Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A thin slice

I shot these pictures last Monday and the video on Tuesday. I converted them to black and white and cropped the pictures because I put it together for fun on Saturday and everybody loves black and white panoramics on Saturday. All shot with my magical Canon G9.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Poverty in the news and poverty "in the field"

We make a conscious effort to use this blog to tell you great things about Haiti. In a way, we see this as an advocacy tool to counteract the totally one-sided and negative news reports on Haiti that, admittedly, provided us with all we knew about Haiti before we moved here. Let's face it, news about poverty and hunger and violence is sexy. It sells. And it also justifies the presence of UN peacekeeping troops and American aid dollars. And whatever kind of spin we try to put on what it is we're doing here, the kind of news and images (what Ben calls NGO porn) that come out of Haiti justifies the presence here of people like us, too.

These are among the top ten google news headlines on Haiti right now:
Do people know about dirt cookies?
Poverty undermines security in Haiti
Teens take up cause to free modern slaves
Batey Relief Alliance launches mission to poor Dominican, Haitian towns
Clinton urges more aid as he leaves Haiti

I would be willing to bet that not ONE of those articles fails to mention that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But how many of them mention the stark beauty of this place? Or how friendly and generous people are? Or how Port-Au-Prince is really a lot safer than Nairobi or Johannesburg or even all of Jamaica? Haitians have a lot of national pride and desperately want the world to know more about their country than that it has one of the world's lowest GDPs. When meeting us for the first time, so many Haitians ask us what we think of Haiti and if by being here we have come to realize that the news reports on Haiti are wrong.

But the truth is, even if they are totally biased, exaggerated, one-sided and often, like with the dirt cookies story, taken out of context, most of those news reports are not wrong. There is so much desperate poverty here that I fear I'm becoming desensitized to it.

Ben left today for two weeks "in the field" (forgive me, I always feel compelled to put quotation marks around "in the field"), which means he'll be working in the small, remote villages in the Plateau Centrale where the 18-month Chemen Lavi Miyo (CLM) program is selecting its next 150 program participants. The women that enter this program are referred to as the ultra-poor (which is a designation that I think is awkard and demeaning, but I digress) and are living in poverty that is beyond the shocking statistics you see in the news about Haiti. With his permission, I am providing links here to two blogposts by Ben's newest coworker, Kaveh, about these womens' economic situation: "Poverty is more than just a low income"and about what CLM staff is doing in the field (except for Ben who will be taking pictures and recording womens' stories): "Out in the field with CLM."

For the sake of complete honesty, I should tell you that the people I come into contact with in my day to day life in Port-Au-Prince are usually the educated, privileged and (by comparison) wealthy. My coworkers are jurists and activists. My neighbor is the president's girlfriend. And how many average Haitians could afford the membership fee at the gym where I teach pilates twice a week and take yoga? For that matter, how ridiculous would a gym seem to most Haitians when they are hauling water for miles, washing clothes by hand or digging ditches in a USAID food-for-work program?

-Lexi posting from Ben's account. Again.

Kites, kites, kites!

More on this season: it is really windy. And what goes better with a lot of wind than a lot of kites? Over the past two weeks, kites handmade from plastic bags and bits of reed and string have appeared everywhere. On a less-than-2-mile drive up to Petionville yesterday, I counted four machann selling kites and saw two more actually making kites. From our porch, we see kids on the rooftops across the valley maneuvering their kites through the electrical wires, ancient phone lines and NGO banners that score the Port-Au-Prince sky.

Look at these gorgeous photos of kite-flying in Haiti.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Rara and Mango Time

As it starts raining more frequently (Haiti's short rainy season is gearing up), I've been thinking about the changing seasons. These obviously aren't typical in the way that most of us are used to (although having spent most of my life in a tropical climate, I can't really include myself in the spring-summer-fall-winter group). It's March and in North Carolina my mother-in-law is starting her seedlings in preparation for spring. Here in March, it's mango season. Did you know that mangoes are one of Haiti's biggest export crops? Did you know that Haiti had export crops? More importantly though, mangoes provide a cheap and important nutritional supplement and are a source of income for rural families. The ti machann (vendors) that line the streets are selling endless piles of ripe mangoes - more varieties than I ever knew existed (over 140!) and each pile for exorbitantly less than you would pay for a single mango in North Carolina.

It's also post-Kanaval, pre-Easter time (ie. Lent). It turns out I was wrong when I mentioned dancing with a rara band in a previous post. Pre-Kanaval, said street bands are called bandapye (literally, foot bands) and it's not until Lent that they're known as raras. Rara music is played on wooden drums, whistles, horns made out of sheet metal (each of which only play a single note) and bamboo flutes. I haven't been able to determine what, if any, their association is with voodou, but protestants seem distinctly reticent to participate in raras. I've also been told that in the countryside, raras are used to denounce and publicly humiliate people that have done anything out of keeping with the community's values. Imagine a 40-day period in which anything wrong you've done throughout the year is exposed in song by 100 plus people, parading through the streets. That is rara time.

In keeping with the spirit of denunciation, rara lyrics are also very political, which brings me to my next point: in Haiti, the post-Kanaval season is usually marked by a tense political climate. The food riots that made international news last year were in April. Coup d'etats, protests and riots all tend to take place in the spring after Kanaval has ended and while heavy rains expose Haiti's desperate poverty even more than usual. If anything, the conditions that led to last year's riots are worse now. In the eight months (eight months?!) that we've been here, food prices have continued to rise and little has yet been done to mitigate the effects of last summer's hurricanes. The Senate elections that were supposed to take place in September are now scheduled for April 19th, but so far preparations to ensure that they will actually take place have been minimal.

For more on raras: Observations of a Haitian rara band

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fix Haiti Trip

Here is a great blog post by a friend about a group of missionaries/development workers and their goals in coming to Haiti. To some degree, I often share this group's half-baked perspective. I often have my own excellent "magic bullet" ideas - like maybe we can eliminate extreme hunger and solve the erosion problem by introducing Kudzu to Haiti. I could probably start an NGO to do this and get millions of dollars from USAID.... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kudzu

Monday, March 16, 2009

Photos from Kanaval in Jacmel

Yes, it's taken me forever to post these pictures. Sad Story: While I was taking these, the mirror came loose inside my Canon 5D so I finished taking pictures with my Ricoh GR II. The next day, my Ricoh stopped working, the lens stuck in the extended position. When I went to the States two days later, I had the Canon glued back together for $35. There is some permanent damage to the Canon - the mirror chipped a tiny bit in one corner and the chip nicked the low-pass filter in front of the sensor. So now every picture I take has a few small spots that look like dust spots. The Ricoh is still being repaired in the US, and I still need to figure out how to get it to Haiti. I use it more than with any of my other cameras. I love my Ricoh. It's terribly-built and started falling apart months after I bought it, but it's so small and light and beautiful. I really miss the little piece of trash.

Some recent work: Fonkoze's Hurricane Response

I put this little video together to accompany a text story on the Fonkoze website. I'm still taking a fair number of pictures but haven't posted anything lately because I've been too busy reading about planting vegatables.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Obama Drama: 30,000 deportees

My political love affair with Obama is experiencing some heartache. The Obama Administration has recently begun deporting 30,000 Haitians, many of whom have lived in the States for years, are married and even have children there. This while Haiti is still experiencing the fallout from last summer's hurricanes, skyrocketing food insecurity, and potential political instability with upcoming elections... In protest, the Haitian government is refusing to process the paperwork allowing these deportees to return to Haiti.
Here's a pretty good article about the situation. If you're put off by the fact that it's on the World Socialist Website (whoops, yours truly does in fact have some socialist leanings), here's an article that you might find more balanced.
Readers in the States will recognize this as a complex issue, but to most Haitians it boils down to racism, pure and simple. They look at how easy it is for light-skinned Cubans to find amnesty in the States and given that their own country is far more unstable, can only deduce that their difficulty in obtaining US visas is because of the color of their skin. Interestingly, most seem to disassociate Obama from this. He's still the good guy, just catering to the interests of his conservative, white constituents.
Tomorrow I'll be representing the Platform of Haitian Human Rights Organizations at a round table discussion hosted by IOM (the International Organization for Migration). If I learn anything of interest, I'll report it here.

Monday, March 2, 2009

While Ben's been away

(Ben's trip effectively ends today, at 7:00-ish PM when I pick him up at the bus station. Hooray!)
  • I've decided that two weeks is too long for us to be apart.
  • I only ran out of water twice (though once was for 2 1/2 days) and electricity three times.
  • It's rained 5 nights in a row and I discovered that my roof leaks in four places. I was under the impression that the spring rainy season didn't start until April, but I'm not complaining. I LOVE the sound of rain on a tin roof! It's cold at night! My garden is in heaven!
  • Speaking of which, I planted garlic, heat-resistant lettuce, chard, fennel, borage, lemongrass, more tomatoes, more peppers, more beans and more nasturtiums.
  • I've eaten the best tomatoes I've yet to eat in Haiti (from said garden, of course).
  • I've also eaten an embarrassing amount of toast and peanut butter. Not only have I not had anyone to cook with, but Haitian peanut butter is also just THAT good.
  • A broken-down MCC truck and no Ben to take me around on the motorcycle (I still haven't worked up the nerve to drive it myself in the horrendous traffic here), meant that I finally figured out how to get around by moto taxi. Aside from the nasty burn on my leg (note to self: always wear jeans on moto taxis), this has been really empowering. I feel like I have regained a measure of independence that was lost to me when we moved to Haiti.
  • I've become more assertive and confident in my work at the Human Rights Platform. Suddenly I have a lot of ideas to grow the capacity of the organization and to get involved in ways that interest me. Maybe it just takes + six months here to be "oriented" job-wise: to develop necessary language skills, build trusting relationships with coworkers and learn one's way around a complicated institution like this.
  • I had a 5-day weekend, during which:
  1. I read 3 books and watched more movies than I would usually deign to watch in two months. I did six sewing projects, a few of which I've been putting off for months. Mostly little stuff.
  2. For one night I attended the biggest, loudest glitterfest ever: Kanaval in Port-Au-Prince (see previous blogpost with link to someone else's blog).
  3. I also chose to stay in the city while friends went on various vacations. I needed to be alone, to meditate on why I'm here and to regain some of the peace and contentment that's been missing from my life of late.
  4. In ironic contrast to the frenzy of Kanaval, Lent has begun. After 3 days of intense partying, Port-Au-Prince spent Ash Wednesday in church. From our terrace I could hear services all over the city all day. During Lent we resist temptation in honor of the 40 days that Jesus spent alone in the desert without food. And most importantly, we contemplate the meaning of sacrifice and what our response should be to the greatest sacrifice ever made.
  5. I spent Saturday in awe of the creativity of this multi-faceted Creator God, as a friend and I hiked to a farm-converted-into-nature-reserve. We were in the mountains only about 40 minutes above the city, but in a different world. It was foggy, quiet and lush green with wild begonias, fennel, Queen Anne's lace, impatience and roses, eucalyptus, loquat and pine trees. Here, my soul could WORSHIP in the way that has always been easiest for me when I am outdoors in a beautiful place. One of the difficulties for me living in Port-Au-Prince is that I don't seek Him/Her out in the concrete, piles of trash, pariah dogs and bumper to bumper traffic of the city the way I do in the mountains. Maybe for me this Lenten period needs to be about learning to see God in unexpected places. After all, isn't that why one of the reasons I moved to Haiti?
  6. If cross-cultural relationship-building is another reason I moved to Haiti, yesterday was momentous. I went to the beach in Gran Gwav, an hour or so from PAP, with all but 3 of my Haitian coworkers. I discovered that Jaqueline is so conservative a Christian that she won't remove her towel from around her waist, even in the ocean. I discovered that Carole, who made our picnic feast, is an amazing cook, that Carlo loves to be the center of attention, and that Haitians wear shoes in the ocean so that their feet don't get bitten by ti bet yo (small animals). Even though most of my coworkers don't know how to swim, lunch was the only thing that could pull them away from splashing in the surf.


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