gorgeous white beach. Royal Caribbean even offers a drink called the Labaduzee. Many cruisers never realize they are in Haiti.

Haiti, the birthplace of black power, is unique in the Caribbean. In 1791, Haitian slaves, led by Toussaint l'Ouverture, rose up on sugar plantations throughout Haiti against Napoleon and their French masters. After a protracted and bloody war, the former slaves declared independence from France in 1804—a year after Toussaint died, cold and alone, in a French prison in the Jura Mountains. The French withdrew. Just a year earlier, this by now more than a decade old military engagement, so costly and distant, had forced Napoleon to sell the enormous Louisiana Territory to the youthful United States. With one elaborate stroke of the imperial quill, the First Consul turned the United States, a former British principality, into a continental and world power. In a very real sense, America owes its greatness to a courageous band of eighteenth-century rebel slaves.

As for Haiti, it fell into poverty and remained economically isolated. France did not recognize its independence until 1825, compelling Haiti to pay 150 million francs (about $25 billion in current U.S. dollars) for damages incurred during the revolution. This agreement to pay reparations, signed by President Jean-Pierre Boyer, contributed to Haiti's impoverishment well into the twentieth century. It is argued that the already strained Haitian economy never overcame the crushing weight of that debt.

Because of its revolution, and consequent pariah status among the white nations of the world, Haiti has remained largely undiscovered, known only to a few elite outsiders (artists, dancers, writers, anthropologists, journalists, businessmen, free spirits, diplomats, development workers, missionaries, and adventurers) willing and even eager to brave the country's centuries-old reputation to find out what lies beneath.

"I mean, Haiti has culture, it has music, it has white sand beaches that have barely been touched," Wyclef Jean says. "But nobody knows this yet." Jean is at Platinum Studios in New York, eating his dinner and chatting on the phone. But as ever, he's thinking about Haiti. He knows about its poverty because he grew up in a village outside Port-au-Prince, but he also knows Haiti as a playland because when he goes down to visit—he does concerts where tens of thousands come out of the shantytowns to listen to his music—he takes time off to fly out to the spectacular islets scattered around the coast like sparkling little satellites: Île à Vache, La Tortue, and even, he points out, the larger La Gonâve, which is very poor and very beautiful.

"The future for Haiti, for tourism there, is very bright," he says. "Once it's discovered."

He laughs.

One day, early, I set out for Ranch Le Montcel, a new hotel described as a vacation horse ranch—a new concept in Haiti—located on the mountain that crouches over the capital like a vigilant guard, wearing a hood of clouds and fog in almost all seasons. Farm people from the interior are finishing their long march from on high to the markets of Pétionville. As I ascend in my giant, noisy, white four-by-four, they descend on foot in silence as if headed for a funeral. One woman, a tall person with a somber regard and a woven basket on her head, wears a T-shirt that reads, EASILY DISTRACTED. T-shirts almost always provide unintended commentary here, where cast-off clothing from the United States is sold by the pound and many of the people who buy it are illiterate.

The Baptist Mission in the town of Fermathe, farther up the hill, where there are bunches of very white visitors on religious mission, is a pleasant place to get a snack and use a rare bathroom. With a jar of mamba (Haitian peanut butter—I like the one with hot pepper mixed in) in my bag, and a cup of strong Haitian coffee in my bloodstream, I proceed up to Fort Jacques, sister of the more legendary Citadelle La Ferrière, which is up near Labadie. These mountain fortresses, scattered around the country in various states of renovation and disrepair, show how frightened Haitians were about a return to foreign control and enslavement. The walls, made of fitted masonry, are several feet thick and come complete with secret passageways, soldiers' barracks, cooling water systems, and of course dungeons. Fort Jacques looks down over Port-au-Prince, its twelve cannons aimed at Haiti's greatest harbor and the surrounding countryside. But for more than a century after the revolution, no foreign power came by sea to retake Haiti.

Out again on the winding dirt road on the way to Le Montcel, I feel—even in my bulky four-by-four—as if I'm climbing stairs rather than riding on tires. I pass the Glory to God depot and the Red Pelican Bazar, a general store housed in a cast-off freight container with a door cut out of the side. Around and ahead of me are trees, ghostly in the cloud cover, and down below is sunshine. As in a Haitian painting by the master Préfète Dufaut, people in bright clothing dot the roadside nearby and far off, walking single file. The fog opens for a moment—on terraced hillsides, coffee plantings, and a tiny village with more people walkin—and then closes again. I put on my sweater. A boy with a bag of rice on his head wears a T-shirt that says, LET'S PUT ALZHEIMER'S BEHIND US. Down the road hurtles a red-and-green tap-tap; its name is To Be or Not to Be. On the back, as it fades into the fog, I see written the words, as on so many of these chipper, death-defying jitneys, MESI JEZI ("Thank You, Jesus").

When I arrive at Le Montcel, it's closed. It is Thursday, and Le Montcel is more a weekend place for Haitians than a resort for weeklong vacationers from abroad, but that should change. After declining for the past twenty years, tourism in Haiti is on the upswing. The World Travel & Tourism Council predicts that over the next decade, tourism will grow from its current 6.9 percent share of GDP to 7.1 percent. That's not such a big leap, obviously, but an upward trend is, in Haitian terms, a remarkable thing, and cause for moderate optimism.

Le Montcel is unbelievable, unthinkable. It looks like an Adirondack resort: Amid lush greenery are tennis courts and lovely, simple wooden cabins with long balconies. Le Montcel has its own reservoir, stables, and a great house built of stone with a peaked red tin roof, ivy-covered walls, dormers with paned windows. There's also a game room and a soccer field as well as Ping-Pong tables, wine caves, big fireplaces, conference rooms. It's unlike anything you can find at sea level, in the heat and sun of the tropics.

"Either you hate Haiti from the first time you come, or you love it," Christophe Lang says. He's thirty, and he and his family have run Cyvadier Plage, a hotel on the outskirts of the beachside town of Jacmel, for at least fifteen years. "If you love Haiti," he says, "you can't get it out of your skin."

We're sitting on the terrace of Cyvadier's restaurant, watching the sun set over the Caribbean. A TV is on over the bar. Some inane Haitian show is on; the television hostess is wearing red sequins. I ask Lang what kind of people come to Haiti.

"Oh," he says, "people who used to go to the D.R. and are sick of it. Germans, Englishmen. Beyond your nice hotel room, Haiti is a strong experience. Possibly it's not quite ready for average tourism. The culture shock can be hard on people." Lang is a real son of Haitian tourism. His father was a German who led charter tours to Jacmel from the Dominican Republic and the United States in the 1970s, and his mother was the head waitress in a popular restaurant called The Pub. He grew up near Frankfurt and studied cooking in Hamburg.

The beach at Cyvadier is in a little cove at the foot of a set of stone stairs. At sunset, the water is pink and gray. A woman has parked herself here and laid out jewelry across a bit of old stone: Now the beach is a shop! The rocks that surround the cove are tattooed with bad Haitian art for sale—pictures of fat peasants (of which there are virtually none in Haiti), pictures of wild animals (ditto) in abundant jungles (ditto): Now the beach is an art gallery!

On the sand nearby sits a small blue-and-red fishing boat called Victwa Malerèz ("Victory of the Poor"). A silent fisherman sits on the gunwale, wearing the bleached-out gray T-shirt and gray shorts of poverty, with a fishing net slung over his shoulder and a machete in his hand, the tip of the knife touching the sand. From under the brim of his gray baseball cap, he watches the fiery sunset.

It's a trademark of Haitian tourism that you are never far from the Haitian people, whether they are sad and quiet, like this fisherman, or squawking and riotous, like a gaggle of market ladies, or simple and dignified, like the pedestrians up near Le Montcel. You're on a beautiful beach near Cap-Haïtien, say, stretching out, recovering from the potholed trip north, imagining yourself to be on just any old beach in touristland, when out of the trees wanders a bunch of stick-thin kids to surround you and comment on your bikini while asking for a buck or two.

"Haiti has been a problematic destination since 1791," says Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour, referring to the revolution. "You know: 500,000 Negroes running naked in the woods and claiming to be free." He cackles. "Oh, man, how could they? And speaking French!" He's sitting in his office on Port-au-Prince's main governmental square, at a round table strewn with tourism brochures, maps, and blueprints; the tourist magazine Logo Plus (motto: "un concept, une aventure, une découverte"); and documents of all kinds. Outside, in the park below, is the statue of the Unknown Rebel Slave (like the Unknown Soldier in the Western world), who is blowing on a conch shell to summon his comrades to revolution. There is nothing wild or revolutionary about Minister Delatour, however. He is affable, businesslike, a tall, athletic man in a suit.

In the late 1990s, Delatour tells me, he developed a master plan for tourism in Haiti. (He's been minister of tourism before, and is an architect by trade.) He likens the Haitian situation after the ouster of Aristide to that of Jamaica after another popular leftist president, Michael Manley, lost power.

"After Manley, no one came to Jamaica anymore," Delatour says. "So the travel business there began to develop local destinations, and when those became somewhat known, they attracted an international clientele. And then it got bigger and better known, and then they could say: 'Come back to Jamaica!'" This, he says, was how the Jamaicans began to cultivate well-known spots like Negril—places far from Kingston, Jamaica's famously tough and fractious capital. First bring in local traffic and islanders living abroad, and then, voilà!

"This is what we want to do," he says. After the locals, Delatour hopes to attract Haitians living abroad, of whom there are about four million, and add to that what Delatour calls "ethnic tourism," the larger African diaspora. But with each of these steps, Delatour acknowledges, tourism infrastructure, attractions, and accommodations must also advance several notches.

Right now, Delatour is working with Royal Caribbean on a project in the north that is to include dredging a harbor and building a port and new roads—one of them a highway to be made in part from locally available shells, another example of Haitians making do with what they have. By December of this year, Royal Caribbean will be bringing in some six thousand visitors at a time on the Oasis of the Seas, which Delatour describes as "the biggest boat ever built as a cruise ship." That's more than twice as many as currently come into Labadee®. The Haitian government is investing fifty million dollars to ready a port at Baie d'Acul, near Cap-Haïtien, to receive the larger vessel. Royal Caribbean is lending half the money to Haiti, and the government intends to pay it back with revenue from tourism taxes. This way, Delatour says, Royal Caribbean gets paid, Haiti gets tourists, and the Haitian people get jobs and money and development.

The new ship will mean a different kind of tourism for Royal Caribbean and for Haiti. "Labadee® is basically a beach concept," Delatour says, "and a beach concept cannot receive six thousand people at a time and reasonably expect to make them happy. We have to diversify the tourist product. . . . We want to make it possible for people to visit the Citadelle, Sans Souci, and Cap-Haïtien, the second-largest French-designed city in the Americas, with the biggest collection of gingerbread houses. . . .

"Sure," he concedes, "Cap-Haïtien is something of a wreck. It could use some paint. But on the other hand, you can sell 'wreck' as a tourist product," Delatour says, ever honest, ever the optimist. "How many people in Sweden have ever seen a city in wreck?"

This may be a kind of "poorism," but Haitians will always make do with what they have, always make the most of what's available.

Wyclef, au contraire, is having none of it. He is not selling "wreck."

"Sure there's poverty in Haiti," he says, "in Port-au-Prince. But the best white sand beaches in the Caribbean are in Haiti. When people see them, they think they're on another island—but they're in Haiti. This is where Wyclef Jean comes in, who's proud of being Haitian." Wyclef has plans to involve himself directly in Haitian tourism. His investment company, the Jean Group, is developing business models for tourism in Haiti.

"We want to build a great resort in Haiti," he says. "The country needs good branding. It needs to be branded with its culture, its art, its music, and its history." Haiti has waterfalls that are reputed to cure all maladies, he points out. It has beaches from which the buccaneers set sail in the 1600s.

"What could sell better than that?" Wyclef asks. "The original pirates of the Caribbean. . . ."

It's true that Haiti's beaches are very attractive. And Wyclef's emphasis on art and music is not surprising to anyone who's looked at the patterns of Haitian tourism. Every time Haiti has experienced a tourism uptick, it has been art, music, and traditional culture that have led the way—those attributes of the country, plus a moment of political stability. Thus, from the 1930s through the 1950s, when the economy was expanding, Haiti began to fascinate the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, and dealers and collectors began to purchase its naive art. Then the dictator François Duvalier came to power, and many of these successes fell apart. When Duvalier died in the early 1970s, people began to come to Haiti again, even though he left the country's rule to his son, Jean-Claude, another dictator but with a less bloody reputation.

Today, Delatour and others are clearly counting on another period of stability to warm the tender shoots of tourism that are showing in Haiti's rocky soil. Perhaps now, with Obama in the White House and Clinton as the UN's special envoy (an entirely new post), the American relationship with Haiti will be less toxic and good things may come of it, as opposed to the usual inebriating but poisonous brew of political repression, rebound revolt, and unrest in the streets. Certainly things have been relatively calm since Aristide was shoved out, but no one is sure whether it's an artificial calm created by minustah's presence or something more enduring.

Celebrities with deep pockets and big ambitions may be of some use in a country like Haiti at a moment such as this. A group headed by Wyclef, for example, is doing relief work in Gonaïves. The project should give about five hundred Haitians food in exchange for work removing mud from the hurricane-plagued town. With the mud, Wyclef's people plan to construct a huge concrete concert platform outside Gonaïves, where Wyclef, among others, can perform, and which would also, it is hoped, serve as higher ground during storms.

Minustah is playing volleyball on the beach. The peacekeepers like to party. It's sunset at Club Indigo, on the sandy western shores, just off the road between Port-au-Prince and Gonaïves. Formerly the Club Med in Haiti, the hotel is now privately owned by Haitians. It's a little down-at-heels, but the open-air construction, spacious walkways, and huge pool make it seem luxurious. So much space for so few people!

After an early dinner, I'm perched on a low wall between the pool and the beach. The beach is wide and pink in the setting sun. It sends up little sparkles; I can almost confuse it with the shimmering stretch of pale water that separates the mainland from the dark hills of La Gonâve, the island looming like a brooding behemoth between me and the horizon. There could be a famine unfolding on La Gonàve right now—there have been in the past—and I would never know it, sitting here. As usual, I can't keep the rest of Haiti off my mind in these situations. Relaxing on the beach, I think of disaster. I recall that Wyclef always mentions this big island when he talks about locations for future resorts. To my right, a man and a woman have pulled their beach chairs close together. They are drinking tall drinks and whispering, their heads bent toward each other as if contemplating conspiracy. She's in a bikini. He's smoking a cigarette.

The game unfolds enthusiastically before me in a mix of languages—English, French, Nepalese. . . . The volleyball players are wearing bathing suits and T-shirts and seem as clean-cut and cheerful as a bunch of surfside Californians. "Okay!" I hear one shout. The sun is sinking behind La Gonâve. A man approaches to sell me some cheap homemade jewelry dangling from his hand—a conch necklace, something made of coffee beans—but I wave him away with a shake of my head and a non, non motion with the right index finger that, I've learned from French friends, is very effective. It works!

I find myself wishing, suddenly, achingly, for a Labaduzee, whatever that may be.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Good, the Bad and the Hopeful

And, we're back...

As to be expected, our vacation in the States and our return to Haiti have both been a mixture of Good and Bad. Bad in brief: some difficult family stuff, over-exposure to over-consumption, saying good-bye to friends and family all over again and returning to Port to dead houseplants, a broken toilet, rats in our kitchen, etc. (note: lease is up in 3 weeks and we're in the market for a new apartment. Past house-hunting experiences were not necessarily Good). Here's what has been Good: Family! Camping! Picking blueberries! Eating Indian food! Upon returning to Haiti, it's been Good to get back into our own routine, have time to ourselves, speak Kreyol again, kiss people on the cheek when we see them and be reminded that we really do love it here.

Since sometimes it feels like the Bad outweighs the Good (like, for example, when you're looking for a place to live in Port-Au-Prince), we make a concerted effort to remain Hopeful. Right now we're hopeful that we'll find a great apartment that's within our MCC budget, hopeful that we can continue to stay sane and healthy (emotionally, physically, spiritually and mentally) and, as always, hopeful that what we're doing here is contributing to something better.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Fonkoze and Lisa Simpson

Josh Steckley, his cousin John and I shot this video. John did a bunch of work and Josh did all the editing and music.

-Ben, posting from Lexi's account

MCC partner in Haiti reports to U.N. council

Alexis Erkert Depp
August 7, 2009

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – A Haitian partner organization of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH), presented a human rights report on June 17 to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

MCC workers have supported the work of RNDDH since 1998 by helping staff members gather and analyze information on human rights in Haiti's prisons, police stations and judicial system. Pierre Espérance, director of RNDDH, used this data and analysis when he presented his report.

RNDDH was founded in 1982 while Jean-Claude Duvalier was dictator in Haiti and has a long history of monitoring human rights.

Haiti's political freedoms have improved in recent years. After President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was deposed in a coup and U.N. peacekeepers arrived in late 2004, the current president, Rene Preval, was democratically elected in 2006.

Relative stability has led to increased civil and political freedom, enabling national and international human rights organizations to expose corruption with impunity and to demand that the government honor the international human rights conventions to which it has agreed.

Even with these improvements, RNDDH states that "the general human rights situation remains a source of constant preoccupation," as evidenced in Haiti's senatorial elections in April 2009. They were marred by violence, and a number of the candidates were rumored to have been involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Many Haitians had difficulty obtaining the identification cards necessary to register to vote.

In addition, the RNDDH presentation in Geneva addressed the weakness of state institutions, primarily Haiti’s prison and judicial systems. RNDDH found that 78 percent of Haitian prisoners have not been sentenced and are waiting in inhumane and degrading prison conditions. There are no rehabilitation centers in place for minors.

Haiti also is behind in guaranteeing many of the other rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to RNDDH, “hospitals and health centers function in systematic disorder… [and] the right to education is also not protected.”

Michel Forst, the U.N.'s independent expert on human rights in Haiti, also touched on these issues in a report to the council, stating the need to “guarantee to every citizen the full exercise of economic, social and cultural rights… [including] access to education for all, a health-care system, drinking water and sanitation services, adequate and decent housing, [and] employment income and training.”

RNDDH is optimistic that human rights can be fully respected in Haiti. The organization's website states, "We also live in a world filled with seeds of hope and the unyielding belief in the sacredness of humanity."

MCC's Haiti representative, Kurt Hildebrand of Medford, Ore., who had worked with RNDDH, said, “MCC firmly believes that without justice there can be no peace. We're honored to be able to partner with a Haitian organization that is working to defend the rights of all Haitians, regardless of their political or socioeconomic background.”

Alexis Erkert Depp is a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Haiti.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Too busy for you, Blogspot

In spite of lots of interesting blog fodder and goings-on (weekend trips, termites, cargo-bike building, student riots and the UN's shady response, insane work weeks, Fet Sodo, finding a real Thai restaurant in Port!, motorcycle mishaps, the 2-day seminar on food sovereignty for POHDH and partners that Josh and I organized, our visit to a hydroponic lettuce farm and encounter with this man: see here here and here, lots of promising and not-so-promising news updates for Haiti, etc) we have (obviously) not been inspired to blog lately. Maybe it's the sweltering July heat and the fact that we leave in a week to spend some time with our families in North Carolina, or maybe we just have better things to do (for examples, see list above).

For now, we will take the lazy bloggers' out and let photos, links to friends' blogs and news articles do our blogging for us.

Food Sovereignty Seminar:

...playing a game to simulate how food systems work

Jocelyne Colas, Executive Secretary of the National Bishops' Justice and Peace Commission

Camille Chalmers, Director of PAPDA: the Haitian Platform to Advocate Alternative Development

Panel Discussion with representatives from the PFNSA (National Platform for Food Security), CNSA (the government's food security coordination institution ) and PAPDA

Ben and Bryan cut up a mountain bike and a TV stand to build a long-tail cargo bike:

Hydroponics in Haiti:

Alexis stands on a roof to watch a lightning storm:


Monday, July 20, 2009

What do I do

You may have noticed a new list of links in the sidebar on the left called "Advocacy links." I put these up for anyone who is interested in delving into the world of MCC policy advocacy (particularly with regards to the effect that policies in the US and Canada have on Haiti and other countries in the global south). Also, this is a great segway into explaining what my new job is about.

As of this month, I am no longer working at the Plate-forme des Organisations Haitiennes des Droits Humains (POHDH) as a seconded capacity-builder/translator/consultant/grant writer/human rights researcher. My new job as "Policy Analyst/Advocacy Worker/Educator" (okay, so this job title could actually use some revision, too) is lot easier to explain and flexible enough that I'll be able to travel with Ben when he's working in the countryside (for that, can I get woot woot?!).

As MCC Haiti's Policy Analyst, I'll mostly be looking at the affect of various governmental and corporate policies on Haiti and proposing possible responses from MCC's advocacy offices (D.C., NYC, Ottowa and Bogotà), our constituents in the US and Canada, as well as projects and partner organizations here in Haiti. And I quote, "MCC has overarching goals of building capacity and empowering the disenfranchised, but often we find that even if a program or project is carried out to perfection, its full potential will not be realized because of existing policies and economic and political structures. The situation is made more complex by the possibility that some sectors of the MCC constituency in Canada and the United States may be benefiting from these same policies.

As such, the policy analyst and educator will seek to engage MCC partners and constituents in a dialogue and learning process on how to identify and establish a plan to address the root causes of problems facing Haiti today." (from my job description)

The kinds of issues that I'll be looking at include food security/sovereignty, trade policies, how governmental aid money gets spent (that would be CIDA for Canada, USAID for the States), foreign military intervention, immigration, deportation, etc. The goal of the international advocacy part of my job will be to inform constituents of how their own lifestyles and government policies directly impact the lives of Haitians, then to mobilize them to influence policy change. The national advocacy part will have me and a Haitian coworker working with MCC's partner organizations here on education and campaigns to engage the church and the public on social justice issues.

As with most MCC jobs, it's all about encouraging structural change that is just, loving and that honors the rights of all of our brothers and sisters worldwide. That is something I truly believe in and am thrilled to continue being a part of.


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