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Leogane, Haiti [Jun. 15th, 2010|02:44 pm]
This has been a hell of a couple of weeks. I was going to write about Bill Clinton visiting. He rolled in with an entourage of about twenty UN SUVs to see a shelter that CHF, an NGO with a base in our backyard, had assembled across the street. He shook hands with some volunteers and posed for pictures, but I had gotten bored of hours of waiting in the sun by that point, so didn't get to meet him.

Mr. Clinton was quickly forgotten the next day when a man, posing as one of our local volunteers, hopped on a truck on the way to a worksite and started behaving erratically. He swung tools dangerously close to other people and respond to requests to stop. He behaved a little creepily toward several female volunteers, sitting too closely and staring at them. Eventually, he became totally unresponsive and worked very unsafely and the decision was made to stop work at the site. The only way to stop this man, who seemed increasingly crazy, from getting on the truck with our team would have been to physically restrain him, which people didn't want to do. Around this point we realized he wasn't part of our local volunteer program and actually no one knew him. Back in our driveway, he tried to enter the base and people were forced to push him away. Keep in mind, he hadn't said a word all day, stared past people into space, wouldn't acknowledge people trying to talk to him, and pushed past people into private space. Our day watchman, Williame, who also works in our next-door bar at night and who I had last seen napping with his head down on a table, grabbed this guy in an arm lock , marched him to the end of the driveway and let him go. We thought this was over until “the madman”, as he's still called, saw two female volunteers and charged them. He was tackled before he reached them, thrown into the street by a crowd of Hands On staff and volunteers, including me, and met with a wall of angry men and our landlord's angry guard dog until the police arrived in about then minutes. He kept staring and trying to walk past us as if we weren't there, looking for female volunteers. We heard that he was released that afternoon because the police can't hold crazy people.

Even that was largely forgotten a few of days later when there was a riot in our back yard. Every Monday, CHF hosts a recruiting meeting for its cash-for-work program at their warehouse and workshop right behind our base. Last week, this was so chaotic that they canceled it and sent hundreds of people away. They held an orderly recruiting drive the next day at the police station, but several dozen people who weren't hired came back here, started a bonfire right outside their warehouse door, and threw rocks. Three security guards from two NGOs fired their shotguns above peoples' heads to disperse them, we took cover behind lots of concrete walls, and Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers arrived a few minutes later and stayed for the rest of the day.

I have to admit, all of this was overshadowed by a five day trip to the Dominican Republic, where Kristen flew down to meet me. I was immediately infatuated with Santo Domingo, the capital. We stayed in the colonial zone, which hey, is the tourist area, but is also really beautiful, full of good restaurants, live music, ruins, cool breezes, and good rum. And it didn't have that many tourists. Coming from Haiti, the hard work, the lack of comforts, the confusion, the frustration, the heat, to Santo Domingo and its air conditioning, accessibility, cleanliness, cosmopolitan-ness, Spanish, variety of food, cool Latin style, and my girlfriend was so refreshing I was shocked. It may have been the best vacation of my life, but I also may have never needed a vacation so much. I'd happily return and maybe even spend a year there if I had the means.

Santo Domingo's cultural richness was a stark contrast to Haiti's poverty. The Dominican Republic has a really vibrant cultural scene on its own, and is also really connected to the larger Latin world, which has benefited it greatly. I heard musicians from all over Latin America playing a dozen different styles. There were books by writers and poets from all over the Americas in one of my hostel rooms. The national modern art museum had an exhibit of Picasso illustrations (and very few visitors besides me and Kristen) along with their great art from a dozen countries. These cultural and linguistic links put the DR firmly within a larger culture and it was refreshing and inspiring. Haiti has no such connections, even to other parts of the French-speaking Caribbean, let alone to France. Polpular Haitian culture and art, at least as I've seen it, is restricted. The most prevalent are repetitive hip-hip techno, imported reggae, and tchotchky tourist art. I have seen good art in Jacmel, but even that seems constrained by being limited to that city's art community.

Last week, I forgot about basking in the afterglow of my vacation when Jacob, our awesome translator who I've mentioned before, was the target of a threatening note. It was signed “some local volunteers”, implicating the people from Leogane who started working with us in early May. The writer was unhappy because Jacob is from Gonaives, where he worked with HODR on its last project in Haiti, and is paid.

In most places, I wouldn't take that note too seriously, but here it's nothing to brush off. Ultimately, Jacob decided to leave, and a lot of people were angry. I was enraged. Tensions were getting a little high, when HODR directors in the States decided to cut the local volunteer program from thirty participants, about fifteen of who showed up every day, to five per day. The letter of explanation essentially said this was a punitive measure for our local volunteers: “[The reduction] seems like a slightly unfortunate but generally mild repercussion. The local volunteers did not lose the program, the author(s) of this note did. It is unfair, I do concede, but if the local volunteers continue to work and the cap increases, then I hope they recognize that their actions will demonstrate what they're saying (that they support Jacob and they're in the program for the right reasons) and that they will have earned the program back.”

Happily, and unrelated to this response, really, Jacob decided to stay. Unhappily, every local and international volunteer was outraged at the decision to collectively punish the local volunteers. TC, the project coordinator who was in charge of the local volunteer program, resigned, and lots of people considered leaving or stopping work while the reduction went on. One reason given was that HODR “didn't know who to trust” after the note was received. Tim, who has been working with many of our local volunteers for months, said, “I know who to trust,” which is a very good point. The volunteers working in the field have grown really close with our local guys. Lots of international volunteers only stay here for a week or two; many of our local volunteers have shown up every work day for months now, and we've become good friends with them.

I, along with many here, wrote impassioned emails to the staff and directors of HODR. We circulated petitions. People took it on themselves to write proposals for a redesigned local volunteer program that didn't involve a punitive reduction to its numbers. We all wanted a response to the note that increased trust, integration, and affection, rather than reduced them, which we felt the staff's response did. Eventually, the decision to cut the local program was reversed before it was implemented, and we're focusing the local volunteer program on vocational and language training. It'll turn out well, but emotions were really elevated for a few days. I got distracted from the conclusion by a little bout with illness.

On Friday, I got pretty bad stomach cramps after lunch. Then I developed a fever and planted myself in front of a fan in the office while Christina, a nurse who's a volunteer here, put wet towels on me. At first I suspected some kind of heat exhaustion, but I am pretty used to the heat by now and hadn't done anything extraordinary that day. Within an hour or two, I had a really intense muscular pain deep in my shoulder and Christina said, “You know, take this chloroquine, just in case it could be malaria. I don't think it is, but it can't hurt.” I took chloroquine, Tylenol, ibuprofen, Gatorade, anything that I thought could help because the pain spread into my back and made it hard to move or breathe. The next day, it was worse. I began to think maybe it was, indeed, malaria instead of some heat exhaustion or stroke. Then a doctor from the hospital next door took one look at me, hear my symptoms, and said, “Oh yeah, you have it. You look just like all the malaria cases I've seen here.” I could have, but didn't get my blood tested. The tests they have at our local hospital aren't in a lab, and aren't very reliable. Medicine in Haiti is funny. It's sort of like carpentry I've done. They do just what's needed and no more. In the States, I would have had a long battery of tests. Here, I'll treat myself as if I have malaria and only worry if my symptoms worsen or change.

As it happens, my symptoms were, comparatively, nearly all better by the third day. Some fatigue and a bit of pain in my shoulder. It's now the fifth day, and they're about the same as on the third. I've taken it easy though—no physical work and mostly sticking around base. My symptoms cleared up so fast that I'm suspicious that it wasn't malaria, but maybe it was because I started taking an anti-malarial really early. Anyhow, I'm okay now and will start light field work tomorrow. I've been watching episodes of the new Doctor Who (have I really gone this long without watching Doctor Who?) and drinking lots of water. I was a little worried by the security implications of a crazy person, a riot, and a threatening note, but I don't think they are really part of a pattern. I'm more worried about malaria and heavy rains. Still, I only have three weeks left here, and am looking forward to getting home.