Sunday, April 29, 2012

My, what shocking red rain boots you have on!

Yesterday was the first all-sunny day we've had this week. Even during rainy season, a gray day is rare in Haiti but the past week has been cold and drizzly, scattered with pummeling rains.

When I had to go out on Monday afternoon, I pulled on my sturdy boots, my rain jacket, and grabbed an umbrella -- as any practically-minded woman would do, right? Without a functional waste management system or drainage ditches, the streets in this city become rivers of nastiness when it rains.

My feet are my favorite mode of transport and, maybe I'm just oblivious, but I don't think I typically draw that much attention when I walk around. To get where I was going on Monday, I walked the equivalent of 4 blocks and counted the highest number of stares and jokes EVER, every single one directed at the fact that I was wearing rain boots. In the rain.

Here's the thing: in Haiti, city folk don't wear rain boots. Rural 'peasant' farmers wear rain boots to work in their fields. Construction workers wear rain boots on job sites (and it doesn't have to be raining). But, never ever have I seen anyone heading home from an office job thus adorned.

Social and class divisions run deep here, and the urban-rural divide is one of the most acute. Though most people living in and around Port-au-Prince have come to the city within the past thirty years or so, the social status (and norms) gained by education, a desk job or perhaps just by general city living precludes use of rain boots and other things associated with rural life and manual labor. Instead, people in the city take off their shoes -- to keep from ruining them -- and walk barefoot when it rains.

It's a good thing I've always had a rebellious streak.   

(On a far more serious note, we don't remember past year's rainy seasons beginning with so much ferocity. This week's rains have been devastating. By midweek, 9 people were drowned or killed by landslides in Haiti and 11,000 displaced by flooding in the Dominican Republic. Roads have been damaged, bridges washed out, streets are blocked up, and the situation for those still in earthquake displacement camps is beyond abysmal. Cholera is on the uptick, too.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Coming Together for Environmental Restoration in Haiti

"The problem is that the market promotes individualism and a spirit of competition. It can’t instill the feeling of community and citizenship needed to stimulate Haitians to take part in the rehabilitation of the environment..." -- Yves-André Wainright

In honor of Earth Day, Other Worlds ran an interview with Yves-André Wainright, who discusses ways that poor governance and the role of foreign donors have contributed to the country’s environmental catastrophe. He also lays out a blueprint for what could turn the situation around, effectively mobilizing both government and the population to begin restoring the environment.

Wainright served twice as Haiti’s Minister of Environment. Trained as an agronomist, Yves-André’s work has focused on environmental management, especially management of natural resources and waste.

Read the interview here.

 "We have to start working collaboratively," says former Minister of the Environment 
Yves-André Wainright. Photo by Roberto (Bear) Guerra.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What a Circus!

Oh, Haiti. The longer we're here, the more perplexing things seem to get.

A rumor that a ti machann (merchant) selling street food in the Delmas 33 area was arrested for having killed and cooked up an 8-year old child has turned our stomachs.

But, wait... how could she have been arrested when the national police are on strike?

Wait, wait... why would the police choose to go on strike precisely when paramilitary wannabes are occupying camps around the country and just last week forced entry to the grounds of the national palace? 

Strike or no strike, at the end of the Haiti Diaspora Marathon yesterday (which was actually a half marathon with only a few diaspora), a police officer performed chest compressions and full-on mouth to mouth resuscitation on two still-breathing but collapsed runners. I imagine this was for the benefit of the TV cameras trained on him. Apparently our cop, who was outfitted in a lab coat and stethoscope, is also a doctor.  

Speaking of doctors, President Martelly has just been discharged from a Miami hospital. Word on the street is that he was cursed by black magic and plop! landed in the hospital. Word in the news is that he had a pulmonary embolism. He hasn't mentioned yet when he'll be back in country.

Meanwhile, Haiti has been without a functional government since the prime minister resigned on February 24th, and elections have yet to be organized for municipal authorities or for the 1/3 of the Senate whose terms are about to expire. 

If you told me there were elephants and zebras parading down Route Delmas right now, I would believe you (and probably just chalk it up to a Clowns Without Borders PR event).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

For Earth Day

There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and dessecrated places.

The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope.

-- Wendell Berry

Saturday, April 21, 2012

After the Earthquake, but Before the Flood

By Ben Fountain
Originally published here, in the Wall Street Journal

I arrived in Port-au-Prince last December to find my friends coughing, sniffling, hacking and struggling for breath amid the orange smog that hung over the city like a cloud of Cheetos dust. Soon Haiti would mark the second anniversary of the earthquake, and I was back to do more of what I usually do there: try to figure out why things are the way they are.

"N'ap boukiné dlo," my friend Faubert said when he picked me up at the airport. We're grilling water. In other words, amid the matrix of Haiti's macro-catastrophes, your own daily striving often seemed futile.

Faubert took me up the hill to the house of my friend Gary, an expat American who had married a Haitian woman 20 years before. The smog didn't bother Gary, his theory being that a two-packs-a-day habit had immunized him against airborne crud. Mornings we'd sit out on what was left of his small patio, drinking coffee and watching the bucket brigades in the ravine below, hauling away the rubble one pail at a time. "They're probably making about 10 bucks a day," he said of the laborers. Not starvation wages; not quite.

For regular folks it seemed hand-to-mouth as usual, but soon I became aware of something new stirring: a tidal wave of foreign capital was bearing down on Haiti's shores. The TV news was full of announcements for new beach resorts, industrial parks, luxury hotels for visiting businessmen. The song "Billionaire" by Travie McCoy was getting heavy play ("I wanna be a billionaire so [expletive] bad/Buy all of the things I never had…"). A glossy lifestyle magazine had recently launched, its sexy ads and features aimed squarely at the local One Percent.

Meanwhile, there was the problem of the 600,000 people—or was it 700,000?—still living in tents. Authorities had recently cut services to the camps in hopes that people would move out. One day at the sprawling camp across from the National Palace, a neatly dressed man with piercing hazel eyes grabbed my hand. He had something urgent to tell me, urgent! Something about the camps and Ogoun, voodoo god of iron, fire and war. Did I know? Had I heard? I listened as politely as I could while wriggling free, but not before he leaned close and vigorously rubbed his head against mine.

"I think it was voodoo," said my friend the ophthalmologist. "I think he was trying to put Ogoun in your head." Disappointingly, I didn't feel any different. The ophthalmologist and his family were still living in tents, although they did, thanks to extension cords running from their half-destroyed house, have electricity now. These days his practice consisted largely of street clinics, where he charged about $2.20 for a diagnosis.

He was skeptical about all the foreign investment. "A few people will make millions," he predicted. "Everyone else, maybe their income will go from $500 a year to $800, but their misery will increase from being surrounded by all this wealth they can never have."

 I went up into the mountains, to the farm of a beautiful woman whose work with native plants and sustainable methods showed the kind of decent life that was possible. At a gallery opening in Jacmel I met an artist who'd spent the '60s tending bar at jazz clubs in New York. He'd seen all the greats, and a lot of them—Blakey, Mingus, Roach—had made the pilgrimage to Haiti, whose music has some of the world's most complex rhythms. Back in Port-au-Prince, Gary and I resumed our morning sessions on his broken patio. The sounds of the city roiled around us. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, the scrape of shovels and saws, music blaring, traffic. We watched the bucket brigades, drank coffee and talked about our kids. Shortly after the quake Gary had sent his son and daughter to live with family in the U.S. He could barely say their names without tearing up.

One night I sat on the patio contemplating the honeycomb of cinder block houses that filled the ravine. The power went out, and a collective groan rose up. Pinpricks of flashlights appeared, then someone started a fire on an open patch of ground. By the time power was restored, a roaring bonfire was going.

Word came that lots of men in dark suits had taken up residence at the fancy Karibe Hotel. Soon the other shoe dropped: Oprah! Her visit was part of a celebrity invasion—Louis Farrakhan, Ben Stiller, one of the Kardashians. Oprah did a tour of Sean Penn's refugee camp. An evening reception feting the Ghetto Biennale artists coincided with Mr. Farrakhan's visit to a nearby mosque, creating a traffic jam that paralyzed downtown for hours.

I left one morning at 6 o'clock. Gary and I waited on his patio for my ride. Nearby, someone was hammering a piece of metal with maniacal industriousness. Gary laughed. "It doesn't matter what time it is," he said. "Wherever you are in Haiti, there's always some guy hammering on something."

Somehow Ben Fountain always manages to capture what it is about Haiti. Ben, who we met shortly after the earthquake through our neighbor Gary, has become a dear friend. His book of short stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, is a favorite and his next book, Billy's Long Halftime Walk, will be published in May. 


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